The Costs of War on Iraq

Tasneem Jamal

Ernie Regehr

Presentation on Iraq to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade

A. Introduction

1. There is broad agreement that the situation in Iraq is serious and requires urgent international attention. The transgressions of Iraq are widely acknowledged,1 within the region and beyond, and including those who do not share the current American obsession with Saddam Hussein.

2. Iraq, in accordance with its obligations under international norms and treaties and UN Security Council resolutions, is under lawful international order to demonstrate that it is not in possession of or seeking possession of any weapons of mass destruction, and it is under a lawful order to facilitate the international community’s verification that any such weapons or weapons materials are destroyed and that it will continue to forswear such weapons.

3. The fact that some other states are also in serious violation of some of the same fundamental obligations is relevant and demands action, but it in no way mitigates the seriousness of, or excuses, Iraq’s behaviour. Nor are Iraq’s compliance obligations in any way conditional on any other state’s compliance.

B. The Purpose and Objective of Action Mandated by the United Nations

1. UN Security Council Resolution 1441 reflects a broad international consensus, notably including the Arab world, around at least three complementary objectives:

  • to disarm Iraq and ensure its disavowal of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) as per Resolution 687 (not regime change);
  • to ensure that Iraq’s disarmament is accomplished in a multilateral context through the UN;
  • to prevent war, not legalize it.

2. Conflicting public interpretations of Resolution 1441 indicate that the multilateral approach is still not embraced by the United States Administration, even though the mainstream interpretation outside the US, notably including the Arab world,2 tends to be that the US has been, like it or not, unambiguously drawn into a multilateral context (but it will be a challenge to ensure that the latter prevails).

3. Hence, it is important that Canada continue to emphasize an approach that in fact reflects the broadest global consensus – a focus on disarmament in a multilateral context that eschews war.

C. Action to Support These Objectives

1. Canadian action

1.1. Canada should pursue a number of avenues of support for the above three-fold objective:

  • promote public and international support for the UN as the custodian of lawful action regarding Iraq;
  • support and advocate for a realistic and credible inspections process;
  • emphasize the regional dimensions of Iraqi disarmament;
  • promote understanding of the likely costs of war; and
  • understand and prepare for conditions toward a durable peace.

2. Lawful multilateralism

2.1. Foreign Minister Bill Graham told the CBC’s This Morning earlier this fall that “it isn’t just about Saddam Hussein. It is about the world order that we have constructed over the last 50 years.”

2.2. Syria’s vote for Resolution 1441, with the encouragement of the Arab community, was a prominent if unusual declaration of reliance on, even trust in, the United Nations. With that vote, the Arab world said it would trust the UN not only to force Iraqi compliance, but that it would also force the US to play by the rules. The Arab action reflects an overriding desire to avoid war in its region, and thus expresses a willingness to see Iraq’s provocations eliminated via a UN-controlled process.

2.3. A central policy objective for Canada, therefore, must be to ensure that the United Nations warrants the trust that has been placed in it. To the extent that the United States prominently declares itself to be impatient with multilateralism, it is a Canadian imperative to encourage Americans to recognize that multilateral action through the UN is the only basis for legitimacy in the international community. In the long run, US military might will not produce legitimacy.

3. A credible inspections process

3.1. Canada is well positioned to ensure an approach to inspections that is credible, but not undermined by an unrealistic burden to deliver 100 percent certainty.

3.2. For inspections to work there must be a reasonable, measured understanding of what constitutes material breach of the resolution. What is the difference between cooperation and non-cooperation? In the normal conduct of inspections, it is to be expected that there will be discussions, calls for information, complaints that information is not sufficient, counter-claims that no more information is available, and so on and on. It will be essential to construct an atmosphere that permits that kind of discussion and negotiation toward reasonable certainty, and that does not place the threat of imminent military attack at the centre of all disputes.

3.3. As part of this process it will have to be understood that Iraqi capacity for cooperation is impaired by the rigidity, secrecy, and brutality of the regime, but also by inadequate technology and limited bureaucratic resources. Experts note, for example, that it may be the case that particular officials who are asked for information could supply what they know and understand to be truthful information, but are unaware that they are themselves kept from other information. In other words, the process will be complicated and frustrating – and the UN community must ensure that the process is given the opportunity to work through to a reasonable conclusion. Not a 100-percent certainty, but a reasonable assurance.

