The use of human shields in Iraq would dramatically increase the danger to civilians and the level of care the United States and its allies must take to protect them in the event of any attack, Human Rights Watch said today.

In releasing a new fourteen-page briefing paper, International Humanitarian Law Issues in a Potential War in Iraq, Human Rights Watch outlined a range of grave risks for Iraq's civilian population, including the prospect of extensive urban combat, the possible use of human shields and weapons of mass destruction, and the dependence of Iraqis on humanitarian assistance for food and medical supplies.

In a news conference yesterday, U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said that the use of human shields in Iraq would be a violation of the laws of war and a crime against humanity, but failed to note U.S. legal responsibilities if human shields were used.

"If Iraq uses people as human shields, that is a war crime," said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. "But Secretary Rumsfeld told only half the story yesterday. If the United States attacks targets that are shielded by civilians without demonstrating an overwhelming military necessity to do so, that would be a war crime, too."

The U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Richard Myers, has said that the U.S. military would take any possible civilian shields into account when making targeting decisions.

Human Rights Watch takes no position on the legality of the use of military force, including possible U.S.-led military action in Iraq. Its work on Iraq focuses on continuing human rights abuses and, if there is a war, the compliance by all parties with international humanitarian law and protections for Iraqi civilians.

"International humanitarian law is not just a tool to be used against Baghdad," said Roth. "It also imposes essential obligations on the United States and its allies in a possible war with Iraq."

Iraq has used human shields at least twice in the past, during the 1991 Persian Gulf War and in advance of U.S. and British bombardment in 1998. The Iraqi government says it will use foreign volunteers and possibly Iraqi citizens as human shields, but that would clearly violate international humanitarian law regardless of the willingness of the civilians involved.

Human Rights Watch urged all parties to a potential conflict in Iraq to:

  • separate and distinguish military objectives from civilian populations,
  • renounce the use of weapons of mass destruction and other indiscriminate or inhumane weapons, and
  • make immediate preparations to secure public order and assistance necessary to the survival of the civilian population in occupied areas.

Human Rights Watch in its briefing paper analyzed these issues in light of past Iraqi and U.S. practice, and evolving standards of international law. Among its conclusions:

  • No party to a conflict in Iraq would be legally justified in using any weapon of mass destruction - chemical, biological or nuclear -- under any circumstances.
  • In the event of urban warfare, defending forces must avoid locating military objectives near populated areas, and attacking forces must provide adequate warnings and escape routes to civilians.
  • Armed attacks designed to undermine civilian morale are illegal.
  • So-called dual-use targets that are essential to the survival of the civilian population, such as electrical generation facilities, must not be attacked. Other dual-use targets should, insofar as possible, only be incapacitated, not destroyed, if attacked.
  • Before a target is attacked, every effort must be made to correctly identify the target.
  • Only precision munitions should be used in air attacks on populated areas.
  • Antipersonnel landmines and cluster bombs must not be used.
  • The United States and its allies must immediately provide security and humanitarian services for the civilians in any territory they come to control.
  • Journalists and human rights monitors should be given maximum access to assess the effect of war on civilians.

"The dangers to civilians are high enough from any war," says Roth. "Strict respect for international humanitarian law is essential if these risks are to be minimized in Iraq."