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The way ahead in Iraq

05-05-2003 Report

ICRC Delegate-General for the Middle East and North Africa, Balthasar Staehelin, underlines the risks of un-coordinated assistance in Iraq that ignores the current realities, and explains the legal implications of foreign occupation for humanitarian activities.


Addressing the vital needs of the Iraqi population these days calls for a better effort than distributing boxes of drugs or food. The challenges presently facing the country are predominantly structural: continuing insecurity hampers the operation of basic services; care for the sick and wounded has to be dispensed in an improvised and ad hoc fashion where possible; and most staff working in public services are without guidance as to their tasks and pay. In the absence of effective plans and responsible management, simply throwing aid at the existing problems will have only a limited impact.

To help the Iraqi population in its hour of need, it is necessary to agree quickly on who is responsible for what and then to act on these responsibilities purposefully. The Coalition forces, in their role of occupying power, have a key part to play in stabilizing the situation and in enabling Iraqi civilian personnel and s tructures to resume their functions.

Under international humanitarian law, occupation is by its very nature temporary and involves no appropriation of sovereignty by the occupying power. The laws and regulations governing occupation aim to preserve the best interests and safety of the civilian population living under the control of a foreign power, thus helping to pave the occupied nation’s way to recovery and stability. Such laws and regulations make no judgement as to the legitimacy or illegitimacy of a belligerent intervention or occupation. They apply irrespective of the reasons for going to war or for taking control of a foreign territory.

"The occupying power must ensure that people in the territory under its control can continue to live as normally as possible, abiding by their laws, cultural practices and traditions..." 

In short, international humanitarian law states that a belligerent occupation brings about a situation in which the occupying power takes over the territory's administration from the sovereign state, temporarily and in a limited manner. The occupying power must ensure that people in the territory under its control can continue to live as normally as possible, abiding by their laws, cultural practices and traditions. 

The collapse of the former Iraqi government and the ensuing public disorder have caused havoc in the civil administration and services and in all sectors of trade and business. To facilitate their resumption, to ensure that people have full access to vital goods and services, and to enable people to return to their work, the Coalition forces must first and foremost seek to restore and maintain order and safety in all places under their control and must conti nue to do so for as long as they occupy Iraq.

Furthermore, they will need to use all means available to ensure that public services, food and other supplies are available to the population at all times and to the fullest extent of the means available to them. This should be achieved primarily in cooperation with Iraqi public servants, at both national and local levels, by reaffirming their responsibilities and supporting them in the execution of their tasks.

Independent humanitarian organizations such as the ICRC can supplement such efforts by meeting emergency needs, but they cannot relieve the occupying power of its responsibilities under the law, nor can they replace national services. Neither will the ICRC ever be part of any process to establish new governance for Iraq. Instead, the ICRC and its partners in the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement will work independently to respond to the most pressing yet unfulfilled needs of the Iraqi population, without discrimination as to sex, age or political, ethnic or religious affiliation. In doing so, they will strive to work alongside skilled and knowledgeable Iraqis – as they have done over the past 23 years and during the recent hostilities.

The ICRC will also draw on its considerable experience of armed conflict situations to alert the occupying power to any problems in Iraq that may threaten the health or security of the population. It will work to fully accomplish its mandate to visit persons detained in connection with the war and the occupation and to monitor their condition and treatment. Last not least, it will endeavour to restore contacts between members of Iraqi families who have become separated and continue as well as strengthen its efforts to address the painful issue of persons unaccounted for due to the past armed conflicts and violence in Iraq.

The people of Iraq are presently facing the enormous tasks of restorin g security and stability, meeting their material needs rapidly and self-sufficiently and restarting their health and other public services. In my view, these tasks can be carried out most effectively if the Coalition forces protect the population and all civilian structures while promoting the free reorganization of Iraqi civil society and granting space for independent humanitarian action. This separation of roles and responsibilities will help to prevent dangerous confusion and confrontation in what remains a tense transitional situation. Ultimately, such an approach will facilitate the practical implementation of the Fourth Geneva Convention, to the benefit of the Iraqi population.