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Back to School
Humanitarian Situation
With Roberta Cohen
Brookings Institution Senior Fellow

Friday, March 28, 2003; 10:30 a.m. ET

What is the current humanitarian situation in Iraq? In what ways can coalition forces and international aid groups help? How difficult a task is the aid effort under times of war?

Roberta Cohen, senior fellow in the Foreign Policy Studies program at the Brookings Institution, was online to discuss the humanitarian crisis in Iraq.

Cohen is a specialist in human rights, humanitarian, and refugee issues and a leading expert on the subject of internally displaced persons. She is also the co-director of the Brookings Institution-SAIS Project on Internal Displacement and serves as senior adviser to the Representative of the UN Secretary-General on Internally Displaced Persons.

This discussion is part of the washingtonpost.com Brookings Forum on Iraq series.

The transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

Washington, D.C.: There doesn't currently seem to be any significant refugee flow out of Iraq. What do you perceive to be preventing this movement of people: is it the closed borders of neighboring states or the situation on the ground in Iraq?

Roberta Cohen: So far there have been no refugee flows although UN predictions were for 600,000. This contrasts with the 1991 Gulf War when more than a million Iraqis fled to neighboring countries to escape Saddam Hussein's forces. In this case, the Iraqi forces are on the defensive. But it's also difficult to exit in the middle of the war. Moreover, neighboring states like Iran, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Syria have all publicly announced that they will not accept large numbers of refugees. In the case of Turkey, it will send in its army if large numbers of Kurds flee toward the Turkish borders. So refugee flows may be largely contained. In addition, coalition forces are trying to bring relief to the population so they remain at home. However, if chemical weapons are used, fighting is protracted, and if people receive little food or supplies, cross border movements can certainly be expected.

Washington, D.C.: Dear Ms. Cohen,

Which international agencies will focus on protecting and assisting the internally displaced in Iraq?

Thank you.

Roberta Cohen: Prior to the outbreak of the war, there were more than one million internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the country. Predictions are that there will be another 1 to 2 million, mostly in the center/south of the country, before the war's end. The United Nations has assigned the UN Office for Project Services (UNOPS)to be responsible for IDPs in the north of the country and the International Organization for MIgration (IOM)to be in charge in the center and south. However, the choices are questionable. UNOPS is not an operational agency with little experience in responding to the needs of displaced populations. IOM has little training or background in protection issues, that is making sure that in addition to providing food, medicine and shelter, the physical safety, security and human rights of IDPs are respected. Leading non-governmental organizations have publicly protested these choices and appealed to the UN Secretary-General to allocate operational responsibility to experienced operational agencies like the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and UNICEF.

New York, N.Y.: Why don't we airdrop food and water into Basrah?

Roberta Cohen: We may not need to because the port of Umm Qasr is now opened and the first British ship carrying supplies has arrived and is unloading.

Boise, Idaho: Ms. Cohen, thank you for being here this morning. Do any Arab countries plan to send aid to Iraq, or do you think they will abandon the Iraqi people in there time of need as they do the Palestinians?

Roberta Cohen: We know that Kuwait is sending relief supplies, and no doubt other Arab countries like Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan will do so as well. Neighboring Arab states as well as Iran are making preparations at their borders to help Iraqis fleeing the fighting.

Washington, D.C.: Has opposition to the war in Iraq had any impact on humanitarian relief?

Roberta Cohen: Opposition to the war has had an impact on the humanitarian situation. In the weeks and months leading up to the war, there was a singular lack of preparation on the part of many international humanitarian organizations. Many NGOs and UN agencies did not want to be seen as helping to plan for a war or encourage the march to war. Many donor governments refused to fund contingency planning when organizations did ask, because the donors opposed the war or didn't want to be seen as planning for it.

In addition, opposition to the war has delayed the reactivation by the Security Council of the UN's Oil for Food Program. Russia, France and others have argued that the UN should not coordinate its efforts with coalition troops and thereby legitimize their military actions. This of course has slowed up the delivery of food and is jeopardizing the Iraqi population. It is expected, however, that the Security Council will act shortly to restart the oil for food program.

