Iraq: lurching toward recovery

Gil Loescher Arthur C. Helton
16 April 2003


- Specialised UN agencies such as UNHCR (refugees), Unicef (children), and WFP (food) have legal mandates that enable them to resume their humanitarian work, as long as security conditions permit.

- There is widespread concern within the UN about its capacity to take the lead in nation-building.

- The relationship of the new Pentagon Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance to UN humanitarian agencies and NGOs remains unclear.

The divisive UN Security Council debate that preceded the US-led military campaign against Iraq is playing out again as the war-fighting phase evolves into stabilisation and recovery operations. The challenge of nation-building in Iraq requires new thinking and close cooperation between enforcement and humanitarian agencies.

At the high diplomatic level, the summit in Northern Ireland between British prime minister Tony Blair and President George W. Bush produced a joint statement on 8 April affirming that the “United Nations has a vital role to play in the reconstruction of Iraq”. This was followed by a meeting on 11 April between the French, German and Russian leaders, who urged that the United Nations take the lead in the reconstruction of Iraq, including putting in place an Iraqi government. But the US administration has dismissed such a role for UN.

Caught in the middle of the continuing diplomatic tussle between the Security Council’s five permanent members, the UN itself and its specialised agencies are uncertain of exactly what direction to take. Secretary General Kofi Annan has reiterated the importance of a substantive UN role in Iraq as a way to confer international “legitimacy” upon the reconstruction efforts.

Individual UN agencies such as the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) (refugees), Unicef (children), and the World Food Programme (food) have legal mandates that enable them to resume their humanitarian work, as long as security conditions permit. But many in the UN worry about the capacity of the agency to take the lead in nation-building, referring to the task as a “poisoned chalice”. Indeed, this same concern led the UN to seek only an advisory role in the reconstruction of Afghanistan after the US-led campaign against al-Qaida and its Taliban host. But even that role would be too prominent for the likes of some within the US administration, who would prefer that the UN be at most an advisor to a US-led nation-building effort.

See also American occupational hazards, where Karin von Hippel – author of Democracy by Force, argues that the UN must be in the lead in helping Iraq to govern itself.

The debate is reflected as well within the US government, with Secretary of State Colin Powell preferring a more internationalised approach, particularly in relation to humanitarian action. John Snow, the US Treasury secretary, expressed satisfaction with the recent statement of the G7 finance ministers in Washington, in which they endorse the notion of a further UN Security Council resolution, and note that the “IMF and the World Bank should play their normal role in rebuilding and developing Iraq.”

The UN, of course, is already present in terms of the economic sanctions earlier imposed by the Security Council, as well as the oil-for-food programme which was re-authorised for forty-five days at the end of March. The Pentagon, however, is sceptical. As one senior US official put it: “A lot of people here ask: why do we need the UN? Why not do it ourselves?”

The risks of inaction

Reality, of course, has a way of intruding upon such diplomatic and bureaucratic debates. The civil disorder seen in Baghdad is not unusual after a violent change in government. Similar scenes took place in Haiti, Bosnia, and Kosovo over the past decade. American soldiers do not like policing, but in each of these circumstances the US and its allies have done just that. Yet unlike the US, countries such as France, Italy and Spain, have paramilitary police forces which can engage in crowd control. The UN structures to recruit and deploy international civilian police are still relatively weak, as they are in the European Union and the US. Which large American city, after all, would welcome contributing several hundred police at a time of domestic budgetary shortfall?

But the risks of inaction are high. Not addressing the policing issue early and directly could undermine the credibility of a military administration, as happened with Nato in Kosovo. It is also problematic to recruit police who served under the previous regime. This was considered after the US military deployment in Haiti in 1994, until planners were reminded that the police force there was the instrument of oppression. This led to an ambitious multi-year effort to create an entirely new national police force.

Police, moreover, are not the end of the story. After they arrest someone who may have committed a crime, a whole series of follow-on issues arises. Where will the suspect be incarcerated? Where will he or she be brought to trial? Who will be the judges? The prosecutors and defense counsel? Under what law will the defendant be charged? These and related questions link inevitably to broader tasks of building the rule of law.

From war-fighting to nation-building

One of the immediate consequences of not dealing with insecurity in Iraq is the inability to deliver humanitarian assistance to those in need. While the UN agencies, and the non-governmental organisations (NGOs) who work with them have pre-existing mandates which allow them to provide aid in Iraq, they cannot enter without the approval of the UN Security Coordinator, at least without compromising the agency’s insurance coverage. The result is that aid is not distributed to a population that grows increasingly needy and desperate over time. Instead, the military attempts to fill the breach.

The biggest humanitarian problem in Iraq, of course, is dealing with the consequences of the war. There is a need to cope with large numbers of war wounded and human displacement. UNHCR confirmed on 10 April that up to 30,000 displaced Iraqis have reached the eastern Iraqi town of Badrah, near the border with Iran, seeking assistance after fleeing fighting in Baghdad and Nasiriya. Looters have ransacked hospitals in Baghdad and the ICRC has had to suspend operations because of insecurity there.

The diplomatic and bureaucratic debates over the UN’s role have impacted on humanitarian arrangements as well. The UN Office for the Coordination and Humanitarian Affairs has issued unprecedented guidance to UN staff about which interactions with the military are permissible, and which are not, involving matters such as liaison arrangements and use of military assets. The relationship of the new Pentagon Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance to UN humanitarian agencies and NGOs continues to be unclear. American NGOs are worried that too direct an involvement with the military will fatally compromise their independence, impartiality and neutrality.

Events in Iraq reinforce a lesson that can be drawn from several military campaigns and recovery operations over the past decade – the US and its allies enjoy a decisive advantage in war-fighting; but no one has a decisive advantage in nation-building.

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