The United States is actively engaged in a military buildup in the Persian Gulf in response to ongoing and unresolved tensions with Iraq. Nongovernmental organizations around the world have been bracing for the possibility of war and yet another enormous humanitarian crisis, following on the 1991 Gulf War that created nearly three million refugees. Their preparations, along with those of the United Nations, may prove to be a crucial safety net for millions of people if attempts at peaceful resolution fail and armed conflict ensues.
The Source spoke about preparations for war with Jim Bishop, who since 1995 has been Director for Humanitarian Response at InterAction, a coalition of some 160 U.S.-based nongovernmental organizations working on international development and humanitarian relief. Thirty of its members are actively planning for the challenges a war in Iraq could present.
Bishop, a retired U.S. Foreign Service officer, served as U.S. Ambassador to Somalia, Liberia, and Niger. He also held the posts of Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Africa and for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs. His current position brings him into constant contact with the full range of organizations preparing for the possibility of a war in Iraq.
How involved have NGOs been in UN contingency planning?
There is something called the Inter-Agency Standing Committee, which was established by the United Nations General Assembly a decade ago. The IASC includes UN agencies engaged in disaster response and refugee protection — the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), UNICEF, the World Food Program, and the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). There are also several other UN agencies, as well as the Red Cross movement organizations, the International Organization for Migration, and three NGO coalitions. InterAction is one of those three coalitions. The IASC has been engaged in contingency planning since September, and we have been part of this process.
If there is a war, what are the goals of the InterAction working group focusing on Iraq?
The goals would be to gain access to those who have been affected by the crisis, and to assist them with both protection and material assistance.
We would also aim to be their advocates vis-a-vis the authorities that would be in control of Iraq, which would probably be the U.S. military in the near term, and to work with the refugee populations in the countries to which they will flee if there is a crisis.
Are there separate preparations underway by the individual NGOs?
Yes, very much so. InterAction's members are engaged in contingency planning on their own, and to some extent in collaboration. It's worth noting, too, that there are very few NGOs in Iraq.
None of our members are in the country at the moment. Some have U.S. government grants to set up programs. These were awarded quite some time ago, and were not related to the prospect of war. Most of our members do expect to be responding should there be a crisis, and as I've mentioned, they are carrying out the planning needed to do their interventions.
We've also been working collectively to bring to bear pressure on the U.S. and the UN for outcomes that we espouse. For example, we have been pressing the U.S. government to issue the licenses necessary to enable our members to conduct needs assessments in Iraq and neighboring counties.
You mentioned earlier the possibility of the use of weapons of mass destruction. Does the possibility of the use of such weapons change the preparations equation?
Yes, this possibility is responsible, in part, for a hesitation on the part of most NGOs to enter the country until the conflict is over. It would be a natural propensity on the part of most NGOs to wait, given the uncertain course that the war might take, given the possibility of the use of these weapons.
Some training has been made available to some members of InterAction by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) on how they should comport themselves in a contaminated environment. This training basically deals with how to get out of that kind of environment, as no one expects to work in a contaminated environment.
Have the experiences of the 1991 Gulf War or Afghanistan helped the planning?
The humanitarian consequences of the bombing campaign in 1991 have certainly been well recalled by our members. We have discussed those consequences with the U.S. military, and have received some assurances that the military will be a little bit more careful this time in its bombing campaign to avoid, to a greater extent, hitting targets like the electricity grid that could close down water purification plants, sewage disposal plants, and other installations whose closure could have serious consequences for the health of the population.
The Afghan experience has been one in which we have had some problems with U.S. military involvement in activities that we felt were more appropriate to humanitarian organizations. We have a dialogue with them that emphasizes our belief that humanitarian affairs should be conducted under civilian administration. We have written to the president on that point, as well as to several other officials related to the possible humanitarian crisis in Iraq. (see InterAction letter to President George W. Bush)
In this situation, what are the parameters of cooperation or coordination between the military and NGOs?
