OPINION: Hot Issue - Should aid agencies heed US requests to stay put in Iraq?

After the devastating bomb blasts in Baghdad last Monday that killed 35 people, including 14 in an attack on the International Red Cross compound, the US appealed to aid charities to stand their ground, arguing that withdrawal was a victory for terrorists. We asked agency chiefs what they thought of the request.

DAVID ALEXANDER, international director, British Red Cross - NO

The Red Cross is a neutral and independent organisation that works in many dangerous situations around the world. Our humanitarian mandate is enshrined in international law.

There are only two factors that we consider when making the decision about conducting our operations in any country - these are our own assessment of the humanitarian need and our own assessment of the risk Red Cross staff may face in carrying out this work.

If this neutrality and independence is to mean anything then the Red Cross does not and cannot be seen to take instructions from anyone, in this case the US.

If we are to have the confidence of those we seek to help, then judgements about where and how we operate must be made independently of the political environment.

While we note the sentiment expressed by the US administration, the wishes of governments or any other parties can never influence how or where we work.

We will continue to make our own decisions based on our own thinking and criteria.

JONATHAN POTTER, executive director, People In Aid - YES

... but if they stay it will not be because of the US request alone. While the US government offers (some sort of) a security environment and funding to some agencies, there are other stakeholders whose perspectives need to be considered - ordinary Iraqis, for example.

Even if all of an agency's expatriate staff leaves Iraq, the agency itself may continue to operate, since most of the staff are Iraqis. Agencies have a duty of care for all staff, and must also consider current and future threats to the Iraqis - who cannot pull out - just as much as expatriates.

Balancing mission objectives and duty of care, each agency must clearly make its own security decision, analysing the situation carefully by using tools like the People In Aid Code of Good Practice, which will help them ask the right questions - Have we undertaken robust risk assessments?

Are we regularly updating security plans and evacuation procedures? Have we talked to both expatriates and national staff about how they might be affected by any decision?

GEOFF PRESCOTT, chief executive, Merlin - NO

Aid agencies should not be attentive to military or political opinions espoused by factions involved in a conflict.

Our duty is to save lives and alleviate suffering. Our decisions should be made on the basis of the needs of the civilian population and our ability to meet their needs in a way that best balances the risks and benefits to them.

Merlin will make its programme decisions based on a neutral and impartial assessment of prevailing conditions in Iraq. We would hope that the warring factions in Iraq respect the Geneva conventions and refrain from attacking civilians and neutral aid workers.

We do not welcome the attempted co-option of our neutrality and humanitarian efforts by Colin Powell or other political actors.

This sort of intervention makes our work harder and less secure and we would rather they did not muddy the waters of neutrality for political ends.

JEAN-MICHEL PIEDAGNEL, executive director, MSF-UK - NO

At the time of writing (29 October) MSF has not decided to withdraw from Baghdad. We are continually assessing the security situation, but our medical programmes currently continue through the relentless efforts of three expatriate and 60 national staff.

Our decision to stay or leave will be based on our own security analysis and the enduring humanitarian needs in Iraq.

This decision will be made in total disregard of what any occupying power wants to impose on us. Colin Powell's statement that if aid agencies were to be driven out of Iraq then "the terrorists would have won" has not helped the security of aid agencies in Iraq and other countries.

Humanitarian aid agencies are by definition independent of the warring parties. We are not actors in the 'war on terror'. Each time politicians confound humanitarian aid and foreign policy our independence - upon which the safety of our staff and the future of our missions depends - is eroded.

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