LCHR concerned about reported Iraqi violations of Geneva Convention rules on POWs

The Lawyers Committee is concerned by recent news reports that suggest that Iraq may have committed grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions and other serious war crimes by killing or ill-treating captured American and British troops. The Iraqi government should take measures to ensure that these violations do not recur, that all alleged violations are investigated and that persons responsible for war crimes are prosecuted and punished.
"Iraq has a long history of committing grave breaches of the laws of war," said Elisa Massimino, Director of the Washington D.C. Office of the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights. "All parties to the conflict must comply with the Geneva Conventions; despite growing evidence that Iraq is not doing so, it is critical that the United States continue to demonstrate to the world a respect for the laws of war."

Iraq has sent mixed signals about its intention to comply with the Geneva Conventions. On the one hand, Iraqi satellite television has reported that Saddam Hussein said that captured soldiers would be treated in accordance with the Conventions. On the other hand, the Associated Press has reported that Iraq's Interior Minister Diab al-Ahmed stated that captured American and British forces will not be protected: "Most probably they will be treated as mercenaries, hirelings and as war criminals," al-Ahmed said. "For sure, international law does not apply to those." Iraq's violations of international law in past conflicts also give cause for concern.

News reports suggest that the Iraqis may have killed troops who had either been taken as prisoners of war or who were attempting to surrender. Such killings would constitute grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions.

Iraq's release of humiliating footage of American and British prisoners of war also constitutes a violation of the Geneva Conventions. Article 13 of the Third Geneva Convention, which concerns humane treatment of prisoners, requires prisoners of war to be protected "against acts of violence or intimidation and against insults and public curiosity." Iraq's failure to protect prisoners of war from intrusive photographs, with an intent to humiliate these prisoners, clearly violates this provision. Iraqi officers caused the prisoners to be filmed while they were taunted by questioners, in situations of obvious fear and pain.

Exposure of prisoners of war to "insults and public curiosity" is a violation of the Geneva Conventions and so a war crime. The International Committee of the Red Cross's (ICRC's) Commentary on the Geneva Conventions distinguishes treatment of prisoners of war "which would cause great injury to their human dignity" as inhuman treatment, and a grave breach of the Geneva Conventions. The ICRC adds that the purpose of the Convention is "to grant prisoners of war in enemy hands a protection which will preserve their human dignity and prevent their being brought down to the level of animals."

Participants in international armed conflict are obliged to "take measures necessary for the suppression of all acts contrary" to any of the provisions of the Geneva Conventions. This means that they should take effective steps to prevent and punish all such violations.

Certain violations of the Conventions, defined as "grave breaches", carry additional obligations. States must enact laws providing effective penal sanctions for such breaches, and have an "obligation to search for persons alleged to have committed, or to have ordered to be committed, such grave breaches" and to bring them to trial, regardless of their nationality. Grave breaches include the following acts when committed against persons or property protected by the Conventions:

  • willful killing of protected persons (including prisoners of war and civilians)
  • torture or inhuman treatment, including biological experiments
  • willfully causing great suffering or serious injury to body or health
  • compelling a prisoner of war to serve in the forces of the hostile power
  • willfully depriving a prisoner of war or other protected person of the rights of fair and regular trial prescribed by the Convention

The Lawyers Committee urges all parties to the war in Iraq to comply with the Geneva Conventions and the customary international law of armed conflict relating to the treatment of POWs, and to take all the measures within their power to prevent and punish war crimes.