The Gulf War – Invisible Victims of Armed Conflict
Basrah, Iraq, 1990. The surprise invasion of Kuwait by Saddam Hussein spawned an exodus of Kuwaitis, Palestinians, as well as other workers, mainly from Iran and the Philippines. Various UN agencies reduced their staff. As weeks went by, a steady stream of looted luxury and other commodities destined for Baghdad headed north on Highway 8. Workers from the Philippines were housed in makeshift camps in various suburbs of Baghdad. Staff of the headquarters of the United Nations Iran Iraq Military Observer Group (UNIIMOG), monitoring the 1988 cease fire between Iran and Iraq, reported on the appalling conditions in the camps, including women being forced into prostitution.
In the meantime, with depleted staff, UNHCR was unable to monitor, protect and assist vulnerable populations generally, and in particular, the Iranians who were encamped around Az Zubayr, awaiting the opening of a temporary border crossing between Iran and Iraq so that they could eventually go home.
For Sector South, our vague and imprecise task was to “monitor and report” the condition and treatment of those crossing into Iran. The first of two-man patrols on twelve-hour shifts, 24/7, noted that Iranians and others who had been dropped off by taxis and mini-buses had no shelter from the sun where daily temperatures climbed to 50 degrees Celsius or higher, no water and no privacy for women seeking toilets - forcing them to venture into suspected minefields. The Iraqi authorities resolved this after repeated UNIIMOG interventions.
Equally thorny, was extortion by contracted drivers who demanded additional payment to cross into Iran. Direct intervention by UNIIMOG patrol members was required since Iraqi authorities refused to take action.
The most vexing problem was the Iraqi military. Under the guise of expediting crossing procedures an officer accompanied by soldiers would go down the line of cars, obtain vehicle registration and other documents to begin “pre-clearance” but by the time an Iranian reached the crossing point and his car and his belongings were judged to be valuable, the car and chattels would be confiscated since the driver would be unable to produce the documents that had previously been collected. Their cars and belongings were deemed to be stolen goods or contraband. They would now have to make the crossing on foot.
Normally on a UNIIMOG patrol one member would remain with the vehicle on radio watch while the other would patrol on foot. Due to widespread abuse both members of some patrols would patrol on foot, showing up unexpectedly, to observe and take notes.
The threat of accountability had a marked effect on Iraqi behavior, but the unfortunate reality was that not all Iranians and others could be protected since some UNIIMOG patrols remained in their vehicles for the entire 12-hour shift and merely observed cars and people inching towards the crossing point.
This reflects the varying degrees of pre-deployment training on pressing issues now facing UN peacekeepers in a markedly more complex environment. For example, Peace and Security; Protection of Civilians; Sexual and Gender Based Violence; and Conflict Related Sexual Violence. Canada has played an important role in pioneering such training, through the Pearson Peacekeeping Centre (PPC) from 1994 to its unfortunate closure in 2013. Today, there are over 80 peace-keeping training institutions, the genesis of many also due to the PPC.
Canada now has an opportunity to revive its role in peacekeeping (especially with low-income countries, including critically needed support for pre-deployment training); and also in peacebuilding, to reduce the need for UN peacekeepers. Then we can truly assert that Canada is back!
By: Ted Itani