Statement on Economic Sanctions Against Iraq, November 15, 1999

Year Published
  • 2013
  • English

Most Reverend Joseph A. Fiorenza
Bishop of Galveston-Houston
President, U.S. Catholic Conference 

November 15, 1999


A voice was heard in Ramah,
sobbing and loudly lamenting;
it was Rachel weeping for her children,
refusing to be comforted
because they were no more. (Jr. 31:15)


Since the end of the Gulf War, the U.S. Catholic Bishops and Pope John Paul II have repeatedly called for reducing, reshaping and quickly ending the economic sanctions against Iraq that have brought such suffering to the Iraqi people. Recently, I joined with other religious leaders in a call for "fresh thinking and new approaches" to end this intolerable situation. 

After more than nine years of unparalleled and unmerited suffering, it is long past time to end the economic embargo against Iraq. Too many have suffered for too long. Efforts to mitigate the suffering inflicted by sanctions, namely the oil-for-food program, are important but insufficient. The comprehensive sanctions against Iraq have long since ceased to be a morally acceptable tool of diplomacy, because they have inflicted indiscriminate and unacceptable suffering on the Iraqi people. They violate a fundamental principle of engagement in conflict - - states may not seek to destroy a government or a military by targeting the innocent. It is incumbent on the United Nations Security Council and the United States, as the chief proponent of sanctions, to terminate promptly the economic embargo against Iraq.  

The grounds for strong international action were and are justifiable: reversing and deterring aggression against neighboring states, protecting domestic minorities, and preventing the development of weapons of mass destruction. But even honorable causes may not be defended with immoral means. Such is the case of embargoes that contribute to untimely death, chronic illness, and reduced life-expectancy among innocent civilians. The cumulative effects of the prolonged embargo mean that many of the most vulnerable are, like Rachel's children, no more. 

We acknowledge unequivocally that the primary responsibility for resolving outstanding disputes between Iraq and the international community belongs to the Iraqi government. So too does that government bear primary responsibility for the failure of humanitarian efforts because of its deliberate diversion and misallocation of resources within Iraq. But the international community still bears a large measure of responsibility for the plight of the Iraqi people. As a UN Security Council panel reported earlier this year: "Even if not all suffering in Iraq can be imputed to external factors, especially sanctions, the Iraqi people would not be undergoing such deprivations in the absence of the prolonged measures imposed by the Security Council and the effects of war." 

Given the effects of the embargo, the inadequacy of the oil-for-food program and related humanitarian exemptions to mitigate adequately the suffering of the Iraqi people, and the repeated resistance of political authorities to reshape the sanctions in morally necessary ways, the current comprehensive sanctions are morally unacceptable and must be replaced by more humane arrangements. Political and military sanctions remain acceptable; comprehensive economic sanctions are not. 

Our concerns with U.S. policy toward Iraq are not limited to the embargo. We remain deeply concerned about the ongoing air strikes against Iraq. The moral justification of such attacks is, at best, unclear, yet the risks to Iraqi civilians are real. We urge a halt to this form of low-level warfare.  It is time for a new approach to Iraq. We cannot turn a deaf ear to the suffering of the Iraqi people or a blind eye to the moral consequences of current U.S. policy. It is time to end comprehensive sanctions against Iraq, halt the ongoing air strikes, and find morally acceptable alternatives to contain the aggressive actions of the Iraqi government. 

As our prayers are with the people of Iraq who are victims of their own government and of international policy. We pray also for U.S. and other world leaders as they struggle to match moral means and moral ends. 

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