We don't envision cooperation and we're not involved in coordination with the military as they prepare for war. We have been exchanging some information that relates to contingency planning for humanitarian assistance, and intend to assign an observer to the humanitarian operations center that the U.S. military was due to open [January 15] in Kuwait. However, it'll be some time before we actually have our person there.
If the U.S. launches this war, do you envision this relationship changing or evolving in the "during" and "after" stages of the conflict?
We have been told that USAID's Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance will be the U.S. government component with which NGOs will interface in the period of military administration that is likely to characterize the first 60 to 90 days of the post-conflict period.
In the letter that I've mentioned, we have said to the president that we want to be working with a civilian component of the U.S. government, and that we'd like to see the responsibility for coordinating humanitarian assistance devolved to the UN as soon as it is able to set itself up for business in Iraq and capable of undertaking that function.
Do U.S. and European NGOs differ in their approach to dealing with the military?
Historically, there have been differences, but it is not as neat of a division as "European versus American." There are differences in the U.S. NGO community. Some organizations will have nothing to do with the U.S. or other militaries, while others are less uncomfortable. The same is true in Europe. But in Europe, I think it's fair to say that in general, NGOs try to keep more distance between themselves and the military forces than U.S. NGOs as a whole.
To what extent are U.S. and European NGOs collaborating in these preparations?
We, as InterAction, are members of the IASC, and the other two NGO coalitions that are part of the IASC are Europe-based, though their membership is not restricted to Europe. Many of our members are also part of international NGO federations — for example, the Save the Children Alliance, CARE International, World Vision, Catholic Relief Services, which is a part of Caritas, and the American Red Cross, which is part of the Red Cross movement. In this way, our members are collaborating with their counterparts within these federations, while we at InterAction are collaborating with our sister consortia within the context of the IASC.
What kind of long-term consequences might a humanitarian crisis caused by a war on Iraq have for countries in the Middle East, and around the world?
It is a little bit hard to segregate the humanitarian crisis from the war that would provoke it. The consequences would obviously depend upon the nature of the war — whether it's long or short, whether it's contained in Iraq or spreads to other countries. There is obviously the potential for a humanitarian crisis of very substantial proportions should the war be prolonged, extend to other states, or lead to disturbances in other states which provoke humanitarian crises beyond Iraq.
You could have substantial additional numbers of refuges and internally displaced persons requiring assistance should weapons of mass destruction be used in the conflict. There could be rather horrific consequences for those who are trying to meet the humanitarian needs of those affected by that type of combat and the use of that kind of weapon.
Has InterAction been in any discussions with officials of the frontline states in a possible war?
With respect to access to refugee populations, several members of the InterAction working group did speak to the Turkish ambassador about Turkey's posture on both acceptance of refugees and providing access to NGOs that might want to work with refugees in Turkey or need to transit Turkey to work with internally displaced persons in northern Iraq. The ambassador promised to report our representations to his government in Ankara.
Has this been InterAction's experience with other frontline states?
No, the only embassy we have approached at this point is the Turkish embassy.
Is there concern in the NGO community about funding relief efforts on a potentially massive scale?
Funding of assistance is going to be a substantial problem. We have had discussions with the staff of several committees of Congress, and will be briefing them further so that they will be in a better position, hopefully, to support the appropriation of supplementary funds. These funds will be needed to cover the expenses of the U.S. government and its contribution to the UN agencies and the Red Cross movement, as they will be involved in disaster response and require contributions from the U.S. and others.
Do you envision operations to manage a potential humanitarian crisis in Iraq being fully funded by the international community, or do you foresee any of the funding shortfalls that seem to have been encountered by those involved in similar efforts in Afghanistan?
It's hard to calibrate what one means by "fully funded" — that would mean you avoid a loss of life and human suffering, and that isn't going to happen.
The response to Afghanistan has been a multilateral one in which the U.S. has borne a substantial part, but has been joined by the EU and Japan and others. This was a response that grew out of a considerable degree of international solidarity about the need to do something about the crisis in Afghanistan.
Should the U.S. act alone or without substantial international support in initiating a conflict in Iraq, there may be less of a sense of responsibility among other members of the international community about dealing with the resulting humanitarian crisis.