3.4. President Bush has said that any Iraqi noncompliance constitutes “material breach” of the resolution, but observers at the UN indicate that the Americans are alone in that thinking. Material breach is obviously a significant breach, and Canada should be prominent in insisting that a reasonable process is allowed to go forward. Canada must be very careful and public about what it regards as a reasonable definition of a material breach of Iraq’s obligations with respect to facilitating the inspections, taking advantage of Canadian expertise linked to the UN Monitoring Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC).

3.5. And, of course, the discovery of material breaches of Iraq’s obligations under Resolution 687 (paragraphs 8-13) should not trigger a military response – instead they require a follow-up destruction program.

4. Regional disarmament

4.1. Security Council Resolution 1441 is built specifically on Resolution 687 of 1991, which prohibits Iraq from possessing or acquiring ballistic missiles over the range of 150 kilometres, as well as any chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons or related materials or facilities (paragraphs 8-13, to which Resolution 1441 specifically refers). Paragraph 14 of Resolution 687 sets the context and broader objective: the Security Council “notes that the actions to be taken by Iraq in paragraphs 8 to 13 represent steps towards the goal of establishing in the Middle East a zone free from weapons of mass destruction and all missiles for their delivery and the objective of a global ban on chemical weapons.”

4.2. Resolution 687, in its preambular paragraphs, also refers to the importance of “all states” adhering to chemical and biological weapons bans. In addition, the resolution reminds states to “use all available means” to establish a “nuclear-weapon-free zone in the region of the Middle East,” and when Arab states came together to discuss Resolution 1441 a few weeks ago they reiterated the connection to regional disarmament.3 In Resolution 687 the Security Council understood its demands of Iraq to be in the context of the objective of “achieving balanced and comprehensive control of armaments in the region.” Resolution 687 refers specifically to “a dialogue among states in the region” on the issue of regional disarmament.

4.3. In other words, the Security Council (as well as the Arab League) recognized that, to effectively address Iraq’s violations of international standards related to weapons of mass destruction, the prohibition of weapons of mass destruction will ultimately have to be region-wide and accompanied by broad-based agreements on conventional arms reductions and controls throughout the region.

4.4. There is no hint or intention to make Iraq’s compliance with its Security Council and Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) obligations conditional on regional disarmament, but there is in Resolution 687 a clear understanding that a comprehensive approach to the problem of Iraq requires that other violations of international standards in the region also receive urgent attention.

4.5. The extent to which the Arab world stays engaged in the constructive resolution of the Iraq crisis will be closely related to the extent to which the international community is prepared to address all the states in the region that violate global norms against the acquisition of nuclear weapons and that are in violation of Security Council resolutions.

4.6. Israel’s nuclear arsenal cannot credibly be ignored. The presence of nuclear weapons in Israel in no way justifies Iraq’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, but it does mean that Israel’s nuclear arsenal must become the object of accelerated disarmament diplomacy and pressure. Specifically, Canada should explore ways of acting upon the mandate for “dialogue among states of the region.”

4.7. In general terms, it is worth noting that US compliance with the NPT is also under some dispute, on two counts. In the first instance, Article VI of the Treaty obliges all nuclear weapon states to proceed to complete nuclear disarmament. No timetable is given, but after 35 years, the majority of States at the 2000 NPT Review Conference were of the clear view that the nuclear disarmament process lags behind even the most minimal expectations.

4.8. In the second instance, and more directly connected, last January leaked and published excerpts of the US Nuclear Posture Review revealed that the Pentagon identified Iraq, among others, as representing what it calls an “immediate contingency” for which “requirements for nuclear strike capabilities” must be established. What that means is that the Nuclear Posture Review was supporting the development of contingency plans and capabilities for the use of nuclear weapons against Iraq. It also means a violation of the 1995 Security Council affirmation (Resolution 984) of assurances that nuclear weapons will not be used or threatened against non-nuclear signatories of the NPT. It is also in violation of calls in subsequent NPT review conferences that nuclear weapon states offer unambiguous negative security assurances to non-nuclear states.

4.9. Again, the point is not that the dangerous US nuclear posture articulated by the Pentagon justifies Iraq’s possession or pursuit of weapons of mass destruction; rather, the point is that the call on Iraq to fulfill its obligations would be more sustainable if those states making the demands were themselves in strict compliance with basic international obligations and not seen to be applying a rather glaring double standard. At the centre of the international community’s commitment to force Iraq to forego all weapons of mass destruction should be a firm commitment by all states to meet their NPT obligations, and to pursue comprehensive disarmament measures throughout the region – including, as Resolution 687 prescribes, the pursuit of the Middle East as a region free of all weapons of mass destruction and a commitment to pursue general disarmament in the region in the interests of reduced tension, greater stability, enhanced development, and the peaceful resolution of political disputes in the region.

5. The costs of war on Iraq

5.1. UN diplomacy is not a flawless or guaranteed mechanism in any endeavour, and certainly not in the effort to bring Iraq into compliance with its obligations under international law.

5.2. But if diplomacy is flawed and frequently stumbles or fails, war is most certainly a flawed instrument, and military bungling and failure are a costly reality. Indeed war is not an alternative “solution,” it is the absence of a solution.

5.3. The UN charter defines that body’s fundamental objective as “lift(ing) the scourge of war” – in other words, the UN, even though it retains the right to undertake or authorize military action, is not there to elevate war into a routine response to intransigence; its primary mandate is the peaceful settlement of disputes.

5.4. In the current case, the United Nations may yet authorize states to make war on Iraq, but while that may make such a war legal, it will not thereby mean such authorization reflects the prevailing international opposition to war on Iraq, nor does war guarantee success.

5.5. It is frighteningly easy to predict the bungling of war (friendly-fire killings, confused signals that send incendiary bombs into wedding celebrations, and so on). While it is not so easy to predict the full human costs of war, we should heed some warnings:

a) a Medact report (Medact is the British affiliate of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War) estimates casualties, largely civilian, of 48,000 to 260,000 within the first three months of an attack, and many profound long-term consequences related to the public health system, agriculture, water, and energy.4

b) The Oxford Research Group warns of the costs of urban warfare: “The regime will aim to draw the US forces into urban warfare in Baghdad. A civilian death toll of at least 10,000 is likely…. This is a low estimate, the experience of urban warfare in Beirut and elsewhere suggests even higher casualties.”5

5.6. Others point to the resources wasted in war (both by the external forces and by the damage to Iraq’s infrastructure), and the risks of widened political instability6 (including increased terrorism), the risks of entrenched hatred and re-energized extremism, the quagmire of long-term military campaigns or occupation, and the risk of the disintegration of Iraq into multiple areas of instability.

5.7. War on Iraq also involves risks of WMD use and of heightening nuclear proliferation pressures:

a) Experts point to the dangers of Iraqi use of chemical and biological weapons in the event the survival of the regime is threatened;7

b) The clear distinctions in American treatment between states that do not yet have nuclear weapons but are in pursuit of them (i.e., Iraq) and states that do have them and continue to develop them (i.e., Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea) says to the world that one way to avoid America’s military threats and ensure that its interventions remain at the level of diplomatic engagement is to actually acquire nuclear weapons. The US approach, in other words, generates incentives to proliferate rather than contributing to non-proliferation.

5.8. Legitimizing pre-emption and war to combat terrorism and illegality will be taken by others as license to do the same according to their own interests.8

5.9. The best that can be said of war as a means of settling a dispute is that it eventually ends – amidst destruction, exhaustion, and the grim recognition that with nothing resolved, the parties must still go to the table to negotiate and resolve all the questions that could not be resolved before the descent into war. The obligation now is to reject old habits, to forego that phase of accelerated death and destruction that we call war, and to go, instead, directly to the peace building phase.9

6. Avoiding war and building sustainable peace

6.1. The pursuit of alternatives to war is not just another option, it is an obligation the UN Charter places on all member states of the UN. Article 33 requires that “[t]he parties to any dispute…shall, first of all, seek a solution by negotiation, enquiry, mediation, conciliation, arbitration, judicial settlement, resort to regional agencies or arrangements, or other peaceful means….”10

6.2. Given the Charter’s requirement that the resort to force must be a last resort, It would be helpful for the Security Council to issue specific reports detailing the ways and means by which it has pursued the avenues prescribed in Article 33.11

6.3. In the long run, Iraqi regimes will forego the pursuit of weapons of mass destruction only when the Iraqi people have the means to define and mandate alternative national priorities.12 Also in the long run, the rebuilding of the Iraq economy and infrastructure will require a regime that is responsive to the needs and priorities of the Iraqi people. Democracy and respect for human rights will be built from within. The obstacles are legion, but civil society must be recognized and actively supported as an essential agent of sustainable change. Ironically, an important impact of the current ongoing sanctions regime has been to sap the strength of civil society by undermining the economic and social conditions that could support internal challenges to the regime.

6.4. Support for internal civil society in pursuit of change is fraught with difficulty, but a useful place to put more emphasis may be on the Iraqi diaspora, by providing sustained opportunities to meet to explore options and alternatives.



