Iraq: civilians bear the brunt of violence

17-04-2007 Statement

Address by Angelo Gnaedinger, ICRC Director-General at the "International Conference on Addressing the Humanitarian Needs of Refugees and Internally Displaced Persons in Iraq and in Neighbouring Countries",Geneva, 17-18 April, 2007

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Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

I would like to thank the High Commissioner for Refugees for convening this important conference. This is a timely initiative as with each passing day the Iraqi population is plunged into ever deeper deprivation.

We are indeed confronted with a grave failure to ensure respect and protection for the lives and dignity of millions of civilians not taking part in the ongoing violence.

The ICRC therefore appeals first and foremost to all the parties concerned to comply fully with international humanitarian law in Iraq.

Mr Chairman,

" ... bombings, suicide attacks, shootings, abductions, murders, the destruction of civilian property and forced displacements are a daily reality for millions of Iraqis." 
Since 2003, the ICRC, working in close partnership with the Iraqi Red Crescent Society, has been one of the few international humanitarian organizations with a permanent operational presence in Iraq.

In the course of their daily field activities, our colleagues bear witness to the terrible plight of the entire population, with civilians enduring the brunt of the relentless violence.

Indeed, bombings, suicide attacks, shootings, abductions, murders, the destruction of civilian property and forced displacements are a daily reality for millions of Iraqis. In this dreadful situation, and after years of violence, one wonders if a singl e Iraqi family has been spared human and material loss and their accompanying physical and psychological scars.

As we speak, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis are internally displaced or have fled their country, leaving a home, a job, a plot of land, or even close relatives behind. The precarious situation of the internally displaced must be understood in the context of heightened insecurity and decaying infrastructures. Food insecurity and the vastly inadequate water, sewage and electrical power infrastructure exacerbate the hardship of the population and represent a public health hazard.

Health facilities are stretched to the limit as they struggle to cope with daily emergencies caused by mass casualties. Because of the security situation, many wounded or sick cannot safely access hospitals and clinics. Patients and medical staff are threatened or targeted. As a result, medical personnel are fleeing the country in large numbers, leaving health facilities short of staff.

Medical-legal facilities are struggling to cope with the rising influx of bodies, contending with insufficient capacity to store them properly or to systematically gather data on unidentified bodies in order to allow families to be informed of a relative’s death. In 2006, an estimated 100 civilians were killed every day. Half of them remained unclaimed or unidentified. Thousands of unidentified bodies have thus been buried in designated cemeteries in Iraq.

Meanwhile tens of thousands are being held in the custody of the Iraqi authorities and the multinational forces in Iraq. At the same time, tens of thousands of families remain without news of relatives who went missing during past and recent conflicts.

Mr Chairman,


My brief description of the dire situation in Iraq begs the question, what can we do to preserve a sense of human dignity for the I raqi population? Even more to the point in the prevailing security situation, how are we to do it?

The harsh operational reality of the Iraqi context has further reinforced our conviction that the ICRC must continue to follow a principled approach of impartial, neutral and independent action while being very flexible and innovative in terms of its modus operandi.

Since the bomb attacks on the United Nations office and the ICRC delegation in August and October 2003 respectively, the ICRC has repeatedly had to review its operational set-up in Iraq. It has consistently confirmed its determination to pursue its humanitarian mission in Iraq, focusing on the needs of civilians affected by the conflict.

Groups of internally displaced have a major impact on host communities, and the ICRC therefore takes care to balance its assistance for IDPs with complementary support for the resident populations among whom they have taken refuge.

"...for the sake of practical and immediate action in aid of millions of Iraqis, we plead with all of you to preserve a space for impartial, neutral and independent humanitarian action" 
The ICRC is also visiting tens of thousands of persons detained in connection with the armed conflict in Iraq, helping families of detainees visit their relatives, collecting and distributing Red Cross Messages, backing efforts to clarify the fate of thousands of missing persons from three consecutive conflicts, providing medicines and surgical supplies to medical facilities and medical supplies to medical-legal facilities, carrying out maintenance and repair work to ensure emergency water supplies, and providing material and financial support to centres caring for the physically handicapped and amputees.

The impact of these activities is greatly enhanced by the fact that the ICRC is working in close cooperation wi th the Iraqi Red Crescent Society, which has remained operational despite the killing of 14 of its staff and volunteers, the abduction of 45 others, 12 of whom remain unaccounted for, and the numerous attacks on its offices, warehouses and convoys. I take this opportunity to once again warmly salute and pay tribute to the courage and tenacity shown by Iraqi Red Crescent staff and volunteers all over the country.

We nevertheless have to be honest about the difficulties, the security constraints and the limited access. In stating what we are able to achieve – and I believe it is significant – there is no pretending that we are anywhere near to covering the multiple needs of the Iraqi population. In fact, these needs go far beyond what humanitarian practitioners are able to address. What is required is more than emergency aid.

Mr Chairman,

In conclusion, I wish to emphasize yet again the relevance and the added value of impartial, neutral and independent humanitarian action. We are aware that such action does not address the root causes of the current dramatic situation in Iraq.

Still, for the sake of practical and immediate action in aid of millions of Iraqi civilians in distress, we plead with all of you to preserve the space for such principled humanitarian action. We can only operate effectively if we are not perceived as acting on behalf of, or together with, any of the political or military players involved. The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement's credibility, security and access to all Iraqis in need of help depend on this. 

We realize, of course, that the activities carried out by the ICRC and the Iraqi Red Crescent Society are only a drop in an ocean of immense need. We are therefore glad to work in a coordinated manner with other humanitarian players.

With reg ard to the refugee situation in neighbouring countries, we are working closely with the National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies concerned, as well as with their International Federation. Our colleagues from the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement will outline their plans in this respect later in the day.

One final word: humanitarian action only addresses the consequences of the current armed conflict in Iraq, where civilians are the main victims of continued violations of humanitarian law. The ICRC therefore once again calls on all parties in Iraq to protect and spare civilians. It also urges all those who have influence on the ground to ensure that the civilian population has adequate access to vital services such as health care, water, food and electricity.

Thank you for your attention.