Amnesty International and the current Iraq crisis

1. The human rights situation in Iraq

Human rights violations have been committed on a massive scale against all sectors of society in Iraq. Most of the victims have been suspected political opponents of the government, their relatives, and members of religious and ethnic groups.

In our numerous reports over the years, we have documented:

  • "disappearances"
  • extrajudicial executions and other unlawful killings, including mass killings of civilians using chemical weapons
  • imprisonment of prisoners of conscience
  • long-term detention without charge or trial
  • grossly unfair trials
  • systematic torture including the use of judicial punishments such as flogging, ear amputation and branding of the forehead.
  • forcible expulsions
  • extensive use of the death penalty
  • recruitment of children in the armed forces

Links to Amnesty International reports on Iraq:

Iraq: Systematic torture of political prisoners - 15/08/2001

Iraq: Victims of Systematic Repression - 24/11/1999

Iraq:"Disappearances": Unresolved cases since the early 1980s - 01/10/1997

Iraq: State cruelty: branding, amputation and the death penalty - 01/04/1996

2. Iraq's recent amnesty for political prisoners

On 20 October 2002 the Revolutionary Command Council (RCC), Iraq's highest executive body, issued Decree No. 25 signed by President Saddam Hussain, ordering the release of all prisoners including political prisoners. While some press reports estimated that 50,000-100,000 people were released, no list of released detainees has so far been published. Families seeking information about detained relatives have not received any positive answers from the authorities.

Amnesty International welcomed the announcement of the amnesty and requested a list of released prisoners from the Iraqi government. No response has been received by the organization and we remain concerned that the releases are conditional and political opponents remain at risk of re-arrest.

The fate of tens of thousands of prisoners who "disappeared" since the 1980s is not addressed by the recent amnesty decree and remains unclear.

3. Amnesty International and the use of chemical weapons against the Kurds

The past century has been characterized by genocide, the development and use of weapons with extraordinary destructive powers, mass killings and "disappearances" by governments and opposition groups, huge population displacements, as well as gender related violations including the systematic use of rape.

This is the context which has informed the contemporary movement for human rights. The laws and mechanisms we have now were developed precisely to respond to these appalling abuses.

Amnesty International vigorously condemned the chemical attacks on Kurdish civilians in 1988. The failure of the international community to address these violations at that time was not due to a lack of options within the human rights system, but a lack of political will. In fact, rather than publicly condemning the Iraqi government and pressing for a UN investigation, many countries continued to sell weapons to the Iraqi government despite widespread knowledge of the attacks.

4. Amnesty International's position on military intervention in Iraq

Amnesty International wants to see a dramatic improvement in Iraq's deplorable record of systematic human rights violations. Grave abuses of human rights are taking place today in all regions of the world. We cannot choose to be outraged about some situations while ignoring others. The international community should pursue solutions which lead to improvement in the human rights situation in Iraq, not further deterioration, needless loss of life and increased suffering.

Amnesty International neither condemned nor supported the US-led military campaign in Afghanistan and our position is the same with respect to Iraq.

While our general policy is never to comment on whether the use of military force is justified or appropriate, we do comment on whether human rights and humanitarian law are being respected in the way a conflict is fought. We also oppose supply or sale of weapons, military equipment and military training to any government forces or armed group likely to be involved in human rights violations.

Amnesty International calls on all governments and armed groups to ensure that the protection of civilians is paramount and that the human rights and humanitarian impact of any actions are carefully considered. We ask that due consideration be given to exploring all diplomatic and judicial avenues.

5. "Regime change" in Iraq and protection of human rights

The US has called for a "regime change" in Iraq. Amnesty International is not a political organization and does not support or oppose "regime change" in any part of the world.

Regardless of who holds power, there cannot be effective protection of human rights without accountability for violations at the national and international levels. In order to develop a true culture of human rights, there must also be support for human rights education and the development of human rights organizations and institutions.

6. Likely consequences of war for the human rights of people in Iraq and in neighbouring countries

Any use of military force raises concerns about the safety of civilians in the conflict zone. While intentional targeting of civilians or use of human shields is clearly a war crime, significant civilian casualties may also result from weapons system errors, disproportionate military response, or the blurred distinction between military and civilian elements in urban warfare. Killings may also result from internal uprisings in Iraq or destabilization in border areas.

Military intervention is also likely to bring with it a humanitarian crisis, an increase in internally displaced people, and refugees attempting to cross the Iraqi border into Turkey, Iran, Syria, Jordan and possibly into Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Guaranteeing safety and adequate resources in refugee camps has consistently been a challenge for the international community. There are also concerns that some countries -- despite international obligations to provide refuge -- will simply close their borders, leaving fleeing civilians to seek safety within the borders of Iraq. Camps for internally displaced people are likely to be out of reach of international assistance.

7. Impact of UN sanctions

The effects of UN sanctions on the Iraqi population have been documented by UN agencies, NGOs, journalists and academics. There is a general consensus that sanctions are significantly contributing to the humanitarian crisis in Iraq. Although access to food, medicines and other commodities has reportedly improved since 1998, the situation overall remains critical.

Sanctions have jeopardized the right to food, health, education and in many cases, the life of hundreds of thousands of individuals, many of them children. There have been claims that the Iraqi authorities have deliberately manipulated the sanctions regime for propaganda purposes -- but that does not absolve the UN Security Council from its share of the responsibility for failing to heed the calls to lift all sanctions provisions that result in grave violations of the rights of the Iraqi people.

8. The case of Afghanistan

The human rights and humanitarian situation in Afghanistan had been grim for decades. Abuses were committed by all sides during 20 years of civil war including by Soviet forces which intervened from 1979-89.

Despite the repeated calls of human rights and humanitarian organizations, the international community failed to make Afghanistan a priority until the conflict spread well beyond the country's borders.

As a result of international military intervention in late 2001, the Taliban, a government notorious for its abuse of human rights, is no longer in power in Afghanistan. However others who have committed human rights abuses with impunity remain. The overall stability of Afghanistan has yet to be established and much remains to be done to address past human rights violations and prevent future ones.

During the military action by the US, UK and other forces in Afghanistan, there were a number of incidents in which civilians or captured combatants were killed or injured that Amnesty International believes need to be investigated. Amnesty International was also concerned for the protection and well-being of refugees and internally displaced people throughout the conflict. Some of these displaced people were pressured to return to unsafe areas once the Taliban were defeated. Amnesty International is concerned that military intervention in Iraq may result in similar problems.

9. Amnesty's position on the dossier of human rights violations in Iraq published by the United Kingdom government

Amnesty has been documenting gross human rights violations committed by the Iraqi government for over 20 years. The Foreign Office's dossier re-publishes many of our findings and we welcome the attention being given to these dreadful abuses albeit belatedly. However the dossier makes no recommendations on how to bring the perpetrators of these crimes to justice - nor does it explain, how if conflict does occur, the international community can ensure that any new post-conflict government has real commitment to human rights protection. Selective and opportunistic attention to human rights serves only to undermine international human rights standards.