InterAction statement: US unprepared for humanitarian response in Iraq

Statement on Behalf of InterAction, the Nation's Largest Alliance of U.S.-Based International Development and Humanitarian Nongovernmental Organizations
Mary E. McClymont, President & CEO

Given that any war will bring unquantifiable regional and global risks and suffering to innocent civilians, InterAction continues to urge that the President work toward a diplomatic resolution to the crisis within the context of the United Nations.

As humanitarian NGOs likely to be engaged in Iraq during and after a war, we are greatly concerned about the state of preparedness for the humanitarian response in Iraq. We are left with the impression that the U.S. government may be unprepared to mount an adequate response to meet the relief and reconstruction needs of a country in which 60 percent of the people already rely on international donations to live.

We have detailed our concerns in letters to President Bush during September, December and January, and discussed them repeatedly with American officials -- both civilian and military -- in regular meetings over the past six months. We are speaking publicly now about our concerns because time is clearly running out.

InterAction -- the largest American alliance of humanitarian groups -- calls on President Bush to outline the United States strategy and state of preparedness to respond to the inevitable consequences of a war with Iraq, particularly if this war is done without United Nations endorsement and therefore without the degree of support for international humanitarian and reconstruction efforts we have seen in the past from the international community.

We understand the United Nations is making contingency plans for the consequences of a war of up to three months, plans that reveal dire circumstances for Iraqi civilians. Years of war and sanctions have taken their toll on the Iraqi people. This war would wreak havoc on the fragile Iraqi infrastructure. Once again, the Iraqi people may be plunged into darkness with no electricity, sanitation facilities, water or transportation. Two million people may be internally displaced, leaving them in search of food and shelter, adding to the 1 million people who are already without homes. Refugees -- as many as 1.5 million - - could flee to neighboring nations, such as Iran, already host to millions of Afghan refugees, and Turkey. Consider this:

  • 16 million people -- 60% of the population -- rely solely on the United Nations assistance for their monthly food needs.

  • 10 million Iraqis -- 40% of the population -- may need immediate food aid in the event of war.

  • 5.2 million of those who may need immediate food aid are children younger than five or women in some stage of childbearing or infant care.

  • Potential costs of humanitarian assistance for just the first six months are likely to run as high as $800 million.

  • There are only 1000 international UN staff in Iraq, and all of them would be evacuated at the start of hostilities.

  • Unlike in Afghanistan, NGOs in Iraq have very limited personnel, and few facilities.

It is impossible to project what impact the possible use of weapons of mass destruction might have on all of these estimates. Administration officials have told us they do not plan to take responsibility for the care and protection of Iraqi civilians should these weapons be used during the war.

NGO planning and preparedness is also limited, in part stymied by months of delay by the Administration in approving licenses to conduct assessment missions in Iraq and neighboring nations. This has inhibited their ability to prepare adequate contingency plans. It was not until last week -- six months after InterAction members first raised the issue -- that the Administration streamlined the process for obtaining necessary licenses from the Treasury Department. This was a welcome, but long-overdue development.

We know the United Nations has also been hindered in its efforts to prepare adequately for humanitarian contingencies. The Administration did not respond for six weeks to the United Nations' request for $37 million to begin stockpiling relief goods in the region and only partially funded that request. The lack of international consensus has resulted in lack of international support for UN efforts to prepare for a humanitarian response, with even traditional European allies reluctant to commit funds until the first shot is actually fired. We understand the United Nations plans to issue another appeal for $130 million to cover projected disaster preparation needs in the region through March. We urge the international community, led by the United States, to respond in a more timely fashion.

We are concerned by the Administration's unwillingness to share with us unclassified details of its humanitarian contingency plans, leaving serious questions about the detail, direction and adequacy of those plans for reconstruction and relief needs in Iraq.

Finally, contrary to our recommendations, the President has placed control over reconstruction and humanitarian activities in Iraq with the Department of Defense, which flies in the face of humanitarian principles. We have urged repeatedly in recent months that a civilian authority with experience in these matters should serve in that role until the United Nations can take over this responsibility.

A military -- led relief and reconstruction effort is unacceptable for many NGOs, whose independence and safety around the world would be compromised by such a close relationship with military occupation forces. The willingness of international donors to lend their support will be jeopardized by the perception that they are buttressing an American military effort. Without civilian coordination of humanitarian and reconstruction efforts, NGOs, governments and other humanitarian actors will be unable to participate effectively in meeting the enormous humanitarian needs that will require every available resource.