In a letter released today Human Rights Watch urged the United Nations Security Council to tighten controls on Iraq's ability to import weapons-related goods, but lift most restrictions on non-military trade and investment in order to address the country's continuing humanitarian crisis.

In the letter to U.S. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, the current Security Council president, and the heads of other delegations, Human Rights Watch also called for the establishment of an international criminal tribunal to try Saddam Hussein and other top Iraqi leaders for war crimes and crimes against humanity.
The letter charged that nearly ten years of a comprehensive embargo, coming on top of the 1991 Gulf War destruction of much of Iraq's civilian economic infrastructure, has created a public health emergency which the existing oil-for-food program and the resolution passed in December do not adequately address. A memorandum attached to the letter cites field reports by U.N. agencies and the International Committee of the Red Cross.

"The most adamant proponents of comprehensive sanctions have always insisted that their quarrel is not with the Iraqi people," said Hanny Megally, executive director of the Middle East and North Africa division of Human Rights Watch. "The time has come to put these words to the test."

Prohibitions against imports of a military nature should remain in place, the group said, as well as end-use monitoring of commodities with military as well as civilian applications.

The letter points out that no embargo, including the existing one, can ensure that Iraq does not get access to prohibited materials. It said that Iraq presently imports without significant restriction goods paid for with foreign exchange earned mainly from smuggling and remittances. It recommended that the U.N. offset the government's increased access to export and investment revenues under these proposed reforms by making all imports liable to inspection at ports of entry.

"The scale of the crisis and the extent of the impoverishment require more than food and medicine and some spare parts," said Megally. "Even with the high level of funding of oil-for-food in 1999, life-threatening conditions still prevail. We agree that the Iraqi government bears a large share of the blame. But Iraq's callous manipulation of the sanctions is part of the reality that the Security Council has to take into account. Instead of being content to put all the blame on Baghdad, as the U.S. government continues to do, the Council has to face up to its own share of the responsibility. Blocking the government's access to foreign exchange is one thing, but choking the entire economy to do so puts the burden mostly on ordinary Iraqis."

The letter also urged the Security Council to implement promptly the recommendations of the "humanitarian panel" it appointed last January. Many of these were part of the omnibus Iraq sanctions resolution adopted on December 17, but require further action by the Council or the sanctions committee. "These recommendations should not be treated as bargaining chips to be implemented only if the Iraqi government cooperates," said Megally. "They are the least the Security Council must do to fulfill its own humanitarian obligations."

Human Rights Watch has extensively documented war crimes and atrocities committed by the Iraqi government, the letter said, and fully supports efforts to constrain and hold accountable those responsible. The group pressed the Security Council to establish an international criminal tribunal, like those already set up for Rwanda and former Yugoslavia, to indict and prosecute Iraqi officials for whom credible evidence exists of responsibility for such crimes. The group noted that such a step was entirely warranted on the basis of the evidence it has uncovered, and would help dispel any suggestion that addressing Iraq's humanitarian crisis implied leniency toward the government.

Megally noted that half the non-permanent members of the Security Council have just joined this week, and urged them to promote a fresh approach to the Iraq crisis.

Human Rights Watch said the Security Council had acknowledged back in 1990 its obligation to monitor the humanitarian impact of the sanctions, but failed to follow through. The group said that an impartial humanitarian body or a special rapporteur should examine the practices of both the Security Council and the Iraqi government that affect the humanitarian situation in the country.

Individual letters were also sent to the heads of mission of the other members of the Security Council.

For more information contact:
Hanny Megally (212) 216-1230 (New York)
Joe Stork (202) 612-4327 (Washington)