20 March 2003

Secretary-General Expresses Hope That Security Council Unity Can Be Rebuilt Around Task of Relieving Iraqi Suffering

NEW YORK, 19 March (UN Headquarters) -- Following is the statement of Secretary-General Kofi Annan to the Security Council meeting on the situation in Iraq on 19 March:

Needless to say, I fully share the regrets expressed by many members of the Council at the fact that it has not been possible to reach a common position. Whatever our differing views on this complex issue, we must all feel that this is a sad day for the United Nations and the international community. I know that millions of people around the world share this sense of disappointment, and are deeply alarmed by the prospect of imminent war.

Let me here pay tribute to the United Nations staff -- both international and Iraqi -- who have worked so hard in Iraq up to the last possible moment. That includes the inspectors, whose work has now sadly been suspended. I would like to pay special tribute to Dr. [Hans] Blix, Dr. [Mohamed] ElBaradei and [Ramiro] Lopes da Silva, the Humanitarian Coordinator, under whose leadership the staff worked in Iraq.

Mr. President, it is the plight of the Iraqi people which is now my most immediate concern, and I have been glad to hear that sentiment shared by all the speakers in this debate. In the past 20 years, Iraqis have been through two major wars, internal uprisings and conflict, and more than a decade of debilitating sanctions. The country's vital infrastructure has been devastated, so that it no longer meets the most basic needs for clean water, health or education.

Already, Iraq's most vulnerable citizens -- the elderly, women and children, and the disabled -- are denied basic health care for lack of medicine and medical equipment. Already, nearly 1 million Iraqi children suffer from chronic malnutrition.

Already, Iraqis are heavily dependent on the food ration which is handed out each month to every family in the country. For more than 60 per cent of the population, this ration is their main source of income. Yet many families have to sell part of it to buy clothes or other essentials for their children.

All that is true as we speak. And in the short term, the conflict that is now clearly about to start can only make things worse -- perhaps much worse.

I am sure all members of this Council will agree that we must do everything we can to mitigate this imminent disaster, which could easily lead to epidemics and starvation.

Under international law, the responsibility for protecting civilians in conflict falls on the belligerents; in any area under military occupation, responsibility for the welfare of the population falls on the occupying power. Without in any way assuming or diminishing that ultimate responsibility, we in the United Nations will do whatever we can to help.

As you know, the humanitarian agencies of the United Nations have, for some time, been engaged in preparing for this contingency, even while we hoped it could still be averted.

We have done our best to assess the possible effects of war, in terms of population displacement and human need, and to position our personnel and equipment accordingly. For these preparations we requested $123.5 million from donors a month ago, but only $45 million have been pledged, and $34 million received, to date. I'm afraid we shall very soon be coming back with an appeal for much larger sums, to finance actual relief operations -- and I earnestly hope that Member States will respond with generosity and speed.

We have also examined the situation caused by the suspension of the activities of the "oil-for-food" programme in Iraq, and ways that the programme could be adjusted temporarily, to enable us to continue providing humanitarian assistance to the people of Iraq during and after hostilities. Such adjustments would require decisions by this Council. I will therefore submit my specific proposals for the Council's consideration -- as suggested in your note, Mr. President.

In conclusion, Mr. President, let me express the hope that the effort to relieve the sufferings of the Iraqi people, and to rehabilitate their society after so much destruction, may yet prove to be the task around which the unity of this Council can be rebuilt.

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