1. None should deny that the provocations to war in Iraq are legion. The list of Iraq’s infractions is long and serious. UN inspectors should reveal the extent to which the regime of Saddam Hussein remains in violation of the commitments and norms of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the Biological Weapons Convention, and the Chemical Weapons Convention. Its use of chemical and biological weapons, as well as its use of child combatants, are prominent among its violations of Humanitarian Law. Its violations of basic Human Rights standards is well documented. It has acted in blatant violation of the UN Charter and remains in violation of a host of UN Security Council resolutions. These are not mere technical breaches of arcane international law. They are concrete crimes whose victims, those who were not killed, live in intense suffering and pain.

2. “‘All the Arab states that I know would prefer Iraq without weapons of mass destruction,’ said Abdelmonem Said, director of the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies.” Syria explained its “yes” vote as seeking the immediate effect of precluding US military action under UN auspices, acknowledging that the Americans could still act unilaterally, but “if this happens, the world will not be with the Americans.” Last March an Arab summit stated that an attack on Iraq would be considered an attack on all Arab countries, and while, as one commentator put it, that may be an empty threat, Arab states certainly worry about the implications and precedents of any such attack (Neil MacFarquhar, “Iraq Inspections Receive Approval from Arab League,” The New York Times, November 11, 2002.

3. The November Arab League meeting reiterated the importance of the UN’s paying equal attention to Israel’s weapons of mass destruction (MacFarquhar).

4. Medact, Collateral Damage: the health and environmental costs of war on Iraq, November 12, 2002.

5. Paul Rogers, Iraq: Consequences of a War, Oxford Research Group, October 2002.

6. The Middle East region needs to change. Besides the Israel/Palestine conflict, a large number of states in the region (notably, in addition to Iraq, Syria and Saudi Arabia) are in urgent need of democratization and must move toward compliance with global human rights norms. Failing that, they are not sustainable as stable societies and political entities. Unfortunately, the US record on geo-strategic engineering is not a promising one. From Chile, to the Contras in Nicaragua, to Vietnam and Afghanistan, sustainable, popular, human rights-honouring societies are not the product of US military-backed social engineering. Change needs to be intrinsic, supported by international norms and standards, and built on the emerging will of the people.

7. “[E]vidence of Iraqi military tactics in 1991 shows that the survival of the regime is the core policy and that chemical and biological weapons are almost certain to be used, certainly against attacking troops and possibly against targets in neighbouring countries…. [S]evere casualties arising from Iraqi use of chemical and biological weapons could result in a nuclear response” (Rogers).

8. “[T]he example of the world’s most powerful state claiming the right to conduct a ‘preventive’ war on the grounds that it is necessary to fight ‘terrorists’ and to remove threats of ‘weapons of mass destruction’ could be invoked by others pressing for war, Russia in Chechnya and Georgia, Israel against those its government suspects of supporting terrorism, India against Pakistan, perhaps precipitating the first nuclear warfare since Hiroshima and Nagasaki” (Andrew Lichterman and John Burroughs, War Is Not the Path to Peace: The United States, Iraq, and the Need for Stronger International Legal Standards to Prevent War, October 24, 2002 commentary; Lawyers Committee on Nuclear Policy and Western States Legal Foundation).

9. To understand where the march toward war in Iraq can finally be expected to lead we need but recall the story of the twentieth century. Unprecedented in both numbers and destructiveness, the wars of the century just ended were fought to restore peace, democracy, and human rights, and, indeed, to end all war, but their accumulated legacy is of unprecedented numbers of lives lost, of resources wasted, and of an international order still short on peace, democracy, and human rights, and still poised for, and extensively engaged in, ever more war. It is the reality that led the founders of the United Nations to declare its central aim to be “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war.” The international community will not reach maturity and stability, and people in states like Iraq will not enjoy safety and well being, as long as we collectively hold to the discredited view that war is the means to its opposite. War sows more war – the twentieth century confirms that as a general truth and it is our responsibility to recognize that unavoidable truth in specific situations, like the Iraq of the early twenty-first century.

10. The Charter of the United Nations.

11. Suggestion by Brian J. Foley, Avoiding War: Using International Law to Compel a Problem-Solving Approach, The Transnational Foundation for Peace and Future Research, November 5, 2002.

12. Building sustainable peace, that is peace and stability in the long run, depends on four fundamental conditions – on basic human needs being met (development), on a compelling political context (democracy and human rights), on a sustainable physical environment, and on limits on the means of destruction (disarmament).

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