IRC briefs Senate on lack of preparedness to respond to disaster in Iraq


Sandra Mitchell, the IRC's vice president, government relations, testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee today on the alarming lack of preparedness for emergency relief operations and reconstruction efforts in the event of a war in Iraq.
Oral Testimony

Senate Foreign Relations Committee
Humanitarian and Reconstruction Hearing on Iraq
Remarks of Sandra Mitchell
IRC Vice President, Govt. Relations
11 March 2003

As prepared

Mr. Chairman and Members of the Committee,

Thank you for the opportunity to talk about the state of a humanitarian response to the consequences of military action against Iraq. I have submitted my statement for the record and will take this opportunity to highlight four issues requiring immediate action to improve the state of preparedness. They are access, funding, coordination and plans to avoid humanitarian crises after a war and during a US led occupation.

1. Access

The humanitarian community must have unhindered access to Iraq and its border countries to strengthen response capacity. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and faith based organizations do the heavy lifting during an emergency - we build refugee camps, provide fresh water, distribute food and medicine and then we help rebuild communities when the fighting stops. UNHCR, UNICEF, WFP, WHO, USAID, State/BPRM, the EU, and other donors depend on us as their implementing partners and when they look around Iraq and the border countries right now they see very few operational NGOs.

UN and US sanctions have kept all but a handful of NGOs out of Iraq and the region. For the past six months IRC and other NGOs have been waiting for the US government to grant licenses that would allow us to conduct emergency planning activities inside Iraq and Iran. The licenses are only now forthcoming and they are restrictive - they do not allow humanitarian agencies to freely assess conditions on the ground and then take whatever actions are required.

Given the overall inadequate state of humanitarian preparedness such licensing procedures are obstructive and must be suspended to facilitate unhindered access of international and American assistance into Iraq before, during and after any intervention. The government of Iraq must also grant unhindered access to humanitarian relief agencies - Iraq is currently obstructing aid preparations by denying visas to aid workers and delaying imports of relief supplies.

2. Resources

Less than one million dollars has been spent by the United States government to support nongovernmental aid agencies who will do most of the work to aid refugees and displaced persons in Iraq, if war comes. Less than one million dollars to support American organizations preparing to respond to the humanitarian consequences of a war backed by 250,000 US soldiers with grave risks to their own lives if weapons of mass destruction are unleashed.

The United Nations and the humanitarian communities are struggling to put in place the kind of operational and logistical framework that can support relief efforts if populations inside Iraq flee - either from fear, from attack, or from weapons of mass destruction. Having received less than one million dollars from the US government NGOs are having to rely on the generosity of private contributions from the American people. Unfortunately these alone are not sufficient. Funds have not been available from the United Nations or other traditional government donors either. The UN funding appeal for it's own contingency preparedness remains unfilled so the UN has no ability to boost the capacity of implementing partners.

Where is the Iraq supplemental? Where are the funds, needed right now, to meet the needs of Iraqis if war breaks out. The humanitarian funding must be de-linked from the political and military issues of war. USAID and the State Department's Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration traditionally work with the United Nations and humanitarian community and their offices provide funding for the care of refugees and displaced persons in countries all over the world. These funding mechanisms must now come online quickly. We finally heard from the Administration last week when aid agencies were asked to submit operational concept papers. The filing deadline was yesterday but where is the funding? "New" money is needed for the humanitarian consequences of war in Iraq, it would be wrong to scrub existing humanitarian accounts when there remains urgent unmet humanitarian needs throughout the world.

More de-linking of the humanitarian plans from the war plans is required to save lives. I understand that USAID must coordinate with the military and rely on ground forces to provide security and that the government's humanitarian response will likely have a military flavor. That is not an uncommon response by a country planning for war. But the same military tint must not color the response launched by the international and American humanitarian aid communities. More funding must be spent now to support the humanitarian efforts of the United Nations and to its implementing partners or insufficient response capacity will remain in place.

3. Coordination

On the issue of coordinating relief efforts, it must be noted that a humanitarian crisis already exists in Iraq. For more than a decade the world's largest humanitarian relief effort has been underway throughout Iraq. The United Nations Oil for Food Program has been the lifeline for 60% of the Iraqi population or an estimated 16 million people. This is a massive distribution network for food and medicine with more than 46,000 distribution points. Logistically it is the largest and most complex relief effort underway anywhere in the world. In the event of military action the United Nations will withdraw international staff, interrupting the Oil for Food system which can quickly collapse if the food supply pipeline or the distribution network is then disrupted by war. Maritime insurance rates are already spiking and risks increase daily for food shipments navigating their way to Iraqi ports past the US Naval fleet and ground forces. The United Nations top humanitarian official for Iraq said 2 weeks ago that food stocks and supplies being pre-positioned are insufficient for the known needs of Iraq.

