Current Events

Human Rights Watch Policy on Iraq

Human Rights Watch has worked for more than twenty years in war zones. We believe that our most important contribution to reducing the suffering that war so often entails is to monitor and promote all warring parties' compliance with international humanitarian law. This law - principally the Geneva Conventions and their Protocols - is designed to spare civilians and noncombatants as much as possible the hazards of war.

Should the United States launch a war against Iraq, we will insist that the United States and its military allies as well as Iraq comply with international humanitarian law. As we have repeatedly done in the past, we will monitor such matters as each party's targeting decisions, its use of indiscriminate weapons systems, and its treatment of prisoners and civilians. We will highlight the humanitarian needs of those displaced or victimized by war and demand their protection. We will urge the United States to exercise control over its agents and allies inside Iraq, to ensure that they treat prisoners humanely and do not engage in reprisals against civilians. We will highlight the need to prepare for the horrors that President Saddam Hussein may yet unleash on his people in his effort to remain in power. Once the war is over, we will seek to bring to justice those responsible for genocide, war crimes or crimes against humanity and to exclude them from government posts. And we will call for the necessary resources to help Iraqis build a country in which the rights of all people are respected.

Human Rights Watch does not make judgments about the decision whether to go to war - about whether a war complies with international law against aggression. We care deeply about the humanitarian consequences of war, but we avoid judgments on the legality of war itself because they tend to compromise the neutrality needed to monitor most effectively how the war is waged - that is, compliance with international humanitarian law - and because they often require political and security assessments that are beyond our expertise. Whether or not one favors launching a war, whether or not a war is legally justified, we believe that agreement should be possible on the necessity of waging war in a way that minimizes harm to noncombatants, as international humanitarian law requires.

As in the case of other armed conflicts, Human Rights Watch thus does not support or oppose the threatened war with Iraq. We do not opine on whether the dangers to civilians in Iraq and neighboring countries of launching a war are greater or lesser than the dangers to U.S. or allied civilians - or, ultimately, the Iraqi people - of not launching one. We make no comment on the intense debate surrounding the legality of President George Bush's proposed doctrine of "pre-emptive self-defense" or the need for U.N. Security Council approval of a war.

The sole exception that Human Rights Watch has made to its neutrality on the decision whether to go to war is in the case of humanitarian intervention - the military invasion of a country to protect its people. We have advocated military intervention in limited circumstances when the people of a country are facing genocide or comparable mass slaughter. Horrific as Saddam Hussein's human rights record is, it does not today appear to meet this high threshold - in contrast, for example, with his behavior during the 1988 Anfal genocide against the Iraqi Kurds.

We also recognize that the threatened war in Iraq is not one of humanitarian intervention, but one designed, according to the public statements of the U.S. government, to deprive the Iraqi government of its alleged chemical and biological weapons, to prevent it from developing nuclear weapons, and to overthrow Saddam Hussein. Although in making a case for war George Bush has referred to the Iraqi government's severe repression, this is clearly a subsidiary argument to his call to address Iraq's alleged possession of weapons of mass destruction and to force "regime change." There can be little doubt that if Saddam Hussein were overthrown and any weapons of mass destruction reliably surrendered, there would be no war, even if the successor government were just as repressive.

Human Rights Watch has done extensive work documenting the horrendous human rights record of Saddam Hussein and his government. We assembled in unprecedented detail evidence of the Anfal genocide, and we continue to monitor and report his violations of human rights. We have also consistently called for Saddam Hussein and other responsible Iraqi officials to be brought to justice for their role in the Anfal and other atrocities. As in all of our work, we believe that exposing a government's human rights violations is a necessary first step toward pressuring the government to end those violations. These efforts to curb Iraqi repression should not be read as support for war.

Similarly, Human Rights Watch has reported on and denounced U.S. violations of international humanitarian law, in Panama, the Gulf War, Yugoslavia, and Afghanistan. We have criticized the U.S. government's targeting decisions, its failure to take certain precautions to minimize civilian casualties, its use of certain indiscriminate weapons, and its failure to follow the rules governing prisoners-of-war. Criticism of the U.S. government's conduct in a possible war in Iraq should not be read as opposition to that war.

 Related Documents
Background on Iraq and Possible War
Human Rights Watch Reports on U.S. Military Actions
Legal Issues Arising from the War in Afghanistan and Related Anti-Terrorism Efforts
International Humanitarian Law Issues and the Afghan Conflict
Cluster Bombs in Afghanistan
Human Rights Watch Urges Sudan Factory Inspection