Arlington, Va.: I work in international donations management and spend a lot of my time discouraging people from collecting used clothing, canned foods and medications and trying to send them to disaster victims overseas. The best way the public can assist is by supporting recognized relief agencies in the field with their cash donations. Do you have examples of inappropriate in-kind donations from the States reaching disaster victims and the reactions of the recipients?

Roberta Cohen: I would agree that sometimes well intentioned donations from individuals or groups here can miss their mark, such as food that isn't accepted by the local population, or clothing that isn't appropriate for the climate. I remember in Ethiopia during the great 1984-85 drought and famine, groups sending blue blazers for Ethiopian children or feta cheese which could not be transported to the famine areas and went to waste. It is best to support experienced organizations that know the country and the needs of its people.

New York, N.Y.: Why did the UN choose to go with UNOPS vs. Unicef/HCR?

Roberta Cohen: UNOPS was already on the ground because it administers the oil for food program. However, that is hardly a persuasive reason when one considers the needs of displaced populations.

Harrisburg, Pa.: Are their numerical estimates on how many people need assistance with food, medicine, and other important supplies, and how many are being served and how many can not be reached? If we can finally reach all who need help, how much more food and supplies is required, and are these supplies readily available?

Roberta Cohen: Most of the Iraqi population, an estimated 16 million people are completely dependent on food aid from abroad and have been for many years because of 12 years of sanctions and Saddam Hussein's policies. 400,000 metric tons of food have to be shipped in every month in order to feed the population. Even before the war, this was the largest humanitarian assistance program in the world. Iraqis reportedly have 5 weeks of food stockpiled but that probably doesn't apply to everyone. It is urgent that more food be provided. In addition, in Basra and other cities in the south the people have been without water for several days, although efforts are being made to restore the water systems.

Glenmont, Md.: Is humanitarian aid the right priority at this time? After all, our allies in Israel ensure humanitarian aid gets to the Palestinians and they're still hated by the terrorists.

Roberta Cohen: Humanitarian aid is imperative for people's survival whether or not the people are grateful to those who provide it. It is a moral imperative, it is a legal imperative under the Geneva Conventions and the United States has the responsibility to ensure the delivery of adequate humanitarian assistance to the people of Iraq.

Cumberland, Md.: While there are major on-going military actions, isn't the UN a rather useless organization to use to get aid into the country? Basically, except in times of peace, isn't UN aid efforts rather "limp" on the whole?

Roberta Cohen: During the actual fighting, it is the military that will have to provide the aid to the people. However, as soon as there are safe areas, humanitarian organizations with long experience in organizing food aid distribution, would be far more effective in delivering relief. UN agencies like the World Food Programme, UNICEF and others have sterling records in relief delivery. Moreover, the International Committee of the Red Cross, which has been inside the country during the fighting, has done an extraordinary job of helping people and getting the water system partially restored in Basra. I say leave it to the experts with long experience in emergency situations.

Wheaton, Md.: Can you confirm that Saddam Hussein has actually prevented humanitarian aid to his people over the past 12 years in order to exploit their condition and blame UN sanctions?

Roberta Cohen: The UN Oil for Food program generated as much as $6 billion a year for Iraqi civilian spending. Yet one million children under the age of 5 remained malnourished even though new palaces went up for Saddam Hussein.

Cumberland, Md.: Doesn't all this wrangling at the UN over the oil for food program, serve to underscore what a useless organization the UN is when "the chips are down?" France and Russia aren't concerned about humanitarian aid -- they are still fighting over the 18th UN resolution.

Roberta Cohen: What it serves to underscore is that it is more important for some states to score political points and express their opposition to the war than to tend to the desperate needs of the Iraqi population. However, the United Nations should not be blamed for this; the organization has been and will continue to be a key provider of international humanitarian aid wherever it is needed worldwide.

Springfield, Va.: Thank you for your efforts to show mercy to the Iraqi people. I wish both leaders would consider what happens to families and communities at these times. Do you think that when you are able to get supplies of water food, and medicine to the people that they will appreciated that they came from caring people in the US?

