We call on those states responsible for the invasion and occupation of Iraq to terminate their illegal and immoral war, and express our solidarity with the Iraqi people in their struggle for peace, justice and self-determination.

In particular, we demand:

  1. An immediate end to the US and UK-led occupation of Iraq;
  2. Urgent action to fully address the current humanitarian crises facing Iraq’s people, including help for the more than three million refugees and displaced persons;
  3. An end to all foreign interference in Iraq's affairs, including its oil industry, so that Iraqis can exercise their right to self-determination;
  4. Compensation and reparations from those countries responsible for war and sanctions on Iraq;
  5. Prosecution of all those responsible for war crimes, human rights abuses, and the theft of Iraq's resources.

We demand justice for Iraq.

This statement was adopted by the Justice for Iraq conference in London on 19th July 2008. We plan to publish this more widely in future. If you would like to add your name to the list of supporters please contact us.

Friday 27 May 2016

Humanitarian aid under political pressure

Text of Mike Phipps's speech at a recent Tadhamun event in London commemorating the 13th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq

 There is a new spectre haunting the world: humanitarian intervention. It was used to justify the British Government going to war in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq. Pressure is mounting on humanitarian aid agencies to skew their work to fit this new agenda, or face unpleasant consequences.

Humanitarian aid is now a multi-billion dollar industry. Humanitarian expenditure increased sixfold during the 1980s and 1990s. Most British and US agencies have developed sizeable media and advocacy departments. While many organisations prefer to duck the issue of how far lethal military force can be used to protect human rights, some agencies do call for economic and military sanctions against regimes. Western governments have been quick to utilise agency reports about human rights abuses as a justification for military intervention.

In a book some years ago, Conor Foley captured the dilemma for these groups in a simple anecdote about Iraq. “In April 2003, I attended a meeting in London involving most of the major international NGOs with British offices… A high-ranking official from the Dept of International Development (DFID)… announced that the British government had earmarked £210 million for the reconstruction of the country and that it would be encouraging bids from humanitarian agencies. A shocked silence ensued as it dawned on everyone that this amount was double DFID’s entire humanitarian relief budget of two years previously. The world’s second largest potential producer of oil is not a natural candidate for humanitarian assistance and everyone knew there were far greater areas of need elsewhere. We also knew that this assistance was being given for political reasons: to shore up support for a controversial invasion. Nevertheless, virtually no agency wished to rule itself out of receiving project funding, as they began to make clear in their presentations.”

As western powers increasingly describe their bombing missions in the Middle East as humanitarian, many charities and NGOs are getting unhealthily close to governments. UN aid agencies are regularly integrated into UN military missions, making them a target for attack. In 2013 alone, 155 aid workers were killed around the world. If fatalities have declined since then, it’s largely because the bigger international agencies are staying away from trouble, sub-contracting aid delivery to smaller local agencies.

A new book by Peter Gill, published by Zed, argues that the targeting of aid workers stemmed from western policy in Afghanistan, where, as part of a “winning hears and minds” strategy, the US and UK military had large aid budgets. US Commander David Petraeus declared money “my most important ammunition in this war.”

On the ground in Afghanistan, aid workers often arrived in new areas in military vehicles. Local recipients of western aid were strongly encouraged to inform on the enemy. One ‘reconstruction worker’ said, “The more they help us find the bad guys, the more good stuff they’ll get.” Attacks on aid workers soon followed.

So the humanitarian effort had become part of a wider counter-insurgency operation. As Bush announced: “As we strike military targets, we will also drop food.” On the ground, it became increasingly difficult to distinguish aid workers from soldiers. Meanwhile, a recent report noted that half of the $20 billion assistance promised to Afghanistan never arrived and 40% of the money delivered went on corporate profits and consultancy fees.

The conflation between western aid and the western military proved costly. Aid agency priorities were skewed and the commitment to sustainable aid programmes was sacrificed to military timetables. The US Secretary of State even described aid agencies as “an important part of our combat team.” In 2003, 85 aid agencies signed an appeal for NATO to extend its operations throughout the country.

Médecins Sans Frontières did not sign the appeal supporting the western military, but were still targeted by the Taliban. For several years they stopped work in Afghanistan. When they returned, it was the US which bombed their hospital in Kunduz, killing thirty.

In parts of Pakistan, polio vaccination teams were targeted by the Taliban, who claimed the vaccines were drugs to sterilise Muslim families. This was clearly nonsense, but gave the Taliban popular leverage to pressurise for an halt to western drone bombing of their strongholds. Their propaganda got a boost when it emerged that the CIA had recruited a local senior health official to run a fake vaccine campaign as a cover to track and kill Osama bin Laden. The damage this did to western humanitarian efforts was incalculable: all vaccinators were seen as spies.

Western policy contributes in other ways to hampering the delivery of much-needed aid. A quarter of a million people died in the 2011 famine in Somalia, but in the two years preceding, US aid there fell by 88%. The listing by the US of al-Shabaab as a terrorist organisation meant that any aid that fell into the wrong hands was a crime under US law - so many agencies self-interestedly scaled down operations. It looked as if aid was being withdrawn because those who desperately needed it were unlucky enough to be governed by the wrong people.

Other agencies filled the gaps, many from the Muslim world. But when the UK agency Islamic Relief was designated a “terrorist organisation” by Israel, the support it got from the British Foreign Office was “less than fulsome”.

So precarious is their work and so dependent are they on governmental goodwill, that many aid agencies are extremely reluctant to even discuss these problems. Muslim agencies especially are fearful of anti-terror laws and the real threat of criminal prosecution - one was even refused legal advice by a private law firm on the grounds that just offering a legal opinion might be unlawful.

Others argue that agencies are too compliant and lose sight of their core purpose. The US introduced “partner vetting”, requiring agencies to gather intelligence on their colleagues - full personal details of all locals involved in implementing projects. If the government finds a terrorist link, all funding for the project is promptly halted, without explanation or appeal. When Mercy Corps refused to collect the data, they were forced to close down a $40 million project in Afghanistan, making 300 Afghan staff redundant overnight.

Worse, NGO leaders face regular harassment by immigration and security officers when travelling through US and UK airports. One described the British Government’s response to a Muslim charity’s work in Syria as “an attempt to scare the bejesus out of us.” Increasingly, the Charity Commission, whose board members include a former head of the Metropolitan Police Anti-Terrorism Branch, is used to crack down on some NGOs. But if humanitarian aid is to have any future, it can’t be simply an adjunct to foreign and security policy.

One of the greatest problems of humanitarian intervention is that of accountability. Aid intervention tends to weaken the contract between ruled and rulers and disempowers people. As Austen Davis, former head of MSF Belgium, put it: “Humanitarian action has been accused of prolonging wars, undermining governments’ accountability to their own people, destroying markets and creating dependency, failing to address the causes of crises and so acting as a substitute for ‘real’ action.”

The desire to do good is motivated by a noble sensibility. But it may be fatally compromised when this ideal is exploited by the agendas of liberal imperialism and neoconservatve goals to wage wars of civilisation. For humanitarian foreign aid to be meaningful, political and organisational independence from state organisations is now a moral imperative.