May 1, 2004
Published in Harvard Human Rights Journal / Vol. 17
On October 27, 2003, suicide bombers slammed an ambulance packed with explosives into the compound of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Baghdad, killing eighteen civilian bystanders and wounding dozens more.1 Coming just two months after the bombing of the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad that claimed the lives of twenty-three people, including Special Representative of the Secretary-General Sergio Vieira de Mello, the attack on the ICRC sent shockwaves through the aid community.2 There was no mistaking the intentions of the bombers; the attack was a deliberate and targeted assault on civilians and aid workers, a blatant war crime.3
Most startling was the choice of the ICRC as the target of attack. Not only is the ICRC the preeminent humanitarian organization with a specific mandate based in international humanitarian law (IHL), but it, unlike most aid agencies, also has a long history of providing assistance in Iraq. The ICRC provided aid and cared for prisoners of war during the Iran-Iraq war and remained in Iraq throughout both the tumult of the 1990s and the U.S. war with Iraq in 2003.4 After the bombing, aid organizations had to wonder if the ICRC, with its strong record of principled humanitarian action, was not immune to attack, what organization was?
For many aid organizations, the attack on the ICRC jeopardized the possibility of keeping international staff in Iraq, particularly in the central part of the country where hostilities between the U.S. occupation force and insurgents were the most intense. Many organizations withdrew entirely from the country while others, like Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors without Borders (MSF), scaled back their programs and temporarily withdrew international staff.5
The nature of the attacks on the United Nations and the ICRC raised a series of fundamental questions for aid organizations. In contexts like Iraq and Afghanistan, where the United States and other Western powers assertively project their military power in support of ambitious political goals, is there still a space to provide humanitarian aid directly to the population? Are aid organizations irrevocably intertwined with the U.S. and Western agenda in the minds of violent opponents and, even more alarmingly, of the local population? Are the fundamental principles that have typically characterized and guided humanitarian action, in particular impartiality, neutrality, and independence, still valid in such crises? Do aid organizations have choices left other than to seek armed protection and to work in full cooperation with Western military and political forces or to simply retreat?
While security risks immediately captured the attention of aid organizations, they are only one symptom of a much larger problem faced by humanitarian action in Iraq. A striking characteristic of the Iraq war and its aftermath is that at junctures when Iraqis have most needed humanitarian assistance, it has been both very difficult and dangerous for humanitarian organizations to provide it. At the height of the U.S. bombing and ground offensive, for example, Iraqi medical services were essentially left to fend for themselves in treating thousands of war-wounded patients in Baghdad and other besieged cities.6 Immediately after the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime, emergency relief efforts were paralyzed as basic services collapsed due to looting, political upheaval, and, in hospitals, administrative chaos.7 And now, months later, aid workers have become targets of attack, regardless of whether they work closely with the Coalition Provisional Authority.8
The fundamental aim of humanitarian action, to ensure that non-combatants are spared from undue violence and receive necessary and adequate assistance, is never easy to achieve during war. But why was the ability of humanitarian organizations to reach out independently and help victims, when and where they needed it the most, so limited and so compromised in Iraq?
The most immediate explanations highlight the most critical responsibilities. Saddam Hussein's government severely restricted humanitarian aid operations in violation of IHL, and violent opponents of the U.S. occupation are now deliberately attacking aid workers and civilians. Responsibility for the obstacles to humanitarian action, however, does not fall entirely on the former government or the insurgents. The manner in which the U.S.-led coalition made the minimization of harm and the provision of relief for Iraqis an integral part of its political and military agenda contributed significantly to the hostility towards humanitarian action and those who deliver it. Aid organizations themselves contributed to the perception that their assistance is an extension of the "hearts and minds" efforts of the United States by not clearly distancing themselves from the United States as a belligerent.
Humanitarian organizations do not have or claim to have a monopoly on assistance. On the contrary, the provision of essential services to the Iraqi people is the responsibility of the political authority in charge, currently the United States as the Occupying Power. To carry out its reconstruction responsibilities, the United States may partner with civilian relief agencies and private contractors. In contrast, humanitarian organizations become relevant and are directed to take action when civilians suffer unduly as a result of political failure, conflict, and crisis.
In Iraq, however, the U.S. government failed to preserve space for the politically independent and principled role of humanitarian organizations. Instead, the United States sought to bring humanitarian aid efforts under its control and claimed that all assistance supports its cause. For example, Secretary of State Colin Powell implied that the presence of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in Iraq is of strategic value for the United States when he declared, following the attack on the ICRC, that if NGOs left Iraq, it would be a victory for the terrorists.9 The U.S. efforts to associate assistance with its political objectives have jeopardized the ability of humanitarian organizations to distinguish themselves from all parties and to provide aid based solely on need during times of crisis.
This Article aims to describe how the U.S.-led coalition contributed to humanitarian action becoming thoroughly and intensely politicized before (Part II), during (Part III), and after the war between the United States and the Saddam Hussein government (Part IV). In addition, implications of the cooptation of humanitarian action during the Iraq crisis for other international crises are examined in light of the ongoing drive to increase the "coherence" between political objectives and humanitarian action (Part V). Before discussing the issues surrounding humanitarian action in Iraq, a brief conceptual discussion of the ambition, principles, and limits of humanitarian action is presented (Part I).
Continued on page 2.
* Executive Director, Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF-USA). MSF is a private independent medical humanitarian organization that delivers emergency aid in nearly eighty countries to victims of armed conflict, epidemics, and natural and man-made disasters. Thanks in particular to Pierre Salignon, Kevin Phelan, Kris Torgeson, J. C. Sylvan, and Mike Beneditkson for their valuable contributions. [back]
© 2013 Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF)