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Preparing for Unpleasant Surprises

Authors: Arthur C. Helton, and Gil Loescher
January 15, 2003


Coordination between the military, United Nations (UN) relief organisations, and international non-governmental organisations (NGOs) becomes a paramount issue in the throes of high-profile complex international operations authorised by the UN Security Council, such as the operation anticipated in Iraq (see an earlier article).

As the prospect of war on Iraq looms, humanitarians are busy imagining horrific worst case scenarios, involving injuries to hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians (see a recently-leaked confidential UN report). Any planning discussions that are taking place are fragmented, with limited communication between planners in government, the UN and NGOs. Actual preparations are limited by political, bureaucratic and funding constraints. Nor is there a way to formulate anything like a coordinated strategy to deal with humanitarian issues as a conflict plays out, or in its immediate aftermath. But such is the nature of our system.

On the military side, a penchant for contingency planning has already led the Pentagon to set up a humanitarian operations centre in Kuwait as part of the US military headquarters there. American NGOs are discussing placing an observer in this centre.

NGOs from the US currently have little or no presence in Iraq. They attend informational meetings with the State Department, USAID and the Pentagon, but have found it difficult to obtain a US government licence to carry out needs assessments in Iraq. The US has provided $6 million to NGOs to plan for the future of Iraq, and government funding may subsidise an NGO support unit to be located in Amman, Jordan.

The UN humanitarian agencies have each prepared contingency plans and a system-wide coordination effort is being overseen by the Deputy Secretary General. Donor governments have acquiesced in the release of $20 million in reserve funds in order to permit agencies to pre-position personnel and material to respond to possible human displacement and other problems. These UN preparatory arrangements have been made largely out of public view so as not to signal a prejudgement about the outcome of weapons inspections or the inevitability of war. NGOs have had only limited access to this UN planning process, even though they will be implementers of any UN operation in Iraq. Nine different UN agencies are already present in Iraq.

Contacts between the UN and US military in anticipation of armed conflict have been a sensitive matter. Humanitarians are concerned that too close an identification with those who wage war could jeopardise the security of their operations in country.

The Oil-for-Food programme: past and future

Humanitarian planners must wrestle with the impacts of several years of economic sanctions, and a unique effort to mitigate their impact on ordinary Iraqis – the UN Oil-for-Food programme. This started in 1996 as the results of sanctions approved by the UN Security Council in 1990 (after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait) became apparent. Implementation had been delayed by long negotiations with the Iraqi authorities. The accord permitted Iraq to sell up to $2 billion over a 180-day period in a given year, a ceiling which was subsequently relaxed and finally lifted in 1999.

Since the inception of the programme in December 1996, 3.26 billion barrels of Iraqi oil valued at almost $60 billion have been exported, and the programme has expanded into a variety of new social sectors. Approximately $25 billion worth of humanitarian supplies and equipment have been delivered to Iraq under this arrangement since 1996.

Oil-for-Food has approximately 1000 international staff, 900 of whom are in Iraq, and 3,400 local staff, 2,400 of whom are in the northern ‘governorates’, where the Kurdish factions are in control, and where the UN administers the programme for the Iraqi government. In the event of conflict, international staff are likely to be withdrawn, as was the case in Afghanistan. The ensuing disruption could adversely affect millions of Iraqis.

The Oil-for-Food programme is also being assessed as a potential funding source by those trying to envision a post-conflict Iraq. But it is far from clear that oil revenues could fund the wide array of past claims and future expenditures associated with state building. Recently, the volume and value of Iraqi oil exports have dropped. According to a recent study by the Council on Foreign Relations and the Baker Institute, it could take between 18 months and three years to return Iraq to its pre-1990 oil production level of 3.5 million barrels per day. Also, the report issued by these two think tanks estimates that it will cost $5 billion to repair Iraq’s oil facilities.

Learning the lessons of 1991

Constraints on humanitarian planning might be mitigated to some extent by establishing a new civilian institutional bridge between military and humanitarian planners. But such an innovation would not address other serious problems, such as an inevitable mismatch between the dire needs of a vulnerable population and the difficulties in organising the timely arrival of relief aid in the course of conflict or its immediate aftermath.

In April 1991, when over one million Kurds fled to Turkey and Iran after the Iraqi military put down a lightly-armed rebellion, deaths among the Kurds along the border with Turkey from starvation, malnutrition, exposure and disease quickly climbed to over 1,000 per day. No relief organisations were present, necessitating the use of military assets for air drops and the delivery of supplies over land. Ultimately, a ‘security zone’ was established in northern Iraq and the relief operation was turned over to the UN, but only after the agency had negotiated an agreement with the government of Iraq that permitted operations on its territory.

The US military was eager in 1991 to avoid an indefinite commitment and to hand over relief efforts to the UN. But ambiguities in the UN Security Council resolution, which purported to authorise a military intervention by like-minded states, prompted the world body to seek Iraq’s consent for operations, which in turn caused delays in the relief effort.

Operation Provide Comfort, as it was then called, was an ad hoc effort to address an unanticipated human catastrophe. But this is a normal feature of humanitarian action in an era increasingly characterised by uncertainty and surprise. As a US State Department report noted on the lessons learned from the 1991 Iraqi refugee crisis: ‘Pre-planning for emergencies cannot anticipate every emergency which might arise. The planning done for Iraqi refugee flows benefited to a limited degree the response to the actual crisis. But the planning done did not anticipate the real crisis experienced.’

The overarching lesson from the 1991 crisis is that there is a need for more effective coordination and a capacity to innovate astutely. At a minimum, this requires the ability to retrieve lessons from past operations and apply them on a real-time basis to current operations – a customary weakness in humanitarian action. This is a problem that will be on display once again should there be war on Iraq.

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