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Senior UN officials express growing alarm for Iraqi civilians, children

Senior UN officials express growing alarm for Iraqi civilians, children

Senior United Nations officials expressed growing alarm today over the mounting civilian death toll in Iraq and the fate of children who may be cut off from aid.

“The impact on civilians must never be underestimated, for it is truly terrible in a way that words simply cannot convey,” the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR), Sergio Vieira de Mello, said of reports of the increasing number of civilian deaths and injuries.

“This conflict has reminded us once again of the cruelty of war and that the innocent are invariably its main victims,” he said in a statement in Geneva. He cited reports from humanitarian agencies that hospitals could no longer cope with the influx of wounded or were running low on essential medicines, and that some had been affected by the damage to water supplies and electricity.

“The remarkable job all those who care for victims continue to carry out in the most difficult circumstances – Iraqi medical staff and volunteers, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) – is a courageous and truly inspiring tribute to humanity,” Mr. Vieira de Mello added.

He urged all parties to observe the principle of distinguishing between combatants and civilians. “The most precious right of all is the right to life. Once life is taken away, the damage is irreparable,” he said. “There are inescapable obligations on the parties to the conflict. Human rights and international humanitarian law cannot be put on hold.”

For its part, the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) warned that despite significant progress in humanitarian cross-border trucking operations into Iraq, early attempts to reach children and women were being significantly hampered by what it called “a residue of fear and chaos.”

Praising the courage of civilian contract drivers venturing into recently fought-over towns and cities to deliver aid, UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy said all forces that controlled territory were also obliged to provide secure access to civilian populations.

“When UNICEF talks about access, we mean ensuring that humanitarian aid reaches the children and women who need it most,” Ms. Bellamy said. “That means that we have to be able to physically get to a town, get to those who most urgently need aid and deliver it in a way that ensures it’s being used by those weakened and besieged by thirst, fear and hunger. Although we’re beginning to reach many places, we’re encountering a residue of fear and chaos.”