The Humanitarian Situation in Iraq and its Distinctive Features

Roberta Cohen
Roberta Cohen Former Brookings Expert, Co-Chair Emeritus - Committee for Human Rights in North Korea

March 27, 2003

There are certain distinctive features in this war when one looks at the humanitarian situation as compared with other recent emergencies.

To begin with, most of the Iraqi population, an estimated 16 million people are completely dependent on food aid from abroad. That’s the result of 12 years of sanctions, and an oil for food program that while efficiently providing food has also discouraged domestic production, encouraged rural to urban migration and has made almost an entire population dependent on handouts. 400,000 metric tons of food have to be shipped in every month. That?s the largest humanitarian assistance program in the world. While Iraqis reportedly have 5 weeks worth of food stockpiled, having to feed this many people in an emergency and over a longer period of time is a staggering responsibility.

A second obvious difference between this war and other more recent emergencies is that the responsibility to ensure that the civilian population is taken care of—fed, housed and protected—lies squarely with the United States and its coalition partners. The US has the troops on the ground and will be the occupying power. The Fourth Geneva Convention is clear on these points. As a result, humanitarian aid has become a significant part of the military-political strategy, but it also risks becoming completely politicized.

Another distinctive feature is the opposition to the war and the impact of this on the humanitarian situation. In the weeks and months leading up to the war, there was a singular lack of preparation on the part of many international humanitarian organizations. Many NGOs and UN agencies did not want to be seen as helping to plan for a war or encourage the march to war. UN agencies were even barred from discussing preparations or contacting the US military. And many donor governments refused to fund contingency planning when organizations did ask because the donors opposed the war or didn?t want to be seen as planning for it. So there is now a race against time to preposition supplies and humanitarian workers in order to address a humanitarian crisis. Despite the television pictures of food and supplies in warehouses in Kuwait, stockpiled by the US military, these supplies are only enough for a limited period.

Opposition to the war was also the main event in the Security Council over reinstating the Oil for Food Program, which was suspended when the war began. Russia, France and others opposed a new UN resolution that would reactivate the program under the auspices of the UN because they said there was still a government on the ground in Baghdad and they didn?t want the UN coordinating its efforts with coalition troops and legitimizing their military action. This put into jeopardy the feeding of the Iraqi population. For, the longer the delay in the Security Council, the longer it would take to sign contracts, get the pipeline going, and restore the distribution networks.

Fourth, unlike in other war-torn countries, it should be emphasized that there is no real aid infrastructure in Iraq other than the Oil for Food program, which was under the authority of the Government of Iraq. Because of the sanctions regime, as well as Iraqi government restrictions, there are very few international non-governmental organizations inside the country—less than 20, and the ones there have small programs and few funds. There is also has been little NGO presence in neighboring countries. Yet NGOs are usually the mainstay of humanitarian emergencies, working as partners with UN agencies bringing in food, medicine and shelter. Even the international agencies in Iraq have been involved primarily in overseeing the Oil for Food Program. Once again, there is a race against time on the part of NGOs and also UN agencies to begin to expand operations, gain access and position themselves in neighboring countries. American organizations have had a particularly difficult time since US sanctions have prohibited their providing assistance in Iraq. Even now, with the restrictions relaxed and economic sanctions waived, official red tape continues to obstruct the ability of NGOs to move quickly.

Fifth, the relationship between the military and the civilian relief agencies is more uneasy in this crisis than usual because of the US military’s overall control of the situation and its occupation plans. Many relief agencies have been complaining of lack of communication and coordination with the Pentagon, pointing out that everything is classified. They also object to the placement of the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance in the Pentagon. Other NGOs have announced they will NOT work under military authority. Still others express concerns of being bypassed by private US contractors who are being hired rather than experienced NGOs to undertake post-conflict reconstruction in sectors such as public health and education for which NGOs are better prepared.

Finally, and more than in most wars, the US is responsible for the physical security and protection of the civilian population—not just making sure they get food, medicine and shelter but protecting them from assault, abuse, reprisal or revenge killings, looting. We are going to have to see the coalition troops become involved in restoring public order and undertaking policing. There is a security vacuum developing in the country with the government collapsing. It is a vacuum the US will have to help fill, but it has not yet focused on this.