Preparing for the humanitarian consequences of possible military action against Iraq

Originally published
Christian Aid Submission
To the International Development Committee enquiry


1. Christian Aid is the official relief and development agency of 40 British and Irish churches, working where the need is greatest in 60 countries worldwide and helping communities of all religions and those with none. Christian Aid is also a key member of Action by Churches Together (ACT), a world alliance of church-based humanitarian agencies.

2. Christian Aid's programme in Iraq is located in the autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq. Since 1992 Christian Aid has supported local NGOs in a range of rehabilitation and development activities, focusing on sustainable rural livelihoods, building civil society and promoting human rights in partnership with such local organisations as the Rehabilitation, Education and Community Health Organisation (REACH), the Zakho Small Villages Project (ZSVP), and the Iraqi Kurdish NGO Network (IKNN). Christian Aid is exploring the possibility of working with the Iraqi Refugee Aid Council (IRAC), providing humanitarian assistance to Iraqi refugees in Iran. Christian Aid also supports the Middle East Council of Churches (MECC). Elsewhere in the region, Christian Aid works with partner organisations in Israel, in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT), Lebanon and Egypt. Christian Aid has developed considerable expertise in responding to complex emergencies in the Middle East/Central Asia/Eastern Europe region as a result of our humanitarian response work during the Afghanistan conflict in 2001, in Kosovo in 1999, and through our support for ongoing humanitarian relief operations in the OPT.

3. Christian Aid is deeply concerned about the humanitarian consequences of military action against Iraq for a population dependent on external assistance and on a crumbling infrastructure close to collapse. In view of the possible magnitude of these consequences, we believe it is imperative to seek a peaceful settlement to the current crisis through the UN. We do not believe that the peaceful alternatives to conflict have yet been exhausted.

4. In summary, Christian Aid is responding to the threat of humanitarian crisis in Iraq in four ways.

  • It is lobbying and campaigning to ensure that the UK government and the international community at large fully explore and exhaust all peaceful strategies through the UN to solve the current crisis.

  • It is supporting its partner organisations in northern Iraq and in the Middle East as a whole in their humanitarian response plans.

  • It is making plans to provide humanitarian assistance in the event of war in central and southern Iraq and Baghdad through Iraqi organisations, sister agencies in the ACT family and through the MECC.

  • It is engaging with other humanitarian actors, including the UK government, intergovernmental agencies, and governments in the Middle East region to establish what contingencies they foresee and what plans they are making both for the duration of any conflict and particularly for the post-conflict/rehabilitation phase.
5. Christian Aid's preparations for a potential humanitarian crisis are in accordance with the Code of Conduct for International NGOs in Disaster Relief. This Code advises humanitarian agencies to 'take all possible steps... to prevent or alleviate suffering arising out of conflict and calamity and act with sufficient independence to ensure that impartiality, assistance solely on the basis of need, is realised.'1 The fact that Christian Aid is making contingency plans does not mean that we endorse military action. We shall continue to urge governments to pursue peaceful routes to solving this crisis through the UN, precisely because of our concerns about the serious humanitarians consequences of war.

The humanitarian consequences in Iraq as a whole

6. An over-riding factor for those involved in humanitarian contingency planning is the particularly vulnerable state of the Iraqi population at present, even before a potential war. This vulnerability is the result of 12 years of economic sanctions in addition to the discriminatory nature of Iraqi government policies. Responding to the question of whether humanitarian agencies are exaggerating the impact of war, a representative of the Iraqi Al Amal association recently told Christian Aid, 'If this war goes wrong, it will be absolutely disastrous for the Iraqi population. If it doesn't go wrong, it will still be bad enough. After 12 years of sanctions, the Iraqi population is extremely vulnerable. Even minimum damage from the war would produce immense needs and require huge support from the international community.'

7. Christian Aid emphasises that even if the war itself is short, the humanitarian crisis is likely to last for a considerable length of time, given the war economy in which Iraqis are already living and the dependence on external assistance.

