NGO press conference on humanitarian situation in Iraq

Press Briefing
Iraq's public health and food distribution system would collapse in the event of a military intervention there, causing a humanitarian crisis far beyond the capacity of the United Nations and relief agencies, according to a report by the New York-based Center for Economic and Social Rights (CESR), released at a Headquarters press conference this morning.

The report's main finding was that the international community was unprepared for the humanitarian disaster that would likely follow a war in Iraq. It called on the Security Council to deal with the critical questions of humanitarian concern before taking any decision on a military action against the country.

(The Council was to be briefed today on the contingency plans the United Nations had made to deal with the potential humanitarian consequences of war against Iraq).

The report's main findings included the assertion that the Iraqi population was far more vulnerable now to the shocks of war than it had been in 1991, having been reduced after 12 years of sanctions to a state of dependency on government and international aid. The Iraqi people would be in much greater need of humanitarian assistance in the event of another war.

Roger Normand, Executive Director of the Center, said the human rights organization had had experience in Iraq since 1991. It was part of a Harvard team that had visited Iraq three weeks after the Gulf war of that year and had reported on the public health catastrophe resulting from the conflict. Representatives of the Center had gone back to Iraq four times since then. Most recently, a high-level scientific team had gone there from 17 to 30 January this year and had assessed the probable consequences of war in Iraq. Mr. Normand said that most of the interviews had been conducted by the team without Iraqi "minders" present. He stressed that the Center was not a pacifist or anti-war organization. It based all its findings and conclusions on the United Nations Charter and international law.

The team members had gone into the mission with different opinions about the Iraqi issue. They, however, concluded that the cost of resorting to force would be unacceptably high. They opposed the use of force on humanitarian grounds, and believed it was impossible to conduct the war without doing extraordinary damage to innocent women and children.

Dr. Sarah Zaidi, Research Director of the Center, also said that in the event of war, non-governmental organizations, international relief agencies and the United Nations would not be able to respond to the humanitarian needs of the population, particularly if the kinds of weaponry being mentioned in the press were used. United Nations and other international staff would be pulled out of the country, and no one would have access to the Iraqi population.

She said that rather than supplementing parallel structures, emphasis should be placed on using existing health-care systems and rehabilitating destroyed ones. She urged coordination between United States authorities and the relevant non-governmental organizations about post-conflict reconstruction work. The warring parties in the possible conflict must respect international humanitarian law.

She urged that information about humanitarian preparations should be shared with the humanitarian agencies, noting that a lack of such sharing was impeding efforts for the development of an effective emergency response. She also said that those agencies and the non-governmental organizations should be allowed access to the country in the event of conflict.