Human Rights Watch takes no position on the legality or appropriateness of the use of military force but - from its experience of monitoring recent armed conflicts - knows all too well the human cost of war. Military action will bring new hardship to the civilian population of Iraq, who have already suffered greatly over several decades the cumulative effects of war, sanctions, and human rights abuses by their government.
In recent years, the Security Council has given welcome attention to the impact of armed conflict on civilians and the best means of protecting them from the worst excesses of war. In a series of resolutions and statements, the Security Council has laid down fundamental principles on critical issues such as humanitarian access to vulnerable populations, the protection of refugees and the internally displaced, the use of landmines and the proliferation of small arms, the impact of conflict on women and children, and the longer-term imperatives of demobilization and rehabilitation.1
As the international community contemplates military action against Iraq, this agenda is especially pressing. The Security Council's response to the Iraq crisis is a test of its commitments to protect human rights and ensure effective humanitarian action.
If the Security Council authorizes military action against Iraq, it must make explicit provisions for the protection of civilians and ensure these are effectively monitored and enforced. If war proceeds without Security Council authorization, the Council must insist that the governments of Iraq, the United States and all states participating in any conflict fully respect international human rights, humanitarian and refugee law and are held accountable for any abuses. In this context, Human Rights Watch urges the Security Council to give priority attention to the following concerns:
- Obligations of attacking forces: International
humanitarian law forbids direct attacks against civilians, or attacks of
an indiscriminate nature. It is imperative that all parties identify and
distinguish civilians from combatants in every situation. Vigorous steps
must be taken to avoid mistakenly targeting civilians because of inadequate
reconnaissance or intelligence. In addition, all feasible precautions should
be taken to avoid harm to civilians. Military force should not be used
to attack civilian morale or to destroy civilian objects for symbolic purposes
when there is no direct military advantage to be gained. Nor should there
be any attack on humanitarian supplies or civilian infrastructure that,
even if used by an opposing military, are necessary for the survival of
the civilian population in the conditions of scarcity now prevailing in
Iraq. It is also generally forbidden to direct attacks against civilian
objects, such as homes and apartments, places of worship, hospitals, schools,
or cultural monuments, unless they are being used for military purposes.
Even then, civilian objects should not be attacked if the harm to civilians
from that attack is excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military
- Possible Iraqi abuses: The prospect
of fighting in urban areas in Iraq poses additional challenges for the
protection of civilians. Judging by Iraq's past conduct, there is a substantial
possibility that Iraqi authorities may use civilians as shields for military
targets. The international community should make clear that such tactics
are prohibited under international humanitarian law and that Iraqi officials
will be held accountable if they employ them. At the same time, they do
not excuse the opposing forces from the duty to refrain from attacking
if harm to civilians from an attack is excessive in relation to the concrete
and direct military advantage anticipated. Equally, preventive action should
be taken to protect civilians in the Kurdish areas in the north and Shia
areas in the south should the Iraqi authorities strike out internally against
these groups. A clear signal should be sent that anyone who carries out
deliberate atrocities against Iraqi civilians will be prosecuted. The desire
to encourage defections must not be allowed to obscure this essential message.
- Responsibilities of occupying forces:
The United States and its coalition partners must be prepared to protect
and provide assistance to all potential victims of such attacks in areas
of the country under their effective control. If Turkish troops occupy
areas of Iraq inhabited by ethnic Kurds, those troops must be particularly
vigilant in protecting the Kurds from attacks by other groups. Furthermore,
Turkish troops must ensure that they protect Iraqi Kurds as required by
- Weapons of mass destruction and other
indiscriminate weapons: We condemn unequivocally any use of weapons of
mass destruction, including chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons,
and the Security Council should make clear that any party which does so,
whether in first use or reprisal, will be held to account. We also oppose
the use of antipersonnel landmines as prohibited by the 1997 Ottawa Mine
Ban Treaty, and the use of cluster munitions near populated areas or in
any circumstance until the initial failure rate of submunitions can be
- Prevent abuses by Iraqi opposition groups:
The United States and its coalition partners will have a special responsibility
for the conduct of any allied forces, for instance Kurdish or other Iraqi
opposition groups enlisted in support of military action. The US-led coalition
will also have responsibility for the conduct of all forces in territory
they seize. No military assistance should be provided to armed groups or
their commanders with a known record of human rights abuse. Occupied territory
should be vigorously patrolled to avoid the emergence of a security vacuum
and to guard against retribution and revenge killing if war against Iraq
triggers intense inter-ethnic fighting or attacks against supporters of
the government. The Security Council should insist that all armed groups
inside Iraq fully respect human rights and humanitarian law norms, including
in the treatment of prisoners, and warn their leaders that those responsible
for atrocities will be brought to justice.
- Safeguard children: The Security Council
should impress upon all warring parties the fundamental importance of protecting
children in armed conflict, and ensure their special needs are fully addressed
in any military and humanitarian planning. No personnel under the age of
18 years should be deployed militarily by any party to the conflict.
- Prevent and punish crimes against women:
The Security Council should also insist that all warring parties protect
women from gender-specific violence, including rape and other sexual violence.
The Security Council should commit the international community to investigating
and punishing any such violations of humanitarian law.
- Ensure humanitarian preparations and
access: As the Secretary-General has noted, Iraq's civilian population
is already in a precarious and vulnerable state, raising the potential
for a humanitarian crisis. The humanitarian response will be greatly complicated
by the limited humanitarian presence in the country, the Iraqi government's
tight controls, and the possible destruction of vital infrastructure. An
occupying force is obligated under international law to ensure the security
and welfare of the civilian population. Any planning for military action
should be accompanied by a comprehensive and well funded humanitarian plan,
providing secure and unimpeded access for humanitarian agencies to vulnerable
populations and respecting the independence and impartiality of humanitarian
personnel. In addition, the Security Council should continue to monitor
closely the humanitarian consequences of the sanctions it has authorized
in Iraq, and take into account the well-being of the civilian population
when applying coercive measures.
- Open borders to refugees: Fleeing civilians
may face closed borders blocking access to safety. In 1991, tens of thousands
of fleeing Kurds became stuck on the closed Turkish border, many freezing
to death. Iraq's neighboring states must be encouraged and supported to
open their borders to refugees and provide them with adequate protection.
The establishment of camps, "safe havens," or "humanitarian
zones" within Iraq should not be used as a justification for barring
Iraqis from fleeing violence in their country or for failing to consider
their asylum applications. When refugees or displaced people are held in
camps, armed elements should be separated from civilians. The security
of all refugees, displaced, and humanitarian workers should be guaranteed.
- Ensure accountability for war crimes on all sides: The Security Council should commit now to an international process that will bring to justice those responsible for grave violations in the conduct of hostilities. Like the International Criminal Tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, this mechanism should have jurisdiction over all parties to the armed conflict. The Security Council should also appoint a special commission of experts to examine and recommend options for pursuing justice and accountability for grave abuses committed in the past in Iraq, including the establishment of an appropriate international tribunal.
The Security Council today carries a heavy responsibility to protect not only international peace and security but also the human security of Iraq's long-suffering people. Over the past few years, the Council has made important commitments to the protection of civilians in armed conflict and has sought to implement these commitments through its interventions with respect to individual countries such as Sierra Leone and the Democratic Republic of Congo. It is essential that these human rights and humanitarian concerns be at the forefront of the Council's response to the Iraq crisis.
1 In a statement on 15 March 2002, the President of the Security Council presented a comprehensive "aide memoire" summarizing the Council's various decisions on the protection of civilians in armed conflict as guidance for future Council debates, S/PRST/2002/6
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