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The Impact of Sanctions on the Children in Iraq

Dominicans called for ending sanctions against the people of Iraq, in April 2000

Philippe LeBlanc, OP

Statement on ending sanctions against Iraq at the 2000 session of the UN Commission on Human Rights in Geneva.

On April 11, 2000, Dominicans for Justice and Peace and Franciscans International, in conjunction with the Justice Promoters of the Dominican Order in the USA made their first oral statement on sanctions against Iraq at the UN Commission on Human Rights in Geneva.

In their statement, they declared that children are often the most vulnerable victims of war and suffer when sanctions are imposed on a country following conflicts. The statement read by a Dominican Sister from the United States was punctuated throughout with the question: Are the children well?

Our statement expressed grave concerns about the UN imposed sanctions and embargo against Iraq. According to a UN report on the current humanitarian situation in Iraq at the time, the prevalence of malnutrition in Iraqi children under 5 has almost doubled since 1990. Similarly, the World Food Program estimated that, since 1991, access to potable drinking water in Iraq had dropped to 50% with even lower levels available in the rural areas of the country. Water-borne and other diseases were devastating Iraqi children. The shortage of drugs, supplies and medical equipment, exacerbated by the import restrictions of the UN, had crippled Iraq's health care system. It was estimated that as many as 5,000 children died every month as a direct result of deprivations caused by the sanctions.

Dominicans for Justice and Peace recommended that the UN Commission on Human Rights strongly urge the international community to lift the sanctions and embargo on Iraq and advocate for immediate measures to stop and reverse the downward pattern of life experienced by Iraqi children.

Humanitarian aspect of sanctions

Our stance on these issues remained a humanitarian, ethical and moral one. Our reason for speaking out stemmed from our grave concern about the devastation brought on by sanctions and armed conflict on the lives of thousands of children and women worldwide and about the gross and ongoing violations of their fundamental rights and freedoms. Dominicans have been in Iraq for over 250 years living and working among and with the Iraqi people in the fields of education, health care, including running hospitals and other humanitarian endeavors. Dominicans worldwide were invited to pray and fast in solidarity with their brothers and sisters in Iraq on the day that the oral statement was given at the UN in Geneva. Our grave concern was that the UN had imposed sanctions and embargos on Iraq that adversely affected the health and well being of Iraqi children. Furthermore, these policies violated their rights as guaranteed under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 and the 1989 United Nations Convention on the rights of the child.

We also brought to the attention of the international community in Geneva at the Commission that this was a violation of the rights of Iraqi children to develop physically, mentally, spiritually and socially in a healthy and normal manner and in conditions of freedom and dignity, (article 27 of the UN Convention on the rights of the child and article 3 of the Universal Declaration as well as many other infringements of their rights to the guaranteed benefits of social security, special care and protection, the right to adequate nutrition and medical services.

Prior to the events of 1990 and 1991, (UN Resolution 661, trade and embargo restrictions on Iraq and the Gulf War), Iraqi children enjoyed a fairly good standard of living. Reports from UNICEF depicted Iraq as having achieved high levels of growth in most sectors of social, economic development, placing them in the highest percentile among developing nations in the 1980's. However, it became apparent that from the more recent documentation in the nineties by various agencies connected with the UN, that the cumulative effects of war related destruction as well as the restrictions imposed on the economy and trade of Iraq had dramatically altered the abilitiy of Iraq to provide for the well-being of Iraqi children in the decade of the 90's. The UN Report on the Current Humanitarian Situation in Iraq, 30 March 1999, compared the state of Iraq prior to the events of 1990-91. The report  provided the basis for our concern as well as our hope that the 56th Session of the UN Commission on Human rights would intercede on behalf of the Iraqi children and advocate for a lifting of the embargo and sanctions against Iraq. It seemed then that from the date from the report, that the lifting of the UN Resolution 661 was essential if Iraq were ever to be positioned to ensure a decent quality of life for their people and their children. It was thought then that if and when sanctions were lifted, it would take a long time before the infrastructure were repaired and the economy recovered.

According to the WHO, communicable diseases and malaria, which had been under control in Iraq, came back in epidemic proportions in 1993 rendering the health care situation in Iraq, precarious. The inability to provide the drugs necessary for treatment was contributing to the spread of the disease. Among the growing general mortality rate then related to this problem, were children. The under-five mortality rate had tripled since 1990.

The prevalence of malnutrition of Iraqi children under five years of age almost doubled from 1991 to 1997. One in four children was malnourished, a rise of 73% percent since 1991. Almost the entire child population in Iraq had been affected by a shift in their nutritional status toward malnutrition. It was believed then that when sanctions were lifted, it would take a long time before the infrastructure is repaired and the economy recovers.  Our written statement on sanctions against Iraq was circulated to all Member states present at the UN Commission on Human Rights and the oral statement was reported in the daily Press Release of the UN. For many Iraqi brothers and sisters, the statements were a great sign of solidarity especially coming from so many US religious groups. Some 77 religious congregations of men and women adopted the statement in January 10, 2000.

