Iraq: Independent Humanitarian Aid Under Attack

Slamming an explosive-packed ambulance into the Baghdad headquarters of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) two weeks ago was a heinous assault on innocent civilians and independent humanitarian aid work and must be condemned in the strongest terms. This and earlier attacks seriously put in doubt the very possibility of providing independent humanitarian aid in Iraq. The result is that Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) and other humanitarian organizations are facing tough questions as to how it is possible to safely continue delivering assistance to the Iraqi people.

Deliberately targeting civilians and independent aid agencies is a war crime. The perpetrators of this attack on the ICRC, an organization with a long history of providing humanitarian assistance to Iraqis, confront us with the question whether all aid organizations could be targets. The attack was an assault on the very heart of humanitarianism.

Actions and statements made by Western officials, however, have only contributed to the vulnerability of humanitarian organizations to attacks. When US Secretary of State Colin Powell was asked whether he was worried if non-governmental organizations (NGOs) were going to pull out of Iraq in the wake of the ICRC attack, he answered that if NGOs leave, "then the terrorists win." Publicly making the presence of NGOs a political issue in the ongoing conflict echoes a familiar refrain in speeches by US officials since the start of the ‘war on terrorism', for instance when Powell called US NGOs "force multipliers" in the US-led intervention in Afghanistan.

Whether dropping “humanitarian� food packets while simultaneously unloading bombs from warplanes over Afghanistan or deploying military personnel in vehicles marked "humanitarian assistance" in Iraq, the US's attempt to partially justify its military goals as "humanitarian" has seriously undermined the very principle of true humanitarian action: unconditional provision of assistance to those in need without taking sides in a conflict.

MSF's decision to be present in Iraq or any other country is not based on political or military objectives, but on an assessment of human need made in an independent and neutral manner. In the wake of the attack on the ICRC, MSF's seven international staff in Iraq have relocated to Amman, Jordan, where they will evaluate how to continue MSF's work in Iraq against the background of ever-increasing violence and confusion of roles. Meanwhile, MSF's sixty dedicated Iraqi staff continue to run three clinics in Sadr City.

For MSF, independence from political agendas is the cornerstone of our action. We are not part of the US-led Coalition in Iraq nor actors in the war on terrorism or any other war. Those responsible for the attack on the ICRC have made it even more difficult than before for independent aid organizations to continue providing assistance to the Iraqi people. And, each time politicians describe humanitarian aid as an instrument of foreign policy or ask humanitarian organizations to take sides in a conflict, our independence – upon which the safety of our staff and the future of our ability to offer assistance to those in need depends – is further eroded.