A group of aid workers whiles away another afternoon in a chic
Amman pastry shop, sipping cappuccinos and leafing through the
Geneva Conventions. The well-intentioned group has been here for
weeks, waiting for security clearance to enter neighboring Iraq do
what they came here to do - help with Iraq's reconstruction.
While they have done this before in some of the world's most
needy places - mending pipes in Afghanistan, rebuilding schools in
Sierra Leone, and distributing food in Ethiopia - in Iraq, they are
entering uncharted waters.
Naz Modirzadeh, a lawyer with the Harvard Program on Humanitarian
Policy and Conflict Research (HPCR) at the head of the pastry-shop
table, tells the baffled group that by working in Iraq they could be
breaking the law.
The reason: Until a new Iraqi government is established, the US
is considered an occupying force - and is prohibited from
significantly altering the occupied territory by such actions as
setting up a new government or changing preexisting laws.
By partnering with the US during this time, aid workers are under
the same obligations as the occupying power itself. Some actions
they take could cause them, unwittingly, to violate international
Though the US rejects the label of occupier, Ms. Modirzadeh
argues that, legally, it is one. In the context of an international
conflict, the US is present in Iraqi territory and can impose
control, while the former Iraqi government is no longer able to
exercise authority. This, by definition, makes the US an occupying
Occupation comes with a long list of rules and regulations, as
set out by the Geneva Conventions, to which the US and Iraq are
signatories. The US - and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and
UN bodies that partner with it - must, for example, maintain law and
order and ensure sufficient supplies of food, water, and medical
care for the civilian population.
But according to some experts, they are prohibited from certain
activities, such as reconfiguring the police force or rewriting
school curricula. These activities, which the US has expressed
intentions of carrying out with the help of NGOs, need to be done
with great care, if at all, lest they be deemed illegal.
"Working with USAID [US Agency for International Development],
which funds development work around the world, feels natural," says
Claude Bruderlein, director of HPCR. "But in this case it's a
political statement and has a host of added responsibilities. …