Gauging the Humanitarian Cost of War

U.S. Hopes to Limit Civilian Casualties, But Others Aren’t So Optimistic

WASHINGTON, D.C., MARCH 8, 2003 ( Concerns over civilian casualties in an Iraq war are fueling opposition to any such conflict. Estimates of deaths or the number of refugees caused by a war vary widely, but all agree that large numbers of innocent people would suffer.

A leaked U.N. report calculated up to a half-million people could require medical attention in case of a military conflict, the British daily Guardian reported Jan. 29. The World Health Organization estimated that about 100,000 civilians could be wounded, and another 400,000 would be hit by disease due to the bombing of water and sanitation services and the lack of food.

The U.N. Children’s Fund calculated that around 3 million people, 80% of them children under age 5, would be in a dire situation regarding a lack of food. The U.N. report noted that some 16 million Iraqis depend on the monthly food basket of basic goods supplied by the government. In the event of war these supplies likely would be disrupted.

On Jan. 28 a group of U.K. aid organizations — Oxfam, CAFOD, Christian Aid, ActionAid and Save the Children — published a joint press release warning that military action could trigger a major humanitarian disaster. “Military action against Iraq could devastate the lives of millions of people,” Oxfam director Barbara Stocking was quoted as saying. “The humanitarian situation in Iraq is now more fragile than it was on the eve of the 1991 Gulf War.”

The declaration also commented that under the Geneva Conventions it is against international humanitarian law for “any objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population” to be targeted during military action. In the case of Iraq, these objects include infrastructure such as ports, railways and roads vital for the distribution of food aid across the country as well, as the water and sanitation system, powered by the main electricity supply.

Poor hospitals, widespread malnutrition

A report released by the New York-based Center for Economic and Social Rights (CESR) warned that the fragile Iraqi health care system, already badly damaged by 12 years of economic sanctions, is woefully inadequate to deal with the effects of a new war.

The report said that 92% of hospitals surveyed indicated they were lacking basic medical equipment. Shortages of medications, including antibiotics, already undermine routine care.

“Our report confirms that it is unlikely that international relief agencies can avert a major humanitarian disaster,” said Michael Van Rooyen, director of the Center for International Emergency, Disaster and Refugee Studies at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, in a CESR press release.

The report’s findings are based on a research mission from Jan. 19-29 by a CESR team of 16 humanitarian experts, including Hans von Sponeck, former U.N. humanitarian coordinator for Iraq. Team members interviewed U.N. and Iraqi government officials; visited hospitals, clinics, public markets, electricity, water and sanitation plants, and other civilian sites; and reviewed confidential U.N. documents.

Another warning voice comes from the U.S.-based Catholic Relief Services. A briefing on its Web site comments that Iraq is facing a humanitarian crisis. Many children are living in poor conditions, and about 25% of young men and women show signs of chronic malnutrition. Already in 2001 the number of people with access to drinkable water dropped to only 11%, compared with 92% in 1989.

Catholic Relief Services contended that a military intervention has the potential to lead to tremendous human costs among an already suffering Iraqi people. Its officials “echo the bishops’ call that at this time constructive alternatives to war must first be exhausted.”

International aid agencies would not likely have the funds to fully cope with the effects of a war. U.N. agencies say donors have given only a quarter of the $120 million needed for emergency supplies, Reuters reported March 5.

“We urgently need additional funds,” said Elisabeth Byrs, spokeswoman for the U.N. Geneva Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. “Very little money has been provided. There’s a gap of about $90 million.”

The U.N. World Food Program, for example, has so far received pledges of just $7.5 million for food after appealing for some $23 million in a contingency plan to feed 900,000 Iraqis in a 10-week period. And the U.N. Children’s Fund (UNICEF), which will head relief work for water and sanitation, has just $2 million of the $14 million it was to receive under the U.N. appeal for funds.

Hoping to limit the damage

The United States and its allies have tried to address concerns over the humanitarian consequences of a war. Arguments are made that liberating Iraq will lead to an improvement in human rights and liberties. This position was explained in comments made by British Prime Minister Tony Blair, cited in a Zenit analysis of two weeks ago, entitled “War in Iraq: No Simple Answers.”

Defenders of military intervention also try to compare Iraq to the situation in Afghanistan. On the negative side, a group called the Iraq Body Count Project notes that last year’s military action in Afghanistan caused 3,000 to 3,400 civilian deaths.

But U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, in a speech Feb. 14, observed: “Today the Afghan people are free.” More than 1 million refugees have been able to return home, he said, and children are back in school.

“And the careful use of precision-guided weapons helped ensure that there were fewer civilian casualties in this war than perhaps in any war in modern history,” stated Rumsfeld. The defense secretary also noted that the United States has already provided $850 million to help rebuild Afghanistan, with another $3.3 billion authorized over the next several years.

A March 5 press release by the U.S. Defense Department affirmed that the American military would go to great lengths to limit civilian deaths and to minimize damage to nonmilitary facilities if war erupts.

A senior U.S. Central Command official briefed reporters in the Pentagon on the steps the military takes to avoid or minimize collateral damage. He admitted, however, that it’s nearly impossible to eliminate all such damage.

But, the official said, potential targets are carefully considered to see if they are likely to result in noncombatant casualties, damage to nonmilitary structures or protected sites, or if the target is in close proximity to known human shields.

The press release explained that some experts have predicted a war with Iraq now would result in fewer civilian casualties than in the 1991 Gulf War. The official briefing reporters explained that in Operation Desert Storm, 20% of the bombs used were precision-guided. The rest were gravity-fall “dumb bombs.” In a war in Iraq today, 70% would be precision-guided, the official said.

General Tommy Franks, who heads the U.S. forces, refused to speculate on the number of civilian casualties. Still, he added, U.S. planners would do what they could to avoid such casualties.

In spite of such reassurances, grave fears persist as to the damage a war will cause. The Pope’s insistent requests for prayers show his concern on this matter. Last Sunday, John Paul II said, “It is also necessary to seek and go down every possible avenue to avoid war, which always brings mourning and grave consequences for all.”

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