Iraq: Warring parties must uphold laws of war

News and Press Release
Originally published
(New York, March 19, 2003) -- The conduct of all warring parties in Iraq will be under unprecedented scrutiny and they should strictly adhere to the laws of war, Human Rights Watch said today in releasing letters to the governments of the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia and Iraq.
All warring parties should abide by their obligations to protect Iraq's civilians from the hazards of war, Human Rights Watch urged.

"The intense international debate surrounding this war means the conduct of the United States and its allies will be under unprecedented international scrutiny," said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. "Sadaam Hussein has a long record of war crimes, but that does not lessen the obligations of Iraq's enemies in wartime."

Drawing upon its experience of monitoring previous conflicts -- including the 1991 Gulf War, NATO interventions in the Balkans, and the 2001 war in Afghanistan -- Human Rights Watch highlighted the following concerns:

  • No party to the conflict should use chemical, biological or nuclear weapons of mass destruction under any circumstances, be it in first strike or reprisal.
  • Iraq must not use human shields, but if it does, U.S. and allied forces must still assess the potential harm to civilians and take all feasible precautions in carrying out such attacks.
  • In the event of urban warfare, all warring parties must provide adequate warnings and escape routes to civilians.
  • The United States and its allies must not attack dual-use targets - such as electricity supply, food stocks and infrastructure - that are essential to the survival of the civilian population. Other dual-use targets should, insofar as possible, only be incapacitated, not destroyed. The letter noted the trend in recent conflicts such as Kosovo and Afghanistan away from attacking such targets.
  • U.S. forces and their allies must make every effort to correctly identify targets before they are attacked. The letter highlighted patterns from previous conflicts in which mobile targets, such as convoys, were often misidentified due to poor intelligence and safeguards.
  • The United States and its allies should only use precision-guided munitions in populated areas. Cluster bombs should not be used in populated areas, nor antipersonnel landmines under any circumstances. The letter highlighted the unacceptably high failure rate of cluster bombs and the indiscriminate effect on civilians of unexploded bomblets and antipersonnel landmines.
  • Facilitate the surrender of enemy troops and treat prisoners of war fully in accordance with the Geneva Conventions. The letter also stressed the importance of ensuring the protection of prisoners taken by local groups, for instance Kurdish forces, noting the deaths of hundreds of Taliban prisoners in the custody of Northern Alliance forces in the wake of fighting in Afghanistan.
  • The United States and its allies have a special responsibility to prevent abuses by allied local groups, protect and provide for civilians in occupied territory, and ensure the safety of refugees and the internally displaced. Humanitarian agencies must be given secure and unimpeded access to vulnerable populations.

Human Rights Watch stressed that the United States and its allies must ensure prompt investigation of any allegations that their forces have committed war crimes or other abuses.

"Whatever the rights and wrongs of this conflict, all sides must uphold the laws of war," Roth said. "Iraq's civilians have suffered enough and must be spared the terrible consequences of armed conflict."

To read Human Rights Watch's letters, please see:

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