Swiss push ahead with Iraq aid conference

Iraqis will become even more dependent on food handouts, if the war goes ahead Keystone

With a new Gulf war looming, the Swiss government says it hopes to host a humanitarian conference among the US, Britain and Iraq within weeks.

This content was published on February 4, 2003 - 17:21

The foreign ministry said it would be inviting experts from the three countries, as well as representatives of humanitarian aid agencies.

Walter Fust, head of the Swiss government's Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), said Swiss officials were in contact with all parties to the potential conflict.

"We hope that we can host the conference in Geneva during the weekend of February 15 and 16," Fust said.

Fust said many details had still to be finalised, including which countries would participate.

He added that official invitations would be sent out on Wednesday.

Doubts remain about whether the US or Britain would be prepared to participate.

When contacted by swissinfo, the Americans, the British and the Iraqis said they could not commit to attending until an invitation had been received.

Calmy-Rey's offer

On Monday, Switzerland's new foreign minister, Micheline Calmy-Rey, announced the Swiss would organise a pre-war conference to coordinate humanitarian aid in the wake of any military action against Iraq.

Calmy-Rey said Iraq and its neighbouring countries, as well as the US, Britain and the European Union, would be invited to attend.

Details of the proposed conference remain unclear, despite President Bush's warning last week that a military strike against Iraq could take place within weeks.

Non-governmental organisations such as the International Committee of the Red Cross have indicated their willingness to participate.

The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said it found the Swiss proposal interesting but was waiting for an official invitation.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Ruud Lubbers, called the conference a "good idea", as it was imperative to share the burden of the humanitarian consequences emanating from the war.


Bruce Armstrong, spokesman for the US embassy in Bern, told swissinfo: "We're still awaiting details on the exact nature and focus of the conference... Once we get the details we can make a decision."

The Iraqi ambassador to the UN, Samir Khairi Annama, said: "I see the Swiss proposal as a positive move. It will draw attention to the disastrous consequences of a war against Iraq."

However, he told swissinfo that no official response would be forthcoming until Baghdad had examined the details more closely.

Expecting the worst

Fust said Switzerland was preparing for conflict in coming weeks.

"But we hope, like millions of people, that this war will not take place," he said.

The Swiss have stationed an aid coordinator in Baghdad to cope with the likely humanitarian fallout of any military action.

Along with war casualties, the Iraqi population is likely to face a huge humanitarian crisis as a result of military action.

The SDC has warned that the UN oil-for-food programme - which supports the basic needs of some 16 million people in Iraq - would almost certainly be disrupted during a war.

Other infrastructure such as water services, electricity, transport and communication would also be damaged.

Countries with Iraqi borders may also be flooded with refugees fleeing the conflict.

Fust said much of the humanitarian impact would depend on the level of military action - emphasising the difference between a "surgical air war" and a prolonged battle involving ground troops.

swissinfo, Jacob Greber

Iraq brief

As many as 500,000 Iraqis could need medical assistance if war breaks out.
The UN estimates that up to three million Iraqis could be hit by food shortages, while a possible 1.2 million refugees might try to flee the country.
Cholera and dysentery may break out should the country's sanitation and water systems be damaged.
Most Iraqi citizens rely on government rations for food, and an invasion may bring widespread hunger.

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