Iraq's emergency response capacity will weaken during conflict and cannot provide for the humanitarian needs of it's 25 million people.

US planning has so embedded humanitarian tasks and activities with the military war plan that vital information remains classified and meaningful dialogue continues to be muffled and one-directional. Coordination of emergency relief efforts is best handled by civilians and preferable on a multilateral basis by the United Nations. Coordinating a humanitarian response must also be de-linked as much as possible from any planned military response against Iraq. Recently the administration stated its willingness to separate the humanitarian issues from the political issues facing North Korea, the same should be done for Iraq. This is best accomplished by US support for all necessary actions that grant the United Nations clear authority for coordinating and mounting a humanitarian response that is inclusive of all its implementing partners. I'd like to emphasize this point and explain from the humanitarian community's perspective why UN authority and civilian oversight of humanitarian activities is so important.

First, The military should do what it does best - fight wars - and humanitarian organizations should do what we do best - care for civilians and deliver assistance to those in need;

Second, Humanitarian assistance must be provided on an impartial basis to insure that all civilians in need (regardless of race, creed, nationality or political belief) have fair and equal access to aid. The UN is clearly more independent and impartial than any one party to the conflict and therefore should coordinate and direct relief efforts;

And third, confusing humanitarian and military activities carries great security risks for those delivering assistance. Aid workers obviously are not armed, cannot defend themselves and must never be mistaken for members of the military. Their lives depend on it. On this point I would like to call your attention to the continued abduction of Arjan Erkel a Dutch humanitarian worker abducted seven months ago in Dagistan. We see Mr. Erkel's case as part of an increase in violence against civilian populations and against humanitarian aid workers trying to assist victims of conflict. Please join the humanitarian community in asking the Russian authorities to give their highest political commitment to assure the release of Arjan Erkel.

I'd like to conclude with some steps the U.S. must be prepared to take to avoid humanitarian crises after war.

4. Planning to Avoid Humanitarian Crises After War

We have seen no plans on how the Bush Administration plans to protect Iraqi civilians after an intervention and while transitional institutions are stood up. The US government should be formulating plans now to transfer power as quickly as feasible to legitimate civilian structures in Iraq. The Fourth Geneva Convention, of which the US is a signatory, sets forth essential steps that occupying powers must take in order to avoid humanitarian crises. These steps hinge on the United States protecting the rights of Iraqi civilians in Iraq the same way it does for the American people. These duties are obligatory upon first contact with Iraqi civilians and they require more than providing the basic needs of food, medicine, water and shelter.

Grave humanitarian concerns will continue to befall Iraq the "day after" the regime falls. Of critical importance to any provision of humanitarian aid for Iraq is public order and security. Delivery of humanitarian assistance cannot be assured in areas that are not secure. As Saddam's regime falls, the internal security framework will collapse and conditions for lawlessness and impunity will ripen. Security vacuums will appear. Under the Geneva Conventions the United States will have the duty to restore and ensure public order and safety in Iraq. This duty requires the United States and its allies to use their own personnel to provide a safe environment and ensure public order as they advance into Iraq. These forces must transition quickly to policing functions and fill any security vacuum that exists to leave no space for reprisal and revenge. The Geneva Conventions also require the United States to promote the rule of law and ensures that basic judicial and due process guarantees exist for all Iraqis. As a signatory of the Geneva Conventions the United States will be expected to fulfill all these obligations.

It will be critical that US forces correctly identify and protect vulnerable populations and communities that may be most at risk. USAID's Disaster Assistance Response Teams and Office of Transition Initiatives are well suited to identify and assess the immediate protection needs of the Iraqi population and they should be encouraged to do so. I understand that Senator Biden is crafting legislation to address the protection needs of women and children in armed conflict. I urge the Committee members to support this legislation because it will focus USAID and the State Departments' response to the protection needs of conflict affected populations, which are equally as important as food and shelter.

My final comment concerns the state of preparedness for responding to the humanitarian consequences of weapons of mass destruction. Nothing has really been done to coordinate a planned response to help Iraqis if weapons of mass destruction are released upon them. There is no capacity in the international or American humanitarian community to respond to emergencies involving WMD. We don't know what the capacity is of the US military to help in such a case - a serious discussion of this question remains to be held.

Thank you.

For further information, contact:
Sandra Mitchell, Vice President Government Relations 202-822-0166, extension 10

For the statement she filed in advance with the committee click . (pdf* format -- 125 KB)