Study finds war would be devastating for children of Iraq

News and Press Release
Originally published
War would have a devastating effect on Iraqi children, born into a country whose economy, healthcare system and food supply are in a shambles following the 1991 Gulf War and 12 years of economic sanctions. That was the conclusion of a nine-member International Study Team following its January 19-26 visit to Iraq to assess the impact of war on Iraq's civilian population, particularly children. The team sought to compare the conditions of Iraqi civilians today with those of 1990, the year before the Gulf War. Team members examined food, health, mental health, infrastructure, emergency preparedness and other sectors.
The team gathered its findings in a 32-page report, entitled, "Our Common Responsibility: The Impact of a New War on Iraq Children." The report has been directed to the U.N. Security Council, the government of Iraq and the international community to encourage them to consider the plight of Iraqi children when weighing the alternatives of war and continued weapons inspections.


The team conducted a sector-by-sector comparison of civilian vulnerabilities to war in 2003 versus 1990, the year before the Gulf War. The following are highlights from the report:

  • Health: The Gulf War and 12 years of economic sanctions have devastated Iraq's health system, resulting in a significant decline in the health and well being of the nation's children. The death rate of children under five has more than doubled in the past decade, with 70 percent of deaths attributed to diarrhea and respiratory tract infections.

  • Food: Most Iraqi families have exhausted their financial resources and are highly dependent on government food rations. A disruption of the food distribution system could cause major loss of life, especially among children.

  • Infrastructure: The infrastructure upon which the country's population depends -- electricity, water and sanitation -- remains badly in need of repair a dozen years after it was damaged in the 1991 Gulf War. Further damage would have a catastrophic effect on the health and well being of the civilian population, particularly children.

  • Nutrition: More than 500,000 Iraqi children under five are acutely malnourished or underweight. In the event of war, these children would be at grave risk of hunger and starvation. If water and sanitation systems break down, these children would be especially susceptible to communicable diseases.

  • Gender: A combination of factors economic pressure, a fragile health system and food rationing -- have left Iraqi women in a critically vulnerable position, especially in their role as mothers. This, in turn, hurts children. Iraqi women agree that obtaining food rations and medicine have become more difficult under the sanctions. Moreover, sanctions have led to a general decline in women's health due to malnutrition and healthcare limitations.

  • Mental health: Most of Iraq's children cannot remember a time when their country was not at war or suffering under the weight of economic sanctions. Another war would further exhaust Iraq's children and increase family disintegration. Losing loved ones causes long-lasting grief, and may trigger chronic depression. When a parent dies, the consequences for a child can be devastating. "I feel fear every day that we might all die," said Hind, 13. "But where shall I go if I am left alone?"

  • Displacement: A war could displace as many as two million Iraqi civilians, most of them women and children.

  • Emergency preparedness: The level of preparedness by any agency (government, UN, non-governmental organization) falls drastically short of addressing the potentially huge levels of need during wartime. Iraq has a one-month supply of food and three-month supply of medicine.

  • Military force: A U.S. assault could begin with intense aerial bombardments to isolate Baghdad, the capital. The use of embargoes or blockades to stop food and other supplies -- whether it is a deliberate strategy or an unintended consequence of military action - would have its greatest impact on children.

The threat of war comes at a time when Iraqi children are poorly equipped to withstand additional stress to their physical and mental wellbeing. Compared to the period immediately preceding the Gulf War, Iraqi children are significantly more vulnerable to attack. The life-sustaining infrastructure around them -- health care, water, sanitation and food supply -- is already badly in need of repair. Further damage could hasten starvation, disease or death on a huge scale.

"We urge the world's most important body to consider the best interests of the child when considering alternatives to the use of force to resolve this conflict," the study team's report concludes. "War must be considered as an option of last resort and an indictment of the failure of diplomatic and all other means to resolve disputes."


Team members included: Dr Eric Hoskins, leader, public health and medical care; Rupen Das, emergency preparedness and infrastructure; Dr. Curtis Doebbler, international humanitarian law and children's rights; Dr. Atle Dyregrov, child psychology; Kali Galanis, gender; Dr. Mustafa Koc, food security and nutrition; Dr. Samantha Nutt, public health and medical care; Dr. Magne Raundalen, child psychology; and Tara Sutton, visual documentation.

Supporting organizations

Organizations providing financial support for the trip included: Canadian Action for Indonesia and East Timor; Canadian Auto Workers; Canadian Friends Service Committee; Canadian Labour Congress; Center for Crisis Psychology (University of Bergen, Norway); Centre for Studies in Food Security (Ryerson University, Canada); Development and Peace; Inter Pares; International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War; Mennonite Central Committee; Near East Cultural and Educational Foundation; Norwegian Psychological Association; Oxfam Canada; Peacefund Canada; Physicians for Global Survival; Project Ploughshares; United Church of Canada; United Steelworkers; War Child Canada; and World Vision Canada.