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June 5, 2004

UN: US Soldiers May Be Guilty of War Crimes


by Gustavo Capdevila

GENEVA (IPS) - A new report from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights concludes that "grave violations" – even potential war crimes – have occurred since the U.S.-led forces have occupied Iraq, leaving "a stain upon the effort to bring freedom" to that country.

The acting high commissioner, Bertrand Ramcharan, issued a call Friday for establishing mechanisms to prevent a repeat of such abuses and to protect Iraqi citizens.

"It is crucial that protection arrangements be strengthened as a matter of the utmost urgency. This concerns oversight of the military forces and the building up of the protection institutions of the new Iraq," says the report.

Iraq has been under military occupation for more than a year. In March 2003, the United States and Britain led an invasion of that country, without obtaining UN approval though backed by some other governments. Their declared motive was to find the weapons of mass destruction they claimed the Saddam Hussein regime was hiding.

With Saddam overthrown and now in custody, and the alleged weapons laboratories yet to be found, the occupying forces are the target of an increasingly heated popular resistance, in the context of images made public since late April of torture and abuse of Iraqi prisoners in prisons under "coalition" command.

Ramcharan presented his report Friday to Australian Ambassador Mike Smith, chairman of this year's sessions of the UN Commission on Human Rights, which met for six weeks in March and April.

When the sessions concluded on April 23, Ramcharan had said he was "perplexed" by the silence of the UN's highest authority on human rights in regards to the situation in Iraq.

The Commission, under pressure from the United States, according to what European diplomats said unofficially, interrupted the mandate of its special rapporteur who had been entrusted since 1991 to monitor respect for human rights in Iraq.

Ramcharan submitted the report to the Commission's 53 member states, which together or individually could request an urgent special session to discuss the matter. If no state expresses interest in studying the Iraq situation, however, the report will be left until next year's sessions of the Commission on Human Rights.

Diplomatic sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, said it is unlikely that members of the Commission would decide to push for a political discussion on the hottest issue in today's international arena.

Cuba experienced that climate of cautious disinterest during this year's sessions when it unsuccessfully sought to put on the agenda a discussion of the prison conditions at the U.S. naval base of Guantánamo where alleged members of the Islamic extremist group al-Qaeda have been held for more than two years.

José Díaz, spokesman for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), denied Wednesday that the report had been modified under pressure from the members of the occupying forces of Iraq. "There has been no change in the formulation of the text," he said.

Ramcharan's report was sent Wednesday to the U.S. and British governments. The observations of both and of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) are included as annexes to the UN text.

The interim high commissioner's report recognises that from the human rights perspective there has been an improvement since the U.S.- and British-led coalition took control of Iraq.

"The government of president Saddam Hussein was a brutal, murderous, torturing gang that preyed on its own people," states the text.

Among the advances noted by UN officials is the internal debate taking place about a new constitutional architecture for Iraq that respects international human rights law.

The document also outlines the creation of an Iraqi Ministry of Human Rights, broader participation of women in public life, and greater freedoms of expression and of opinion.

But: " Notwithstanding these efforts it is now a matter of public knowledge that detainees have been ill-treated and degraded and, before the submissions received from the CPA and from the governments of the United States and the United Kingdom (Annexes I to III), it was unclear what protection arrangements existed in Iraq since the fall of the previous administration."

The document goes so far to state that some of the abuse "might be designated as war crimes by a competent tribunal."

"Willful killing, torture or inhuman treatment, if committed against detainees protected by international humanitarian law constitute a grave breach under the Geneva Conventions and therefore of international humanitarian law."

The report mentions that "some 10,000 or more" people have been taken into custody in Iraq, and that there are reports that as many as 10,000 Iraqi civilians have been killed since April 2003. Around a thousand coalition forces and 200 coalition civilians have died since then.

The document also takes up the matter of the private security companies hired by the coalition forces. Estimates cited in the text put the number of private security personnel – often referred to as mercenaries – at 20,000.

The OHCHR team conducted interviews of representatives of independent Iraqi organizations in Amman, Jordan, who "voiced their distress about the protection of civilians by coalition forces."

The interviewees said the occupying forces had gone too far in their treatment of Iraqi civilians, and gave examples of incidents of this type, included in the report.

"It should be noted that reprisals, or breaching the laws of war as a reply to a breach by the enemy forces, are strictly prohibited, in particular against civilians, protected objects and the environment. Collective punishments are prohibited," says the text.

The testimonies obtained by the OHCHR team also mentioned arbitrary arrest, violent and armed break-ins of homes and, "in some cases, money or jewelry found during the raid (was) taken by soldiers and not returned."

And the report finally addresses the most publicized episode: the physical and psychological abuse of Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib prison, outside of Baghdad. Photos of such incidents were first broadcast Apr. 28 by the U.S. television network CBS.

In its conclusions, the document states that "the treatment of Iraqi prisoners was, as recognized by coalition leaders at the highest levels, a stain upon the effort to bring freedom to Iraq."

The investigation commissioned by Ramcharan concludes that the occupying authorities "should arrange for regular inspections of all places of detention and also appoint immediately an international ombudsman or commissioner to monitor respect for human rights in Iraq."

Ramcharan is acting as high commissioner because his predecessor, Brazil's Sergio Vieira de Mello, was killed alongside other staff in a terrorist bombing on Aug. 19, 2003 at the UN headquarters in Baghdad. He was serving as the UN secretary-general's special representative in Iraq.

The jurist, from Guyana, will leave the post at the end of June to return to academia in the United States, though the word in humanitarian circles is that UN chief Kofi Annan will turn to him for efforts aimed at preventing genocide.

The new high commissioner, Canadian magistrate Louise Arbour, will assume the high commissioner post on July 1.

(Inter Press Service)


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