UN role critical in Iraq crisis

News and Press Release
Originally published
Today Oxfam warned that the UN must play a central role in delivering the humanitarian relief in any conflict in Iraq.
Amidst concerns that the relief effort may be led by the military, Oxfam's director Barbara Stocking stressed the importance of the UN: "We want to work under the auspices of the UN and not under the auspices of the military," she said on Radio 4's Today programme this morning. "We want the UN to take charge as quickly as possible."

The leadership by the UN of the humanitarian relief effort is seen as essential to ensure impartiality and create a space between the military activities and those of the humanitarian agencies. "It is very important that we are seen to be impartial - we do not want to be seen as part of the war effort," Barbara Stocking explained.

Oxfam still believes military action against Iraq would be unjustifiable at this moment because of concerns about civilian suffering and regional instability. However, if military action does go ahead, it is vital that the UN is given the international backing and funds to enable their response, says Oxfam. "Money must flow through to the UN so that they have the funds to get really geared up," said Ms Stocking.

If military action goes ahead, Oxfam says that the US and the UK have strict obligations under International Humanitarian Law, with the protection of civilians of paramount importance.


International Humanitarian Law

Warring parties have obligations. If war goes ahead, to protect Iraq's civilians from the conflict, it must be conducted in accordance with International Humanitarian Law. This outlaws:

  • Indiscriminate attacks that do not distinguish between combatants and non-combatants.

  • The targeting of water, electrical or transport infrastructure upon which Iraqi people depend for their survival

  • Military attacks that have a disproportionate effect on civilians. There is a high risk of civilians being trapped inside potential conflict areas such as major cities.

  • The use of cluster bombs and landmines, as well as the use of chemical, biological, readiological or nuclear weapons, would by their very nature be indiscriminate.
Any UN presence in Iraq must fulfil the following conditions during hostilities:
  • Humanitarian co-ordination - during the conflict, the UN's role as the coordinator of humanitarian response must be established as soon as conditions allow. The UN alone has the international mandate to co-ordinate humanitarian response. The UN also has a vital role to play in maintaining the distance between civilian humanitarian agencies and military forces.

  • International Humanitarian Law - The UN has an obligation to press all warring parties to adhere strictly to humanitarian and human rights law. Oxfam is particularly concerned about the displaced people, city dwellers and vulnerable groups, such as women and children who have been hit hard by years of sanctions.

  • Effective and appropriate response - Under most circumstances, UN agencies working with civilian humanitarian agencies deliver the most effective and appropriate response to crises. Any occupying power must fulfil its legal obligations under International Humanitarian Law and ensure the provision of food and medical supplies. However, as soon as the security conditions allow, civilian agencies - under UN leadership - should assume responsibility for delivering assistance.
Why does Oxfam believe the UN role is critical?
  • The UN is the only body with the international legitimacy to act as the co-ordinator of a humanitarian response and as a guarantor of a neutral transition to a new government.

  • The one thing most likely to inflame the Middle East is a one-sided U.S. occupation of Iraq.
Any UN presence in Iraq must fulfil the following conditions after the end of hostilities:

The UN would need new resolutions to allow it to deliver food under the food for oil programme and to define a civilian-led structure of the UN in Iraq. The design of that structure should draw on the lessons learned from successes and failures in past emergencies. We suspect that the best model would be an administration led by a UN special representative as in Kosovo or East Timor, given time is needed to develop a proper transitional authority in Iraq. In this model all agencies (including lead UN agencies, any peace support operations, civilian policing, etc) would report to a civilian-led team supporting the Special Representative of the Secretary General.

The UN must be assured of proper resources and full international commitment to deliver. It must not be set up to fail.