Refugees International: U.S. unprepared for humanitarian obligations of Iraq occupation

News and Press Release
Originally published
Powerful Voice for Lifesaving Action
If the U.S. invades and quickly conquers Iraq, it will immediately assume obligations to feed and protect the 24 million people there. As the occupying power, the U.S. will have specific obligations under international humanitarian law, in a country where the vulnerability of the civilian population is already high after years of war and international sanctions. U.S. humanitarian preparations do not at this stage match its potential obligations.

Both the U.S. and Iraq are party to the Geneva Convention (IV) Relative to the Protection of Civilians in Time of War (August 1949). Given the likelihood of the rapid collapse of Iraqi military resistance in the face of an invasion in areas outside Baghdad, the Articles of the Convention of particular relevance to the U.S. concern the humanitarian obligations of the Occupying Power. The Fourth Geneva Convention enjoins the Occupying Power to:

  • Ensure food and medical supplies for the civilian population, especially if the resources of the occupied territory are inadequate, employing the "fullest extent of the means available to it." (Article 55)

  • Ensure the effective operation of medical services, including hospitals and public health programs, with special focus on preventing the spread of contagious diseases and epidemics, and allow medical personnel to carry out their duties. (Article 56)

  • Facilitate relief programs for the civilian population "by all the means at its disposal." (Article 59)

  • Maintain "preferential measures in regards to food, medical care, and protection" in favor of children under 15 years, expectant mothers, and mothers of children under seven. (Article 50)

  • Maintain all institutions devoted to the care and education of children. (Article 50)

  • Facilitate access of humanitarian personnel. (Article 30)

  • Neither the U.S. nor Iraq is a party to the Protocol I of the Geneva Conventions, which further elaborates the obligations of states to protect the victims of international armed conflicts. Aspects of Protocol I, however, have been accepted as part of customary law. Protocol I mandates the following additional humanitarian obligations of the Occupying Power: the provision of "clothing, bedding, means of shelter, [and] other supplies essential to the survival of the civilian population." (Article 69)
RI believes that the U.S. is aware of its obligations under international humanitarian law. We are concerned, however, that U.S. humanitarian preparations fall well short of the threshold required for the U.S. to meet these obligations. With the UN planning to evacuate in the event of hostilities and NGO capacity in Iraq and the wider region extremely limited, there will be a humanitarian vacuum that the U.S. will have a responsibility to fill. The prospect of a quick handover to the UN and NGOs to take care of the Iraqi population is illusory.


The contingency planning of the UN World Food Program (WFP) calls for the capacity to provide emergency assistance to 4.9 million Iraqis in the immediate aftermath of an invasion. The planning document of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) for post-conflict Iraq acknowledges the need for U.S.-purchased rations to service distribution through government channels for three months.

These plans require the distribution of approximately 80,000 metric tons of wheat within the first month of a U.S. invasion and 410,000 tons each month to provide full rations to the Iraqi civilian population thereafter.

Nowhere near this quantity of food is ready to be shipped into Iraq as soon as hostilities cease. The White House Fact Sheet on Humanitarian Assistance Preparations for Iraq, released on February 24th, states that 2.89 million Humanitarian Daily Rations have been pre-positioned, but makes no other mention of stockpiling food. The UN has told RI in Kuwait that WFP has been able to amass enough food in the region to feed two million people for one month.

The UN Oil-for-Food program has been feeding the population of Iraq through a government distribution system, with 16 million people wholly dependent on these rations. While the government has organized advance distributions, and an unknown quantity of food is in the Oil-for-Food pipeline, RI believes that the U.S. must prepare for the worst case that no food stocks are readily available from the existing ration system.

RI estimates that the cost of covering the gap for the immediate post-conflict emergency phase, focusing solely on the wheat portion of the monthly ration and assuming a cost of $450 per metric ton to get wheat to Iraq, is $22 million. This is a pittance compared to the cost of the military preparations, but the funds need to be authorized immediately for purchase and delivery. Supporting the grain component of the food ration system for 24 million Iraqis for two months will cost approximately $400 million. The U.S. has yet to admit that funding at this level for humanitarian needs will be required, much less authorize the expenditure of funds for this purpose.


