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Letter to Iraq Regarding Adherence to Laws of War

March 19, 2003

Mr. Naji Sabri
Minister of Foreign Affairs
Republic of Iraq

Mr. Sultan Hashim Ahmad al-Jabburi Tai
Minister of Defense
Republic of Iraq

Dear Minister Sabri and Minister al-Jabburi Tai,

As a party to the 1949 Geneva Conventions, Iraq has important obligations for the protection of civilians and non-combatants which must be observed at all times in military planning and operations. We urge you to ensure your military forces fully respect international humanitarian law and protect civilian lives in any conflict in Iraq.

Drawing upon our experience of monitoring other armed conflicts – including the 1991 Gulf War, NATO operations in the Balkans, and military action in Afghanistan – we wish to highlight the following critical issues which may arise in the course of the conflict. We attach a similar letter we have addressed to the U.S. Government and its allies.

  1. You must not use chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons of mass destruction under any circumstances.

    No party to the conflict must use weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in any circumstances. Whether in first strike or retaliation, the use of WMD would be unjustified and illegal under international law. Any use of chemical or biological weapons would violate the 1925 Geneva Protocol, the 1975 Biological Weapons Convention (to which Iraq is a party) and the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention and customary international law.

  2. The deliberate use of civilian shields and the taking of hostages are war crimes.

    The use of civilians as human shields to protect military objectives from attack is a violation of international humanitarian law amounting to a war crime. The forcible use of civilians or other non-combatants as human shields also violates the prohibition on the taking of hostages. Customary humanitarian law and Protocol I prohibit encouraging or making use of volunteers as human shields. The taking of hostages is strictly prohibited and constitutes a war crime under international law. Commission of these acts as reprisal for an opponent’s breach of these prohibitions is likewise forbidden.

  3. In the event of urban warfare, you must avoid locating military objectives near populated areas.

    Urban fighting inherently increases the risk to civilians and could result in substantial civilian casualties. There are reports that Iraq has in some cases deliberately located military objectives in the midst of civilian objects and encouraged civilians to act as human shields in the event of an attack. This is in violation of prohibitions in customary humanitarian law and Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions against placing military objectives in heavily populated areas without first moving the affected civilians to safer locations. The Iraqi government must not place military equipment or personnel near concentrations of civilians and must remove civilians from the vicinity of military installations.

    Attacking forces also have legal obligations to protect the civilian population caught in the crossfire. The U.S. and allied forces should provide effective advance warning of an attack, and consider measures that allow Iraqi civilians to voluntarily and safely leave urban areas where military objectives are targeted for attack. All parties should be prepared to call on third parties to negotiate passage to non-military areas, and to negotiate passage for medical personnel and equipment and religious personnel to and from besieged or encircled areas.

  4. You must facilitate the surrender of enemy troops and treat prisoners of war fully in accordance with the Geneva Conventions.

    We urge you to take every step possible to facilitate the surrender of enemy troops during hostilities, and to ensure surrendered and captured personnel are treated as prisoners of war fully in accordance with the Geneva Conventions.

  5. You should not use antipersonnel landmines under any circumstances.

    International humanitarian law prohibits attacks that strike military targets and civilians without distinction. While Iraq is not a party to the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty, Human Rights Watch believes that the use of antipersonnel landmines is prohibited by customary international law since they are inherently indiscriminate weapons.

  6. You must ensure protection for the internally displaced and provide access to humanitarian agencies.

    You must provide secure and unimpeded access for humanitarian agencies to vulnerable populations and respect the independence and impartiality of humanitarian personnel. Fleeing civilians must also be provided with protection. When displaced people are held in camps, their security should be guaranteed and armed elements should be separated from civilians. Any restrictions on movement must not be excessive in impact or duration, be subject to regular review, and be imposed only when and to the extent that is absolutely necessary.

  7. You must ensure prompt investigations into alleged war crimes.

    In the event of allegations that Iraqi forces or U.S. and allied forces have committed war crimes or serious violations of international humanitarian law, you should take early steps to facilitate their investigation. To ensure international confidence and credibility, you should consider establishing commissions of inquiry into wartime violations that include experts outside the military establishment of the warring parties. One such panel already available is the International Fact-Finding Commission established under Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions, even though Iraq is not a party to Protocol I.

Once again, Human Rights Watch urges you and other parties to the conflict to respect fully the provisions of international humanitarian law, to anticipate the risks to civilians and to maximize their protection. We will continue to closely monitor the conduct of hostilities and bring to public attention our concerns.

Yours respectfully,

Kenneth Roth
Executive Director