Report Challenges Justifications for Attacks on Civilians
October 3, 2005
There are no justifications for targeting civilians, in Iraq or anywhere else. Armed groups as well as governments must respect the laws of war.
Sarah Leah Whitson, director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa Division

The various rationales offered by insurgent groups in Iraq for their attacks on civilians are not justified in international law, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.

The 140-page report, A Face and a Name: Civilian Victims of Insurgent Groups in Iraq, is the most detailed study to date of abuses by insurgent groups. It systematically presents and debunks the arguments that some insurgent groups and their supporters use to justify unlawful attacks on civilians.

The laws of war do not outlaw insurgent groups or prohibit attacks on legitimate military targets, but they restrict the means and manner of attacks and oblige all forces in a conflict to protect civilians and other non-combatants. The deliberate targeting of civilians during an armed conflict constitutes a war crime.

“There are no justifications for targeting civilians, in Iraq or anywhere else,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa Division. “Armed groups as well as governments must respect the laws of war.”

The report examines the civilian groups targeted by insurgents—such as Iraq’s ethnic and religious communities, politicians, academics, media and women—and the impact of targeted attacks on these groups. Through photos and eyewitness accounts obtained on the ground in Iraq, as well as media reports, the report gives the victims a face and a name.

The U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and the ensuing military occupation has resulted in tens of thousands of civilian deaths and sparked the emergence of these insurgent groups. Two chapters in the report summarize laws of war violations by U.S. and Iraqi government forces. But these violations do not justify the insurgents’ unlawful attacks, the report says.

“U.S. forces have used excessive and indiscriminate force, tortured detainees and held thousands of Iraqis without due process,” Whitson said. “But that does not justify attacks by insurgent groups that have deliberately targeted and killed civilians.”

Previous Human Rights Watch reports have documented the U.S. military’s use of indiscriminate and excessive force, illegal detentions, and the use of torture at places like Abu Ghraib, as well as torture by the Iraqi police (see related material on right).

The new report analyzes the insurgency in Iraq and highlights the groups that are most responsible for the abuse, namely al-Qaeda in Iraq, Ansar al-Sunna and the Islamic Army in Iraq, which have all targeted civilians for abductions and executions. The first two groups have repeatedly boasted about massive car bombs and suicide bombs in mosques, markets, bus stations and other civilian areas. Such acts are war crimes and in some cases may constitute crimes against humanity, which are defined as serious crimes committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack against a civilian population.

The report documents the assassinations of government officials, politicians, judges, journalists, humanitarian aid workers, doctors, professors and those deemed to be collaborating with the foreign forces in Iraq, including translators, cleaners and others who perform civilian jobs for the U.S.-led Multi-National Force. Insurgents have directed suicide and car bomb attacks at Shi`a mosques, Christian churches and Kurdish political parties with the purpose of killing civilians. Allegations that these communities are legitimate targets because they support the foreign forces in Iraq have no basis in international law, which requires the protection of any civilian who is not actively participating in the hostilities.

Insurgent groups also have tortured and summarily executed civilians and captured combatants in their custody, sometimes by beheading. And they have carried out attacks against legitimate military targets, such as army convoys, in such a manner that the foreseeable loss of civilian life was greatly disproportionate to the military gain.

Some insurgent groups and supporters of the insurgency have condemned attacks targeting civilians. In one case, a group ordered its members to avoid attacks on civilians and apparently stopped operations in urban areas where civilians might get hurt. The report recommends that all insurgent groups issue similar condemnations and order their members to stop attacking civilians.

Political and religious leaders in Iraq and abroad who support the insurgency should also condemn unlawful attacks, the report said. Human Rights Watch has been meeting with representatives of the media and civil society in the Arab world to discuss the practice of targeting civilians by armed groups in the Middle East.

“People we have spoken with in the Middle East are increasingly repulsed by the behavior of insurgent groups in Iraq, even if they support a withdrawal of U.S. troops,” Whitson said. “It is time for political and religious leaders who support the insurgency to denounce the atrocities in public.”