Humanitarian contingency planning for Iraq

News and Press Release
Originally published


Secretary Short: Department for International Development
Written Ministerial Statement: 13th March 2003

I welcome the International Development Committee's report on humanitarian contingency planning in Iraq. The House may welcome a summary of the principles my Department has applied in our planning, our current level of preparedness and constraints on it, and our assessment of the international community's planning. I set out my position in a written memorandum to the Committee before I gave evidence on 12 February. We will respond in due course to the report's detailed recommendations, some of which have already been addressed or are already Government policy. I want to set out to the House now how our planning has developed in the last month.

The Government's objectives on Iraq were set out to the House in a written statement by Jack Straw on 7 January. These include as an immediate priority to continue to support humanitarian efforts to relieve the suffering of the Iraqi people. We have worked to encourage contingency planning for a range of scenarios, including the possible resolution of the crisis without conflict. My responsibilities as Secretary of State for International Development include helping minimise the risk of humanitarian suffering as well as alleviating it when it occurs, and this has guided our planning. We have had extensive discussions across Government about how military strategy can minimise and mitigate the risks of conflict to the Iraqi people.

In the event of conflict in Iraq, my Department would have two humanitarian roles. One is to help advise the Ministry of Defence and the armed forces on how best to discharge their humanitarian responsibilities under the Hague and Geneva Conventions. The other is to use the funds, expertise and influence available to us to support the direct delivery of impartial humanitarian assistance by the international humanitarian community. I will summarise what we are doing in both capacities.

In the event of conflict and the occupation of Iraqi territory by the UK military, the occupying forces would have humanitarian responsibilities under the Hague and Geneva Conventions. It is likely that in the first stages of any conflict, UN agencies and NGOs would not be fully operational, particularly if there is a credible threat of the use of chemical or biological weapons. Military forces thus might have primary responsibility for the initial delivery of humanitarian assistance. They are also likely to play a key role over a longer time period in providing a secure environment for other organisations to deliver humanitarian assistance. My Department has been advising the Ministry of Defence and the armed forces on these issues for some time. We have recently agreed the secondment of a full-time Civil-Military Humanitarian Adviser to the Headquarters UK 1 Division in Kuwait, and are also providing advice to the National Component Headquarters in Qatar. We are considering additional support. We are discussing with the armed forces the use of military Quick Impact Projects in the period immediately after any conflict, which DFID would consider funding where there are clear humanitarian needs.

The principles we apply in delivering humanitarian assistance to Iraq are the same as anywhere else. They are not determined by the nature of the conflict, or subject to military strategy or diplomatic considerations. We will respect international humanitarian law and relevant human rights laws and conventions. We will allocate our assistance impartially based on the best possible assessment of need. We will state clearly the standards we aspire to and how we are accountable for our assistance. We will respect the neutrality and independence of our humanitarian partners. Where moral dilemmas in the delivery of humanitarian assistance arise, often requiring fast and difficult decisions, with lives at stake, we will be explicit in the analysis which guides our choices, and communicate this openly.

It is the Government's policy to support the work of international humanitarian agencies, particularly those of the United Nations, to take the leading role in responding to humanitarian emergencies. My Department's regular funding to the UN and other humanitarian agencies includes provision for emergency preparedness for a variety of contingencies across the world. On 10 February I announced I was supplementing this funding with an additional =A33.5m contribution to support UN humanitarian contingency planning for Iraq. This money has been allocated to a range of UN agencies including the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), the World Food Programme, the World Health Organisation, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and the United Nations Security Coordinator (UNSECOORD). I decided last week to provide a further =A36.5m to supplement our existing funding for the Iraq planning work of these agencies, and support a small number of NGOs in their contingency preparedness. For UN agencies to maintain a high level of preparedness for a range of scenarios is prudent, but this has continuing recurrent costs. We are keeping this situation under regular review and maintain close contact with UN agencies and other donors about how far UN appeals have been met.

This =A310m of new funding is in addition to the UK's ongoing humanitarian programme in Iraq. Since 1991 DFID has provided over =A3100m of bilateral assistance, and DFID's contributions through the EC have been an additional =A315m. In 2002-3 we expect to spend over =A38m. Much of this supports the work of NGOs operating in Northern Iraq. Humanitarian work in the North, where the Oil For Food programme is run by the UN and the Kurdish authorities are keen to collaborate with a range of international organisations, is much easier than in the Centre/South. Despite sanctions, humanitarian indicators such as maternal mortality and child mortality have improved much faster in the North under the Oil For Food programme. But my Department is also funding the work of UNICEF, the International Committee of the Red Cross and CARE in Baghdad-controlled Iraq. These organisations do essential technical work improving water and sanitation systems, repairing health facilities, and building the capacity of the Iraqi people to maintain their own infrastructure.

