Iraq

"Protecting Iraq's Civilians" - Oxfam briefing paper

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The Iraqi people are already in a highly vulnerable situation. With Iraq's basic infrastructures eroded by decades of war, national mismanagement and twelve years of sanctions, another war in Iraq will have devastating humanitarian consequences for the civilian population. For that reason, Oxfam remains convinced that military action is unjustifiable. One vital way to protect Iraq's vulnerable civilians is to avert a war.
However, if a war goes ahead, it must be conducted in accordance with International Humanitarian Law. This imposes an unavoidable responsibility on warring parties to take all necessary precautions to avoid loss of civilian life by refraining from indiscriminate attacks; preserving the infrastructure upon which the civilian population depends and allowing free passage of humanitarian relief. All parties to the conflict are responsible for respecting International Humanitarian Law. It is the responsibility of the whole international community to ensure that they do.

Executive Summary

The Iraqi people are in the midst of a humanitarian disaster. Failing water and sanitation systems have spread disease; more than one in ten children die before the age of five. Iraq's economic collapse has left more than fifty per cent of its people dependent upon food rations for survival. In addition, Iraq's impoverished people are preparing themselves for a possible war. Having imposed indefinite and comprehensive sanctions on Iraq in response to its government's failure to comply with successive UN resolutions, the international community already shares responsibility for the vulnerability of the Iraqi people. If war goes ahead, the vulnerability of the Iraqi people, and the responsibility of the international community to protect them, will be greatly increased.

One vital way to protect Iraq's vulnerable civilians is to avert a war. However, if war goes ahead, to protect Iraq's civilians from the conflict it must be conducted in accordance with International Humanitarian Law. All parties to the conflict are responsible for respecting International Humanitarian Law. First and foremost, this imposes an unavoidable responsibility to take all necessary precautions to avoid loss of civilian life. Such protection encompasses key implications for how war is fought:

  • Indiscriminate attacks - those that do not distinguish between combatants and non-combatants - are prohibited. Chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear weapons, but also cluster bombs and landmines can by their very nature only be indiscriminate.

  • Military attacks must not have a disproportionate effect on civilians. With a high risk of civilians being trapped inside potential conflict areas, such as major cities, those responsible for the use of weapons must take into account any potential impact on civilians that is disproportionate to the direct military advantage of such weapons use.

  • Likewise, the targeting of water, electrical, or transport infrastructure upon which the Iraqi people depend for their survival will almost certainly have a disproportionate and highly damaging effect on civilians.

  • All parties to the conflict must allow free passage of impartial humanitarian Assistance must be prompt and sufficient in order to preserve life.
Grave breaches of these laws are war crimes. If political leaders, military commanders, and soldiers engaged in military operations in Iraq intentionally breach the laws of war, the independent prosecutor of the International Criminal Court may be urged to investigate and prosecute those responsible.

(References to the relevant sections of International Humanitarian Law are given in the endnotes.)

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