Remarks by MOS Tom Kitt, TD, on Ireland's response to the Humanitarian Situation in Iraq

News and Press Release
Originally published
Dáil Debate on Iraq 20 March, 2003

Ireland has a very strong international reputation for responding generously to emergency and humanitarian crises globally and remains ready to respond to the humanitarian needs of the most vulnerable Iraqis in the coming days and weeks. We will be carefully monitoring the humanitarian situation in Iraq in order to gauge the precise needs of those directly affected.

As Minister for Overseas Development Cooperation and Human Rights, I have been closely following the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Iraq under the regime of Saddam Hussein. Our ongoing humanitarian assistance to Iraq has been targeted at relief programmes in nutrition, water and sanitation, rehabilitation of health services and assistance for Iraqi refugees in neighbouring Iran. Our partners in Iraq include Trocaire, the International Committee of the Red Cross and Red Crescent and UNICEF.

As a result of Ireland Aid's humanitarian experience to date I have initiated a number of funding initiatives with key UN and NGO partners to enable them respond in a timely manner to emergency humanitarian situations.

In 2003 Ireland has already contributed €6.8 million to the UN High Commission for Refugees and €8 million to UNICEF for their global operations. These funds are deliberately unearmarked to ensure that they can be utilised quickly and effectively for emergency and humanitarian planning and rapid responses by these key UN agencies. €750,000 was released to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Activities (UNOCHA) to facilitate that agency to plan for prioritised humanitarian emergencies. Ireland is one of the only donors to have fully funded its 2003 pledges to these agencies. Our early funding provides much needed cash-flow for these agencies at a time when they need it most.

In addition last month I approved funding of half a million Euro in support of start up costs of key Irish NGOs. This will now enable them to respond to major humanitarian emergencies in a more effective and timely manner. While it is up to the NGOs to decide the extent to which they might wish to respond to the Iraqi situation, they now have the resources available to either engage or scale up their response to this crisis.

The overall Ireland Aid budget for humanitarian assistance in 2003 is €23 million. This funding is used to respond to all humanitarian crises globally. In line with Ireland Aid objectives, priority is given to the most vulnerable groups in least developed countries, with a particular emphasis on Africa. To date this year Ireland Aid has responded to the food security crises in southern Africa and the Horn of Africa as well as to a number of so called "forgotten emergencies" in west Africa. In the past year I have witnessed at first hand the extent of the food security crisis in Ethiopia and southern Africa. I have no doubt about the need for Ireland Aid to continue providing support to the countries where over 30 million people remain at risk. Responding to the evolving situation in Iraq will now become an additional part of our humanitarian programme.

Understanding the current vulnerabilities of the Iraqi population is essential to analysing the potential humanitarian impact of the looming conflict. The refusal of Saddam Hussein's regime to comply with UN resolutions and the resulting sanctions have left approximately 16 million Iraqis dependent on Government rations for their entire food supply through the Oil for Food Programme. As this programme has now been suspended the population will become even more vulnerable.

Because of the deterioration in basic human living conditions over the past decade, Iraq's population of around 27 million is far more vulnerable to the shocks of war than it was in 1991. Since 1991, Iraq's rank on the United Nations Human Development Index has fallen from 96 to 127. No other country has fallen so far, so fast.

Since 1990 there has been the highest increase of child mortality in the world in Iraq which is now 2.3 times its 1990 level among under fives. The malnutrition rate is now estimated at around 25% with 13% acutely malnourished. There has been a 5-fold increase in low birth weight babies over the last few years pointing to serious maternal malnourishment.

The health care system has been seriously debilitated. Most hospitals have between 3 and 5 weeks worth of medicines, while overall stocks for 3-4 months are held centrally, they could be inaccessible in conflict.

Reports by UNICEF and Oxfam have all stressed the importance of the links between Iraq's electrical supply capacity and public health. The majority of Iraqis depend on potable water and sewage systems that in turn rely on electricity. Electricity generation capacity is already badly degraded as a legacy of the Gulf War. Possible further damage as a result of the conflict could deprive millions of urban dwellers of access to clean water, leading to epidemics of preventable diseases such as diarrhoea, typhoid, cholera and respiratory infections.

One widely quoted UN document warns 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 organizations." The document also reports that: "In event of a crisis, 30 percent of children under five [approximately one million children] would be at risk of death from malnutrition" and "access to war-affected civilians would be severely limited for the duration of the conflict". Such projections are based on estimates produced by the UN and other international organisations. At this stage, however, it is impossible to be precise given the range of possible scenarios on how the conflict might unfold.

The policies of Saddam Hussein's regime have also created a large-scale problem of internal displacement even in advance of a new war. A deliberate attempt to Arabize the key oil-producing center of Kirkuk has driven Kurdish civilians north into the three northern governorates close to the border with Turkey. The Marsh Arabs and the Shi'i Arab communities have also been targeted for persecution. A recent study published estimated the number of internally displaced in Iraq at around 900,000, with over 300,000 located in the central and southern regions controlled by the Iraqi regime and the balance in the autonomous zone in the north.

While the humanitarian situation in Iraq threatens to become very difficult, the challenges facing the international community can, in my view, be met. We have garnered valuable experience and lessons from similar humanitarian situations, most recently Afghanistan. Our aim must be to avoid the mistakes of the past and incorporate the lessons learnt in a practical way in all our humanitarian activities. In order to secure the effective mobilisation of support from bilateral donors, and international agencies, I cannot over emphasise the importance of the coordination by the United Nations in all phases of the international response to any crisis.

Over the past few weeks I have had a number of informal contacts with international organisations and NGO's to discuss contingency planning in relation to Iraq. Our Permanent Missions to the United Nations in New York and Geneva are in close contact with the Office for the Coordination for Humanitarian Affairs and other relevant humanitarian agencies about their plans. I have today invited key NGO partners in Ireland to meet with me next week to discuss the unfolding situation and the likely scenarios for Ireland's humanitarian response to this crisis.

In conclusion I wish to assure the members of this House that Ireland will respond as generously and effectively as possible to the humanitarian needs of the Iraqi people as the situation unfolds. We will fund those Agencies and NGO's optimally placed to deliver the wide range of basic needs and services which will be essential to protect the most vulnerable.