8. Access to food for Iraq's largely urban population is a particular cause for concern. Most of Iraq's food is currently imported under the UN Oil for Food programme and 14-16 million Iraqis2 (two-thirds of the population) now depend on UN rations for their survival. UNICEF3 reports that some 18 million of Iraq's population of 24 million are food insecure and would be particularly vulnerable if the present UN Oil for Food programme is suspended or supply lines are severed. The World Food Programme's assessment4 of food insecurity levels shows that even in low to mid-case scenarios, between 4.9 and 9.6 million people would immediately become vulnerable in the event of conflict in Iraq. This figure would comprise different categories of affected civilians, including war-affected, internally displaced persons (IDPs), asylum seekers, and refugees fleeing into neighbouring countries.

9. It is possible that a large segment of the population will require treatment for traumatic injuries as a result of military action. The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that as many as 500,000 people may need medical treatment.

10. If electricity installations are attacked, access to water and sanitation would become a critical issue as water pumping and treatment stations rely on electricity to function and would cease to operate once back-up generators had run out of fuel.

11. A leaked, unofficial UN report produced in December 2002 (Likely Humanitarian Scenarios, 10 December 2002) estimates that two million people could be internally displaced, some of whom may well become refugees. It predicts that some 900,000 refugees may seek shelter in bordering states, though it acknowledges that numbers of refugees cannot be predicted with any confidence. Christian Aid reminds states bordering on Iraq that they have obligations under international law to provide refuge and assistance to those fleeing a conflict in Iraq. Christian Aid is concerned that many border areas lie in bleak, desert terrain where no infrastructure exists, making the need for adequate preparations for the reception of refugees all the more urgent. Barrier minefields along the Iranian border and along the dividing line with the three northern governorates (laid mainly during the Iran-Iraq war, and by Turkish troops against Kurdish populations in south-east Turkey respectively) present an additional hazard to refugees and IDPs.

Regional repercussions

12. Christian Aid is extremely concerned about the regional repercussions of war across the Middle East. There is a risk of political and economic shocks in neighbouring states and in Israel and the OPT with potentially enormous humanitarian ramifications. The situation is already critical for Palestinian populations in the OPT as indicated in a recent Christian Aid report, Losing Ground (Christian Aid, January 2003). Some Christian Aid partners have voiced fears that the Israeli government will take advantage of the focus on a conflict in Iraq to make day-to-day life in the Palestinian Occupied Territories even more impossible. The current Iraq crisis and the now critical humanitarian crisis in the OPT therefore add even greater urgency to the need to find a peaceful, political solution to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. A key to lasting peace and justice in the Middle East is an end to Israel's illegal occupation of Palestinian territories through a peace process based on international law. The international community must ensure that UN resolutions are upheld by Israel as well as by Iraq.

The humanitarian consequences of military action in northern Iraq: the assessment of Christian Aid partners

13. Christian Aid's assessment of the humanitarian consequences of military action in northern Iraq is based on recent and direct communication with partner organisations in the field. For example, on 27 January Christian Aid held a consultation with 22 local NGOs in Suleimaniyah. This preceded earlier meetings with partner organisations and sister agencies in Jordan and Syria in December 2002.

14. Christian Aid's partner organisations in northern Iraq have indicated that they are not anticipating such severe humanitarian consequences as may occur in central or southern Iraq. Their predictions are based on the assumption that the conflict is likely to focus on the centre and south of Iraq. Nevertheless, they remain extremely concerned about the impact of an imminent war on their lives and are making contingency plans accordingly. They are fearful of a potential pre-emptive attack on the region by Iraqi forces if a military offensive starts, particularly on the three major urban settlements of Suleimaniyah, Dohuk and Erbil. They are worried that such attacks may be chemical or biological. They are also concerned about the Turkish government's role and intentions in the event of a war.

15. Considerable concerns have been expressed about the food security of individual households in northern Iraq, given the levels of dependency on rations delivered under the Oil for Food programme. The World Food Programme (WFP) has distributed food to each household to last three months. It is hoped this will avert a short-term food crisis. After this initial three-month period, there is likely to be a food crisis throughout the country, including northern Iraq, if the distribution system established under the Oil for Food programme breaks down or if the WFP has no means of transferring prepositioned food to where it is needed.

16. The food situation could become more critical in northern Iraq if there is a need to provide for an influx of IDPs from elsewhere in Iraq, in addition to meeting the needs of the existing population in this region. The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan local authority in northern Iraq is preparing for a possible influx of one million IDPs and is setting up ten camps with funds from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR).

17. Water distribution in Iraqi Kurdistan is extremely fragile, partly because of damage inflicted on the distribution system during the 1991 uprising against Saddam Hussein. Any disruption to the system as a result of military action is likely to have severe public health consequences. Nevertheless, improvements to the electrical infrastructure in recent years may mitigate water-related public health problems. Under the Oil for Food programme, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) was responsible for the rehabilitation of the electrical grid in northern Iraq. This involved importing considerable numbers of 50-100 kilowatt generators capable of running localised water distribution. The generators are placed beside pumping stations and artesian wells.

18. Considerable work has been undertaken in recent years to identify local sources of water across Iraqi Kurdistan and to protect local springs which can be run by local community structures to provide clean water and distribute it equitably. A programme currently funded by DFID and administered by Christian Aid has now extended to 102 communities serving 1,054,740 beneficiaries - about a quarter of the population. This work has been carried out mainly by local NGOs and local municipal councils. These sources of water will remain safe and independent so long as the water table is not contaminated by nuclear, chemical or biological agents.

19. Because the water system in Iraqi Kurdistan is now more localised, outbreaks of water-borne diseases and/or other consequences of military action will be easier to contain if the systems for sharing essential health information are good. The information systems will have to rely on community organisations. If there is a breakdown of local government structures, humanitarian agencies need to monitor this information closely.

20. Critical to this is the development of health-preparedness systems, especially the pre-positioning of antibiotics and oral-hydration therapies, and water-testing and chlorination packs. There is considerable local experience of managing these systems.

Christian Aid's humanitarian response

21. Christian Aid remains deeply concerned for the people of central and southern Iraq, especially the Shia populations who may become particular targets of pre-emptive strikes by Saddam Hussein. However, Christian Aid has not been able to work directly with any organisations in central or southern Iraq in recent years. This is because the Iraqi government does not permit organisations working in northern Iraq to operate in government-controlled areas.

22. In the event of a humanitarian crisis arising from war, Christian Aid will provide support wherever it can be of effective help. We will support partner organisations in northern Iraq with the provision of water, sanitation, non-food items, watsan, emergency hard shelters and healthcare for IDPs.

23. Christian Aid's support for REACH will build on an existing community-based water-resource management project funded by DFID. Sanitation facilities are to be upgraded and essential items prepositioned so that identified community-based organisations can provide shelter to some 10,000 displaced people. Christian Aid is also supporting a health training programme coordinated by four local NGOs designed to help local communities mitigate the effects of a potential chemical or biological attack.

24. Funds have been released to the IKNN to cover the operating costs involved in coordinating a local NGO response to a possible humanitarian crisis in northern Iraq for six months.

25. Christian Aid is also funding the Human Rights Development Group to undertake training on international humanitarian law and human rights law in conflict situations. The project will focus on community leaders in 41 community-based organisations in Erbil and Suleimaniya identified as likely to receive displaced people from Baghdad and Baquba.

Christian Aid is in discussion with the MECC, IRAC, and a small number of other organisations with regard to supporting humanitarian and rehabilitation work in central and southern Iraq in the event of war.

The international community's humanitarian response plans

26. An over-riding difficulty for Christian Aid in assessing overall levels of preparedness is the general lack of transparency surrounding the humanitarian response plans of governments and inter-governmental agencies. This appears to be related partly to a reluctance on the part of politicians or officials to give the impression that war is inevitable, and partly to the secrecy surrounding military planning for a potential offensive. We acknowledge that DFID has recently made efforts to share information with UK-based NGOs but are also aware that there is much that DFID is unable to share with us. As a consequence, Christian Aid has a very incomplete picture of the current state of preparedness. Most of our information comes from leaked documents or information reported in the media, or from our discussions with other agencies and partners, both in the UK and in the Middle East region.

27. To some extent, Christian Aid appreciates the sensitive nature of humanitarian planning. Nevertheless, we believe that a greater willingness to share information with NGOs would be in the best interests of all those with legal responsibilities for the welfare of civilians in a potential conflict, including governments. This is because NGOs will have a key, legitimate and recognised role in the rehabilitation and reconstruction phase of any conflict in Iraq.

