Skip to main content

The 10-year anniversary of the US-led invasion of Iraq marks a striking failure of accountability on the part of the United States, the United Kingdom and Iraq itself, Human Rights Watch said today.

The abuses US officials allegedly authorized in the early years of the war in Iraq, and their tacit or direct complicity in Iraqi abuses throughout the occupation, are all partly responsible for the entrenchment of weak and corrupt institutions in Iraq, Human Rights Watch said. Similarly, despite  growing numbers of claims of serious abuse of detainees in British custody in Iraq, UK authorities have neither set in motion a full and comprehensive public inquiry into the abuse, nor held senior-level officials accountable for war crimes committed in Iraq.

“The US legacy in Iraq reflects abuses committed with impunity by American and Iraqi forces throughout the US-led occupation,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The abuses set in motion over 10 years ago by the Bush administration’s ‘torture memos,’ and the brutal detention policies that  followed, facilitated Iraq’s creation of a system that is today either unwilling or incapable of delivering justice to its citizens.”

New information emerged as recently as early March 2013 indicating that the US government is pursuing a policy of engagement with Iraqi security forces accused of responsibility for torture and other abuses, with little if any consideration of accountability for those abuses. A Wall Street Journal report said that the CIA is “ramping up support” to the Iraqi Counterterrorism Service (CTS) to “better fight Al-Qaeda affiliates.”

“If correct, the report that the US intends to support the Iraqi Counterterrorism Service underscores the poor US record on addressing allegations of abuses by Iraqi security forces,” Whitson said. “The CTS, though accused of committing serious abuses against detainees, worked closely with US Special Forces before the US troop withdrawal in 2011.”

In 2011, Human Rights Watch reported former detainees’ allegations that the CTS had held them in secret jails and had tortured and committed other abuses against them. The alleged abuses included beatings, applying electric shocks to their genitals and other body parts, repeated partial asphyxiation with plastic bags until they passed out, and suspension by the ankles.

The US authorities should make public the nature of US military and intelligence agency cooperation with the CTS and other Iraqi security forces that are alleged to have committed serious abuses but have escaped accountability, Human Rights Watch said.  The US should also conduct public investigations into allegations of complicity of US military personnel and coalition forces in torture and other abuses by Iraqi security forces during the occupation and prosecute those responsible, including senior-level officials.

The US government should reevaluate its decision not to hold senior government officials accountable for US knowledge of and complicity in abuses of detainees in US and Iraqi custody, Human Rights Watch said. US citizens complicit in torture should be prosecuted. The US should condition future aid on the Iraqi government’s meeting the human rights standards outlined in the Leahy Law, which prohibits US military assistance to foreign military units that violate human rights with impunity.

“The failure of successive US governments to investigate numerous allegations of abuses by US and Iraqi forces has set an ominous precedent and helped to root a culture of impunity as one of the core features of the US legacy in Iraq,” Whitson said. “Whether the US failures were due to willful ignorance or a deliberate desire to cover up its role, 10 years on, the people of Iraq deserve better from the US.”  

Details of abuse allegations over the last decade follow.

US Legacy of Abuse and Impunity
Since the invasion of Iraq in March 2003, Human Rights Watch, other nongovernmental organizations, and media reports have documented many instances in which US officials tasked with re-creating and training Iraq’s security forces ignored or even encouraged serious human rights abuses by those forces. On some occasions, US officials either failed to encourage or actively discouraged thorough investigations into alleged abuses. On others, officials may have specifically commissioned forces they knew would be likely to commit abuses as a part of a broader counterterrorism strategy.

From the start of its occupation, the US message to those dealing with detainees was that expediency was a higher priority than accountability, Human Rights Watch said. US abuses in Iraq began in 2003, after the Bush administration deployed teams of interrogators from Guantánamo to advise on interrogation practices. This followed a decision by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to intensify the hunt for “actionable intelligence” among Iraqi detainees. The US general in command ordered interrogators to “manipulate an internee's emotions and weaknesses.”

An army captain who had overseen interrogations at a US prison in Afghanistan where inmates had died in detention posted “Interrogation Rules of Engagement” at Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad. These authorized the use of coercive methods against detainees that violated both the Geneva Conventions on the treatment of prisoners of war and the UN Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman Degrading Treatment or Punishment. They also paved the way for the cruel and humiliating abuses of detainees that, when publicly exposed, became the Abu Ghraib scandal.

In 2004, Human Rights Watch condemned the US government’s refusal to investigate deaths in US custody in Iraq and to bring to justice the soldiers and intelligence personnel responsible for abusing detainees. The same year, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) complained to the US-led coalition about rampant detainee abuse by its forces, apparently prompting army officials to seek to curtail ICRC access to detention facilities.

In December 2005, the US Congress passed the “Detainee Treatment Act,” which prohibits “cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment” of any prisoner of the US government. The US government also reformed the detention system to improve prisoner treatment and to allow full access to detention centers by Iraqi human rights monitors.

Despite these reforms, the abuses committed by US military personnel early on in the occupation set a precedent for the newly formed Iraqi security forces’ systematic use of torture and other abuses against detainees, which Human Rights Watch documented  in 2005. The US and other donors should, as a priority, create official Iraqi mechanisms for reporting and promptly investigating allegations of torture and other ill-treatment of detainees, Human Rights Watch said at that time.

By the end of 2007, the US-led Multi-National Force-Iraq held 24,514 detainees without charge or trial, often with little or no evidence. In 2009 and 2010, the US transferred many of the detainees they held to Iraqi custody, placing them at serious risk of torture.

