International community unprepared for humanitarian disaster in Iraq


For Immediate Release: February 13, 2003
Confidential U.N. Documents Reveal Grave Concern Over Impact of War

New York, February 13, 2003 - A US-led military intervention in Iraq will trigger the collapse of Iraq's public health and food distribution system, leading to a humanitarian crisis that far exceeds the capacity of the United Nations and relief agencies, according to a report released at the U.N. by the New York-based Center for Economic and Social Rights (CESR). At the same time of the release, Secretary-General Kofi Annan will address a closed session of the Security Council on the potential humanitarian consequences of war in Iraq.

CESR will also release a set of confidential U.N. planning documents that warn of a "humanitarian emergency of exceptional scale and magnitude" based on the expected collapse of Iraq's civilian infrastructure following attacks on Iraq's electricity and transportation systems. One document estimates that "in the event of a crisis, 30 percent of children under five would be at risk of death from malnutrition."

CESR's research team, which visited Iraq from January 17-30, included six experts in food security and nutrition, public health infrastructure, primary and public health care, and emergency and curative medicine. The team was given unusually free access to investigate a wide range of civilian sites throughout Iraq and interview government and U.N. officials.

"Iraq has become like a vast refugee camp," said Ronald Waldman, Professor of Clinical Public Health and Director of the Program on Forced Migration and Health at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health. "The population survives largely on government food rations and depends on a fragile public health system. They are extremely vulnerable to war."

"Our report confirms that international relief agencies are unlikely to avert a major humanitarian disaster in the event of war," said Michael Van Rooyen, Director of the Center for International Emergency, Disaster and Refugee Studies at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

The U.N. has stated that the Oil-For-Food Program, which has almost $11 billion in undelivered humanitarian supplies still in the pipeline, will be suspended once war breaks out. Over 15 million Iraqis who depend for survival on the monthly food rations could be left with no means of support.

"The $30 million in emergency aid pledged by the U.S. and U.K will cover one day's worth of supplies under OFF," said Sarah Zaidi, CESR Research Director. "The people planning this war must have no understanding of the suffering they will impose on innocent men, women and children in Iraq."

The report calls on the Security Council to address critical questions of humanitarian concern before taking any decision on war:

  • Are civilian life support systems, in particular electricity, water, and sanitation, considered military targets as in the 1991 war?

  • Are there contingency plans to prevent repetition of the "cycle of death" caused by increased malnutrition and disease, especially among children?

  • What will happen to Iraqi government food distribution and public health systems in areas occupied by U.S. and other military forces?

  • What will happen to humanitarian supplies currently provided through the Oil-for-Food Program?

  • How will the international community mobilize the enormous aid package necessary to mitigate a disaster?

  • Why are humanitarian response plans being developed in secrecy and without necessary coordination among key actors?

  • Will the U.S. military allow international relief agencies independent access to affected populations as required by humanitarian principles and international law?

Copies of the of the Research Team's report, access to the confidential U.N. documents, and photos and video from the Iraq mission will be available at the briefing.

The Center for Economic and Social Rights, based in New York is a non-partisan international organization dedicated to promoting social justice through human rights. CESR executive staff has led six humanitarian missions to Iraq, including the Harvard Study Team and International Study Team missions in March and August of 1991, and a 1996 legal mission that documented human rights violations caused by Security Council sanctions and was featured on 60 Minutes.

For further information on CESR's Iraq project, please visit or contact Ayliz Baskin at (718) 237-9145 ext. 13 or

CONTACT: David Lerner (212) 260-5000 / (917) 612-5657 -

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