January 12, 2004

We are writing you with regard to several incidents in Iraq involving actions by United States forces that appear to violate the 1949 Geneva Conventions.

The most recent of these incidents was reported in an Associated Press dispatch of January 3, 2004. According to this report, U.S. forces operating in or near Samarra destroyed the home of Talab Saleh. Witnesses told the AP that Saleh is suspected of orchestrating attacks against U.S. forces. However, there was no indication in the report that the house was being used in carrying out an attack at the time it was demolished. The AP also reported that troops arrested Saleh’s wife and brother, saying they would only be released when Saleh surrenders.

The Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949, which applies during military occupation, prohibits the punishment of any person for an offense that he or she has not personally committed. This prohibition outlaws any use of “collective penalties” or reprisals against civilians or their property.

In addition, the detention of close relatives for the purpose of prompting the surrender of a wanted person appears to be in violation of the strict international humanitarian law prohibition against hostage-taking. Under the laws of war, a hostage is a person taken into custody for the purpose of compelling some course of action by the opposing side. Taking hostages is a grave breach of the Geneva Conventions—in other words, a war crime.

In another case, reported on December 3, 2003, U.S. troops of the 173rd Airborne Brigade partially destroyed the home of an elderly couple in the town of Hawija, west of Kirkuk, after explosives were found there. The troops reportedly parked a bulldozer in front of their home and threatened to demolish it unless the couple provided information. After the woman gave the soldiers information, they destroyed the front wall of the compound and took her into custody. “OK, I’m not gonna destroy the house,” Maj.
Andrew Rohling, the unit commander, was reported saying. “Just the front, as a show of force.”

A third incident occurred in Tikrit in mid-November 2003, when U.S. forces reportedly used tank and artillery fire to destroy homes belonging to families of Iraqis who allegedly mounted attacks against U.S. forces. A spokesman for the U.S. Army’s 4th Infantry Division said the demolitions were intended to “send a message” to the insurgents and their supporters.

While U.S. troops are entitled to suppress armed attacks against them, civilian property may not be destroyed unless it is making an effective contribution to military action and its destruction offers a definite military advantage. In cases in which the targeted object is normally dedicated to a civilian purpose such as a house, the presumption under the law is that it is not a legitimate target. Destroying civilian property as a reprisal or deterrent amounts to collective punishment and is prohibited by the Fourth Geneva Convention.

The fourth case involves the arrest by U.S. forces on November 25 of the wife and daughter of General Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, former vice-chair of Iraq’s Revolutionary Command Council and a top Saddam Hussein associate. A spokesman for the 4th Infantry Division was quoted then as saying, “They may be able to shed light on any situation that will improve our general position of finding al-Douri or anyone else.” As far as we are aware, they remain in U.S. custody. U.S. officials have provided no information as to the reason for taking these family members of a wanted person into custody. At the time they were detained U.S. forces also destroyed a house belonging to the family.

The Geneva Conventions permit occupying forces to question civilians. Occupying forces may detain persons who are engaged in hostilities, have otherwise committed unlawful acts, or "for imperative reasons of security." No person can be punished for an offense without individual responsibility or as a collective penalty. And it is forbidden to detain a person as a hostage.

These actions appear to be in violation of U.S. obligations under international humanitarian law. We call on you to take immediate and tangible steps to ensure that actions of U.S. forces in Iraq comply fully with the Geneva Conventions. In the case of persons detained solely on the basis of their familial relation to wanted persons, U.S. forces should release them without delay. The U.S. military command, moreover, should investigate these and other allegations of serious violations of the laws of war, and hold accountable anyone responsible for ordering, condoning, or carrying out such actions.

We look forward to your response.

Sincerely,

Kenneth Roth
Executive Director