Winning Hearts and Minds or Ensuring Impartial Aid

Apr 09, 2003 03:17 PM EDT

While the war in Iraq may be nearing an end and the country's future remainsuncertain, concerns for Iraq's civilians continue to mount. As coalitionforces battle in the streets of Baghdad, the suffering and needs of Iraqicivilians intensify.Many of Basra's 1.7 million inhabitants have been getting by on little foodand insufficient and dirty drinking water. This is an unsustainable andunacceptable situation. If it continues for much longer, it not only putsmany civilian lives at risk, but could lead to a situation where coalitionforces and their governments may be accused of possible violations of theGeneva Conventions. The Conventions clearly forbid warring parties from usingstarvation as a weapon and they insist on free passage for humanitarian aid.Even when this is not the intention, the military reality in Iraq isincreasingly likely to put the warring parties on a collision course withInternational Humanitarian Law.

The situation around Basra could be just a taste of what will follow inBaghdad. The population of almost four million is already extremelyvulnerable after a decade of UN sanctions, days or weeks of so-called "shockand awe" air attacks, dwindling food stocks, a communications breakdown and afragile water supply system. In short, it is a humanitarian disaster in themaking.

Whatever the reputation of the Iraqi regime and its treatment of its owncitizens, the US, UK and other coalition governments will face sterncriticism at home and abroad if they are perceived to be in violation of thevery corner-stone of International Humanitarian Law - the Geneva Conventions.

Food riots

Recent TV coverage of ill-prepared relief distribution in Southern Iraqbrought home images of what amounted to food riots, benefiting only theyoungest and the toughest. Some aid workers see these incidents as examplesof what may happen when the needs of sick, thirsty or hungry civilians aredealt with as part of a military strategy of "winning hearts and minds",rather than being handled by experienced and independent relief agencies. .../...

"What we have seen over the last days in Southern Iraq is an illustration ofexactly why the military should let experienced civilian humanitarian actorsplan and carry out relief work," says Rick Augsburger, director of EmergencyPrograms of the US-based Church World Service (CWS) and co-chair of theHumanitarian Practice and Policy Committee of Interaction, a coalition of USrelief agencies.

In Amman, Jordan, UNICEF's Martin Dawes stresses that such chaotic scenes inSouthern Iraq can happen when you have " distribution carried out with noproper assessment, and when you do not have experienced staff on the groundto ensure that food reaches those most in need."

For Rick Augsburger, these events are more than just unfortunate incidents."When the military can shift a quarter of a million people around the globein a short time, you would think that if the care of the Iraqi people were aprimary objective, they would also be able to begin the process to ensure theaccess and space humanitarian agencies need to assist people in an effectiveand impartial manner."

Lack of respect for experience

Rick Augsburger and his colleagues at Interaction are critical of the USadministration's approach to and attitude on humanitarian assistance to Iraq.

"What we have seen over the last weeks has been disrespect of experiencedhumanitarian structures on the part of the US," says Augsburger in referenceto the manner in which the distinction between humanitarian and militaryoperations is being deliberately blurred. The US administration has, forinstance, set up an Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Affairs (ORHA)within the Ministry of Defense. This is part of a US-led structure forplanning and controlling future humanitarian operations in Iraq, and includesa Humanitarian Operations Center (HOC) currently based in Kuwait. The HOCoffice is staffed by US, Kuwaiti and British military staff.

By doing this, the coalition forces and their governments have largelybypassed existing UN agencies and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) withdecades of experience in Iraq and major emergencies across the world. Manyrelief agencies also fear that such a deliberate blend of military commandand humanitarian aid poses a real threat to the principles of neutrality andneeds-based distribution of aid, considered crucial for effective reliefwork.

"This may create a destructive precedent, not only for Iraq but forhumanitarian operations in areas of conflict all over the world," saysAugsburger.

Pushing for UN coordination

Most major humanitarian agencies are now indicating that they are not readyto be quietly led by the US-led coalition's HOC and ORHA structures. Instead,they have thrown their weight behind the support for reinstating the UN andits Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) as the overallcoordination body for current and future humanitarian operations in Iraq.

"Not one of our members is ready to take ID-cards from the HOC in Kuwait.They are working for a mechanism embedded in existing UN and NGO structures,"says Joel McClellan of the Geneva-based Steering Committee for HumanitarianResponse. This is an alliance of nine of the world's largest and mostexperienced private humanitarian agencies, including Save the Children,Federation of Red Cross/Red Crescent Societies, the International Committeeof the Red Cross and the World Council of Churches/ACT International. Theseagencies insist on UN coordination rather than coordination by a bodyultimately answerable to the US military in order to ensure impartiality andindependence,

Speaking from Jordan, Daniel Augstburger of the UN-OCHA in Iraq summed up:"The distribution of aid should be carried out by civilian organizations.Only such specialized UN or NGO organizations can guarantee the impartialdistribution of essential supplies. Their independence and experience isexactly what permits them to assist civilians in conflict situations and todo that on a basis of neutrality and professional needs assessments."

Insisting on a solid distinction between humanitarian and military operationsis becoming increasingly important. What to the outside eye may seem to belargely a matter of lofty humanitarian principles essentially boils down toconcrete issues of access to needy populations, as well as questions ofsafety for humanitarian workers during and after the war in Iraq.-----

This feature is an updated version of an article written by Nils Carstensenon 31 March. Carstensen is a comunicator working for DanChurchAid / ACTInternational based in Amman, Jordan. ACT is a world-wide network of churchesand related agencies meeting human need through coordinated emergencyresponse. The ACT Coordinating Office is based with the World Council ofChurches (WCC) and the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) in Switzerland.

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