28. Based on the information available, Christian Aid is deeply concerned by the international community's apparent lack of preparedness to respond to an imminent humanitarian crisis in the event of war in Iraq, given the likely scale of the disaster and an already vulnerable population. A leaked document produced by the UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) on 7 January states that 'all UN agencies have been facing severe funding constraints that are preventing them from reaching even minimum levels of preparedness.' The same report also states that 'the collapse of essential services in Iraq... could lead to a humanitarian emergency of proportions well beyond the capacity of UN agencies and other aid organisations.' The report reveals that in spite of requests to the United States, the UK, and other western governments for emergency aid in case of war, minimal funds had been made available at the time of writing. Christian Aid notes that a meeting called by OCHA in Geneva on 15-16 February and attended by donor governments and humanitarian agencies resulted in some pledges being made to a UN emergency fund for Iraq. Nevertheless, the lack of preparedness, the extremely stretched resources of UN agencies, and the delays in the commitment of emergency funds remain cause for serious concern.

29. In her oral evidence to the Select Committee on 12 February, the Secretary of State echoed OCHA's concerns: 'There is a real problem here of the enormous strains on the international humanitarian system, which are very considerable. We have got so many crises around the world, both in funding and in the capacity of people and institutions to provide food and reach people in need.'

30. With regard to the provision of urgent food aid, Christian Aid notes WFP's reported efforts to preposition stocks in neighbouring countries to feed 900,000 people for ten weeks5. However, if oil installations are bombed, then the current method of paying for food imports from oil revenues under the UN-supervised Oil for Food programme would not apply. The food component of this programme costs US$200 million a month to run. There remains a lack of clarity as to where the funds would come from to pay for an emergency food relief operation for several million people in the absence of oil revenues.

31. In the event of war, coordination between the different entities responsible for providing humanitarian assistance will be essential in order to ensure systematic coverage and complementarity and to avoid duplication of roles and provision. For its own part, Christian Aid is making every effort to coordinate its humanitarian planning with other British NGOs and with organisations and agencies in the Middle East. However, Christian Aid has little information on the extent of coordination amongst governments and official agencies with regard to humanitarian response planning. Given the general pressure to undertake such planning with stretched resources, we remain concerned about the extent of coordination until we have information to the contrary.

32. Christian Aid shares the concerns expressed by the Secretary of State in her oral evidence to the International Development Committee on 12 February with regard to the difficulties that could arise should military action be undertaken without the support of the United Nations Security Council. 'I think these considerations underline the overwhelming case for a Security Council resolution if there is to be action,' she stated. 'The complexity of all of this if there is not a unity internationally will be dreadful and the possibility of things being well prepared will be much more difficult.' If only a handful of countries are involved in a war on Iraq, Christian Aid questions the capacity of these countries to respond to a humanitarian crisis on the scale that may unfold and wonders whether countries not engaged in the military action will be prepared to contribute to a humanitarian response in these circumstances.

The role of the military in providing humanitarian assistance

33. In her oral evidence to the International Development Select Committee on 12 February, the Secretary of State indicated that in the initial phase of any conflict, the humanitarian response may have to be coordinated by military forces. 'The possible use of chemical and biological weapons is enormously complicated,' she explained. 'I think it is highly likely, if that were to happen and civilians were to be hurt that the military would have to provide help and support for people who had been hurt... You could get order breaking down, which is very difficult for humanitarian systems to operate in. Those are some of the very difficult scenarios where again you would expect military personnel to be the first providers of basic food and order and care for people.'

34. The Secretary of State also emphasised that she did not believe there would be a role for NGOs in the initial phase of military action. She explained that this was partly because NGOs could not be party to confidential military plans that would enable them to make appropriate and detailed humanitarian response plans, and partly because she did not feel NGOs had the capacity to respond on the scale that would be required or to respond to possible chemical or biological attacks. Christian Aid agrees with the Secretary of State that NGOs like ourselves and the partner organisations we support do not have the experience or capacity required if non-conventional weapons are used. However, Christian Aid disagrees with the argument that NGOs do not have the capacity to provide humanitarian relief in major conflict situations. On the contrary, Christian Aid has considerable experience of responding to humanitarian needs in a large number of conflicts over many years.

35. Given that humanitarian relief may be initially under primary if not the sole control of military forces, Christian Aid would like to draw the Committee's attention to some basic principles that should be applied to the military's role. In general circumstances, it is never appropriate for the military to directly implement humanitarian activities. This principle has been widely accepted by both humanitarian agencies and key military policymakers. (See Draft Guidelines on the Use of Military and Civil Defence Assets to Support United National Humanitarian Activities in Complex Emergencies prepared by the Secretariat of the Oslo Guidelines Process, Sept 2001).

