Iraq's humanitarian situation improving but still dire, UN reports

Iraq's humanitarian situation improving but still dire, UN reports

The United Nations "oil-for-food" programme which allows Iraq to use a portion of its crude revenues for relief aid has significantly improved the country's humanitarian situation, but acute problems remain, according to a UN report released today in New York.

"Despite its shortcomings, the programme has made and continues to make a major difference in the lives of ordinary Iraqis," Secretary-General Kofi Annan writes in the report.

Acknowledging the prevailing political circumstances surrounding Iraq, the Secretary-General urges attention to the plight of the country's citizens. "While, understandably, the current discussions are focused on the resumption of the weapons inspection regime, I should like to appeal to all concerned to also focus attention on the humanitarian dimension and to spare no effort in meeting the dire humanitarian needs of the Iraqi people," he says.

The report notes that the oil-for-food programme has improved the overall socio-economic conditions of the Iraqi people countrywide, while preventing the further degradation of public services and infrastructure. In several areas, the programme has stabilized and improved access to humanitarian goods and services. "Notwithstanding the significant achievements of the programme in improving the humanitarian condition of the Iraqi people compared to their dire plight in 1996 [before it began], there still remains much to be done," Mr. Annan states.

Documenting positive developments in the area of health, for example, the report notes a 40 per cent increase in major surgeries compared to 1997 in the centre and south, where there has also been a reduction in a number of communicable diseases. Immunization drives have rendered Iraq polio-free. But at the same time, there are shortages of certain drugs because of concerns by members of the Security Council sanctions committee that they could have military applications. Pharmaceuticals for treating leukaemia and cancer are also in short supply countrywide, owing in part to the insufficient financial allocation by the Government of Iraq.

While malnutrition among children under five remains relatively high, it has been arrested and reversed in the centre and south. Malnutrition rates in 2002 are half those of 1996. In the education sector, the distribution of 1.2 million school desks has met 60 per cent of the need in the centre and south. While calling this a "great improvement" over previous years, Mr. Annan says, "schools countrywide do not provide an environment conducive to learning; overcrowding and double shifts are the norm, a situation that requires urgent attention."

The report also documents the programme's severe budget gap, which is caused by low and erratic levels of Iraqi crude sales - "conservative estimates" put the loss at $4 billion during the current phase. In order to address the problem, the Secretary-General calls for resolving the question of pricing, which is partly to blame for the uneven exports.