In 2010, Wikileaks published confidential files that revealed that US forces had failed in many instances to intervene to prevent torture by Iraqi security forces and had continued to transfer detainees to Iraqi custody although they knew, or should have known, that torture was routine.

In 2010 and 2011, Human Rights Watch documented new abuses of Iraqi-held detainees, often in secret jails such as Camp Honor, located within Baghdad’s Green Zone. There, according to the testimony of former detainees, former employees of the Iraqi Defense Ministry and US Defense Department advisers, US Special Forces were centrally involved in training and supervising CTS officials and setting up and running the prison.

Over a dozen former detainees told Human Rights Watch that while US Special Forces were not present when Iraqi Counterterrorism Service officials tortured them in trailers adjacent to Camp Honor, the US troops must have known of it because they were a constant presence at the prison facility and were able to observe the condition of the detainees.

The Camp Honor detention facility was run jointly by the CTS and the Iraqi army’s notorious 56th Brigade, also known as the Baghdad Brigade, against whom allegations of torture outstripped even that of the CTS. Two former inmates of the jail told Human Rights Watch in 2010 and 2011 that detainees held by the CTS were considered more fortunate because they “were tortured less” than those held by the Baghdad Brigade.

Human Rights Watch has repeatedly urged the US government to investigate allegations that US Special Forces were complicit in torture and other abuses of detainees at Camp Honor, but it has not taken steps to do so.

As recently as February, Human Rights Watch spoke to many former detainees who alleged that CTS forces were conducting illegal arrests and using extreme methods of torture to coerce confessions.

“Iraq’s government today commits appalling human rights abuses with impunity and leaves victims with little hope of obtaining justice,” Whitson said. “The US set this pattern at the outset by allowing abuses without accountability and, not surprisingly, it has preferred to turn a blind eye to Iraqi abuses.”

The US has been largely silent not only about torture but also attacks on other human rights by the Iraqi authorities. US officials failed to speak out in defense of the right to free assembly when men wielding knives and clubs attacked protesters in 2010, 2011 and 2012; and security forces fired at, beat and arrested protestors in 2011 and early in 2013,  when they killed demonstrators in Fallujah and Mosul.

Claims, Inquiries into UK Abuses
A growing number of claims by Iraqis, in legal submissions and elsewhere, allege serious abuse of detainees by UK forces in Iraq, including torture and unlawful killing. Such abuse would amount to war crimes if committed during the military occupation or any of the armed conflicts in Iraq. 

A full public inquiry was held into one incident, the death in UK custody in 2003 of Baha Mousa, a hotel receptionist. The inquiry, which concluded in September 2011, found that Mousa died following “an appalling episode of serious gratuitous violence” by UK forces. The UK government had previously admitted violating the human rights of Mousa and other detainees and paid out substantial damages. But only one soldier, a corporal, was convicted of war crimes connected with the abuse of Mousa, and was sentenced to one year in prison.

A public inquiry into the alleged abuse and unlawful killings of approximately 20 detainees in a separate incident in 2004 began in London in February. However, the UK government has resisted calls for a full independent and public inquiry into all allegations of abuse, and into whether such abuse was systematic, and is facing litigation brought on behalf of at least 180 Iraqis who allege that UK forces abused them. 

Criminal responsibility for war crimes extends to those in positions of civilian or military command whose subordinates carried out the crime if those in command knew or should have known of the crime and either failed to prevent it or to hand over those who committed the crimes for prosecution. The International Criminal Court has jurisdiction for any war crimes committed by UK citizens in Iraq from 2002 onward if the UK authorities fail to pursue prosecutions in its courts.

The UK has lost key cases at the European Court of Human Rights concerning handing over detainees to the Iraqi authorities in instances in which they could face the death penalty, as well as the UK’s use of arbitrary and unlawful detention in Iraq, and its failure to conduct independent investigations into apparently unlawful deaths caused by UK forces in Iraq. The UK created the Iraq Historic Allegations Team to investigate allegations of crimes, but a UK court ruled that this panel lacked sufficient independence. A former member of the team claimed, in speaking to The Guardian, that it was a “whitewash.”

“After 10 years, the need for the UK to have a fully independent inquiry, but also to ensure that criminal responsibility for the war crimes that were committed is pursued at all levels, grows more and more urgent,” Whitson said.

Iraqi Rule of Law Failures
During the last decade, numerous Iraqis have described to Human Rights Watch how ongoing impunity for serious abuse has contributed to the sense that there was no rule of law in Iraq. This failure has led to an increased polarization of Iraqi society along sectarian lines, the continued presence of militias whose strength and service to government actors is unabated, and ongoing terrorist attacks that plague Iraqi almost daily, Human Rights Watch said. Iraqis have repeatedly told Human Rights Watch that their fear of terrorist attacks and reignited sectarian conflict are compounded by their fears of random reprisals from the government as well as political and religious groups.

In a breathtaking example of the dangers the current lack of rule of law poses for Iraq’s security, on March 14, gunmen disguised as police carried out a series of coordinated attacks targeting Iraq’s Interior and Justice Ministries, killing at least 24 people. Iraq’s parliamentary speaker, Osama al-Nujaifi, blamed “the weakness of the security forces (and) their limited capabilities” for this “blatant security violation targeting an important government building in the middle of the capital.”

“Iraq’s political and justice systems today suffer the twin curses of being abusive and unable to stop abuses by others in an increasingly tense and tenuous security environment,” Whitson said. ”The tragedy of Iraq today is that while Iraqi citizens continue to suffer from terrorist attacks and political stagnation, Iraqi authorities invoke these very problems as justification for amplifying their harassment and commission of abuses of normal citizens.”

Your tax deductible gift can help stop human rights violations and save lives around the world.

Region / Country