Thursday, March 27, 2003

What are the relief agencies themselves saying about the humanitarian effort in Iraq so far?

The International Rescue Committee, founded in the early 1930s to help Jews escape Nazi Germany, now operates in more than 30 countries, including the United States, "working with people uprooted by war, civil conflict or ethnic persecution." The hed on the IRC's top press release about Iraq (granted, it's a mouthful): American Aid Groups Are Being Shut Out of Iraq by U.S. Sanctions, Says International Rescue Committee; President Bush Could Fix Problem with Stroke of a Pen.

The piece, dated March 20, 2003, states that the U.S. government is hindering the efforts of American aid organizations to provide humanitarian assistance in Iraq. IRC president George Rupp is quoted as saying, "We are effectively being shut out of central and southern Iraq, and the rules are still restrictive for Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq. . . . Even in the middle of a looming humanitarian crisis, aid organizations are subject to rules that rival the IRS Code in complexity and that require licenses and permissions from separate government agencies that take days or even weeks to obtain. The amount of red tape is completely counterproductive."

Here I think it's worth remembering that sanctions against Iraq have also prevented relief groups from working in the country, and those sanctions remain in force. Thus Rupp's claim: "President Bush can resolve the problem with the stroke of a pen."

For more info on the IRC's plans to aid Iraqis, visit here.

Doctors Without Borders, "founded in 1971 by a small group of French doctors who believed that all people have the right to medical care regardless of race, religion, creed or political affiliation, and that the needs of these people supersede respect for national borders," carries a press release on its Web site saying the organization sent two truckloads of medical supplies yesterday, March 26, to Baghdad from Amman, Jordan. I quote: "The 10 tons of supplies include materials for 300 surgeries, post-operative medicines, water and sanitation supplies, and some nutritional material."

MSF (the group is known by its French acronym) also has a six-person team in Baghdad -- "volunteers from Italy, France, Austria, Norway, Sudan, and Algeria" -- working "at the 250-bed al-Kindi General Hospital."

The piece makes no mention of U.S. policy, except to note that "MSF has notified the relevant coalition and Iraqi officials about this convoy."

The homepage of Doctors Without Borders also offers a link to a transcript of an online chat with MSF's executive director, Nicholas de Torrente, published yesterday in the Washington Post. I recommend it.

Clearly the organization takes pains not to criticize directly any government. Take, for instance, this exchange, in which de Torrente dodges the question of Saddam Hussein's hindrance of relief efforts for his own political gain:

Wheaton, Md.: Is it true that Saddam Hussein has resisted assistance from organizations like yours in order to allow civilians' conditions to deteriorate and blame the UN sanctions?

Nicolas de Torrente: We attempted, over the last ten years, to establish humanitarian programs in Iraq, but until very recently we were frustrated in our attempts to get approval from the authorities to carry out humanitarian aid based on the principles we always apply: we want to be able to directly assess the needs, we want to directly work alongside the population and monitor that assistance is actually reaching them. This yardstick we apply is of course to prevent manipulation of our aid. With the onset of the conflict however, anticipating the emergency needs, Iraqi medical personnel were very interesting in receiving support from an international emergency medical organization, and our working relations with our medical colleagues in the hospital has been good.

Asked by a chatter in Dallas, Texas, "whether coalition forces have disrupted the flow of food distributed by the oil-for-food program," de Torrente simply notes that the oil-for-food program was suspended when U.N. staff pulled out of Iraq [in mid-March] and that "there is nothing new coming into the pipeline."

One pesky New Yorker asks: "Are you worried about confusion between independent humanitarian aid and U.S. military aid in Iraq?"

De Torrente replies: "The US, as an occupying power, has the responsibility to provide for the needs of the population in the areas it controls. Distribution of relief supplies therefore have to be organized, and they should be equitable and cover needs, and we expect this to happen for the benefit of the population. Of course, there are also public-relations gains that the US expects from this provision of relief to the Iraqi population, and we should be watchful to make sure that the reality of aid matches the discourse. Humanitarian aid is distinct from any attempt to win over 'hearts and minds' by providing aid in that it does not have any other agenda than helping people, whoever they are and wherever they may be, on the basis of need alone. The danger is that, if independent humanitarian aid efforts, and independent aid organizations, are seen as part of the military-led relief effort, it can have serious consequences in terms of security and access to people in need. Aid workers can become a target, particularly in a war zone that is tense, volatile and politically charged. Our protection is our humanitarian identity, and it cannot be compromised. What we need from the military is a clear distinction (military always wearing uniforms while carrying out relief for instance). The military should also allow for independent access. For our part, we should also operate distinctly and independently (no participation in armed convoys for instance). As a clear sign of our operational independence we take no money from any belligerant in any conflict, in this case the US, UK, and other coalition partners."

Asked about the current situation in Baghdad, de Torrente says, in part: "So far, hospitals have been able to cope with the needs. But, if they increase, and if insecurity rises, we can anticipate shortages of supplies and possibly the fact that Iraqi medical personnel would no longer come to work, as happens in other conflicts."

I wanted to visit a few more organizations involved in aid for Iraq, but it seems that time has overtaken me. So I'll conclude with this story filed two days ago by a reporter in northern Kuwait for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, titled "Iraq: Desert Dispatch -- First Shipments Of Humanitarian Aid Trickling In" -- not very edifying, I realize. But hey, I had to end it sometime. I've got work to do. See you later.