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War in Iraq will make a humanitarian tragedy into a disaster

By Andrew Hewett - posted Thursday, 9 January 2003

Iraq is on the brink of war and, as a result, 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? Australia and the United States are gearing up for war.


Oxfam Community Aid Abroad has decades of experience of working in conflict. We know the terrible impact that military action has on innocent people.

In some cases, for example Rwanda, military action is necessary to save lives and justified. But, on the basis of our experience - and the current evidence - it is very difficult to 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 that only 46 per cent of homes have piped water. In the towns, the trucks that empty cesspits and septic tanks aren't working properly because there are no spares, tyres or 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 estimated that one third of the national power supply is still down. Most water treatment plants have their own generators but 70 per cent of them don't work.


Any military action that damages power supplies will inevitably destroy the already fragile water and sanitation system. Inevitably, diseases such as cholera and hepatitis 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 includes 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 humanitarian law?

Weapons of mass destruction are a real threat to global stability. However in this case, the advocates of military action are failing to demonstrate that Iraqi weapons of mass destruction pose such an imminent threat that the risks to civilians can be ignored.

The people of Iraq are already suffering from Iraqi government policy in addition to 12 years of inept sanctions. If there is a military attack on Iraq, they stand to suffer a whole lot more.

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About the Author

Andrew Hewett is Executive Director of Oxfam Australia.

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