United States and coalition forces must protect Iraqi refugees and the internally displaced

New York, NY, March 21, 2003 -- Now that war in Iraq has begun, the Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children remains deeply concerned about U.S. government plans to provide assistance and protection to refugee and internally displaced women and children during and after a military intervention. While U.S. officials have talked about the prepositioning of supplies and troops for military intervention, there has been very little detail on how U.S. and coalition forces will protect refugees and the internally displaced from retribution violence and lawlessness. Women and children are often the most affected by such violence, experiencing increased incidences of sexual violence, displacement, and loss of property and income.
The Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children urges the United States and the international community to take the following actions:

Adhere to international refugee and humanitarian law: Border countries must honor their obligations under international law by keeping their borders open and allowing Iraqis to access both assistance and protection within their territories. Recent reports indicate that Syria has reversed its open border policy and people are trapped on the Iraqi side of the border. Media reports from Jordan indicate that pre-screening is taking place on the Iraqi side of the border and access is limited.

As soon as U.S. and coalition forces conquer areas of Iraq, the U.S. will become the occupying power. The Fourth Geneva Convention, of which the U.S. is a signatory, sets forth essential steps occupying powers must take in order to avoid humanitarian crises. These duties require more than providing the basic needs of food, medicine, water and shelter. The U.S. must protect Iraqi civilians, including internally displaced women and children, and ensure public order and safety.

Give the United Nations responsibility for humanitarian coordination: Placing responsibility for humanitarian coordination with the United Nations as soon as possible will enhance the likelihood that donor governments will respond quickly and generously to the needs of Iraqi civilians. The UN Oil for Food program is the largest single humanitarian relief effort in the world. This vital program which provides food assistance to 16 million people, or 60 percent of the Iraqi population, has been suspended because of war. U.S. and coalition forces will be unable to manage this huge distribution network. It is crucial for the United Nations to have the resources and mandate to continue this vital program.

Prioritize the needs of women and children: Forty-eight percent of Iraq is under the age of 18. These 13 million young people require specialized care and protection during and after armed conflict. In flight, families often become separated, leaving children to fend for themselves and open to a range of abuses. The United Nations and the United States should appoint senior staff to monitor and respond to women and children's needs. Child soldiers are also of concern. Iraqi law permits the use of child soldiers 15 and older and allows conscription of children under 18 during war. If U.S. and coalition forces encounter child prisoners of war, they must be prepared to detain and demobilize them in an appropriate manner.

Approximately 25 percent of women of reproductive age in refugee populations are typically pregnant at any one time and many are likely to develop unforeseen complications. The provision of emergency obstetric services to Iraqi women is essential to reduce maternal mortality, which rises in conflict settings. Emergency health services must not be limited to supplies for the war wounded, but must also include safe birthing kits and emergency obstetrics.

Contact: Megan McKenna, 212.551.0959