Bill Clinton and Tony Blair must take all possible steps to protect civilians from injury in the attack on Iraq.
Initial reports suggest that many potential targets are in urban areas, where the risk of civilian deaths and destruction is high. The laws of war require the United States to take all feasible precautions to avoid civilian casualties. Because the U.S. and British forces have precision-guided weapons in their arsenals, no unguided weapons should be used in attacks on urban areas.
"The burden is on Clinton and Blair to take extraordinary precautions in urban settings," said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. "No dumb bombs should be dropped on Baghdad, or other populated areas."
The laws of war prohibit the destruction of objects that are indispensable to the survival of a civilian population. Roth noted that the attacks on the electrical system during the 1991 Gulf War produced massive civilian casualties and little military advantage. "The Gulf War bombing of Iraq's electrical system is a good example of what must not happen again," Roth said.
Since many of the alleged chemical and biological weapons sites are civilian facilities such as hospitals, fertilizer plants, breweries, and pharmaceutical and pesticide plants, the potential for deadly mistakes is high.
"The decision to attack dual-use sites should be taken only after all efforts have been made to verify that the site is in fact being used for military purposes," said Roth. " Even then civilians on site should be given effective advance warning of an imminent attack." The possible release of dangerous substances during an attack should also be weighed heavily, he said.
Human Rights Watch noted that in the past, the Iraqi government has used civilians to shield its military sites -- a flagrant violation of international humanitarian law on the part of Baghdad. But such actions in no way diminish the separate obligation of the U.S. and the U.K. to avoid harm to civilians. "Knowing that shielding is a possibility, the American and British militaries should pay special attention to this obligation," said Roth. "Advance warnings are imperative."
In November, when U.S.-U.K. bombings seemed imminent, Human Rights Watch sent letters to Clinton and Blair urging them to take extra precautions to avoid civilian casualties in Iraq. A copy of the letters is attached.
Although the U.S. and the U.K. have incorporated many international humanitarian law provisions into their military guidelines, the organization noted that allied forces in the 1991 Gulf War did not always fully comply with these requirements, as detailed in Human Rights Watch's lengthy report, Needless Deaths in the Gulf War. The organization called on both governments to put in place mechanisms to review continuously the selection of targets and the means and methods used to carry out attacks, and to ensure that possible violations of these standards are investigated immediately and vigorously. A prompt public accounting of the findings should be made, and appropriate disciplinary or prosecutorial measures should be taken against those found responsible for any breach.
The organization also urged the U.S. and U.K., given their special responsibilities as parties to this conflict, to use their influence to persuade all countries bordering Iraq to accommodate any refugee flows resulting from an attack and to refrain from forcibly returning such people to Iraq.