They left Baghdad almost as quickly as they had arrived, but with an urgency that belied their reputation as heroes and champions of the common man. Once the United Nations (UN) and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) felt the sting of terrorism in the lawless streets of Baghdad their instincts were the same – to cut and run.
This is certainly not the example set by the world’s great battlefield humanitarians: Henry Dunant, founder of the International Red Cross; Clara Barton, Civil War nurse and founder of the American Red Cross; or Florence Nightingale, who braved Russian shelling during the Crimean War to bring aid and comfort to Britain’s battlefield wounded. Nor is it in the tradition of the numerous private aid agencies that remained in places like Eritrea, Rwanda, El Salvador, Guatemala, East Timor, the Philippines, Bosnia, Chechnya and Lebanon even as fighting raged around them.
It has now been six months since the UN departed Baghdad. Little has changed in Iraq. Violence and mayhem remain unchecked throughout the country. Everywhere, Iraqi civilians are in dire need of humanitarian aid. It may be some time before Iraq resembles Vermont.
Both U.S. and Iraqi officials have pleaded with Secretary General Kofi Annan to authorize the return of the UN, but to no avail. Citing ongoing security concerns, the Secretary General has balked at sending a survey team to the Iraqi capital until the Coalition could guarantee its safety.
But safety is not what the UN and the ICRC are all about. Their missions are to assist the needy, relieve suffering and help to bring order out of chaos -- regardless of the risk. Yet when it comes to Iraq, both organizations seem to have forgotten that these tasks are written into their job descriptions. Like it or not, danger will always be an occupational hazard of war. Perhaps it is time the UN and the ICRC woke up to this reality and to their responsibilities to those they are sworn to serve.
A Sorry History
The UN has a long history of rapid-fire withdrawal whenever the going gets tough. In September 2000, the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) was the first to flee West Timor after a spate of killings that left nearly 100,000 East Timorese to fend for themselves in squalid camps. In September, 2001, the UN ordered its 80-person staff to abandon Afghanistan and seek refuge in Islamabad, Pakistan, in anticipation of an imminent U.S. strike against the Taliban and the followers of Osama bin Laden. The scene was repeated again in July 2002, as the UN hurriedly evacuated its staff from war-torn Chechnya following the kidnapping of a senior aid worker.
While there is no disguising the fact that the UN and the ICRC are non-combatants in Iraq, their missions remain what they always have been: to purposefully venture into harm’s way to bring aid and comfort to the victims of war. This work cannot be carried out from the salons of Geneva, Paris or New York; it must be done in the field where the need, and the risk, is greatest. If Baghdad – and by extension Iraq – were a peaceful place, capable of providing its own social services, then the UN and the ICRC would not be needed. But this is surely not the case across this beleaguered city.
More sobering is the hypocrisy the UN and the ICRC show towards the United States as it battles to bring law and order to a chaotic corner of the world. It is not enough that the U.S. suffered its largest single terrorist attack on September 11, 2001, and is struggling against an elusive enemy. Americans must also endure the sniping of those in the international community who are unable, or unwilling, to bear the cost in either lives or treasure for the principles they espouse.
Ever since September 11th, ICRC spokesmen have publicly chastised the Bush Administration for its decision to hold terrorist suspects in military detention at the U.S. base in Guantanamo, Cuba. They have upbraided Washington for using what the Red Cross calls disproportionate and indiscriminate force on the battlefield and have faulted the Pentagon for occasionally permitting both Iraqi and Afghan POWs to be photographed after their capture.
Most egregiously, the ICRC also has been quick to condemn the U.S. for the deaths of non-combatants during the Iraq campaign. Yet it has been less than forceful in highlighting the perfidious manner in which Saddam’s soldiers routinely fired upon Coalition forces from within schools, mosques and hospitals in their efforts to avoid reprisal.
As a result, the U.S. sustained higher casualties in the Iraq campaign than was necessary because the Pentagon’s rules of engagement sought to minimize the intentional loss of civilian life. "We choose targets carefully to avoid civilians," noted a spokeswoman for the U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, in a news conference on April 10th."Our ground and air forces take similar care to avoid damaging neighborhoods, hospitals and religious sites."
Fight or Flight
The first to flee the violence of Baghdad were representatives of the United Nations. Within days after its Baghdad headquarters building was bombed on August 20, 2003, the UN Secretary General Kofi Annan decided it was just too dangerous for the mission to remain at full strength. He ordered that the staff of 300 in Baghdad be reduced to a token presence. The attack on the UN headquarters left 17 dead and 100 injured. Killed in the blast was the Secretary’s special envoy to the country, Sergio Vieira de Mello. A second car bombing on September 22nd in a parking lot outside the UN’s Baghdad compound killed a policeman and compelled the organization to further reduce its profile in the Iraqi capital.
Then came the suicide attack on the Baghdad offices of the International Committee of the Red Cross on October 27th. At least ten people were murdered in this bombing which occurred when an ambulance bearing the insignia of the organization drove into the ICRC compound and exploded. The ICRC insisted it was the first time the organization had been deliberately attacked in 140 years.
