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EU humanitarian response to war in Iraq

Poul Nielson

European Commissioner for Development and Humanitarian Aid

EU humanitarian response to war in Iraq

Press Conference

Brussels, 20 March 2003

Considering events over recent hours, there is no doubt in my mind that we are now facing a considerable humanitarian challenge over the coming days and weeks. This is a sobering moment and a sobering thought. I call on all the combatants involved to do their utmost to limit suffering amongst civilians and the destruction of civilian infrastructure. I would like to echo the call of UN Secretary General Kofi Annan when he says everything must be done to mitigate the imminent disaster of a humanitarian crisis.

The European Commission is ready to face up to this challenge by delivering humanitarian aid in line with international, established principles of neutrality and impartiality. I would like to tell you today what the Commission intends to do to help alleviate the suffering of civilian victims of this conflict and how we will do this.

Our key objective is to dispatch aid as speedily as possible to the victims. Of course, the exact nature of the humanitarian needs are not yet clear but extensive contingency planning means we are ready to act immediately. The Commission is ready to adopt within 24 hours and as soon as the humanitarian situation so justifies, two emergency fast track decisions, each worth €3 million that will ensure basic relief items such as medical supplies, tents, blankets and food are available to people displaced as a result of the fighting. Channelled through ECHO, our Humanitarian Aid Office, the first of these decisions will be implemented by the International Committee of the Red Cross for relief work inside Iraq. The second will focus on operations designed to cope with any flow of refugees into neighbouring countries and to assist in Trans-border operations. This will be implemented by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies who are able and ready to assist 500 000 people as of today. On top of this €6 million, I have given instructions for the €15 million already allocated for Iraq for 2003 to be re-directed for emergency relief. We will continue to concentrate our efforts on health, water and sanitation.

This €21 million constitutes an immediate response from ECHO's regular budget. I would like to inform you today of the Commission's intention to request the Member States and Parliament to release a substantial sum of fresh money from the budget emergency reserve so as to cope with further needs that are arising now. I am confident that the budgetary authority will agree to this request that will be submitted to them within days. There is no specific figure at the moment but I am of the opinion that a figure of around €100 million is what is needed. The College of Commissioners will discuss this on Friday afternoon. It is extremely important that our partners in the field UN agencies, the Red Cross/Red Crescent Family and NGO's can count on a reliable and predictable source of funding. The Commission has to meet this challenge. The €21 million is to react now. To access the emergency reserve we need time, which in the past has taken on average, 83 days. We need to go faster than this and this is why we will come with a request now even without having received specific appeals from the UN or project applications from NGO's. I will pursue this vigorously and ask the Member States and Parliament to react immediately because people need our money fast. We need to put the carriage before the horse and fund these organisations so that they can implement on the ground. We have not been able to finance pre-positioning in the region but now the emergency has arrived, there are no more constraints.

It also should not be forgotten that humanitarian crises elsewhere in the world, particularly in the Palestinian Territories and Africa, have not disappeared overnight. There is no intention on our part to divert money from one crisis to another. We need additionality.

There are no political strings attached to our action. It makes no difference what the background to this war is. We will make a decent effort to help people who are suffering. Full stop.

Our action will be based on the principles of humanitarian law and the importance of respecting impartiality, neutrality and independence in the delivery of aid. In this regard, it is essential to respect the humanitarian space by maintaining a clear separation of the roles of aid workers and soldiers. We cannot let humanitarian workers run the risk of becoming targets because of confusion between the military and relief efforts. The preservation of, what we call in our jargon 'the humanitarian space', is a pre-requisite for the correct and safe delivery of assistance. This will be much easier to achieve if the United Nations is recognised, at an early stage, as the lead assistance co-ordinator. The Commission will be supporting the work of the UN co-ordination body. These concerns over possible impediments regarding the access of donors and humanitarian organisations have been made to all concerned.

