Iraq (Relief and Reconstruction)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:21 pm on 24th March 2003.

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Photo of Clare Short Clare Short Secretary of State, Department for International Development 4:21 pm, 24th March 2003

With permission, I should like to make a statement about the humanitarian situation in Iraq and the preparations for reconstruction.

I should begin by apologising to the House for the fact that I was unable to be here to respond to the urgent question tabled by Mrs. Spelman on 19 March. I gather that the exchanges were unsatisfactory and I am sorry about that. The reason was that I visited New York and Washington to meet the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the US Administration to try to ensure that arrangements are in place to provide adequate humanitarian relief and that proper preparations are being made for reconstruction in Iraq. I had detailed talks with Kofi Annan and his senior staff, Horst Köhler at the IMF and Jim Wolfensohn at the World Bank. I also met senior officials at the US National Security Council, the United States Agency for International Development and the State Department. There is, I think, a growing will to reunite the international community behind the humanitarian and reconstruction effort in Iraq.

As I made clear in my previous statement, the immediate responsibility for humanitarian support for the people of Iraq in the territory that they occupy lies with the US and UK military forces, in line with their duties under the Geneva and Hague conventions. My Department is providing humanitarian advice to the UK military and the Treasury has agreed to provide £30 million to ensure that UK forces can play their role. The US Administration have made their own plans with the help of USAID.

The UN humanitarian system has also made detailed preparations to resume its role in Iraq and provide for refugees, displaced people and continuing humanitarian needs. The UN employs 1,000 international staff, who have recently been withdrawn from Iraq, and 4,000 local staff in Iraq, and has considerable experience of working in the country. My Department has contributed £13 million to help UN agencies to make preparations to resume their work in Iraq and prepare for the possible consequences of conflict. We are expecting a flash appeal to occur shortly so that they can make their plans operational. We will make an appropriate contribution. The UN will return as soon as it is possible to do so.

We provide regular briefings to non-governmental organisations with the experience and capacity to work in Iraq to enable them to plan to take up their role, and we are urgently assessing their funding requests. We also strongly support the International Committee of the Red Cross, which has a critical role to play as it can operate in the acute conflict phase and is a highly effective and impressive organisation. We have provided £2.5 million for the ICRC's work in Iraq this year and also expect to respond to its appeal, which has just been received.

However, it is important that we are all clear that the most important humanitarian priority is to restore the operation of the oil-for-food programme. To achieve this, there is a need for a new Security Council resolution to give the Secretary-General authority to continue to operate the programme. The Secretary-General is making preparations and we are supporting his efforts to ensure that a suitable resolution is passed.

The scale of the programme is massive. It spends $10 billion a year and is funded by the sale of Iraqi oil. Almost all Iraqis receive assistance from the oil-for-food programme and 16 million are totally dependent on it for their daily survival. I should, however, say that they were given a couple of months supply before the conflict began. People are supplied for the time being, but we need to get the programme up and running very quickly.

The programme provides not only food but water, fuel, medicines and other basic requirements. It is organised through 45,000 local distribution centres, which are all run by Iraqis. If the programme were not reinstated, it would be difficult to avoid a serious humanitarian crisis. We are therefore committed to supporting the Secretary-General of the United Nations in every way possible to get the oil-for-food programme up and running again as rapidly as possible. Talks in New York toward a resolution are positive and we hope that the resolution will be secured so that the international community will be ready to go forward.

At the same time, we are making preparations for the reconstruction of Iraq after Saddam Hussein's regime has gone. It is clear that we can rise to that challenge only if we heal the rifts in the international community and engage all major players in supporting the people of Iraq to rebuild their country. The UN must provide a mandate for the reconstruction effort because that is a precondition for the engagement of the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and many countries. Their engagement is key to the reforms that are needed to move the economy forward and to secure an agreement on debt rescheduling and a reparations strategy that will enable the Iraqi economy to recover and grow. I held detailed talks with officials of the UN and the US Administration about how that might be achieved and I am hopeful that we will soon make progress in line with the agreements reached between the Prime Minister and President Bush in the Azores.

As the House is aware, a precondition for the reduction of division, bitterness and anger about double standards in the wider region is progress on the middle east peace process, as the Prime Minister has said. The UK's efforts were crucial in getting President Bush's commitment to publish the road map toward the establishment of a Palestinian state by 2005. That, and Abu Mazen's appointment as the new Palestinian Prime Minister, offer the chance of a way forward. The Government are committed to driving forward the process to bring hope and peace to a new Palestinian state and security to Israel. I discussed the issue with Department of State and National Security Council representatives who said that President Bush was determined to take the commitment forward. The IMF and World Bank also have detailed plans to provide support. We are all aware that full implementation of the road map will not be easy, but it is essential.

There is a sense of regret and dismay among the UN, the IMF and the World Bank about the divisions that were allowed to arise during the international community's handling of the Iraq crisis. There is agreement that our duty now is to minimise the suffering of the people of Iraq during the conflict and to ensure that humanitarian relief and support for reconstruction is in place. That requires the healing of international divisions, as Mr. Kennedy said, and I hope that a united effort to provide humanitarian relief for the people of Iraq and to support them in reconstructing their country will help to bring that about.

Last, I make it clear that I shall keep the House regularly updated on the humanitarian situation in Iraq. We have provided a response to the International Development Committee report. Hon. Members must understand that it has been difficult to provide full information to the House before now because so many international agencies were unwilling to be seen as preparing for conflict and for their plans to be publicly available, although we were in touch with them and knew what was going on. That constraint has now been removed and the House will be kept fully informed. Reports on the humanitarian situation will be placed in the Library of the House on each weekday morning.