Iraq: Who pays the price of war?

Gaye Hart AM, President, Australian Council for Overseas Aid.
Australian aid agencies know from previous experience in other conflicts that the real cost of war with Iraq will be a devastating humanitarian crisis. The price will be paid by innocent civilians living in an already precarious situation.

Aid agencies supporting humanitarian projects in Iraq and the region report that about 15 million Iraqis, out of an estimated population of 24 million, depend on food rations provided under an agreement between the UN and the Iraqi government. And even with this food aid, malnutrition is widespread, especially among women and children.

Chronic malnutrition among children under five is 23%. The mortality rate for young children has risen by 160% since 1990. The health care system is no longer covering basic needs. Poor water quality is the primary reason for sickness and death among children, who make up almost half the population.

Iraq's water and sanitation system is on the verge of collapse, because it is dependent on electrical supplies crippled during the 1991 air strikes. Now, eleven years after the Gulf War, it is estimated that one-third of the national power supply is still down, two-thirds of house-connected water is untreated. In the cities, the trucks that used to empty cesspits and septic tanks have ground to a halt due to a lack of tyres, batteries and other spare parts, so sewage flows back into peoples' houses.

Any military action that damages power supplies and other infrastructure will inevitably further damage this already fragile system, and increase the likelihood of preventable diseases such as cholera and hepatitis sweeping through the population. Attacks that affect roads, ports or railways will lead to the collapse of the distribution system for food aid. The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation's representative in Iraq warns that a sudden loss of food distribution will force many over the brink of starvation. The people of Iraq no longer have safety nets to help them cope with another crisis.

Article 54 of Additional Protocol 1 of the Geneva Convention prohibits attacks upon "objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population." It states that "in no event shall actions against these objects be taken which may be expected to leave the civilian population with such inadequate food or water as to cause its starvation or forces its movement".

Iraq currently has some 700,000 refugees. War would undoubtedly lead to additional refugee movements within the country and towards borders that would be heavily mined. The logistical problems that aid agencies would face in providing even the most basic humanitarian assistance to these people, especially those stranded on border regions, would be overwhelming.

Aside from the humanitarian impact of conflict, the cost of waging modern warfare is expensive. The World Council of Churches estimates that the United States will spend about $US12billion every month on the proposed war in Iraq. This is the same amount the US spends in a whole year on its entire overseas aid program. With 800 million people in developing countries suffering from hunger every day, imagine if the battle against global poverty was taken on with the same intensity and with the same funds that is now being applied to preparing for a war with Iraq.

The Australian Council for Overseas Aid (ACFOA), which represents 90 Australian aid and development organisations, urges our government to avoid war and to pursue all possible avenues to bring about a diplomatic and just resolution to the current situation with Iraq through the United Nations.

In the event of any military action, aid agencies would urge the Australian government to provide emergency aid over and above the current aid allocation and to channel this aid through United Nations and non government agencies. Additional aid will be vital in responding to the humanitarian needs of affected civilian populations, including refugees that spill over into neighbouring countries.

Military action in Iraq will almost inevitably violate international humanitarian law and will have serious impacts on regional stability. Worse, military action that damages power supplies and transport infrastructure will have disastrous humanitarian consequences. And the price will be paid by the already suffering Iraqi population, mainly women and children, who will surely be left to struggle to survive against formidable odds.

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 12 February 2003