Tearfund full briefing paper on Iraq

Originally published
On November 8 2002 the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) approved Resolution 1441 that demanded unfettered access for U.N. inspectors to search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Iraq has long been accused, primarily by the US and the UK, of producing and stockpiling chemical, biological and nuclear weapons in violation of the cease-fire treaty it signed at the end of the 1991 Gulf War. Iraq has been accused of obstructing previous attempts by UN weapons inspectors to identify and destroy stocks of weapons and their means of production. If Iraq is found to be in 'material breach' of the resolution, either by obstructing the work of the weapons inspectors or by not making a full disclosure of any weapons of mass destruction that they possess, it is clear that military action could follow.

For its part, Iraq has consistently denied that it retains any weapons of mass destruction, and has promised full co-operation with the UN weapons inspectors. The inspectors returned to Iraq in late November 2002 after an absence of four years. On December 6 2002, in compliance with the UN SC resolution, Iraq provided a 12,000-page dossier detailing its production of sensitive materials, but re-iterated its position that is has no weapons of mass destruction. The US and British governments indicated that this dossier does not satisfy their concerns and that it conflicted with their own intelligence information. On January 27 the chief UN weapons inspectors gave their first report to the UN Security Council. They stated that they could not, as yet, produce any evidence that Iraq continued to manufacture or possess undeclared weapons of mass destruction. They did, however, point to unanswered questions about previous stocks of weapons and weapons material. Although they did not say that the Iraqi government had obstructed their efforts they did complain that cooperation was passive rather than proactive, and called for an improvement. They also called for more time to finish their work and are due to report again.

The US administration in particular appears strongly in favour of military action to enforce Resolution 1441 and has stated its view that no further UN resolutions are required to authorise such action. The UK government while arguing that a further resolution would be desirable has also said that it would be prepared to join military action without a further resolution if the UN fails to approve action. Other European governments appear divided on whether military enforcement action is appropriate at this stage.

With large deployments on US and UK troops already in or bound for the region, there is a very real and imminent possibility of major conflict.

Tearfund's concerns

Tearfund is profoundly concerned by the humanitarian consequences of military intervention in Iraq. We are not in a position to determine the legality of a war in relation to international law against aggression because we are not party to the security information that this would require and lack the relevant expertise. We recognise the concerns of the international community that Iraq may pose a threat to its neighbours and to its own citizens through its alleged production of weapons of mass destruction. But we also believe that there is a moral imperative to avoid war unless it is essential to prevent an even greater evil. We support the consideration of these concerns by the UN Security Council and we recognise the resulting Resolution 1441 (2002). However we are concerned about the prospect of military enforcement of this resolution, at this stage, on two grounds:

1. that such action has the potential for disastrous humanitarian consequences

2. that such action could further destabilise the region.

1. Humanitarian consequences

We believe the humanitarian consequences of war against Iraq could be severe because of the potential convergence of a significant hazard with severe vulnerability among the civilian population:


Military intervention has the potential to expose large numbers of civilians to hazard. This could come from the direct military action of aerial bombardments and ground attacks, particularly bearing in mind the fact that many military installations are located close to civilian populations. Or it could come from the indirect consequences of such action such as the destruction of key shared-use infrastructure, and the disruption of essential supplies. Electricity infrastructure is vital for the proper functioning of civilian services and utilities, affecting everything from hospitals to water pumping stations and sewerage treatment works. We understand that electricity supplies were targeted during the Gulf war and they could become a target again. Water quality is already very poor for many Iraqis and the prime contributory cause of death for children. Risks of major health problems caused by further disruptions to water supplies and erosion of water quality would increase significantly if pumping stations and sewage treatment plants ceased functioning. In addition, extensive and prolonged conflict risks undermining the essential supply of food and medicine to Iraqi civilians. The populations in the Kurdish North and the Centre/South already rely on monthly, imported food rations under the Oil for Food Programme. These rations last only three weeks on average. If the ration is cut in an emergency, monthly salaries of $3-$6 on average would be insufficient to purchase food from local markets.


