Iraq: Devastation of Marsh Arabs

News and Press Release
Originally published
(New York, January 25, 2003) Iraq's Marsh Arabs, having barely survived a fifteen-year campaign by the central government to eliminate them, will be at further risk in the event of war, Human Rights Watch warned today.
In a 16-page briefing paper, "The Iraqi Government Assault on the Marsh Arabs," Human Rights Watch documents how systematic bombardment of villages, widespread arbitrary arrests, torture, "disappearances," summary executions, and forced displacement have reduced the Marsh Arabs from more than 250,000 to as few as 40,000.

Large-scale government drainage projects have virtually wiped out the Marsh Arab economy and, along with severe repression, forced the displacement of at least 100,000 of the Marsh Arabs inside Iraq. More than 40,000 others fled as refugees to Iran. "The Marsh Arabs have suffered some of the worst repression in a highly repressive political system," said Joe Stork, Washington director of the Middle East and North Africa Division of Human Rights Watch. "In the event of war, there is reason to fear that the marshes area will again be a battleground, with devastating consequences for those who remain."

Many of the government's acts of repression against the Marsh Arabs, because they were part of a widespread and systematic attack, constitute a crime against humanity, and Human Rights Watch called for an international tribunal to investigate and punish those responsible.

Human Rights Watch urged the Iraqi government to release those Marsh Arabs it still holds in detention, and to clarify the fate of those who "disappeared" following arrest. The government should also compensate the victims and the families of those who were arbitrarily held, tortured, "disappeared," or executed, Human Rights Watch said.

The marshes region, some 20,000 square kilometers located at the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in southeastern Iraq, is the site of some of the country's richest oil deposits. Prior to its destruction the marsh terrain was relatively inaccessible to security forces and provided shelter to political opponents and army deserters. The area once constituted the largest wetlands ecosystem in the Middle East, and the U.N. has called its destruction one of the world's greatest environmental disasters.

Human Rights Watch takes no position on the legality of the use of military force, including possible U.S.-led military action in Iraq. Its work on Iraq focuses on continuing human rights abuses and, if there is a war, the compliance by all parties with international humanitarian law and protections for Iraqi civilians.

"Whether or not there is war, there should certainly be an end to these systematic abuses and some measure of justice for the Marsh Arabs," Stork said.

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