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30 January 2003

Iraq (Humanitarian Contingency Plan)

House of Commons Debate

John Barrett (Edinburgh, West): I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate. I shall echo some of the points that have already been made, but I also hope to raise a few issues that have not been raised so far.

This is not the time to debate whether Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction, United Nations approval, or even the importance of a substantive vote in the House—although many people, like me, are mystified by the Prime Minister's reaction to questions about a substantive vote in this place. If George Bush phones the Prime Minister and says, "We need to go to war now"—as he might—surely it is in everyone's interests, including those of the troops, to ensure that the Government and the Prime Minister have heard the views of the House first. The public are asking questions about the military action that will be taken in their name, and the House is not giving them the answers. I hope that that will be a debate for another day.

What is at hand today is something that I believe the people of this country are deeply concerned about, as has been shown by the speeches that hon. Members have already made—something that, in the heat of the military debate, is in danger of being lost. The humanitarian consequences of military strikes in Iraq are nothing short of frightening. A high-impact scenario was suggested in the recent UN report, which said that military action could:

"result in a complete breakdown of state capacities and possibly civil war . . . This will trigger large scale internal and external population movements as well as massive humanitarian needs. Agencies' ability to respond would be severely limited for an extended period."

Before we even think about the potential problems in Iraq after a conflict, it is important to stress the humanitarian situation now, before the first official bomb has been dropped—I understand that bombing in some areas has already started, and is being carried out with increasing regularity. The situation on the ground in Iraq is horrifying.

Last week, I was fortunate enough to meet representatives of Save the Children, and they backed up much of the information that I had already received on this subject. The figures, which many Members have already mentioned, speak for themselves. Malnourishment and diarrhoea mean that Iraq is suffering the fastest increasing child mortality in the world: 10 per cent. of Iraqi children now die before their first birthday. As other Members have said, according to the World Food Programme, 16 million Iraqi people—60 per cent. of the population—are now wholly dependent on food aid. To put that figure in some perspective, the number of people who are now hungry in Iraq is roughly equivalent to the number who are in a similar situation in Zimbabwe, Zambia, Swaziland, Malawi, Mozambique and Lesotho all added together.

Put simply, Iraq is unable to feed its own people, because of drought and the bureaucratic system of food distribution used by the Iraqi state authorities. The food going into Iraq is insufficient, and careful consideration will have to be given to how we shall help the innocent and the starving if military action commences. It is surely without question that any military action would further disrupt that food distribution, and probably stop it altogether. If conflict were to begin, Iraq's neighbours would likely close their borders and the UN oil-for-food programme would effectively end.

However, food is not the only problem. As my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Dr. Tonge) said, Iraq's basic infrastructure is crumbling, with 50 per cent. of the sewage treatment plants not working. The water and sanitation systems that are left depend on the supply of electricity but, 12 years after the Gulf war, it is estimated that one third of the national power supply is still down.

Iraq is a country in serious poverty. That is one reason why I find it incredible that we might create yet another humanitarian disaster, when the UK and the international community already have to deal with countless other disasters across the globe. A number of speakers have already outlined the situation in Zambia, Malawi, Ethiopia and Eritrea, but we are seriously talking about adding to the list. If military action does take place, that is what will happen. Are not the development budgets of the United States, Europe and Britain stretched enough already? Will they be able to cope with anything more?

The contingency plan of the UN office for the co-ordination of humanitarian affairs admits the financial restraints that already exist. It states:

"UN agencies have been facing severe funding constraints that are preventing them from reaching even minimum levels of preparedness. As a consequence, the current response capacity of the UN system remains well below the critical requirements established through the inter-agency planning process."

The Secretary of State—for whom I have the utmost respect—does not want there to be civilian casualties. Of course she wants to avoid unnecessary deaths and inflicting yet more suffering on a population already suffering from misery, hunger and disease. I believe the right hon. Lady when she says that the British Government would be there to help people rebuild their lives. However, the Government's good intentions are not enough. We can all remember vividly how the Government said, in 2001, that they would help rebuild Afghanistan when the conflict there was over. They are making efforts to do just that, but the situation in Afghanistan is far from being a good-news story. Much of the country has reverted to the status that it occupied before the campaign against terrorism. Most of the country outside Kabul is under the control of warlords, and poppies that will become heroin on our streets are still being grown in the fields. Afghanistan is far from being a rebuilt nation.

Last week, the Select Committee on International Development, of which I am a member, published a report on the reconstruction of Afghanistan. In paragraph 86, it stated:

"Afghanistan is a completely wrecked land, with no institutions that work, no legitimate economy, no legitimate economy, no order of security and serious capacity shortfalls within Government."

The report showed that there are still immense problems in Afghanistan. Before the Prime Minister and the Government consider their next military campaign, they must not forget that there is unfinished business from the previous campaign.

I have seen no evidence to convince me that this country should go to war with Iraq. I can understand that, under certain circumstances, such action may have to be taken, but my view today is that war is not desirable, necessary nor inevitable. In my relatively short time as a Member of Parliament, more of my constituents have contacted me about Iraq than about any other issue. I do not take it to be a wholly representative sample, but I have not yet received a single letter, or spoken to one person in Edinburgh, West who believes that this country should be involved in military action at this time. Other hon. Members have told the House on a number of occasions of similar experiences, and I believe that that is very significant.

I hope that the Government accept that a great deal more work will have to be done to convince a large number of hon. Members, and I believe the resounding majority of people in this country, that force should be used in their name, especially given the major impact that such force would undoubtedly have on ordinary innocent Iraqi civilians—on men and women, on young and old, but mostly on children.

I hope that we do not go to war. Unfortunately, I fear that the decision may have been taken already. The humanitarian consequences of war in Iraq would last a generation. Today in Vietnam, children are still being born deformed or stillborn, without palates or chins, as a result of the effects of the agent orange dioxin—a weapon of mass destruction if ever there was one. If military action is taken, I hope that the UK Government will live up to their promise to make every effort to minimise civilian casualties and to help the people who definitely do not hold chemical weapons, pose any threat to this country or deserve further misery, but who will undoubtedly suffer most should military action be taken.


Read John's speech on Iraq , 26 November 2002

Read John's speech on Iraq , 4 October 2002

You can view the Government dossier Iraq's Weapons of Mass Destruction (pdf format)

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This website was established while I was a Member of Parliament. The site content is being kept online as a source of information, but all forms / email have been disabled.