Joint statement by Refugees International and the International Rescue Committee

Avoiding a Humanitarian Catastrophe in Iraq
A joint statement by By Kenneth H. Bacon, President, Refugees International and George Rupp, President, International Rescue Committee

With war in Iraq increasingly likely, the preparations for the humanitarian consequences of the conflict are woefully inadequate. Lack of funding, U.S. sanctions on the operations of humanitarian agencies in Iraq, and an understandable reluctance by the United Nations to accept war as inevitable have left humanitarian planning lagging, with potentially catastrophic consequences. The United States must publicly commit to respecting international humanitarian law and to providing the resources required to address the needs resulting from a war.

The UN estimates that in the "medium impact scenario" -- a two to three month conflict involving ground troops -- 1.45 million refugees and asylum seekers will try to reach neighboring countries, 900,000 people will be newly displaced within Iraq, and 4.9 million people will require emergency food assistance. Yet very little money has been spent to preposition supplies and relief workers to meet humanitarian needs.

The contrast between the military and humanitarian preparations is stark. The U.S. has already spent more than $2.1 billion to position troops in the Gulf. Yet last month the UN High Commissioner for Refugees was not able to raise $60 million to preposition essential supplies for 600,000 refugees.

Understanding the current vulnerabilities of the Iraqi population is essential to analyzing the potential humanitarian impact of the looming conflict. The decade of UN-imposed sanctions has left approximately 16 million Iraqis dependent on government rations for their entire food supply under the UN Oil-for-Food program; most of the remaining eight million Iraqis rely on government rations for a portion of their daily food basket. Inability to get spare parts to refurbish water treatment and electric generation plants has resulted in the degradation of water supply and sewage systems for Iraq's urbanized society. Hospitals and clinics suffer from chronic shortages of medicines and equipment. The UN Children's Fund estimates that more than two million Iraqi children will require therapeutic feeding in the event of a conflict.

The dependence of most Iraqis on government-distributed food rations raises the question of how the population's basic needs will be met when government operations and transport and storage infrastructure are disrupted or destroyed by war.

Because the humanitarian infrastructure in Iraq is extremely limited, the American military will have to assume a major humanitarian role during and immediately after a conflict. During the war itself, the UN will evacuate international staff and access will be restricted. That will leave about 3,200 Iraqi employees of UN agencies and the International Committee of the Red Cross to organize a partial response to the needs of the population. As the war progresses, however, even zones that become relatively secure could face a vacuum of assistance created by the lack of funding for humanitarian preparations and the paucity of relief capacity in Iraq.

Is the United States and its military prepared for the immense humanitarian responsibility that the war in Iraq would entail? All indications are that humanitarian planning by the U.S. military has been playing catch-up with the war planners. There has been no meaningful public discussion of how the U.S. is prepared to exercise its humanitarian responsibilities in the event of war. Now is the time for this discussion, and for the Bush Administration to make commitments that would reassure the people of Iraq and neighboring countries and support preparations by the UN and relief agencies.

The Administration must be explicit about what tasks the military will perform and what tasks will be the responsibility of the UN humanitarian system and non-governmental organizations. President Bush has said that soldiers are war fighters, not nation builders. This makes clear that the U.S. should leave as much humanitarian and reconstruction work as possible to civilians. The U.S. must also outline plans for maintaining rule of law in the aftermath of the conflict. Restoring law and order and preventing ethnic violence will be crucial to establishing the stability necessary to distribute humanitarian aid and begin reconstruction.

As the initiator of the conflict and as the occupying power in the event of victory, the U.S. will be practically and legally responsible for the well being of millions of vulnerable Iraqi civilians.

The Bush Administration has gone out of its way to show that it is ready to fight and win a war to disarm Iraq. The U.S. must demonstrate equal determination to accept the humanitarian responsibilities that this war will entail.

Contact Information: Ken Bacon, RI President at 202-828-0110 or and Melissa Winkler, Director of Communications, 212-551-0972;