United for Peace & Justice

The Humanitarian Aid Conundrum

Monday 31 March 2003, by Phyllis BENNIS

The UN Security Council voted on March 28 on a resolution outlining how emergency humanitarian aid will be provided to Iraqis. The U.S.-UK are pushing for a new Security Council resolution that would (1) identify the U.S. as one of the "relevant authorities" in Iraq; (2) call for use of Iraq’s oil-for-food funds to pay for emergency relief and rehabilitation; (3) call on the UN to re-start the oil-for-food program and "endorse" the U.S. aid effort in order to facilitate other countries’ participation in (read: payment for) the aid campaign.

The Humanitarian Challenge: Make sure emergency assistance and general relief reaches desperate Iraqi civilians AND make sure the U.S. takes responsibility for its obligations under international law AND make sure the U.S. doesn’t get credit/legitimation for its illegal war AND make sure the United Nations isn’t marginalized but remains at the international center of decision-making in the Iraq crisis. All at the same time.

The Scenario: There is a generalized intimidation campaign underway at the UN, and many countries are too frightened to challenge U.S. demands. Examples of the pressure include: U.S. letters. In a move which may have been used against many other countries as well, the U.S. ambassador to South Africa sent a letter to the deputy foreign minister explicitly demanding that South Africa (and perhaps other countries) not participate in or support any effort to call to convene an emergency General Assembly meeting on the Iraq war. The language was harshly threatening: "Given the current highly charged atmosphere, the United States would regard a General Assembly session on Iraq as unhelpful and as directed against the United States. Please know that this question as well as your position on it is important to the U.S." Attack on Canada. In a similar move, the U.S. ambassador attacked Canada for not supporting the war.

Amb. Paul Celluci acknowledged that "Canadian naval vessels, aircraft and personnel in the Persian Gulf &who are fighting terrorism will provide more support indirectly to this war in Iraq than most of the 46 countries that are fully [sic] supportive of our efforts there. But he went on to say "many in the United States are disappointed and upset that Canada is not fully supporting us now." The ambassador said the damage would be short-term, but "Canada might face repercussions." Powell statements. In the 26 March congressional hearing, Rep. Vitter challenged Powell about the potential UN role. "It seems to me it’s one thing for there to be a future UN resolution about a role for the UN, particularly humanitarian. But it would be another thing for the UN resolution to lay out some road map for post-war Iraq in such a way that it [the UN] would basically grab that decision-making and control from the coalition.& Can you give us some assurance that whatever UN resolutions are in the future will not do that?" Powell replied "I don’t even see a possibility of that right now. & We would not support &essentially handing everything over to the UN, for someone designated by the UN to suddenly become in charge of this whole operation."

The Issues:

1) Should oil-for-food funds be released and used to pay for emergency supplies?

No international law, specifically Geneva Conventions, requires belligerent —and occupying power — to take responsibility (meaning pay) for humanitarian needs of civilian population under occupation. Currently that includes most of Iraq. The oil-for-food money is Iraqi money; it belongs to the people of Iraq, and should remain in the bank until there is a functioning government in Iraq to whom it can be turned over. 2) Then how should emergency food, medicine, other needs be paid for? The U.S., the occupying power and belligerent, should pay all costs for emergency care and initial rehabilitation efforts, at least during period while hostilities continue.

2) Why should poor and working people in the U.S. support their tax dollars being used to pay for rebuilding schools, roads, hospitals destroyed by the U.S. in Iraq, when those things are also crumbling in U.S. cities?

They shouldn’t. The program should be funded through a special 50% Excess Profit/ Windfall for War tax on all contracts offered to U.S. corporations (Bechtel, Halliburton, etc.) for rebuilding post-war Iraq.

3) How should the provision of food, medicine, shelter, refugee assistance, etc. be organized and provided?

The UN and UN agencies (WFP, UNICEF, WHO, UNHCR, etc.) should organize and provide the aid, paying for it with U.S. funds. The actual work of procurement and distribution should be carried out, as much as possible, by the Iraqi civil servants who ran the oil-for-food program until March 2003. There should be a clear demand on the U.S. (beyond the overall demand to stop the war and withdraw the troops now) to protect and maintain the Iraqi technocratic civil service in much the same way the Pentagon talks about maintaining the bulk of the Iraqi military that survives the war in order to maintain order later.

While the debate continues on the large-scale aid program needed, there is no question regarding sole U.S.-UK responsibility for immediate urgent crisis demands, such as restoring water access in Basra. While the ICRC may have had the operational staff to get the water facilities up and pumping again there, it remains Washington and London who are ultimately solely responsible for the consequences of either short-term or near-permanent catastrophes.

4) What is the UN position?

UN Secretary General Kofi Annan has repeatedly affirmed that the "belligerent powers" occupying Iraq are responsible for the wellbeing of its people. He has not, however, specifically stated that releasing the oil-for-food funds from the UN-controlled bank account would constitute a violation of international law and the Geneva Conventions that put the obligation directly on the U.S. (The oil-for-food funds belong to Iraq; they should remain frozen until a functioning independent government is in power in Baghdad, and then those funds should be turned back over to Iraq.)

Annan did announce a new appeal from the UN’s humanitarian agencies to raise $2.1 billion for humanitarian aid ($1.2 billion of which is for food); he specifically called for new aid to be pledged without disadvantaging donors’ other commitments to other impoverished countries. At the same time, UN circles expressed skepticism about the willingness of many countries to give money, indicating that donations might be limited because many countries believe paying for aid is primarily the task of the U.S. and UK. UN agencies indicated that this war will require humanitarian help far beyond the capacity of the oil-for-food program, because there will be no way to anticipate how many wounded, how many will have fled from villages or cities, how many will have no access to food, water, sanitation, other basic commodities.

In a difficult meeting with Kofi Annan, U.S. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice essentially claimed the right to issue a dictat for the role of the UN in post-war Iraq. Annan indicated he did not believe the UN should be co-opted into providing the U.S. with ex post facto legitimation for its illegal war.

6) What is the U.S. position?

The Bush administration has been trumpeting its provision of some limited aid (food and water primarily) to some parts of Iraq, but has refused to acknowledge its absolute legal obligation under the Geneva Conventions to provide for the full humanitarian needs of the Iraqi population. They have urged the UN to release Iraq’s oil-for-food funds to begin larger-scale emergency aid, and have also been urging an official UN endorsement of the U.S. war, perhaps in the form of some sort of a recognition of the U.S. as one of the legitimate authorities. Colin Powell described insuring that "the UN has a role to play. If we want to get help from other nations, and we ask these nations to go get funds from their parliaments or their legislatures, it makes it a lot easier for them to get those funds and to contribute those funds to the reconstruction/redevelopment effort if it has an international standing, if I can put it that way, as opposed to ’just give us money to give to the Americans.’ That will not work. And so there are a number of advantages to having a UN role in this effort."

But the U.S. remains very clear that while it expected international financial support to cover its own humanitarian obligations, it has no intention of sharing actual authority, power, or decision-making with anyone. BBC World quoted a high-ranking Bush administration official who was asked whether France should have a role. Referring to France’s alleged "anti-americanism," the official said "if they want to participate, they can pick up the garbage."

And in his 26 March testimony in Congress, Powell made clear that "we didn’t take on this huge burden with our coalition partners not to be able to have significant, dominating control over how it unfolds in the future."

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