Humanitarian NGOs Work in Iraq

Bureaucratic Embargo

Saturday 1 February 2003, by Jeremy GANS


In August 2002, the U.S. State Department distributed $6.6 million to various American Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), for the purpose of conducting humanitarian relief projects in Northern Iraq. But in the five months since then, no work has occurred on the ground. The obstacle: the U.S. Treasury Department.

U.S. law stipulates that American NGOs must secure special permits from OFAC in order to work in Iraq or any other country considered to have links to terrorism. The Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), a subdivision of the U.S. Treasury, has yet to issue the majority of licences requested by American organizations wanting to operate inside Iraq.

"This is American law; you just can’t wish it away," explains Sid Balman Jr, Communications Director for InterAction, an alliance of over 160 American relief and development NGOs. InterAction has been petitioning the U.S. government since September 2002 to expedite the licensing process on behalf of 18 of its members that want to do relief work in Iraq in the event of war. It is only recently that they have started to see results. The delay, he says, "is partially due to an unwieldy bureaucracy, and partially to political constraint." The government, he suggests, was unwilling to act until it had a clear idea of how events would unfold.

The U.S. State Department insists that the government is not deliberately stalling and that it is in favour of American NGOs assisting the Iraqi people. "These efforts must be consistent with United Nations sanctions on Iraq, as well as relevant U.S. laws and executive orders that restrict most trade and transactions with Iraq," said a department spokesperson. It also claims that it is taking steps to speed the licensing process along. But American NGOs do not seem convinced.

"The treasury office is enforcing an extremely rigid, inflexible piece of legislation," says Kenneth Bacon, President of Refugees International. "And no one in the administration has seen fit yet, and this is after months of pressure from the NGOs, to try to unblock this log jam". Bacon also feels the bureaucratic roadblock could have been avoided if the government wanted it.

In the event of war, the humanitarian crisis could be even more devastating than the situation after the Gulf War. Twelve years of sanctions has diminished the Iraqi population’s ability to cope with war. An estimated 700 000 Iraqis are already displaced. International Aid, an American relief organization, expects that number to jump to six million if the United States attacks. UNICEF predicts another five million people will lose access to safe drinking water and sanitation. In addition, the humanitarian crisis will be exacerbated if Saddam Hussein uses chemical or biological weapons.

Yet the government insists that it is up to the challenge. "We absolutely are , and we have been doing, considerable planning on the humanitarian needs of the Iraqi people," insists Richard Boucher, spokesperson for the Department of State.

International human rights law dictates that an occupying army is obliged to feed and house the population it is controlling. But according to Balman, the U.S. Army has made it very clear to the NGOs that it will be controlling the theatre. He argues that since humanitarian work is best done by NGOs, the government should welcome their presence in the region, not discourage it.

In their search to secure these licenses, American NGOs find themselves being shuffled from department to department. "This bureaucratic shell-game [the government] has been playing gives you an indication that they do not have any desire to make this process go forward," says Bacon. "[...] I think we have to conclude that they simply don’t want NGOs in Baghdad."

The author is an alternative media intern at Alternatives.

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