In the last two decades, the Iraqi people have endured two major wars and are in the midst of a third; in addition, their land has been scarred by internal conflicts and uprisings, and 12 years of punitive sanctions have taken a painful toll. A country once rated among the most developed in the Middle East has seen its infrastructure crumble; the Iraqi people lack clean water, health care, medical supplies and sanitation.
A million Iraqi children under the age of 5, by Unicef estimates, suffer from chronic malnutrition; more than 60 percent of the population is entirely dependent on rations brought in under the UN oil-for-food program. Half the pregnant women in Iraq are anemic because they do not consume enough protein and iron. War, and the attendant disruption of essential services and supplies, could make things worse, leaving millions without access to foodstuffs and potable water.
Many Iraqis could flee to neighboring countries. If they do, UN agencies are ready to help them. It is vital that all neighboring states keep their borders open to refugees seeking sanctuary. The United Nations has prepositioned essential supplies - food, shelter, medicines - in the region that would be adequate to cope initially with an outflow of up to 2 million people for a month. But the UN appeal, begun in December, for $123 million to acquire the necessary means for this work remains severely underfunded: only $45 million has come in so far.
As war rages, the United Nations will need to appeal for even larger amounts of money, in particular to feed and assist the Iraqi people at the end of the conflict. In the meantime, the secretary-general has written to the Security Council seeking authority over the resources of the oil-for-food program, to use some of these for immediate emergency purposes.
Immediate humanitarian relief is a responsibility for which the United Nations has what might be called a generic mandate, emerging from the statutes that established its agencies, funds and programs. The United Nations has quietly being doing thorough and well-coordinated contingency planning for what has now occurred, and it is, as a result, readier now than for most previous crises, which often caught the international system unprepared.
At the same time, it must be stressed that under international law, the responsibility for protecting civilians caught up in war or conflict falls on the belligerents. Theirs is the primary responsibility within Iraq; indeed, the UN evacuated its international staff at the onset of war. Though the brave national staff of Unicef and the World Food Program are still at work in Iraq, the UN as a whole cannot be said to be fully operational there.
There are suggestions that the UN could be asked to do more. Four years ago, another military conflict not sanctioned by the UN resulted in a Security Council resolution that asked the UN to legitimate the postwar dispensation in Kosovo and run the civil administration there. Some have suggested that history could repeat itself and a UN deemed irrelevant to the war in Iraq could find itself central to the ensuing peace. But as Kofi Annan has made clear, the UN could do nothing beyond its strictly humanitarian work without an authorization provided by a specific mandate from the Security Council.
In any area under military occupation, the responsibility for the welfare of the civilian population falls on the occupying power. Reconstruction, civil administration and issues related to governance structures will all need to be handled after the war. But the members of the Security Council will have to agree before the UN can play a part in any of these.
In the meantime, the UN stands ready to do what it must - provide help to the victims of war, without detracting from the responsibilities of the combatants. And one day, as Iraqis need help to rebuild their lives and society after this ordeal, the international community must not be found wanting.
The writer is UN undersecretary-general for communications and public information.
25 March 2003
U.S.-Led Coalition Works to Protect Iraq's Oil Wells
(Oil will play important part in Iraq's post-war prosperity) (890)
By Scott Miller