Pierre Krähenbühl, Director of Operations for the ICRC in Geneva, decided to draw down most of his staff in the Iraqi capital. Left behind was a caretaker operation, one not focused on delivering services to the needy, but instead protecting ICRC property from looters. The ICRC headquarters issued a statement condemning the bombing and noted that attacks that targeted civilians were violations of "international humanitarian law and negate the most basic principles of humanity."
The last straw came for the ICRC on November 8, 2003, when, in response to mounting attacks against coalition forces throughout Iraq, the organization’s leadership decided to shutter its doors and cease all operations in Baghdad. "We decided that in view of an extremely dangerous and volatile situation that we would have to temporarily close our offices in Baghdad and Basra," said Florian Westphal, a spokesman for the ICRC.
The View From Tel Aviv
If you are an Israeli sitting in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv these days, the ICRC’s use of the terms “extremely dangerous” and a “volatile situation” to describe the situation in Baghdad must seem more than a little disingenuous. After all, there have been more than 130 suicide attacks in and around Israel over the last three years and literally thousands of Palestinian bombings, shooting, kidnappings and stabbings. Yet, ICRC and UN agencies seem to function normally despite the perceived danger. Their representatives have no difficulty traversing the battle lines, bringing supplies to the Palestinians, writing reports and insinuating themselves between the combatants at every turn.
Witness the Israeli siege of the Jenin refugee camp in April 2002. During this operation against a known terrorist stronghold, UN and ICRC representatives were on the scene, braving the bullets, in order to make sure that no opportunity was lost to paint a fictional picture of Israeli brutality. In fact, when it comes to condemning Israel, the UN and ICRC representatives seem to be emboldened by danger. Their actions echo the observation attributed to Winston Churchill that there is nothing so exhilarating as the caprice of the bullet.
Either these UN and ICRC workers are a tougher lot than their Iraqi-based counterparts or they have managed to find ingenious ways to adapt to local conditions. Sadly, all evidence points to the latter. The fact is that these workers enjoy the comfort and protection of the terrorist militias that control much of the Palestinian-controlled territories. For reasons of both personal survival and personal sympathy, they have struck a devil’s bargain with the very people responsible for so much civilian suffering.
The UN and the ICRC rarely run afoul of the terrorists because they are in bed with the terrorists, providing cover to their operations in the refugee camps, justifying their actions before the world media, ignoring their use of Red Cross ambulances to transport weapons and guerillas, and permitting the widespread misuse of international relief funds provided by the international community, most notably through UNWRA, the UN Works and Relief Agency.
Even more galling to Israeli observers must be the appeal of the ICRC to the “most basic principles of humanity” when speaking of its own painful loss in Iraq. Where is the plea for the “principles of humanity” when bombs go off in Israeli malls and on crowded Israeli buses killing and maiming innocent men, women and children?
Only the targeted retaliation by the Israeli military against known terrorists and their hideouts seems to arouse the indignation of these two esteemed organizations. In fact no Israeli response is ever deemed appropriate, neither retaliatory action nor pre-emptive strikes to neutralize so-called “ticking bombs.”
Today, in Iraq, American troops are subject to an average of twenty attacks per day. Not only is the sophistication of these attacks growing, but so too is the brazenness of their perpetrators. Many of these are roadside bombs which indiscriminately kill soldiers and civilians alike.
Nearly 250 Americans have died in Iraq since President Bush declared an end of major combat operations in May. Administration spokesmen have declared their intention to remain in Iraq as long as it takes to bring stability to the country and to ensure that all necessary relief aid is made available to those Iraqis who most need it.
Yet it took only one bomb to drive the ICRC out of Baghdad and two bombs to force the UN and its staff to drastically reduce its presence in this city. By contrast, the innocent Iraqis served by these two organizations have nowhere else to go. They can neither flee their conditions nor seek sanctuary outside the city. Instead they are left to die by the score, unfortunate collateral casualties in an unrelenting terrorist war.
The same is true for the thousands of Israelis who, for the last ten years since the signing of the Oslo Accords, have found themselves subjected to the indiscriminate killing now so commonplace throughout Iraq. Their toll, though, has been significantly higher: More than 900 Israelis have been killed and 6,000 injured in more than 19,400 terrorist attacks between September 29, 2000, and January 1, 2004.
In contrast to the UN and ICRC action, the Italian Government did not choose to retreat after eighteen members of its stabilization force were killed in a November 12th suicide bombing in Nasiriya. It was the worst loss suffered by a U.S. coalition partner since the start of the war. Eleven Carabinieri paramilitary police, four army soldiers, an Italian civilian, and an Italian filmmaker were killed in the blast. Just hours after the incident, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi made it clear that his country would not abandon its commitment to the Iraqi people and the United States to continue to help stabilize the country.
The UN and the ICRC had many options in Baghdad after their headquarters were attacked. They could have reinforced their compounds with additional Iraqi guards, moved to a more secure location, retained the services of foreign security personnel or sought the protection of Coalition forces. None of these was acceptable. Each was rejected.
Instead, the two organizations ordered their staffs to flee Iraq’s capital city in what can only be described as a shameful display of weakness. Abandoning their posts at a time of profound human need has surely earned them the ignominious title: “The Cowards of Baghdad.”