Statement on Iraq by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops U.S. Catholic Conference

Year Published
  • 2013
  • English

Most Reverend Anthony M. Pilla
President, NCCB/USCC 

November 19, 1998

Once again, in the midst of a serious international crisis, we wish to express our deep concern over the human costs and moral consequences of the confrontation with Iraq. These are not new concerns for us. Since 1991, we have repeatedly addressed how best to respond to the threat posed by the Iraqi government. We have urged political solutions rather than military force, and fresh efforts to ease and end the continuing, unmerited suffering of innocent Iraqi civilians under U.N. sanctions. In doing so, we have sought to heed the Holy Father's exhortation:

I, myself, on the occasion of the recent tragic war in the Persian Gulf, repeated the cry, 'Never again war!' No, never again war, which destroys the lives of innocent people, teaches how to kill, throws into upheaval even the lives of those who do the killing and leaves behind a trail of resentment and hatred, thus making it all the more difficult to find a just solution of the very problems which provoked the war.

We welcome the Iraqi government's long-overdue pledge to accept renewed monitoring and inspections, and we welcome the U.S. government's decision to suspend its planned attacks. This latest crisis, played out with bombers in the air and a last-minute response, is symptomatic of a far more fundamental challenge, with grave implications for Iraq and its people, peace in the region, and respect for international norms and the United Nations.  

While the causes of the conflict in the Middle East are deep and long-standing, it should be clear that the Iraqi government's actions are a primary source of the current crisis. It has repeatedly attacked its neighbors and its own people, has relentlessly pursued -- and used -- weapons of mass destruction, has consistently defied legitimate U.N. resolutions, and has failed to use available resources to feed the Iraqi people. The Iraqi government has a duty to stop its internal repression, to end its threats to peace, to abandon its efforts to develop weapons of mass destruction, and to respect the legitimate role of the United Nations in ensuring that it does so.  

As the international community seeks to pursue its legitimate goals, it must do so in a way consistent with fundamental human rights and the principles governing the use of military force and other coercive measures. Policy makers and all of us must struggle with serious moral questions and make judgments of conscience about how our nation and the international community can respond justly to the situation in Iraq. These questions reflect traditional just war criteria, especially non-combatant immunity, proportionality, and probability of success. 

  • How can the international community respond effectively and discriminately, so that the Iraqi people do not bear the brunt of the suffering?
  • Can the sustained use of military force meet the test of proportionality in enforcing the cease-fire resolutions?
  • Would military action be likely to reduce significantly Iraq's stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction and its capacity to produce them? Would military strikes lead to renewed Iraqi compliance with the cease-fire resolutions or, instead, have the unintended effect of strengthening the regime's power and increasing its intransigence? How would military force and the embargo effect the ultimate goal of reintegrating Iraq into the international community?
  • What are the implications for peace in this region, respect for international norms, and the credibility of the UN if effective, peaceful ways are not found to respond to Iraq's failure to comply with the cease-fire resolutions?

The answers to these difficult questions are not easy. It is clear that the international community has not achieved its legitimate objectives by military force or by eight years of the embargo. It is also clear that Iraqi civilians must be protected, so that, as the Holy Father has said, "an already harshly tried population [be] spared further suffering and pain." The international community should not resort to means which effectively punish the Iraqi people for the actions of an authoritarian regime over which they have no control.  

While we are aware of the complex roots of the current crisis, our concern for the widespread suffering of Iraqi civilians leads us to reiterate today with special urgency our long-standing call that the embargo be reshaped, reduced and ended quickly. Doing so should not be seen as a reward for irresponsible behavior on the part of the Iraqi government, but as necessary to relieve a morally intolerable situation for ordinary Iraqis who are suffering immensely. The plight of the Iraqi people has been greatly intensified by the sustained and widespread damage to the civilian infrastructure as a result of the bombing during the Gulf War. Sanctions, when used, should be directed against those responsible, not entire populations; embargoes denying basic necessities of life are never morally acceptable. 

The Iraqi government's failure to comply with the cease-fire resolutions and to feed and care for its citizens under existing exemptions to the embargo is indefensible. Nevertheless, the Iraqi government's actions do not relieve the international community of its responsibility to end the horrible suffering caused by the embargo. The international community cannot pursue its legitimate ends by threatening the lives, livelihood, and basic rights of innocent people. Immediate steps should be taken to reshape and ease the embargo. Restrictions on trade in civilian goods should be lifted, while retaining political sanctions and a strict embargo on military-related items. Whatever the cause, whoever the adversary, we cannot tolerate the suffering and death of countless innocents, especially the very young and very old. It is time for new thinking and new approaches.  

There are no quick or easy answers to the complex problems in Iraq and throughout the region. As Pope John Paul II has suggested, at the root of conflict "there are usually real and serious grievances, legitimate aspirations frustrated, poverty and the exploitation of multitudes of desperate people who see no real possibility of improving their lot by peaceful means." Therefore, progress on this issue must be accompanied by sustained efforts to address the deeper causes of conflict in Iraq and the region. 

We hope that the United States, working with the international community, will pursue what will continue to be a painstaking and frustrating process of pressing the Iraqi government to live up to its international obligations through a military embargo, political sanctions, deterrence and much more carefully-focused economic sanctions which do not threaten the lives of innocent Iraqi civilians. 

See more resources by category: