Press briefing on humanitarian preparations for Iraq

Press Briefing
The Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, Kenzo Oshima, this afternoon reiterated the Secretary-General's belief that inspections can work and that all avenues should be explored to find a peaceful solution to the current crisis over the country's disarmament question.

He was speaking at a press conference following the informal briefing the Deputy Secretary-General, Louise Fréchette, gave Security Council members today on the United Nations' humanitarian preparedness planning for a potential conflict in Iraq. The Deputy Secretary-General chairs a Steering Group on Iraq which helps coordinate United Nations' activities in relation to that country.

Mr. Oshima said the Secretary-General continued to believe that war was not inevitable. Contingency planning by the Organization should not be misconstrued as anything to the contrary. He underlined the responsibility of the United Nations to be ready for any contingency in Iraq, as, indeed, anywhere else. It was a matter of prudence that the Organization did so. It had to be recognized that conflict might occur and might cause terrible loss and suffering to the Iraqi people. Prudent preparatory measures were, therefore, necessary to address the potential humanitarian impact.

He outlined the humanitarian context of the planning - which was stressed by the Deputy Secretary-General to the Council members. Dwelling on the current humanitarian situation in Iraq, he said that relevant statistics - generally well known - showed that 1 million children under five were chronically malnourished; and 5 million Iraqis lacked access to safe water and sanitation. The population was dependent on the Government for basic needs, and services provided by the Government.

He said food rations provided an essential lifeline to the entire population through the "oil-for-food" programme. Eighty per cent of average household income depended on food provided by the programme. Sixty per cent of the population relied solely on the food basket to meet all household needs. Household food reserves were expected to last for no more than six weeks. Many poor families were reportedly selling additional supplies that were being distributed.

It was difficult to predict with any degree of certainty what the humanitarian consequences of a conflict would be, he said, and added that it would depend on the nature, intensity and duration of the conflict. The United Nations' humanitarian role would be to alleviate suffering and provide life-saving assistance. Parties to the conflict would be expected to meet their obligations to protect and assist civilians under international humanitarian law, he said.

The Deputy Secretary-General had also provided the Security Council members with some key planning assumptions and figures, according to Mr. Oshima. For planning purposes, a medium-case scenario had been assumed, including the fact that conflict would severely disrupt critical infrastructure and the Iraqi Government's capacity to deliver basic services and relief, including the food ration. There might be shortage of fuel and power in urban areas, which would result in water and sewage treatment plants being shut down. Up to 10 million people might require food assistance during and immediately after the conflict.

Those would include internally displaced persons and refugees and the general civilian population.

Approximately 50 per cent of the population might be without access to potable water, he continued. It was assumed that about 2 million people would be internally displaced. He also said that the conflict might also be between 600,000 and 1.45 million refugees and asylum seekers.

The Deputy Secretary-General, said Mr. Oshima, also gave the Security Council members an overview of preparedness measures taken to date, especially the prepositioning of limited stocks inside Iraq and in neighbouring countries, carried out by the various United Nations agencies. The stocks included food for 250,000 beneficiaries for 10 weeks against an initial target figure of 900,000 beneficiaries. Other items were hygiene and emergency water and sanitation supplies for about 300,000 people; and high-protein biscuits for 240,000 children distributed to hospitals and health-care centres. Emergency health kits for 240,000, against a target of 1 million people. As regards refugees, winter kits, including shelter material, for 118,000 people were in place. Supplies for 350,000 had been ordered and should be in place by the end of March. The overall target for UNHCR's prepositioning was enough supplies for 600,000 people.

United Nations agencies had deployed emergency field personnel around the region and opened sub-offices in key border locations or were in the process of doing so.

As regards funding, he said donors were approached in mid-December with an initial request of $37.4 million for a minimum level of preparedness, and as of now, some $30 million had been pledged. It was now necessary for a higher level of preparedness to be reached which would require additional funding. The funding requirement had consequently been revised to a total of about $120 million, including the initial $37 million originally requested. Mr. Oshima stressed that the figure was only for preparedness measures. A flash appeal would be issued should conflict occur.

He said constraints and concerns expressed to the Council included - apart from the funding requirements - the evacuation of international staff in the event of conflict. There would be enough staff to operate in Iraq until the last moment, with the goal being to return them as soon as conditions permitted. The absence of international staff during the acute conflict phase would be a severe constraint on the humanitarian operations inside the country.

Another constraint would be in the inability to reach internally displaced persons and others that might be left behind, he said. The United Nations was working closely with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) on that issue. He also noted the very limited capacity for humanitarian operations in the south and centre of the country, noting that there were very few non-governmental organizations operating in the country.

One crucial factor related to the duration of the disruption of the ration-distributing system in the event of conflict, he added. Under the current system, the quantity of food distributed through the government network was 460,000 tons per month, almost four times the highest amount delivered during the Afghanistan crisis. The length and extent of the possible disruption of the food distribution system under the current oil-for-food programme would have a major impact on the extent of humanitarian needs and the number of people forced to leave their homes.

During the question-and-answer session, he said the agencies had not engaged in any kind of detailed operational discussions with military authorities. If and when the country was occupied, an Occupying Power would have certain obligations under international humanitarian law, particularly the Geneva Conventions, to ensure that civilians under occupation were provided with food and medicine. There were other related obligations, and how those would be ensured depended on what actually happened. There were many imponderables. What was important was that there should be minimum disruption of the food system, given its importance.

He told a questioner that a coordination system had been established within the United Nations family about all aspects of the contingency planning and funding issues. The United Nations could not predict the number of people who might be injured or killed in the event of war in Iraq, he said. It would be expected that parties to the conflict would protect civilians.

He again said there had been no detailed consultations with some of the parties, but limited engagement with some military authorities. The humanitarian agencies would have to maintain contacts, as in any conflict, with the parties should hostilities begin in Iraq. The agencies had faced funding problems and had been dipping into their own limited funds. The situation was serious, hence, the initial appeal that had been launched. He again said they would soon be approaching the donors for urgent additional funding.