The health care system of Iraq is already in a weakened state. According to USAID, there are only 9,400 physicians for a population of 25 million. Government expenditure on health has been limited. As the result of the poor state of the health system and the effects of two decades of war and sanctions on the civilian population, under-five mortality rose from 56 per 1,000 live births in the late 1980s to 131 per 1,000 a decade later. Infant mortality also more than doubled during the same period.

The United Nations December report, "Likely Humanitarian Scenarios," estimates that emergency requirements in the event of war will include health supplies to treat 1.23 million highly vulnerable people. Supplies will also be required to cater to the on-going needs of 5.4 million people, the UN estimate for the number of civilians who will quickly fall under U.S. control as the invading forces sweep from Kuwait towards Baghdad.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has the expertise and mandate to respond to health emergencies in the midst of conflict. Their personnel are expected to remain in Iraq after the onset of the invasion. The ICRC will thus be the humanitarian point of contact for the U.S. military on medical care for the civilian population. The U.S. must ensure that the ICRC is fully prepared and adequately funded to provide medical relief to Iraqi civilians.

Perhaps the greatest contribution that the U.S. military can make to maintaining public health in Iraq during and after an invasion is to avoid further damage to Iraq's electrical grid. The majority of Iraqis depend on potable water and sewage systems that in turn rely on electricity. Generation capacity is already badly degraded as a legacy of the first Gulf War. Further damage in the conflict would deprive millions of urban dwellers of access to clean water, leading to epidemics of preventable diseases such as diarrhea, typhoid, cholera, and respiratory infections.

Care for the Especially Vulnerable

The obligation to maintain "preferential measures in regards to food, medical care, and protection" in favor of children under 15 years, expectant mothers, and mothers of children under seven will be especially challenging in the immediate aftermath of the war. UNICEF estimates that more than two million Iraqi children will require therapeutic feeding in the event of a conflict. UNICEF is planning to provide nutrition assistance to 700,000 pregnant and lactating women.

From the standpoint of the U.S. as the occupying power in Iraq, the critical requirement will be to use the "fullest extent of the means available to it" to ensure that humanitarian agencies will be able to provide care for the especially vulnerable. The immediate issue is the necessity of providing adequate funds to UNICEF and NGOs to pre-position therapeutic feeding supplies in the region. Once the conflict starts, and areas begin to be secure, the U.S. will be able to assist by identifying and securing locations where vulnerable people can be cared for and by providing transport for the necessary supplies.

Access of Humanitarian Personnel

The Afghanistan experience suggests that access for humanitarian personnel is an area of potential concern in the Iraq war. The U.S. military was very clear to NGOs from the outset of the war in Afghanistan that its objective was to destroy the Taliban and Al Qaeda and that ensuring humanitarian access would be, at best, a consequence of greater security in the country, not the result of specific operations intended to facilitate humanitarian work.

RI expects the military to take a similar approach in Iraq. The problem is that the imperative to defeat Saddam Hussein's government and to find and decommission weapons of mass destruction will be so consuming that a local-level security vacuum may be created in areas that the military sweeps through. Local policing and security for humanitarian workers are unlikely to be priorities for the U.S. military, but little Iraqi policing capability will survive the destruction of the government. This will create instability at the local level that will impede effective relief efforts.

RI believes that the U.S. must make provisions to provide security for humanitarian personnel and operations. This task includes guarding relief supply warehouses and food distribution points; escorting convoys of high value relief supplies; demining key access routes and locations where civilians are seeking safety; assuring area security where relief workers must operate, either through direct civil policing or supporting reliable local police forces.

Refugees International, therefore, recommends the following actions to the United States to meet its obligations as the occupying power under the Fourth Geneva Convention in the event of war in Iraq:

  • Ship wheat to the region and provide immediate additional funding to the World Food Program to ensure adequate food supplies for the Iraqi population in the aftermath of the war.

  • Provide immediate additional funding to the International Committee of the Red Cross, UNICEF, and NGOs to position medical and therapeutic feeding supplies in the region.

  • Prepare to provide security to facilitate relief efforts in areas of Iraq under U.S. control.
Joel R. Charny is Vice President for Policy of Refugees International.

Contact: Joel R. Charny, or 202.828.0110

1705 N Street, NW
Washington, DC 20036
202.828.0819 fax