I feel confident that the Commission and ECHO are as prepared as they could be to react to this unfolding situation. ECHO has experience working in Iraq having been active there for over a decade. Put simply, ECHO has been up until now the single largest donor of aid to Iraqi people having already provided €157 million in aid. The ECHO Office in Amman, which is the regional hub of our operations, has been reinforced and there are now 7 field experts mobilised to cover Iraq and the neighbouring countries. Several missions from headquarters in Brussels and Amman have been in Iraq and neighbouring countries over recent weeks. We have had extensive contacts with other donors and agencies over recent months. However, preparation for this sort of event can only take us so far and flexibility will underpin our action throughout this crisis. Let me repeat that the task of the humanitarian community and the suffering of the population will be eased if civilian targets and infrastructure are spared.

I am now ready to take your questions.


The Rt Hon Chris Patten
Commissioner for External Relations
European Parliament Iraq Debate

Brussels, 20 March 2003

This debate takes place against an extremely sombre background. Whatever the outcome of the war that has started in Iraq and we must all pray that the military phase will be short and as bloodless as possible there can be no denying that this has been a very bad passage for the Common Foreign and Security Policy; a very bad passage for the European Union as a whole; a very bad passage for the authority of the UN; for NATO; and a very bad passage for transatlantic relations.

I just pause to make one point about transatlantic relations. Most of the things we want to achieve as Europeans, we are more than likely to be able to achieve if we are able to work with the United States. It is equally the case that most of the things America wants are more likely to be achieved if America can work with the European Union, and finally I think that it is unarguably the case that the world is better served in terms of prosperity, in terms of security, in terms of stability when America and the European Union Work together. So the future of transatlantic relations is a matter of real concern to all of us and it was of course entirely appropriate that the Foreign Minister referred so eloquently to that issue during his own remarks.

The Presidency made heroic efforts to maintain a common position. The European Council's declaration of 17 February was well judged. Member States agree about the threat of proliferation of weapons of mass destruction; they agree on the need for full and effective disarmament of Iraq; they agree that the UN must remain at the centre of the international order; they agree, indeed, that force should only be used as a last resort; but they disagreed all too publicly about when that point had been reached.

How can we now pull things together again? How can we emerge not just healed but strengthened from the trials of the last few weeks?

We should remind ourselves how closely and effectively we are co-operating not just within the European Union but across the Atlantic on a host of international issues. And we should redouble our efforts.

In the Balkans, for example, we are working flat out for economic and political stabilisation. I was in Serbia last week and I witnessed their determination to ensure that that the fragile stability that prevails should not be set back by the despicable murder of Zoran Djindjic. I hope that at the European Council later today and tomorrow, Heads of Government will renew their pledge to maintain the momentum of development, and of association between these countries and the European Union.

We must maintain unrelenting concentration on Afghanistan, on which we had a Donors meeting here in Brussels at the beginning of the week, a recognition of the part we are playing under the auspices of the UN in that country and which still faces appalling problems. After the fighting of 2001 the European Union pledged that it was there for the long haul, to help deliver stability and sound government and this House helped to ensure that we put resources behind that pledge. We must remain true to it.

I repeat what I said to this House last week, that we must also maintain the momentum of our own enlargement. The decision to bring in ten new members is not some whim, which might be called into question by unrelated events. It is a strategic choice for our continent. And it is a choice of historic proportions. We must press forward undaunted...

...just as we must press forward with the work we announced in our paper last week on Wider Europe. That Communication set out a vision about how our neighbours, not just to the East but to the South, too, can expect to share in our prosperity and stability if they are ready to align themselves on our values and on EU legislation. Our proposals for 'Wider Europe' mean the creation of a common economic and social space where all countries enjoy full membership of the internal market and, potentially, share in the four freedoms.

We must press forward, too, with the Middle East Peace Process. It is encouraging that President of the United States is now ready to proceed with the Road Map towards a two-State solution that was prepared, I have to say, several months ago within the international Quartet. But we must ensure that this means the urgent implementation of these ideas, not a long discussion with the parties about their validity. Such discussions have proved endlessly frustrating in the past, as the parties have sought to impose incompatible conditions upon their co-operation. We really can't allow this peace process, once again, to be subject to conditional sequencing so that in practice there is no peace but more bloodshed.

More immediately, the whole European Union must strive to build on what we share in our approach to the conflict now beginning in Iraq. The Commission has been working hard behind the scenes, in co-operation with international agencies, to contribute to the humanitarian assistance that may be needed. I have discussed these issues myself in Jordan, Turkey and Iran in recent weeks.

