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The invasion of Iraq ended the reign of a brutal government, but coalition leaders are wrong to characterize it as a humanitarian intervention, Human Rights Watch said in the keynote essay of its annual global survey released today.

The 407-page World Report 2004: Human Rights and Armed Conflict includes 15 essays on a variety of subjects related to war and human rights, from Africa to Afghanistan, from sexual violence as a method of warfare to the new trends in post-conflict international justice.

“Waging war is no excuse for ignoring human rights,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “In 2003, we saw too many governments invoke the demands of warfare to excuse their own misdeeds.”

In a departure from past practice, the World Report 2004 does not include summaries of human rights events in the more than 70 countries where Human Rights Watch works. Instead, up-to-date information on those countries has been posted at

Armed conflicts this year posed a particularly salient challenge to human rights — and not only the armed conflict in Iraq. One essay documents how human rights abuse in the war in Chechnya, which Russian authorities now justify as their contribution to the global war on terror, is being thoroughly ignored by European and other governments. A more hopeful entry on Africa’s “forgotten wars” analyzes efforts by regional leaders, especially in the recently formed African Union, to take a more active role in curbing armed conflict and human rights abuses. Those efforts may bring renewed energy and increased resources to address devastating conflicts in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), West Africa and Sudan, among others.

Three essays examine human rights issues in the wake of war. Allied forces are “losing the peace” in Afghanistan, according to one essay, because they are ceding control of the country outside the capital Kabul to brutal warlords. An essay on the former Yugoslavia examines how continuing insecurity, failures of justice, and employment discrimination serve as barriers to return of refugees and the displaced. As a result, “ethnic cleansing” remains substantially in place in many areas.

The imperative of justice for war crimes, and the difficulty of achieving it, are highlighted in an essay surveying international justice efforts to date and how best to consolidate gains going forward.

An essay on the war against terror in the United States argues that the Bush administration is trying to shield a broad range of executive actions on national security from the kind of judicial review that is essential to protecting human rights.

Three of the essays focus on the way war is conducted, in particular the growing international effort to restrict the use of cluster munitions and the use of child soldiers, as well as to punish states that sell weapons to known human rights abusers. A fourth essay examines the question of how the U.S. government is applying “war rules” to the counter-terrorism effort in order to give itself more leeway to deny suspected terrorists their rights; in fact, the more restrictive “police rules” of law enforcement should be followed in many cases.

An essay on “resource wars” argues that the role of corrupt governments is often overlooked in analyses of how precious commodities such as oil and diamonds provoke rebel groups into launching civil wars.

In the keynote essay, Roth notes that removing Saddam Hussein from power brought about the end of one of the world’s most abusive governments. But intervening militarily on the territory of a sovereign state, without its permission, is inherently dangerous and must be undertaken for humanitarian purposes in only the most extreme cases. While Saddam Hussein had an atrocious human rights record, his worst atrocities were committed long before the intervention. At the time coalition forces invaded Iraq, there was no ongoing or imminent mass killing of the sort that would require the kind of preventive military action that should characterize true humanitarian interventions.

For a military action to be characterized as “humanitarian,” Roth argues that the motive for intervening should be primarily humanitarian; the danger of slaughter should be imminent and the scale of the killings massive; and all other options for preventing the slaughter should have been exhausted.

“The Bush administration cannot justify the war in Iraq as a humanitarian intervention, and neither can Tony Blair,” said Roth. “Saddam Hussein’s atrocities should certainly be punished, and his worst atrocities, such as the 1988 genocide against the Kurds, would have justified humanitarian intervention then. But such interventions should be reserved for stopping an imminent or ongoing slaughter. They shouldn’t be used belatedly to address atrocities that were ignored in the past.”

The volume’s final essay finds that the human rights movement has come a long way since Human Rights Watch was founded 25 years ago, yet many of its gains are threatened under the cover of an endless and boundary-less war on terror. The essay argues that the movement must demonstrate that “support for terrorism feeds off repression, injustice, inequality and lack of opportunity,” and that the “global security is thus enhanced by the success of open societies that foster respect for the rule of law, promote tolerance, and guarantee people's rights of free expression and peaceful dissent.”

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