Iraq has experienced 8 years of war with Iran followed by the Gulf War in 1991 and 12 years of international sanctions. The Iraqi regime must bear responsibility for the disastrous wars and even some of the responsibility for the initial imposition and continued enforcement of the sanctions. Nevertheless, the effects of these events are felt by the general population regardless of their political allegiances, and are felt disproportionately heavily by the poor compared to the governing elite. These events have substantially undermined the capacity of the administration and the general population to cope with disasters. Key infrastructure is already fully stretched and in many cases dilapidated due to the shortage of spare parts. The population is extremely vulnerable with very limited capacity to cope with any additional hardship. This includes children, who make up almost half of Iraqi society, widows, the elderly and the poor. UNICEF has reported that child mortality rates have risen by 160 per cent under sanctions and that 30 per cent are already chronically malnourished. UNDP estimate that currently 49% of families are unable to meet their basic needs, and 20% of these live in extreme poverty. 25% of births are reportedly low weight. 2/3 of solid waste in Baghdad is not collected or disposed of and 65% of all sewerage goes into watercourses untreated. Typhoid cases have increased from 2200 cases in 1990 to 75,000 in 2001.

Taking the substantial hazard posed by military enforcement action together with the highly vulnerable state of the general population, we believe that there is a substantial risk of a disaster. The scale and scope of the likely humanitarian needs are difficult to forecast precisely, but we note that some informed commentators have reported that 'neighbouring countries are bracing themselves for as many as 1.5m Iraqi refugees, while the UN faces the possibility of having to feed 7m - 8m people, many of whom would probably have fled their homes.' (Financial Times November 2002) This task may be made much worse by the fact that the UN would be unable to operate inside Iraq during the conflict itself and there are no adequate alternative providers of relief. In addition to the problems of loss of essential services and food supplies, internal displacement and refugees, there is also a major risk that military action leads to reprisal attacks between different ethnic groups within Iraq.

International Humanitarian Law requires military planners to have regard to the consequences of their actions on civilian populations. We take the view, therefore, that the likely humanitarian consequences of war are a legitimate consideration in determining whether the benefits to be gained from military action outweigh the costs.

2. Stability in the region

Over the past 30 years Tearfund has developed relationships with local partner organisations around the world, some of who operate in the Middle East and in other countries where the majority population is Muslim. These partner organisations are able to provide us with a good picture of the context of the region and some understanding of the tensions and sensitivities of working in the Muslim World. On the basis of such understanding we are greatly concerned by the prospect of military intervention in Iraq. We feel that far from improving regional peace and security it has the potential to destabilise the region and to increase the threat posed by Islamic militancy. Firstly, military action could easily draw in neighbouring countries to the conflict. For example, Israel was targeted by Iraqi missiles in the 1991 conflict. Although they did not retaliate there are strong suggestions that Israel would not show such restraint if targeted again. Secondly, the launching of an attack on Iraq without the clear support of Muslim opinion-formers such as the Arab League and religious authorities, and without clear evidence that such action is necessary, would outrage public opinion in the Muslim World and would provide fuel to Islamic militants. This reaction is likely to be particularly acute if military action is launched without the clear authority of the United Nations. The growth of Islamic extremism has been precipitated in part by perceptions of Western cultural, economic and military hegemony. Whether such perceptions are justified or misplaced, they exist and have widespread currency in the Muslim world. It is our belief that these perceptions would be reinforced by Western military intervention in Iraq and that militant groups would gain in popularity and strength as a result. Long before the high profile attacks on September 11 2001, there had been regular attacks on Western targets both in the Middle East and elsewhere. Attacks on Western tourists in countries such as Egypt caused not only immediate loss of life but also damaged the national economy and local livelihoods for extended periods. An attack on Iraq could precipitate a further wave of violence and economic disruption that spreads much wider than Iraq.

Christian minorities have also experienced regular attacks over the years and have recently started to experience an increase in hostility and discrimination. An attack on Iraq could well result in tensions boiling over into violence against Christian minorities in the region. Our partners throughout the Middle East are reporting that they are anticipating widespread attacks if military action against Iraq goes ahead. They are even reluctant to stockpile emergency provisions because of the fear that their buildings will be looted and destroyed.