Roberta Cohen: We should be providing aid because it is a humanitarian imperative, not simply because we want to be appreciated. There are probably many Iraqi civilians who will be grateful for the aid, but many others subjected to bombardment, starvation and no water can not be expected to express great gratitude.

Blacksburg, Va.: If the military can so easily can drop 500 pound bombs at exact targets in the middle of Baghdad, why can't humanitarian aid be dropped/parachuted into the cities as well? I'm sure Arab countries that restrict military overflights would allow UN humanitarian aid to be delivered in this manner.

Roberta Cohen:
The most effective delivery of humanitarian aid is not tossing it out of an airplane. However, if civilians in cities are being starved out, which is not yet the case, the military may have to consider air drops.

Los Angeles, Calif.: Ms. Cohen, is there a plausible argument that more aggressive bombing now by the Coalition, even if it inevitably would kill more civilians, could reduce the humanitarian crisis in the long run by shortening the war and allowing aid to get through?

Roberta Cohen: There are always terrible ethical dilemmas in wartime situations. Some bridle at not being able to exert maximum force; others feel it is more important to avoid civilian casualties. The political fall out from mass casualties as well as the terrible loss of life can undermine support for the war at home and abroad and also for the peace that follows.

Arlington, Va.: The anti-American bigotry of the world, especially in Europe, has filtered even into the Iraqi humanitarian issues. The world is so focused on every aspect of Iraqi humanitarian issues NOW that the US is involved. But Europe was hardly concerned about Iraqi lives before the US got involved. In fact, they were active trading partners. Why isn't the world's press focusing on the humanitarian conditions in other parts of the world like Sudan, Tibet, or Chechnya? My answer: Anti-Americanism. The so-called concern that the world has for Iraqi people is fake because they wouldn't care about them if the U.S. wasn't involved.

Roberta Cohen: It is important to keep your eye on the target, and that is the bringing of humanitarian relief and protection to those at risk. The motivations of those who do so and why and when they do so are secondary considerations.

Jonesboro, Ga.: Why are the U.S. and Britain bringing in humanitarian aid (foods and medicine) to the Iraqi's while the war is on-going. This complicates matters. This takes away the manpower needed to fight to distribute food to a populace that seems ungrateful and arrogant. It seems to me that the prudent thing to do would be to wage this war -- bring it to its logical conclusion -- and then face the task of feeding, clothing and treating the enemy. It truly does not matter what we do, the so-called 'Arab World' will never be happy with us. Therefore, to expedite the war, we should forget the aids for now until the war is over. Such a simple and logical thing to do!

Roberta Cohen: Victory can not just be a military affair. In undertaking this war, we have at the same time undertaken a legal, moral and political responsibility to provide food, medicine, shelter and protection to the population until such time as it is able to do so itself. We have promised the Iraqi people that we will help it build a democratic government. This can't be done by allowing people to starve while awaiting until the end of the war. As I said before, feeding people is a humanitarian imperative; it is not just something we do for applause.

Washington, D.C.: What kind of humanitarian aid can be delivered to help the Iraqi people sustain themselves eventually? I'm assuming most farming and business opportunities will be destroyed during the conflict.

Roberta Cohen: Unfortunately the Oil for Food program, while efficiently providing food to the Iraqi people, also discouraged domestic food production, encouraged rural to urban migration and made almost an entire population dependent on handouts. One of the big postwar challenges therefore will be to revive local agricultural production, restore infrastructure and get businesses running again. Fortunately, Iraq, unlike many war-torn countries, is wealthy in oil and agricultural potential and has a well educated population.

Roberta Cohen: There have been many sharp divisions of opinion about whether the United States should have embarked upon this war. And many of the questions have reflected those divisions. But now that we are in this war, we must recognize the enormous responsibility we have taken on vis a vis the Iraqi people. Morally, legally and politically, we must ensure that this civilian population is not exposed to starvation and that casualties are kept at a minimum. We must also act to assure public order so as to protect the civilian population from reprisal killings, looting and the security vacuum that is developing in the country with the collapse of the government. This responsibility rests squarely with the United States and its coalition partners.

© 2003 The Washington Post Company