Iraq's reconstruction and the role of the United Nations - Oxfam policy paper

News and Press Release
Originally published
The war continues and many outcomes are possible. There is already a debate on the shape of Iraq's reconstruction. This briefing note proposes principles of how the international community should assist the people of Iraq in establishing their own administration after the war. It does not seek to set out a precise model. Our proposals are based on our experience and lessons from Kosovo, Bosnia, East Timor and Afghanistan. Oxfam also played a significant role in the immediate and medium-term reconstruction of Iraq after the first Gulf War.
The reconstruction of Iraq will be a difficult task. Not only will it need to address the damage caused by the war, but it will also need to overcome a legacy of 25 years of rule by Saddam Hussein; 12 years of UN sanctions; the lack of a united Iraqi political movement to govern; and the profound divisions which this war has brought to the United Nations, and the international community more generally. Equally, without addressing regional instability and particularly the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, long-term development in Iraq and the region will be thwarted.

Successful reconstruction will depend on two factors:

  • UN Leadership: the UN must be given a clear leadership mandate for the immediate aftermath of the war. The UN should establish an Iraqi transitional authority early on. The UN should then play a strong role in supporting national reconciliation, the re-establishment of a national civil administration, and protection of civilians.
  • Reconstruction: it is the responsibility of the US, UK, Australia and their allies to meet the costs of direct war damage. However, successful reconstruction will depend on local ownership and leadership by Iraqis, alongside long-term support, including aid and debt relief, from the international community led by the UN. Effort will be needed in economic and social reconstruction, support for civilian protection, gender equality, and civil society.
The need for United Nations' leadership

Political Leadership: Oxfam believes the United Nations must play a leadership role in the immediate aftermath of the war as it has both the experience and legitimacy to help establish a representative and accountable Iraqi administration quickly. The US, UK, Australia and their allies do not.

In the short period between the end of the conflict and the establishment of an Iraqi transitional authority, Oxfam believes the UN should have full authority over civil, legal, political, economic, and humanitarian issues inside Iraq.

It is crucial that the United Nations is given a mandate that is clear, credible and achievable. This will require a Security Council resolution. Securing this will need leadership in the Security Council from non-permanent members who have preserved good relations with all sides. The resolution will not be approved if any nation seeks to use it as a post-hoc justification for the war.

An achievable mandate for the UN will also require the US government to fully back, both politically and financially, the United Nations, and then Iraqi authorities. If this does not happen, or the UN was perceived to be working under a US authority, the UN would be set up to fail.

We recommend that an Iraqi transitional authority should be established through a national dialogue, involving political and civil society leaders from all sections of Iraqi society. This authority must be committed to creating a responsive and accountable government through elections, and capable of reactivating the economy, protecting all civilians, and providing adequate basic services to women and men, including humanitarian assistance where necessary. The United Nations will be a great help to an Iraqi authority, particularly in the areas of consensus building, national reconciliation, and promoting the active participation of women in governance from the beginning.

It should be remembered that until United Nations' or Iraqi authority is established, the occupying powers will have full responsibility for all aspects of the welfare of the civilian population, according to the Geneva Conventions [1].

Protection: Across the whole country there will be grave threats to human security after the war. As in previous conflicts, ethnic tensions, political retribution, and sexual violence could spiral. A 'protection gap' in the transition period must be avoided.

The United Nations may not have the capacity to establish and maintain security and protection for the civilian population. In that case, this would have to be the role of the US and allied forces, in the first instance. However, as in Kosovo, it is important that these military forces work under, or in coordination with, the United Nations' authority. This would prevent conflict between competing objectives of separate civil and military authorities.

In addition, the United Nations should establish a provisional legal and judicial framework to uphold human rights. Any framework should be developed with Iraqi leaders, men and women, to ensure it reflects cultural and religious aspirations and sensitivities.

Civil Administration: As soon as possible the Iraqi transitional authority should establish a civil administration. Generally, this should be based on existing administrative and community structures. If the Iraqi transitional authority is not formed quickly, then the United Nations will have to do this.

In Kosovo and Afghanistan, the United Nations has been criticized for deploying inexperienced, and culturally unaware, international staff to run civilian administrations. This overlooked the competency and skills of experienced national staff. There is no reason to repeat these mistakes in Iraq: the civil service is perceived as well trained and capable, reflecting the relatively high levels of education in society.

However, an uncomfortable role awaits the transitional authority or the United Nations: the establishment and application of criteria by which public employees would be allowed to return to work - excluding those who are implicated in human rights abuses or gross corruption.

Criteria for successful reconstruction efforts

Iraqi ownership: The most fundamental issue for successful reconstruction is the ownership and leadership of these efforts by Iraqis, alongside long-term support from the international community. This principle applies to all phases of reconstruction, and all actors, including the warring parties, other international donors, the World Bank and IMF. There is a real danger of repeating the mistakes of East Timor where national stakeholders were alienated.

Economic and Social Reconstruction: There will be an urgent need to reactivate the national and local economy, address Iraq's burgeoning international debt [2], repair damaged infrastructure, and get basic social services functioning. International aid is essential to this task. However, aid will have most impact if it is channelled, initially, through the UN, and used to employ local staff, and purchase local inputs where available. International staff should only be deployed where national technical expertise is unavailable.

For the next stage of larger-scale reconstruction, these same criteria apply. Iraq will need international assistance from donors and private investment to re-start the oil sector, and re-build agriculture and industry. Private investment will only be forthcoming if rich countries provide guarantees in such an insecure and uncertain environment. Iraq's oil revenue should be invested in long-term reconstruction and development, and not to repair direct war damage, which should be funded by the US, UK, Australia and their allies.

The need for Iraqi leadership and ownership contrasts sharply with the US government's plans to control early economic reconstruction, and ensure that companies from the US and its allies capture the reconstruction dividend.

Achieving Security and Protection: Reconstruction strategies must also pay attention to the security of the Iraqi population. Funds must be made available early for security sector reform, and judicial and legal reform. This will involve vetting and re-training of military personnel, police and judges.

Supporting Gender Equality: Women must play a vital role in re-building Iraq. Oxfam believes they will be critical in ensuring accountable government, focused on meeting the population's basic needs. However, women's full participation in government and community reconstruction needs strong encouragement and cultural sensitivity. The United Nations must ensure adequate resources, and train staff in order to meet its stated commitments to gender equality.

In particular, the Justice Department and police will need to be trained and resourced to deal with issues relating to rape and domestic violence. The Ministry of Education should focus adequate resources on girls' education, which is one of the most efficient investments to achieve development. This is particularly true in a country like Iraq, which had high levels of educational attainment and participation of women, but where in recent years illiteracy has risen to around 50%.

Financing: Central to the success of reconstruction, the effectiveness of future Iraqi governments, and the United Nations' role, is the availability of adequate aid, and debt relief, from the international community, particularly before oil revenues expand substantially. The principal protagonists and supporters of this war in Iraq have the onus on them to provide funds necessary for short and long-term reconstruction. Nevertheless, other donor countries that opposed the war will do themselves and the Iraqi people a disservice if they refuse to participate in UN-led support to Iraq.


1. Oxfam Briefing Paper 41, Iraq: Humanitarian-Military Relations , March 2003

2. Estimates of Iraq's debts range from $100 billion to $200 billion, making them amongst the largest in the world.