Al-Ahram Weekly Online   6 - 12 December 2007
Issue No. 874
Opinion
 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

The plight of Iraqi refugees

The same UN that failed the Iraqi people must now make mandatory US-UK reparations to Iraq and the allocation of Iraqi oil revenues for Iraqi refugees, writes Denis Halliday*

Demanding of our attention and action today is the terrible plight of Iraqi refugees, both those outside the country and internally displaced persons (IDPs). They number to date a fifth of the Iraqi population.

This tragic human dislocation has been created by the active violation of the UN Charter and other aspects of international law. This violation was demonstrated during the American terrorism of "Shock and Awe", and the invasion of sovereignty, disruption of culture, destruction of civilian infrastructure that it entailed and epitomised. Irreparable damage to society and fundamental human rights has ensued. This outrageous unprovoked act of aggression brought to Iraq yet again the horrors of war. Bush and Blair's pre-emptive strike has led to the deaths of many hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians. Current credible estimations put the figure at over one million since 2003.

During the occupation, the atrocities of the US- UK have become only too well known -- cluster bombing, white phosphorus, and the use of depleted uranium. Some 250,000 US "heroes", added to over 100,000 private sector hired guns, have maimed and killed civilians. "Collateral damage" is the obscene term used in Washington. This illegal war has brought on the terrible violence of legitimate resistance. US propaganda and Washington's intentions have set in motion the horrors of sectarian strife. The American and British intention to crush Iraq, its people and any "threat" they supposedly posed, has been tragically accomplished.

The consequences are many, and as always in the modern history of Iraq the people have paid the price with their lives, and their well-being. Imperialism, power, greed in respect of oil, and ambition for a strategic military location central to the wider region, have destroyed the Iraq many of us knew. But, of course, the spirit of the Iraqi people is indestructible. They cannot be broken. They will resist, drive out all intruders, and they will recover. The people of Iraq will overcome the catastrophes of recent years.

Over and above massive loss of civilian life, is the tragic consequence of refugees. It is estimated some 4.7 million children, women and men have been forced from their homes and have fled -- some displaced within and some outside Iraq. More that 20 per cent of the entire population have been brutally uprooted by the violence of this war of aggression -- a war crime for which the US-UK, along with others, must be held responsible.

And I am advised that some two thirds of those driven out, displaced and impoverished thereby, are women; just as under sanctions, it is the women and their children that pay the highest price. We are hearing of "survival prostitution". We know of the suffering, deprivation and indignities that women face under the terrible circumstances of being homeless -- being refugees whilst struggling to keep families alive and intact.

And we cannot forget those Iraqi refugees and IDPs created by 13 years of genocidal UN sanctions -- sanctions targeting the children of Iraq, set in motion and maintained by the US/UK- driven Security Council, with deadly consequences.

Despite the loud silence in Washington and London, some UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) work for assisting the refugees of Iraq is ongoing. It is too little. It lacks publicity. It lacks resources. It lacks adequate recognition and support by those responsible in the US and UK for this human calamity.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees is appealing for increased bilateral aid and "humanitarian visas", the latter for neighbouring countries such as Syria and further afield. In the case of Syria, some 1.5 million refugees are creating great pressure -- thus the reluctance to issue additional visas. Financing is desperately needed for housing and other refugee needs.

Regarding the internally displaced, the UNHCR reports over 800,000 in Iraqi Kurdistan close to the Turkish border. The current instability on that border is creating new problems for such people, leading to further displacement. The UNHCR reports that some 2.3 million Iraqis are displaced throughout the country. Of these, more than one million were displaced prior to 2003, during the UN sanctions period. Another 190,000 were displaced between 2003-05 and more than one million since the first American bombing of Samaraa in February 2006.

UNHCR estimates that in addition to more than 1.5 million in Syria, some 500-700,000 Iraqis have fled to Jordan. Some families are receiving small allowances of $100-200 per month, but many are suffering badly as private funds run out. Housing is too expensive, school is unaffordable if available at all, unemployment prevails, and medical and even food requirements cannot be met adequately.

As recently as 23 November, UNHCR Geneva, noting reports of limited returns home by a few refugees, said it is ready to assist but does not believe it is timely to organise and promote returns until secure conditions are in place. Meantime, as one would expect of Iraqi parents, many want to get home so their children can go back to school before the end of the first term.

In respect of IDPs, UNHCR notes an increase in the past few months, making for a total estimate by the Red Cross/Red Crescent of some 2.4 million. This may be due to desperation, unending violence and closed borders, and tragically the continuation of "ethnic cleansing" -- a sadly familiar form of violence which the occupying forces together with the government have failed to halt.

