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Leaving Room for Humanity

15-03-2003 Article, Financial Times, by Angelo Gnaedinger

As the military build-up in the Middle East gathers pace, it is important that we pause and remind ourselves of what war does to people and communities. We need to ask ourselves whether everything possible and necessary is being done to protect the people of Iraq and the region against the suffering caused by another man-made disaster. Published under "Remember the human suffering caused by war" in the Financial Times, 15 March 2003. Angelo Gnaedinger is Director-General of the ICRC

 By Angelo Gnaedinger, Director General of the ICRC. Original version from the ICRC.  

It is neither my role nor intention to comment on the legitimacy of the decisions that may lead to military hostilities. Yet, as the Director General of an organization called upon to relieve suffering and extend protection to people caught up in armed conflict, it is my duty to warn all potential belligerents about the human cost of war. I call on them to do everything in their power to save the lives of all people under their responsibility , and to preserve their security and dignity.

Life in Iraq is indeed grim following twelve years of economic sanctions and two devastating wars which have drastically weakened the Iraqi population, leaving most of it dependent on humanitarian aid. Basic services - such as health care, water supplies and sewage disposal - are insufficiently equipped and operate well below capacity in many areas.

While scenarios are elaborated and debated by political and military analysts and other specialists, we must not lose sight of the fact that war causes human suffering, and that its dynamics and outcome cannot be controlled as easily as plans and preparations may imply. Twenty-three million people live in Iraq's cities and villages. Their security and well-being is the responsibility of all those who take political and military decisions about Iraq. Their fate should be at the heart of all current discussions and decision-making.

If a war is fought all combatants must behave in a way that prevents indiscriminate a nd excessive suffering and destruction. International humanitarian law, which has almost universal support, prohibits direct attacks on civilians and stipulates that everything possible must be done to minimize incidental civilian deaths and injuries. Furthermore, combatants must avoid damaging or destroying vital structures such as food stocks, agricultural land or water supply systems.

These provisions can only become a reality on the ground if the warring parties do not use weapons that indiscriminately kill and maim, cause excessive and long-lasting suffering and damage or pose long-term threats to health and security.

During the last Gulf War, tens of thousands of persons from both sides were detained as prisoners of war or internees. It is essential that everyone in this situation is treated humanely and in accordance with the Geneva Conventions. The potential conflict parties must also do everything possible to care for the sick and wounded, whether combatants or civilians, enemy or friend. This implies that combatants respect and facilitate the work of medical staff and facilities protected by the red cross and red crescent emblems. In addition, all belligerents should do their utmost to ensure that humanitarian organizations can bring medical care and emergency relief to any persons and groups in need.

If war cannot be avoided, everything needs to be done to mitigate its harmful impact and to contain its detrimental effect on the safety and stability of the region. Much of this depends on how the actual hostilities are conducted and on the space given to human dignity and integrity in the midst of turmoil. The International Committee of the Red Cross is determined to stand in that space, motivated by the only criteria which animates humanitarian action: the needs of the people and their right for help and protection under international humanitarian law.