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Relief after despair

"MY thoughts today," said United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan as news came in of the start of the war in Iraq," are with the Iraqi people, who face yet another ordeal." These were not just the pious sentiments expected of any U.N. Secretary-General at a time of conflict. Instead, the organisation that many journalists describe as having been sidelined during the war finds itself at the centre of what could yet prove to be a considerable humanitarian challenge.



Haven ... a camp on the Iraqi-Jordan border.

Those whose view of the U.N. has been shaped entirely by their attitude to the debates in the Security Council over whether or not to authorise military action tend to overlook the fact that the organisation is inevitably involved in coping with the consequences of any such action. Wars result in death, destruction, despair — and displacement. Since the prospect of conflict first arose, the U.N. and its humanitarian agencies (notably the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the World Food Programme, UNICEF and the World Health Organisation) have been working around the clock to be prepared for a catastrophe, one we still hope will not occur. We are gravely concerned about civilian casualties and the protection of civilians. The parties to the war must respect human rights and international humanitarian law — for even wars have rules — and to do everything possible to minimise the impact of the fighting on the civilian population.

As this column is written, it is impossible to predict how the war in Iraq may have evolved by the time it appears in print. But one thing is clear. In the last two decades, the Iraqi people have endured two major wars and are in the midst of a third; in addition, their land has been scarred by internal conflicts and uprisings, and 12 years of punitive sanctions have taken a painful toll. A country once rated as amongst the most developed in West Asia has seen its infrastructure crumble; the Iraqi people lack clean water, health care, medical supplies and sanitation. One million children under the age of five, by UNICEF estimates, suffer from chronic malnutrition; more than 60 per cent of the population are entirely dependent on the rations brought in under the United Nations' "oil-for-food" programme. Half the pregnant women in Iraq are anaemic because they do not consume enough protein and iron. War, and the attendant disruption of essential services and supplies, could make things worse, leaving millions without access to foodstuffs and potable water. Many of them could flee to neighbouring countries.

If they do, U.N. agencies are ready to help them. It is vital that all neighbouring states keep their borders open to refugees seeking sanctuary. The U.N. has prepositioned essential supplies — food, shelter, medicines — in the region which would be adequate to cope initially with an outflow of up to two million people for a month. As war rages on, the U.N. appealed on March 28 for some $2.2 billion, in particular to feed and assist the Iraqi people over a six-month period. In the meantime, the Secretary-General has obtained from the Security Council authority over the resources of the oil-for-food programme, in order to use some of these for immediate emergency purposes.

Immediate humanitarian relief is a responsibility for which the U.N. has what might be called a generic mandate, emerging from the statutes that established its agencies, funds and programmes. The U.N. has quietly been doing thorough and well-coordinated contingency planning for what has now occurred, and it is, as a result, readier now than for most previous crises, which often caught the international system unprepared. At the same time, it must be stressed that under international law, the responsibility for protecting civilians caught up in war or conflict falls on the belligerents. Theirs is the primary responsibility within Iraq; indeed, the U.N. evacuated its international staff at the onset of war. Though the brave national staff of UNICEF and WFP are still at work in Iraq, the U.N. as a whole cannot be said to be fully operational there. The U.N. is prepared to do all it can to provide humanitarian assistance to the Iraqi people, but we would have limited capacity to do so until security conditions allow for the safe return of our staff to affected areas. Until then, humanitarian assistance would have to be provided by the U.S. and its coalition partners in those areas under their control, consistent with their overall responsibility under international law.

The U.N. is determined to bring immediate humanitarian assistance to the people of Iraq in an independent and impartial manner, wherever it is needed, wherever we can, and as soon as we can without endangering the lives of our staff. There are suggestions that the U.N. could be asked to do more. Four years ago, another military conflict not sanctioned by the U.N. resulted in a Security Council resolution that asked the U.N. to legitimate the post-war dispensation in Kosovo and to run the civil administration there. Some have suggested that history could repeat itself and a U.N. deemed irrelevant to the war in Iraq could find itself central to the ensuing peace. But, as Kofi Annan has made clear, the U.N. could do nothing beyond its strictly humanitarian work without an authorisation provided by a specific mandate from the Security Council. In any conflict-ridden area, the responsibility for the welfare of the civilian population falls on those who exercise effective control of the territory.

Reconstruction, civil administration, and issues related to governance structures will all need to be handled after the war, consistent with the territorial integrity of Iraq and the right of its people to determine their political future and exercise control over their own natural resources. But the members of the Council will have to agree before the U.N. can play a part in any of these — and clearly it cannot be in a subordinate position to any occupying power. As Mr. Annan put it, "I believe the U.N. has a role to play, and the extent and the nature of that role is under discussion." Whatever happens, it is clear that many governments believe the U.N. will be needed after the war even more than before it — to help the Iraqi people to establish conditions for a normal life, and end Iraq's long isolation from the international community. In the meantime, the U.N. stands ready to do what it must — to provide succour to the victims of war, without detracting from the responsibilities of the combatants. And one day, as Iraqis need help to rebuild their lives and society after this ordeal, the international community must not be found wanting.

Shashi Tharoor is the United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information, and the author of seven books. Visit him at www.shashitharoor.com

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