A response from the British Overseas Agencies Group (BOAG) on the start of war in Iraq

Over the past few months, the undersigned British humanitarian and development agencies have consistently alerted the UK government to the very serious consequences that war could have for an Iraqi population already suffering an acute humanitarian crisis and already dependent on external food aid. In view of the extreme humanitarian situation on the ground even before any attack had been launched, we urged the government - individually and collectively - to explore all peaceful routes to solving the dispute with Saddam Hussein and to avoid war.
Now that military strikes have begun, our main concern is for the protection and well-being of Iraq's vulnerable, civilian population. This over-rides any concerns we may have about the legitimacy of military action in international law.

Conduct of war

We remind warring parties, including the UK government, that they have a legal obligation to take all necessary precautions to avoid civilian loss of life, under the Geneva Conventions.

In accordance with International Humanitarian Law, civilians and installations essential to the survival of civilians, such as water and sanitation infrastructure, must not be targeted.

Disproportionate harm to civilians through damage to dual-use infrastructure, such as roads and electricity supply, must also be avoided. Iraq's largely urban population relies on water pumping and treatment stations for its water and sanitation requirements. These stations in turn rely on electricity to function and could cease to operate without electricity.

Attacks that do not distinguish between combatants and non-combatants are prohibited in international law. By their very nature, cluster bombs, fuel air bombs, landmines, chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear weapons can only be indiscriminate, in our opinion.

There is a high potential for civilians to be trapped in cities throughout Iraq during this conflict. Even if Iraq deploys human shields close to military targets, forces attacking Iraq still have a responsibility to avoid disproportionate civilian casualties.

Humanitarian relief

The Geneva Conventions stipulate that the UK government and other warring parties must ensure the provision of food and other essential items such as medicines, water, and shelter to all those who need them, both during and after a conflict, including those whose supplies are cut off as a result of military action.

14 - 16 million Iraqis - two thirds of the entire population - currently depend on food rations provided through the UN's Oil for Food (OFF) programme and distributed by 45,000 food agents. It is essential that these supply and distribution systems continue to function during the conflict. The longer and more widespread the war, the less likely it is that this will happen, causing hunger to those who depend on this programme. The World Food Programme estimates that between 5 and 10 million people would become immediately vulnerable if OFF supplies are cut off.

Therefore, as a matter of urgency, a new UN Security Council resolution is needed to establish alternative food distribution systems in the event of a breakdown of OFF distribution systems. If the burden of food distribution falls to the World Food Programme (WFP), then the international community urgently needs to provide the WFP with the resources and capacity in order to play this role.

Of huge concern is the potential for a refugee crisis in Iraq. The UN is now predicting that up to 3 million Iraqis may leave their homes but remain within Iraqi borders as Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs). We are extremely concerned about the very limited preparedness and provision for IDPs within Iraq.

According to the UN, an additional 600,000 people may seek refuge beyond Iraq's borders. We remind neighbouring states of their obligations under international law to provide refuge and assistance to those fleeing a conflict in Iraq. International donors - and particularly those countries attacking Iraq - must ensure that states bordering Iraq have the capacity and resources to receive refugees.

Humanitarian access

During this conflict, impartial humanitarian access to endangered populations will be essential for saving lives. Humanitarian agencies must be allowed safe access to all populations in need and must be able to operate independently, responding on the basis of need alone. The UK government and other warring parties must ensure that populations in need are guaranteed safe and unhindered access to essential services and supplies, and freedom of movement.

Role of the UN

The UN has a clear protection mandate in war situations and should take the leading role in humanitarian operations under terms negotiated with local authorities and parties in control over the population. We note that the UK government shares this view. In her ministerial statement of 13 March, the Secretary of State for International Development, Clare Short stated that 'it is the Government's policy to support the work of international humanitarian agencies, particularly those of the United Nations, to take the leading role in responding to humanitarian emergencies.'

Therefore the UN should be the transitional authority in charge of humanitarian assistance with regard to the conflict in Iraq. If necessary, the UN should establish a formal and structured interface between the civilian humanitarian effort and military forces that may operate in the region.

Role of the military in humanitarian assistance

We acknowledge that there has been positive interaction between international military forces and humanitarian agencies through recent international peace support operations in countries such as Bosnia and Sierra Leone. But in Iraq, US and UK military forces are engaged in war, not a peace support operation.

In our opinion, it is inappropriate for military forces engaged in a war to directly implement humanitarian activities. This is because it is impossible for armed forces fighting a war to provide impartial humanitarian assistance on the basis of need. By definition, the priorities of combatant forces are military and adversarial, not humanitarian.

If circumstances arise during this war where only military forces will have the logistics capacity to provide protection and assistance to innocent civilians and where there is no other humanitarian option, then it is essential that:

a) military forces do not use humanitarian assistance to control or coerce civilians;

b) humanitarian agencies are not placed under military control;

c) military implementation of humanitarian assistance should last for a very short time and should be handed over to civilian management under the coordination of the UN at the earliest opportunity.

Role of NGOs

As a matter of urgency, it is essential that a basic framework is established for post-conflict humanitarian operations under the auspices of the UN so that civilian agencies and NGOs can plan for the kind of humanitarian response and rehabilitation work that will be expected of us by the international community, in accordance with the 'Code of Conduct for the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and Non-Governmental Organisations in Disaster Relief'.

It is also essential that the UK government shares information on humanitarian operations with UK NGOs on a regular basis throughout the conflict.

Funding the humanitarian response

We call on the UK government to ensure that no aid or resources are diverted from humanitarian crises elsewhere in the world in order to meet humanitarian obligations in Iraq.

More specifically, we call on the UK Treasury to release additional funding to DFID for the humanitarian response in Iraq immediately. In her written ministerial statement of 13 March, Clare Short announced that DFID had recently made available =A310 million of new funding in addition to the UK's ongoing humanitarian programme in Iraq. But our understanding is that DFID has had to find this 'new money' from its own existing budget.

The contrast between the =A31.75 billion the Treasury has allocated to the Ministry of Defence for the military operation in Iraq on the one hand and the miniscule funding available for humanitarian operations on the other is cause for grave concern, given the vulnerability of Iraq's civilian population.

At an international level, we are concerned that key UN humanitarian agencies remain seriously under-resourced to provide the scale of humanitarian assistance that may be required during and after this conflict.

On humanitarian grounds, we call on all warring parties, including the UK government, to bring hostilities in Iraq to a swift end.

Signed by the following BOAG Directors:

Daleep Mukarji, Christian Aid
Salil Shetty, ActionAid
Julian Filochowski, CAFOD
Mike Aaronson, Save the Children UK
Barbara Stocking, Oxfam