Iraqis' suffering can be made worse
By Barbara Stocking*
* The writer is director of Oxfam.
International Herald Tribune - 27 Dec:
Don't go to war
OXFORD, England Iraq is not only on the brink of war. It is teetering on the
edge of a humanitarian disaster. Child mortality rates have rocketed since
the United Nations imposed sanctions in 1990. Up to 16 million people - more
than two-thirds of the population - already rely on a fragile system of food
aid for their survival.
What are we planning to do about this? The United States and Britain are
gearing up for war. Oxfam has 60 years experience of working in conflict. We
know the impact that military action has on civilians. In some cases, as in
Rwanda, military action is necessary to save lives and is justified. But, on
the basis of our experience and the current evidence, we cannot see how a
military strike on Iraq can be justified, nor indeed how such an attack could
be waged without violating international humanitarian law.
Iraq's economy is already devastated. Even with the food rationing system set
up by the international community, malnutrition is widespread, especially
among women and children.
A recent visit to Iraq by aid agency experts, including an Oxfam specialist,
confirmed that the water and sanitation system is on the verge of collapse.
Most urban homes get piped water but two-thirds of it is untreated. In rural
parts of central and southern Iraq, Unicef says only 46 percent of homes have
piped water. In the towns, the trucks that empty cesspits and septic tanks
are not working properly because there are no spares, tires and batteries.
Sewage flows back into people's houses.
Iraq's water and sanitation system depends on an electrical supply that was
crippled during the 1991 air strikes. Eleven years later, it is thought that
one-third of the national power supply is still down. Most water treatment
plants have their own generators, but 70 percent of them don't work.
Any military action that damages power supplies will inevitably destroy the
already fragile water and sanitation system. Inevitably, disease will sweep
through the population. Any attack that affects roads, ports or railways will
lead to the collapse of the system of food distribution upon which the bulk
of Iraq's population depends.
Article 54 of Additional Protocol 1 of the Geneva convention prohibits
attacks upon "objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian
population." In Iraq, this must be taken to include ports, roads, railways
and power lines. The convention states that "in no event shall actions
against these objects be taken which may be expected to leave the civilian
population with such inadequate food or water as to cause its starvation or
force its movement."
Given this, how can an attack on Iraq fail to violate international
Weapons of mass destruction are a real threat to global stability. But in
this case the advocates of military action have failed to demonstrate that
Iraqi weapons of mass destruction pose such an imminent threat that the risks
to the civilian population can be outweighed.
It is dangerous to assume that the suffering of Iraq's people, from Iraqi
government policy as well as from 12 years of inept sanctions, could not get
any worse. A military attack on Iraq could worsen it.