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Note to the Security Council: Get Involved

Author: David L. Phillips, Executive Director, The Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity
March 21, 2003
The New York Times

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Saddam Hussein may try to slow the advance of United States forces on Baghdad by creating a humanitarian emergency, which American troops would be compelled to contain. The United Nations can help shorten the war by renewing its most significant Iraqi humanitarian assistance program -- a program that was suspended this week after the debacle in the Security Council.

The Security Council is still at loggerheads over legalities governing the United Nation's Oil for Food Program. Through the program, the United Nations manages the sale of Iraqi oil and uses the proceeds to purchase food and medicine for its people. Bitter about America's diplomacy, some Security Council members -- notably France and Germany -- believe that endorsing a humanitarian role for the United Nations would validate the military action by the Bush administration. Their obstructionism not only hurts the people of Iraq, it further marginalizes the United Nations.

The involvement of Kofi Annan, the secretary general, is needed immediately to overcome the acrimonious atmosphere on the Security Council. Without Mr. Annan's guidance, the council will remain embroiled in petty politics and, unable to see beyond the horizon, fail to renew the United Nations' mandate for Iraq.

The Oil for Food Program, which began in 1996, has been indispensable. Until its suspension, the program had spent about $30 billion to provide life-saving supplies to 70 percent of the Iraqi population.

Clearly, the United Nations is better qualified to feed and support Iraq's 23 million people than are American armed forces. Resuming United Nations activities would not, however, relieve America of its responsibility to assist civilians in armed conflict. The Pentagon has extensive plans to provide for Iraq's refugees. Countries bordering Iraq are stockpiling food supplies, and international relief organizations are working around the clock.

But the overall effort is hampered by cash-flow problems. The United States is scrambling to find funds until Congress approves spending for Iraq. To fill the breach, the United Nations should expeditiously release the $14.9 billion in program funds it is holding.

Of course, even more resources will be needed to assist Iraq after the war. To this end, the United Nations could play a pivotal role by managing international investment to upgrade Iraqi oil production. Oil proceeds, filtered through a United Nations trust fund, could then be used to assist with Iraq's reconstruction. Pumping two million barrels of Iraqi oil each day would generate at least $40 million daily for the country's recovery.

As he has in other crises, the secretary general should get more engaged in prodding the Security Council to act. Resuming United Nations activities would serve the people of Iraq, and help relieve United States forces of their role as primary assistance providers. It would also restore the United Nations' credibility by demonstrating that it can play an essential role providing for the people of Iraq -- both during the war and afterward.


David L. Phillips is a senior fellow and deputy director of the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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