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Interview with UN humanitarian coordinator

[Iraq] Ramiro Lopes da Silva, UN Humanitarian Coordinator in Iraq.
Ramiro Lopes da Silva, UN Humanitarian Coordinator in Iraq (UNOHCI)

Three weeks into the conflict in Iraq with the fall of the capital, Baghdad, and the end of hostilities in sight, United Nations agencies and NGOs are preparing to launch a huge humanitarian relief operation country-wide when security improves. This coincides with international debate over the role of the UN in the post-Saddam era in Iraq, both in the short and long term.

In an interview with IRIN in Larnaca, Cyprus, Ramiro Lopes da Silva, the UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq, said that the UN would help to provide humanitarian assistance to the people of Iraq but that the Security Council had not yet decided whether the UN would play a role in long-term reconstruction.

QUESTION: What role are you fulfilling currently in Larnaca?

ANSWER: We are coordinating the humanitarian operations in Iraq from the Cyprus hub. We have invited the NGOs and other humanitarian organisations to ensure comprehensive coordination with all the actors who could possibly be involved in providing relief assistance to the Iraqi population.

As you know, we have been elaborating our plans and the Coordination Office to enable us to do it in a coordinated manner with the involvement of all actors. Our supervision of humanitarian operations is conducted in close cooperation with our humanitarian workers present in all countries around Iraq.

All UN agencies are involved in the process under our umbrella. We are ensuring a coordinated and active response to any humanitarian needs as they arise, and prepare and coordinate return [to Iraq] if the situation allows.

Q: How is the UN system able to respond to the growing humanitarian crisis in Iraq given the absence of international staff from the country at the moment?

A: There are 3,400 UN national staff in Iraq, and they have been actively engaged in maintaining programmes to the best of their ability since the war started. However, as hostilities have increased, their ability to remain active has been seriously compromised. The UN has advised them that they should stay secure, which means, for many, staying at home.

In the north, UN staff are in less danger and can still operate more freely even though we had, unfortunately, some incidents of harassment here and there. Outside Iraq, UN agencies are present in all neighbouring countries, ready to initiate delivery of assistance and to enter when the security conditions exist. We hope to be able to enter the country as soon as security permits. We have urgent work to do in Iraq, we want to go back and do our work as soon as possible.

Q: Three weeks into the conflict, food stocks are starting to run low for many Iraqi families. There is clearly a pressing need to restart the Oil-for-Food Programme in Iraq. Is such a proposal realistic?

A: Yes, it is. There are resources within the Oil-for-Food Programme that can be accessed by the Secretary-General under the readjusted mandate. Already, US $1 billion of food items have been identified for use by agencies. These items are already bought and paid for, under contracts concluded by the Iraqi government. The question is, as with all humanitarian assistance, how these resources can be safely delivered when hostilities are still ongoing. The answer to that question depends on circumstances outside the UN’s control, but obviously, our priority is to get humanitarian assistance into Iraq as soon as possible.

However, we have two issues. One is the fact that not all the commodities in the Oil-for-Food pipeline are relevant to an emergency relief effort. The government of Iraq was undertaking a series of other activities better defined as rehabilitation and reconstruction, and the material inputs for those activities are basically useless for the present moment.

Secondly, Security Resolution 1472 establishes a clear set of procedures within which the Secretary-General can exercise the authority vested in him by the Security Council on 26 March. Of particular importance is the fact that such authority can be exercised only on commodities that can be shipped by the suppliers within six weeks from the passage of Security Council Resolution 1472, by 12 May. Obviously this narrows dramatically the range of contracts we can access.

The second issue is that we are still trying to establish contact with the relevant ministries and institutions in the government of Iraq for the delivery of these, but also of other relief items the UN has resourced through the appeal. As the conflict evolves, this is becoming a rather challenging undertaking.

Q: When the UN returns to Iraq, either partially or wholly, what will be your humanitarian priorities?

A: That depends to some extent on the needs assessment that will have to be conducted. Once we know what the needs are, then the resources can be delivered. But in general terms, from the picture we are getting of the deteriorating conditions inside Iraq, the priorities seem certain to include water and sanitation, medical assistance, shelter and food.

Reconstruction activities immediately after the end of hostilities must focus on basic humanitarian needs and be implemented in such a way as to avoid long-term dependency. Assessments should be undertaken rapidly in the immediate aftermath of the armed conflict. Our worry is to be able to act fast enough to get the supplies into Iraq.

Q: Given the nature of the emergency in Iraq, how confident are you that major donors will be forthcoming with the very large amounts of money needed for emergency response and reconstruction?

A: For emergency response, the appeal for $2.2 billion has already been launched and we are waiting to see what the response will be. It’s still too early to tell, but we are optimistic that donor countries, whatever the position they took before the war began, will not allow any political differences to diminish their response to the very real plight of the Iraqi people, who are the victims of this war.

Q: What type of working relationship do you envisage for yourself and the UN system in Iraq with the coalition, who will, at least in the short term, be effectively running the country?

A: It still remains to be seen what the final outcome of this war will be, but the UN will, as it always does, work with all parties to the conflict to ensure humanitarian assistance is provided to those who need it. If the war concludes with the country under the control of the occupying powers, then the UN will make the necessary arrangements to fulfil its obligations to help the people of Iraq in every way it can, but it will do so independently of the military authorities, impartially and neutrally.

Q: What long term-role do you think the UN should be playing in relation to security, democracy-building and governance in Iraq?

A: The answer to that question rests in the hands of the Security Council, which has not yet pronounced itself on the role the UN should or would play in long-term reconstruction in a postwar Iraq. The UN is divided in two basic principles clearly enunciated by the Secretary-General.

Firstly, the centrality of the Iraqi people, which could translate into respect for the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Iraq, the Iraqis to be in charge of their political process and the Iraqis to control their national resources. The second is the centrality of the Security Council. For anything that goes beyond pure humanitarian assistance, the UN needs a mandate from the Security Council.


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: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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