It is a picture of human tragedy. Perhaps the more so on account of the wealth of Iraq, the innocence of its people swept up in a war not of their making, and the great potential for human well-being that resides in its soil.

The chaos, the killing, the atrocities set in motion, the irreparable damage was brought about when the UN Security Council froze into legislative inertia, and thereby facilitated corruption of the word and spirit of the UN Charter. That failure enabled US terrorism, invasion and military occupation in violation of sovereignty and many international legal safeguards. Yet another example of UN double standards -- the permanent five of the Security Council consider themselves above the law.

Some readers will be aware that an important initiative has recently been launched from a new group known as "The Iraqi International Initiative for Iraqi Refugees", working out of the region. The goals, terms of reference and the plan of action of this initiative can be found on a new website: www.3iii.org.

In brief, the initiative recognises that the refugees and internally displaced of Iraq, as citizens of Iraq. have a right to access national financial resources from oil revenue. And I believe that all of us who care about justice and peace need to provide active support. As a group, or as individuals, there is a role for each one of us.

The website www.3iii.org reminds us that the international community and the present government in Baghdad have legal obligations to support and protect refugees and the internally displaced adequately. (See the terms of reference of the UNHCR). Iraqi refugees are no different to others, and have equal rights under international provisions, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to dignity, the right of return, safety for their families, employment, security, and the right to life.

The Iraqi International Initiative argues that the Security Council has an obligation to demand of the international community and the Baghdad government that Iraqi oil revenue funding be provided now through appropriate agencies and hosting governments. It demands that such assistance also be provided for return and resettlement as conditions of security and infrastructure allow. The website www.3iii.org provides more information and contains a petition you may wish to sign -- and that might be a good starting point.

Just as Iraq has and continues to pay billions of dollars in reparations through the UN for damage in Kuwait, it is clear that similar, although much greater, reparations are due to the people of Iraq. Thus in addition to Iraq's own revenues for refugees, I propose for consideration by public opinion that the Security Council be urged by the governments of member states of the General Assembly to endorse a resolution requiring the payment of an immediate advance on such reparations. I speak of the reparations that the US, UK and others involved in the war of aggression on Iraq must be forced to pay.

It is difficult to determine the size, but reparations from the US and others would seem to require some 2-3 trillion euros. We of the EU, UK, US, Australia, Canada and other wealthy collaborators -- aggressive nations all -- cannot be excused. Reparations are a must. The same UN that failed to stop Bush and Blair now has an obligation to determine the amount of reparations, and how and when payments begin. We cannot bring back the Iraqi lives we have taken, but we can support reconstruction and the return of refugees and IDPs, and the rebuilding of millions of shattered lives.

The website www.3iii.org on the Iraqi refugee crisis can speak for itself. However, I suspect like me that many readers are deeply concerned about the many crises of the region. We can not forget the occupation of Palestine, or the threats to Iran, or the violence continuing in Afghanistan, and real uncertainties elsewhere, but we need to respond to the human catastrophe of some 4.7 million Iraqi refugees and IDPs urgently.

In this article I have focussed on Iraqi refugees. Other related issues also need to be addressed. I refer to the abolition, or at least reform of the UN Security Council, to have the South properly represented in rotating but permanent seats; suspension of the US and UK from the Council pending prosecution of the leadership that undertook invasion and occupation; and the mandatory payment of reparations to Iraq by the US, UK and other collaborators, which I have mentioned.

I call for an international investigation of US atrocities, torture, murder of civilians, CIA renditions, use of gun slingers acting outside of any law, arbitrary imprisonment of thousands, use of depleted uranium, cluster bombing, and the genocidal destruction of cities and towns such as Falluja.

And believe we must demand the immediate withdrawal of all "enemy combatants" -- be they American, British or from any other source; the creation of conditions for the election of a representative government free of outside interference; abolition of the constitution illegally drafted by the US under military occupation; and encouraging free and proper Iraqi decision- making on such issues as privatisation, oil revenues and the presence of US military bases.

It is urgent that we assist our Iraqi friends find the shortest possible route to the restoration of their national sovereignty. We need to demand an end to all forms of foreign interference. And we need to recognise that the people of Iraq alone can best determine what is to be the future for their country, and in what manner that future is to be pursued, and obtained.

* The writer is former UN assistant secretary- general and among the first endorsers of the Iraqi International Initiative on Iraqi Refugees (www.3iii.org) .

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