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Iraq

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:37 pm on 26th February 2003.

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Photo of Tony Baldry Tony Baldry Chair, International Development Committee 4:37 pm, 26th February 2003

Understandably, we have heard a great deal this afternoon about the military campaign. In the few minutes available to me, I shall say a few words about the humanitarian campaign. In a statement to the House a few days ago, the Prime Minister said that there needs to be

"a humanitarian plan that is every bit as viable and well worked out as a military plan."—[Hansard, 3 February 2003; Vol. 399, c. 36.]

The Economist recently observed that many aspects of war hanging over Iraq are unpredictable, but one is not—the unusual vulnerability of the civilian population. There are two reasons for that. First, about 60 per cent. of the population, or 16 million people, are 100 per cent. dependent on central Government for basic needs. They survive only because the Government of Iraq provides them with a food ration each month. Secondly, after two wars, decades of mismanagement and 12 years of exacting sanctions, there is no fat to rely on.

It is therefore essential not to see the military campaign and the humanitarian campaign in two separate boxes. As both Kosovo and Afghanistan have recently shown us, it cannot simply be a matter of fighting a military campaign, then announcing "end ex" and starting a humanitarian campaign the next day. Those planning military action must think about the humanitarian consequences of that action, not least how to minimise the impact of conflict on civilians. I emphasise that that is particularly important in Iraq, where huge numbers of people live in abject poverty, many families are clinging on by their fingertips, and 60 per cent. of the population is dependent on the UN oil for food programme.

Any attack on Iraq is bound to involve aerial bombing to take out military infrastructure. How confident can we be that military commanders will seek not to bomb hospitals, residential areas and vital energy sources? Targeting must take account of the vulnerability of the existing infrastructure and the weaknesses of the sanitation and water systems, for example. Every indication is that people in Iraq are just about scraping along, but any sustained disruption of sewerage systems or clean water supplies will almost certainly speedily result in disease, illness and death in large numbers in the civilian population. We have to ensure that everyone involved—the military in particular—thinks through the consequences for the men, women and children on the ground.

There are undoubtedly optimistic scenarios of what might happen, involving a short, well-targeted bombing campaign on key objectives, followed by a dash by coalition forces to seize Baghdad and Basra, the collapse of Iraqi resistance, the surrender of Iraqi troops and speedy regime change. It might be like that. It is to be hoped that any fighting—if, in due course, it comes to fighting—will be the shortest necessary to achieve the desired objectives. But history is littered with optimistic assessments that it would all be over in a matter of weeks by generals and politicians who then found themselves dug in for months or years. Military planners and humanitarian advisers have to plan for all scenarios, not just the most optimistic. I reiterate that any scenario will impact on a civilian population that is in poor shape anyway, and that any disruption of the oil-for-food programme will leave many people without the basic necessities of life. It is right that we should be cautious, because it was not easy to persuade the US military in Afghanistan to have regard to humanitarian considerations. Nine million people there were having to be fed by the World Food Programme before any military campaign began.

It is also important to reflect that this is all happening at a time when there are enormous strains on the international humanitarian system. When the Secretary of State for International Development recently gave evidence on the humanitarian crisis in southern Africa to the Select Committee, she expressed her concern that the scale of humanitarian feeding operations around the world was reaching such a level that she questioned whether the system could cope. Her concerns echoed identical points raised with the Committee only a little while ago by James Morris, the head of the UN World Food Programme. Yesterday, the Prime Minister of Ethiopia gave evidence to the Select Committee. He made it clear that, notwithstanding recent generous commitments of food aid to Ethiopia—including those from the United Kingdom—unless further substantial amounts were provided by June, there would be a serious humanitarian situation in the Horn of Africa.

So there are already monumental food aid requirements in the Horn of Africa, throughout southern Africa and in Afghanistan. It would, therefore, be difficult for the international community to take on a further substantial food programme. There are problems with the funding of the World Food Programme, with the supply of food, and with the capacity of institutions logistically to continue to manage a massive and ever-expanding programme. The political will to do so will also be much more difficult to achieve if the international community is divided. It will be difficult to get co-ordinated European Union action on humanitarian relief when some of the larger EU member states are at considerable variance with others as to the appropriate way forward on Iraq. Countries such as France and Germany do not want to be seen to be preparing for the humanitarian campaign in a conflict to which they are opposed. If there is a conflict, it is essential that the oil-for-food programme continues to operate in the short and medium term.

What thought are our military commanders and political planners giving to the issue of refugees? In the last Gulf conflict, there were an estimated 1.8 million displaced people in Iraq, out of a population of just over 26 million. Unlike in Afghanistan, most people in Iraq live in urban centres. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that there could be 900,000 refugees—100,000 in need of immediate assistance—and probably a further 500,000 displaced people in camps on the borders. It is impossible to predict just how many refugees there might be, because there are so many different potential scenarios. The UNHCR and the international community must plan for a range of possibilities and a range of numbers.

In addition to refugees, there will also be large numbers of internally displaced people in Iraq. This prompts another important question. In Afghanistan, the UN Secretary-General appointed Mr. Brahimi as his personal representative. The co-ordination of the humanitarian effort in Afghanistan is clearly under the auspices of the UN and senior UN agencies answerable to an experienced co-ordinator appointed by and answerable to the UN Secretary-General. What is going to happen in Iraq? After any conflict, will the humanitarian effort be co-ordinated by the UN? Numerous, unattributable, press briefings would tend to suggest that the intention is for the President of the United States to appoint a senior general to run Iraq, post-conflict. That would be a mistake. Afghanistan has shown how difficult it is for humanitarian relief agencies to relate to and work with the military, when the military act in any other role than as clearly designated and approved UN peacekeepers—