Health, equity, human rights and the invasion of Iraq

Paula Braveman, Director, Center on Social Disparities in Health, Professor of Family and Community Medicine, UCA,
April 14, 2003

During the days culminating in the US-British invasion of Iraq, I was working with a human rights attorney colleague, exploring links and distinctions between health, equity, and human rights. These concepts thus have been in my thoughts, and concern for each leads me to deplore the invasion of Iraq on several counts.

First, given the scale of suffering and death that inevitably accompany war, it is unconscionable to embark on that course, even for a just cause, except as a clearly demonstrated last resort. There is widespread international consensus that reasonable alternatives to war had not been exhausted in this case. The consequences of war include not only its direct effects but the massive after-shocks due to destruction of infrastructure (e.g. clean water) critical for survival and health; many more deaths occurred for this reason in the wake of the first Gulf War than as a direct result of the military action itself. Moreover, this is not a just war; evidence linking Iraq and September 11 or Al Qaeda was never produced, and equally heinous regimes have been tolerated or supported (as Saddam Hussein was previously) by the US. There are many reasons to suspect that the real motives for US interest in a regime change in Iraq have more to do with control of oil and empire than with fighting terrorism. Terrorism will surely increase in light of the hatred this war and the ensuing occupation will provoke for generations to come, throughout the Arab and Islamic worlds and among others who reject the disturbing vision of a hegemonic New World Order evoked by this invasion.

Second, by setting the frightening dual precedents of pre-emptive military strikes and defiance of the United Nations, this action drags the entire world backward toward the laws of the jungle, obliterating decades of work toward global disarmament and 50-100 years of work toward international governance. The arrogance this reflects is in itself shocking.

Third, this war will exacerbate inequities. In Iraq, it undoubtedly is now taking and will continue in its aftermath to take its heaviest toll on the poor and especially poor children. In the US, the costs of the war and its aftermath most certainly will accelerate the dismantling of public services already initiated by the current administration's domestic policies, thereby increasing social disparities in this country; and there will be less support for international development outside the self-serving agenda for the Fertile Crescent.

Fourth and finally, this action represents a grave threat to human rights globally. By its explicit undermining of the authority of the United Nations (UN), the Bush administration has implicitly undermined the force of international law overall and specifically of human rights treaties and other agreements developed under UN auspices. We must publicly condemn this unjustified war, find ways to help repair the damage, and develop new strategies to struggle for health, equity, and human rights in a world that is far more brutal and violent than the world we had dared hope to encounter in the 21st century.

Conflict of Interest

None declared