Iraq: indiscriminate violence increases civilian distress

The bombing on 27 October 2003 of the Baghdad offices of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) filled us with grief and outrage. One year later, the death of our two Iraqi colleagues and the 10 other persons killed in the attack remains a fresh and painful memory. On three occasions in 2003, we were confronted head-on with the violent death of colleagues in Iraq: Vatche Arslanian on 8 April, Nadisha Ranmuthu on 22 July, and Zoheir Abdallah Ahmad Al-Sheikhly and Dekran Gregor Dekran Hagopian on 27 October. Despite these tragedies, we can hardly ask the world to feel sorry for our dead while the number of civilian victims in Iraq and elsewhere in the region mounts every day. We have a duty to express our indignation at all the many defenceless people indiscriminately killed and injured by the violence.

Respect for human life is being severely tested in Iraq and elsewhere. After decades of suffering, the population is enduring the unendurable. People are being subjected to attacks all too often directed against civilians and combatants without distinction. We are seeing bomb attacks that actually target civilians, assassinations, shelling (sometimes indiscriminate) of urban areas, and hostage taking. We condemn this as emphatically as we demand that all those not, or no longer, taking part in hostilities must be spared.

The current violence in Iraq is having the effect of eroding respect for international humanitarian law. The reality of this situation necessarily makes the work of a neutral humanitarian organization such as the ICRC difficult, sometimes all but impossible. And yet we must persevere if we wish to help those who are most vulnerable, indeed all those entitled to our assistance and protection. Hence the exceptional commitment of our staff, both Iraqi and expatriate. They go on despite the risks and the constraints. In spite of everything, they have succeeded in bringing emergency aid to Iraqi hospitals during attacks and military operations, in visiting detainees, in restoring contact between those detainees and their loved ones, in helping families who have fled the fighting, and in ensuring a regular supply of drinking water for the most severely affected communities.

We are constantly seeking ways to help the victims of the conflict in Iraq, without allowing ourselves to be paralysed by the risks that we face. We remain convinced that we must do this without resorting to military protection. For weapons are not the way to defend our work and our values. Nor is it under protection of arms that we can demonstrate our neutrality and independence – quite the contrary. We insist, therefore, on maintaining a clear distinction between the activities of humanitarian workers and those of military personnel, for the purposes of the two are fundamentally different, and must be seen to be different. We want to be able to take action in the midst of armed clashes and political violence without siding with any cause, unless it be to protect those for whom international humanitarian law was made.

We have no choice but to acknowledge how difficult it is now for us to respond to the needs of the Iraqi people, to fully perform our task of coming to the aid of the wounded, of civilians caught up in conflict. The widespread rejection of neutral humanitarian action in Iraq imposes severe constraints on us. For all that we are not giving up, but rather seeking to strike a balance between our determination to relieve suffering and the need to ensure the safety of our staff.

To do our assistance and protection work, we must engage in dialogue with all those involved in conflict, including those who continue to have doubts about our independence and the disinterested nature of our efforts. It is through this direct dialogue that we strive to convince them of our legitimacy and to urge them to spare civilians, the wounded and the sick, and people deprived of their freedom.

Nearly a century and a half after it was formed, our organization continues to defend the idea that there is always scope for humanity, even in the midst of conflict. The ICRC claims the right to act on the basis of one certain fact: that suffering due to armed conflict must be limited by respect for the law and for human dignity.

Balthasar Staehelin
Delegate-General for the Middle East and North Africa
International Committee of the Red Cross


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