2000 Sub-Commission adopts the idea of the humanitarian aspects of sanctions

In August 2000, at the 2000 session of the UN Sub-Commission on the  prevention of discrimination and protection of minorities, the independent experts introduced a resolution dealing with the humanitarian aspects of sanctions. In expressing his support for the resolution, the independent expert, Paulho Pinheiro (Brazil) told the members that by doing so they would be in good company, joining Dominicans, Franciscans, Cardinal Etchegaray and the Asian Synod of Bishops. The resolution was adopted by the UN Sub-Commission.

At the August 2001 session of the UN Sub-Commission, three resolutions dealing with the humanitarian aspects of the sanctions were adopted.

On April 8, 2003, Dominicans for Justice and Peace with a number of NGOs as co-sponsors delivered the major statement at the UN Commission on the humanitarian situation in Iraq and the consequences of two wars and 13 years of sanctions. We recommended that the UN Commission on Human Rights strongly urge the international community to lift the sanctions and embargo on Iraq and advocate for immediate measures to stop and reverse the downward pattern of life experienced by Iraqi children.

Our organization had become in a sense the "conscience" of the UN Commission and the Sub-Commission on the issue of sanctions against the people of Iraq since we were the only NGO raising the issue from a humanitarian, moral and ethical perspective.

Lifting of the sanctions againts Irak

On May 22, 2003, the Security Council of the United Nations voted 14 to 0 to lift the sanctions against Iraq, approved a role for the UN in the reconstruction of the country and called for the appointment of a Special Representative of the Secretary General. On May 27, 2003, the UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, announced the appointment of the High Commissioner of Human Rights Sergio Vieira de Mello as his Special Representative for Iraq. In a meeting of our delegation with Sergio as the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Meeting with the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Sergio Vieira de Mello

Our delegation had met previously with Sergio in Geneva to discuss the situation in Iraq. When we raised the question of the survival of the Christian minority in Iraq and the reprisals that may occur. and the need for the reconstruction of the country; we also spoke to him of the Dominican presence in Iraq and of visits of Dominicans and the Master of the Order visited Iraq in October 2002 where he saw the effectss of twelve years of sanctions against the people of the country.  As High Commissioner, he was aware of the issues and he shared our concerns about the post-war period. He saw the task of rebuilding the country as being a massive one requiring the United Nations to play a key role and being involved in all facets of civil society. Sergio told us that then that only the UN Security Council could give legitimacy to a new government in Iraq and that the United States would ultimately ask the international community to assist in the reconstruction of the country. As we were leaving, he gave us a copy of a statement on Iraq which he had delivered the day before at the UN Commission on Human Rights. In it Sergio had declared: "As High Commissioner for Human Rights, my principal concern, as is yours, is for the human rights of all people the world over and for the need for these rights to be protected. Our concern requires us to recall that the Iraqi people have also suffered as a result of the sanctions regime imposed on Iraq".

As the Special Representive for Iraq, Sergio's first report to the UN on the situation was presented to the Security Council, on July 29, 2003, by the Secretary General, Mr. Kofi Annann. Following that, Sergio spoke at a press conference where he described the reconstruction challenge this way:

"Looking to the future there are clearly immense reconstruction needs in the short and longer terms, not only as consequence of the conflict but maybe even more as a consequence of the thirteen years of sanctions and subsequent neglect and decay. As reflected in resolution 1483 of the UN, this reconstruction is not only of a physical nature but also must include public administration, governance, civil society and all the other vital elements required for a new Iraqi society.


Regretfully, Sergio died tragically in Iraq on August 19 2003. NEWSWEEK magazine (September 1, 2003) reported that at 4;37 pm, a covered flatbed truck moved slowly down a road beside a brick and stucco building and came to a stop below Sergio's office. The deadly load inside a truck blew up; 1,000 pounds of Iraqi ordnance, including mortar rounds, artillery shells and hand grenades, packed around a 500-pound bomb. The explosion killed 24 people, including Sergio and everyone in the room with him, seriously injured 86 more - and left the shellshocked survivors grieving and struggling to comprehend the enormity of the catastrophe.

UN. SECRETARY-GENERAL KOFI ANNAN made the following declaration: "The blue flag has never been so viciously assaulted...It feels like a nightmare, from which we are still hoping to wake. If only it were." "Sergio's tragic death is a loss for the international community and the cause of human rights as well as for the reconstruction of Iraq. His death is also a loss for Dominicans with whom he had a connection and for whom he retained a special fondness."

Fr. Carlos Azpiroz Costa, OP
Master of the Dominican Order,
August 21, 2003

From: Philippe LeBlanc, OP (Canada)
Formerly, Permanent Delegate of the Dominican Order
at the United Nations in Geneva (1996-2007)

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