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UN will fill gaps in humanitarian response, says top relief official in Baghdad

[Iraq] Ramiro Lopes is back in Baghdad.
Ramiro Lopes da Silva, UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq, speaking in Baghdad (Mike White)

Top United Nations staff have returned to Baghdad promising to plug gaps in the response to the country’s humanitarian needs. The UN’s humanitarian coordinator for Iraq, Ramiro Lopes da Silva, arrived in the Iraqi capital on Friday afternoon together with agency heads of the World Health Organisation (WHO), the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the World Food Programme (WFP) and the UN Development Programme (UNDP).

UN international staff withdrew from Iraq on 18 March, leaving 3,400 local staff members to carry on working where possible. While 90 international staff have returned to three of the northern governorates, this is the first move back to the central part of the country, and comes in spite of the security situation being uncertain.

On Saturday, at his first public engagement since arriving, da Silva said plans were already in place to accommodate 55 more UN staff in its Baghdad headquarters to help with the groundwork. He said that in returning to the capital, the UN had always had to weigh needs against the risk to staff, and the initial team would cover areas where the UN had an immediate obligation to respond to the humanitarian situation.

In the end, he said, it was concluded that a "more active interpretation" of Geneva Convention guidelines on its return should be made. "I think we have to have to take a more pragmatic approach to life," he said, adding that it had been a question of whether or not the UN should step aside and let systems collapse when it had knowledge, expertise and contacts that could be valuable in re-establishing these systems.

"Our role is to assist the Iraqi people. Our guide is that Iraqi people are at the centre of everything. We need to move forward and that’s what we are doing," da Silva said. The UN's return to Baghdad had also involved political considerations inasmuch as it had not sanctioned the war in Iraq, he observed.

Da Silva said it was clear that the body in charge of governing Iraq at present was the coalition’s Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance (ORHA) headed by US Gen (retd) Jay Garner. To this end, the UN would not seek to replace ORHA but to collaborate with it. "Our duty is to fill gaps not to duplicate efforts," he said, pointing out that UN agencies had been in Iraq since the 1960s, and had a vast amount of experience and knowledge.

Da Silva said that the situation in Iraq was not like in Kosovo or Afghanistan where "parallel to the humanitarain assistance the UN had a broad mandate and it was easier to establish the framework of the relationship." He added that it was not a humanitarian disaster like the ones covered in the Horn of Africa where people had died of starvation.

"But it is a humanitarian disaster in the sense that the basic services collapsed or are in risk of collapsing if we don't put them back into shape rather quickly. We think we can bring support to that effort," da Silva said.

WFP’s representative in Iraq, Torben Due, said reactivating the food-rationing system, on which 60 percent of Iraqis had been fully dependent, was crucial. The agency had launched its biggest programme ever to bring food into the country, and needed to revive the distribution systems used before the war.

The WHO representative, Ghulam Popal, said some of the major problems needing to be addressed were the lack of clean water, damaged health facilities, patient records and public health programmes. Unless dealt with, these matters would lead to more disease and death, he stressed.
Moreover, the UN had to ensure that sufficient drugs were available and provide financial support to critical medical facilities such as hospitals until the Iraqi authorities could resume making decisions.

Carel de Rooy, UNICEF’s representative in Iraq, said it was vital to assess needs in areas such as water, sanitation, nutrition, child protection and health. It was also crucial to get children back to school. Doing so would get them off the streets, which were still dangerous, being littered with huge numbers of mines and items of unexploded ordnance. UNICEF would also be working with the education ministry to develop the country’s curriculum, but de Rooy stressed that its content must be decided by Iraqis.

Francois Dubois, UNDP's resident representative in Iraq, said that his agency had been entrusted with rehabilitation of the electricity sector which had been damaged both during the first Gulf war and in the most recent conflict. He said that UNDP was assessing the extent of the damage and would work closely with its Iraqi counterparts, the civilian population and non-governmental organisations in its implementation of this programme.

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information:

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