Humanitarian Concerns for the War in Iraq

As an independent, impartial humanitarian relief organization, Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) seeks to provide medical care to civilians trapped by violence regardless of politics, nationality, race, religion, ethnicity, or gender. Whether it's in Ivory Coast, Afghanistan, Liberia, or the other conflicts around the world where MSF works, our doctors and nurses bear witness as they try to deliver life-saving assistance.

MSF is concerned about the impact the escalating war against Iraq will have on those in Iraq and neighboring countries. A 6-person international medical team from MSF, as well as growing teams in Iran, Jordan, and Syria will continue to assess the human needs as they arise and try to provide whatever assistance might be necessary and possible.

MSF does not take a position for or against war. But as the military assault escalates in Iraq, MSF has several concerns: the conduct of war and the avoidance of human suffering, the right of civilians to seek refuge in safe areas, the right for independent humanitarian organizations to access populations in need, and the diversion of attention and assistance from other urgent humanitarian needs around the world.

Conduct of War

MSF feels it is imperative that warring parties minimize the impact on civilians and prevent human suffering. Civilians should not be targeted, nor should goods or assets essential to human survival. Indiscriminate weapons that do not distinguish between military targets and civilians should not be used.

The use of weapons of mass destruction is also of great concern, particularly since neither party to the conflict in Iraq has ruled out their use. In addition, humanitarian organizations are not adequately prepared to assist victims of attacks with biological, chemical, or nuclear weapons.

Also, civilians must not be used as "human shields" or purposely moved to or prevented from evacuating unsafe areas. Parties to the conflict must also treat prisoners of war in accordance with international law.

The Right to Flee

Under international conventions, people have the right to seek refuge from war and repression in safe areas, including the right to seek safe haven in other countries. During the war in Afghanistan, several countries closed their borders to Afghan civilians attempting to escape the fighting. Hundreds of thousands were forced to live in unsafe refugee camps set up inside or along the Afghan border. Even today, tens of thousands fleeing fighting in parts of Afghanistan have amassed in unprotected and under-served camps.

During the war in Iraq, borders must be kept open to allow Iraqi civilians the right to seek safety abroad if and as long as they deem necessary. Already, several neighboring countries have closed their borders to people who are seeking a safe haven from the ravages of war.

Access for independent humanitarian aid to victims

War devastates the survival needs of civilians - particularly in the area of food supplies, water and sanitation, and health. It is crucial that independent humanitarian organizations are allowed free, independent access to assess the needs as they develop and ensure that relief is provided in accordance with real needs free of political or military aims. Unhindered access for humanitarian organizations is legally protected and cannot be obstructed by arguments that warring parties are attending to these needs themselves.

Of course there is no monopoly on providing assistance to civilians, and warring parties have obligations to provide basic aid to populations in areas they occupy by force. This assistance, though, should be effective, equitable, and cover actual needs. MSF is concerned that mixing humanitarian and military agendas in the war in Iraq could lead to real needs for the most vulnerable people going unmet. US officials have talked about using non-governmental organizations as "force multipliers" in the war effort, particularly in the campaign to "win the hearts and minds" of Iraqi civilians. Non-governmental organizations, particularly those largely funded by the US government, have been encouraged to coordinate their relief activities with the military Such language and activities threaten the neutrality and independence of humanitarian organizations as distinct from warring parties and seriously undermine the fundamental necessity for humanitarian assistance to be driven by no other purpose except the response to needs. Assistance that is politically or public relations motivated, or perceived as such, can lead to discrimination against certain communities or undermine the security of humanitarian aid workers.

Diversion of aid and attention from other humanitarian needs

War in Iraq has already diverted scarce aid and attention from the enormous humanitarian needs around the world. Reconstruction of Afghanistan is far from complete, deadly conflicts persist in Burundi, Colombia, and Liberia, and the AIDS pandemic continues to kill millions worldwide. With donor and media attention focused on the war in Iraq, other urgent crises will not receive the funding or assistance they desperately need.