Aid Groups Wary of Working Too Closely with US in Iraq ; Some Workers Wait in Jordan for Clarification on Whether Partnering with the US Is Illegal

By Danna Harman writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, May 1, 2003 | Go to article overview

Aid Groups Wary of Working Too Closely with US in Iraq ; Some Workers Wait in Jordan for Clarification on Whether Partnering with the US Is Illegal


Danna Harman writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


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 humanitarian law.

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 force.

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. …

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