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January 26, 2004

Rights Group: Iraq War Was 'Not Humanitarian'


by Jim Lobe

The invasion of Iraq was no humanitarian intervention, Human Rights Watch says in its annual report released in London Monday.

The human rights organization's argument on Iraq marks the keynote essay in its annual report. The 407-page "World Report 2004: Human Rights and Armed Conflict" includes 15 reports on varying subjects related to war and human rights.

The 15 analytical reports cover rights in the context of war in Africa, Afghanistan and Chechnya. The reports also take up issues such as executive power in the United States post 9/11, war and law enforcement rules in the fight against terrorism, children as weapons of war, cluster munitions, arms suppliers and issues around sexual violence and women's status.

In its 25th year the Human Rights Watch (HRW) has changed its usual format of presenting country reports by way of an annual report. Country reports have been posted on its website, but the annual report is focussed on rights in conflict situations.

The highlight of that is clearly Iraq. HRW chose to present the annual report in London for the first time just two days before scheduled publication of an inquiry report into the circumstances surrounding the suicide of British weapons expert Dr. David Kelly last year.

Given the evidence presented in the inquiry conducted by Judge Lord Hutton, the report will look beyond the suicide into the circumstances that led to Britain's decision to join the invasion of Iraq.

The justification offered for the invasion of Iraq last year was the hunt for weapons of mass destruction, HRW executive director Kenneth Roth said launching the report at The Royal Institute of International Affairs. "The humanitarian rationale was not foremost, it was barely mentioned," he said. That rationale is being offered only now that weapons of mass destruction have not been found, he said.

Roth said HRW does not have a pacifist position against war. "Our role in such a situation would be to monitor the positions of both sides."

Roth said HRW had at times even supported military intervention, as in Rwanda and in Bosnia. "Humanitarian intervention, by which we mean military intervention, is coming to the fore," he said. "This would mean an armed force crossing borders to save lives." But the intervention in Iraq did not meet minimum criteria for such intervention, Roth said.

"Military intervention in a humanitarian cause would be justified only if there was imminent fear of mass slaughter, if military intervention was the last reasonable option, if the humanitarian cause was the dominant focus of the intervention, if efforts had been made to maximize compliance with international law, if it was reasonable to believe that intervention would make things better, and if such intervention had been sanctioned by the United Nations or at least a large body of nations," Roth said.

"But there were nothing like the kind of killings taking place that happened in 1988 with the genocide against Kurds," Roth said. "Such interventions should not be used belatedly to address atrocities that were ignored in the past." Nor had other requirements been met, he said.

While Iraq remains the "hottest" issue involving intervention and rights, the HRW report points to several other conflict situations that have received far less media attention. The report includes analyses of situations along the following lines:

  • One report says 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."
  • An entry on Africa's "forgotten wars" analyses 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.
  • Three essays examine human rights in the wake of war. One says that allied forces are "losing the peace" in Afghanistan because they are ceding control outside capital Kabul to brutal warlords.
  • In former Yugoslavia "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 the United States "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." The United States is applying "war rules" to counter-terrorism to give itself more leeway in denying suspected terrorists their rights.
  • Some reports look at 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 report 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.

The report notes that the human rights movement has come a long way, but that many of its gains are threatened "under the cover of an endless and boundary-less war on terror."

The report argues that the human rights 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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  • Jim Lobe, works as Inter Press Service's correspondent in the Washington, D.C., bureau. He has followed the ups and downs of neo-conservatives since well before their rise in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

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