I have discussed these matters in Jordan, Iran and Turkey in recent weeks.

ECHO, the Commission's Humanitarian Aid Office, has reinforced its presence in the field. There are now five permanent expatriate technical assistants in the Amman Regional office covering Iraq and the whole of the Middle East; an additional expert based in Jerusalem; and a seventh one on standby in Amman. ECHO has also kept regular contact with the main humanitarian organisations such the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Since January this year, ECHO has carried out three missions to Iraq itself to assess the situation and prepare for possible operations, and several missions to neighbouring countries, too.

Besides the €15m that had been earmarked for humanitarian operations in Iraq in 2003, the Commission has delegated authority to approve fast track aid for a further €3m in less than 72 hours. If there is a crisis in a neighbouring country, it would be possible to agree another €3m for that purpose, too.

Depending on the scale of the needs we may need to apply for additional funds for humanitarian purposes from the Emergency reserve.

On the basis of previous experience and ECHO has been providing humanitarian aid to Iraq since 1992 we expect that the Commission's contribution is likely to be focused on health, on water and on sanitation. Some international organisations and NGOs are also predicting food shortages, with disruption of the Oil For Food programme. That is something we may need to look at in due course, if the problem emerges.

In all this effort, ECHO will work closely with UN agencies, and will participate in on-the-spot information exchanges. I want to add one point, nobody in this House, I'm sure, under-estimates the courage and commitment of our humanitarian aid teams in the field. I think all of us have good reason to be proud of them, proud of the work they have already done in that region and proud of the work which, alas, they have to do in all too many parts of the world.

We must do all that we can, too, to help Turkey to cope with the political pressures generated by recent events; and to help Iraq's other neighbours, too from Jordan and Syria to Iran. I had a chance to gain a better understanding of the impact war on Iraq could cause to these countries during my recent trips to the region. The Commission will continue monitoring and assessing the situation closely and would look, with the Council, at possible EU responses.

I'm bound to say that I am extremely pleased that we have taken the initiative to develop our relationship with Iran, not in an ill-informed way, not overlooking the disagreements we have with that country, but I think, in present circumstances, trying to develop our relationship with Iran makes considerable sense.

In an article earlier this week a respected newspaper columnist reminded us that after plagues and misfortunes had streamed from Pandora's box, Hope remained behind to assuage the afflicted. So let us hold onto:

  • hope that the war will be over quickly, and with minimum casualties a point, I think felt especially strongly, whatever your views on the conflict, by all those with fellow-countrymen and women engaged in the fight;

  • hope as well that it will be possible to deliver humanitarian aid quickly and effectively, under international auspices, where it is most needed;

  • hope that the political and economic reconstruction of Iraq can begin soon again under international auspices, guaranteeing Iraq's territorial integrity and providing for Iraqi ownership of the process and that they are wrong who believe that the real choice in the Arab world lies between pro-Western despotism and anti-Western democracy. If post-war Iraq is managed under a UN mandate like East Timor, Kosovo and Afghanistan I hope that it will be recognised that part of the credit for that should go to those who insisted from the outset that that should be what happens,

  • hope that the regional repercussions will be benign or, if they are damaging, that they will be contained;

  • hope that the current crisis will serve to galvanise the Middle East Peace Process after a desperately bleak period in which things have drifted backwards;

  • hope that they are right who believe that this war will strike a blow against international terrorism, rather than stoking the flames of it;

  • And hope as well finally that those many institutions and relationships which have been tested in the fire in recent weeks including the European Union and the Common Foreign and Security Policy will emerge strengthened by a renewed recognition of how badly we need the apparatus of international governance.

This is the last thought that I want to leave with the House: I think the challenge we face, the challenge that we will face in the coming weeks and months, goes far beyond what Winston Churchill once called " the thankless deserts of Mesopotamia". I think we face a very clear choice in the coming months. Are we to go back to the way the world was run in the 19th century, a world of rival national sovereignties and balances of power, or do we try to rebuild the institutions and habits of global governance which have been so painfully constructed in the last half century? That is the clear choice, which is going to face us. I know which side of the argument I come down on.