My Department is now holding weekly confidential meetings with NGOs to share information on our and their contingency planning, and discuss areas of mutual cooperation such as preserving humanitarian independence. We are making contingency preparedness funding available to those who have carefully thought through the complexities of the humanitarian environment and are likely to be able to play a significant role in the early stages after any conflict.

DFID believes that the UN, through the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs should play the leading role in the coordination of humanitarian activity, including in the vital function of the pooling and sharing of information about priority needs. The UN is best able to reassure implementing agencies of the independence of humanitarian decision-making. My Department is funding OCHA to prepare for this role in Iraq, including through support for the creation of a Humanitarian Information Centre headquartered in Larnaca, to which we will be seconding a specialist. We are also supporting the UN Joint Logistic Centre through further secondments.

DFID's strategy for responding to the humanitarian needs following any conflict will be determined by events which cannot be predicted. Retaining sufficient flexibility at this stage to deploy our finite financial and human resources where they are most needed is essential. We are deploying operational humanitarian staff to key locations in the region now so we can take rapid and well-informed decisions when required about future deployment.

We have brought DFID's stockpile of non-food items, vehicles and equipment to immediate readiness, and are procuring additional supplies. We are positioning some of these stocks in Kuwait and elsewhere in the region, where they could be used by a variety of implementing partners. This is in addition to the prepositioning done by UN agencies and others which we are helping to fund.

DFID is working closely with the Ministry of Defence, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Treasury to assess the possible costs of humanitarian assistance in the event of conflict. The unmet needs could be enormous. The precise costwill depend on the extent of damage and displacement caused by any conflict, and particularly on disruption to the Oil For Food programme (OFF). We have put considerable effort into discussing how to minimise that disruption. Contingency planning includes looking at how disruption to the delivery of essential services provided by OFF can be minimised. The Government expects a leading role for the UN in such circumstances. We are working with others on detailed ideas for a possible further UN Security Council Resolution to ensure OFF could continue to operate in a modified form after any conflict.

As well as close liaison with UN agencies whose contingency planning we are already contributing to, my Department has maintained dialogue with a range of other governments. The Office for Reconstruction and Humanitarian Affairs in the US Department of Defense is now leading American planning on humanitarian issues which would arise after any conflict. DFID has a secondee in ORHA; the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Ministry of Defence have also seconded staff. My officials are in close contact with their US counterparts on a range of humanitarian issues. The Government is aware of the plans of a large number of other countries and international organisations who would contribute to immediate humanitarian assistance in Iraq in the event of conflict. Most would do so according to humanitarian principles regardless of who the belligerents were and on what basis conflict started. Coordination of planning is politically sensitive for many of them at this stage. The UK will encourage wider international coordination as quickly as these political sensitivities allow.

My assessment of the overall level of preparedness of the international community to cope with the humanitarian challenges which may lie ahead in Iraq is that it is limited, and this involves serious risk. UN agencies have made sensible plans with the resources at their disposal. The USA has put a lot of effort into its planning but lacks recent on the ground experience of work in Iraq, and I am concerned by optimistic assumptions about how quickly the UN and NGOs might be able to do post-conflict work. The UK military's humanitarian planning has been proceeding quickly in recent weeks but their Geneva Convention obligations could be huge.

Many donors have not engaged fully with the detail or the scale of the potential humanitarian challenges. There are currently serious humanitarian crises in Afghanistan, the West Bank/Gaza, southern Africa, Ethiopia and Eritrea, and both the international humanitarian system and DFID resources are highly stretched. We could do more with a little more time. But ultimately no preparation would be enough to cope with the scale of the worst-case scenarios - 16 million people currently dependent on Oil For Food handouts deprived of their monthly ration for a sustained period, the complete collapse of water and sanitation systems in a largely urban country of 25 million people, and the possible use of chemical and biological weapons on the civilian population. That is why it is so important to minimise those risks.

My Department is also considering the longer term reconstruction and reform issues. It is clear that a UN mandate will be required to provide legal authority for the reconstruction effort, and to make possible the engagement of the International Financial Institutions and the wider international community. Efforts are being made to ensure that a suitable mandate is put in place.

For a full version of the International Development Committee report '. (pdf* format - 206 KB)