36. Only in exceptional circumstances is it appropriate for the military to directly implement humanitarian activities, for which there must be specific criteria. Such 'exceptional circumstances' may apply to a war in Iraq, particularly if chemical or biological weapons are used. But even in these exceptional circumstances, it is questionable whether a humanitarian response undertaken by the military forces of one or more warring parties can ever be impartial. In such circumstances, the aid and the interaction with the civilian population around its delivery can become an integrated part of the military campaign.

37. Therefore, if circumstances are such that humanitarian operations have to be undertaken by military forces, it is essential that these operations are undertaken in close coordination with UN humanitarian agencies and that this arrangement is for as short a time as possible. Operations must pass to civilian agencies as soon as circumstances allow.

38. Christian Aid has reservations concerning the establishment and role of the Humanitarian Operations Centre (HOC) in Kuwait. While it may prove a logistical necessity for the US military to construct refugee camps, subsequent humanitarian efforts should be co-ordinated by a neutral body and not by an organisation such as HOC which is closely linked to US military operations. Christian Aid regards the United Nations' Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs as an appropriate body for the coordination of humanitarian operations.

The future of Iraq

39. In the long term, Christian Aid believes that the Iraqi people must be allowed to create their own political and economic development models and their own strategies for tackling poverty. Most importantly, Iraqis must be able to participate in designing and implementing development plans at community levels.

40. The international community must actively engage in promoting and supporting a democratic and pluralistic society in Iraq, free from internal repression and without external interference. It should give its support to political settlements which address Iraq's internal conflicts and which guarantee the human rights of the different ethnic groups within Iraq's borders.


41. In view of the potential humanitarian consequences for an already vulnerable population, we believe it is imperative to seek a peaceful settlement to the current crisis through the UN. We do not believe that the peaceful alternatives to conflict have yet been exhausted.

42. Humanitarian considerations must be given greater attention by governments and by the United Nations Security Council and must be taken into account fully before a decision is made to wage war on the Saddam Hussein regime.

43. If a decision is taken to wage a war on Iraq, either unilaterally or by the United Nations, the governments involved in such a war must abide by their obligations under international humanitarian law and the Geneva Conventions.

44. In accordance with international humanitarian law, civilians and installations essential to the survival of civilians must not be targeted. All possible measures must be taken to avoid civilian casualties. The humanitarian needs of the civilian population during and after the conflict must be met. Food aid and essential items for survival such as medicines, water and shelter must be provided to all those in need on all sides of the conflict.

45. In accordance with the position of the Steering Committee for Humanitarian Response (SCHR)6 endorsed by Christian Aid, and based on our experience in Afghanistan in 2001 and in complex emergencies elsewhere, Christian Aid recommends that military resources should only be called for when all of the following criteria are met: a. there is no other humanitarian option; b. there is a significant level of need, as determined by civilian agencies, including the UN; c. assets and interventions should, if possible, remain under civilian control; interventions are clearly time-bound; d. humanitarian agencies must avoid operating under the command of the military, for this violates the core principle of independence.

46. In these 'exceptional circumstances', it should be recognised that the military is only playing a humanitarian role until the appropriate agencies can take over. The period of military management of humanitarian operations should both last for a very short time and be handed over to civilian management as soon as it is in place. Christian Aid recommends that coordination of the humanitarian response is undertaken by UN agencies as soon as possible, and that they are supported and funded to play this role.

47. Those involved in humanitarian planning should ensure that as far as possible, there is coherence between short-term relief and long-term development. For example, the international community should do everything possible to avoid undermining the local economy by creating aid dependency. Relief, reconstruction and development must make full use of local resources.

48. The international community must give due attention to the long-term implications of war for the civilian population. Plans affecting the future of Iraq must address the long-term needs of the Iraqi people and include a strategy for poverty eradication and the defence and promotion of human rights and democracy.

49. There is a need to ensure that ongoing humanitarian crises elsewhere in the world - whether in southern Africa, Ethiopia, Afghanistan or the Occupied Palestinian Territories - are not forgotten and that there is no diversion of resources from other crises to Iraq.

50. As a matter of urgency, the international community must seek a peaceful resolution of the escalating conflict between I