Human Rights Developments

The Iraqi government continued to engage in a broad range of gross abuses that systematically deprived its citizens of their most basic human rights. As the U.N. sanctions regime entered its seventh year, Iraqi civilians continued to suffer and die from malnutrition and illness in what had become a public health crisis. In northern Iraq, which remained for most of 1996 outside Baghdad's direct control, the major Kurdish political parties and Iraqi forces engaged in violations of human rights law.

Human Rights Developments in Government-Controlled Iraq

The government sustained a climate of fear and repression through a broad array of human rights violations. Throughout 1996, persons involved in or suspected of opposition to the government, especially those who held positions of responsibility within the government and military, were targets of arbitrary arrest, "disappearance," torture, and extrajudicial execution. Several waves of arrests and executions involving dozens of military officers were reported in May, June, and July following what the government claimed were foiled or failed coup attempts. By the beginning of 1996, the U.N. Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances had over 16,100 unresolved cases of Iraqi "disappearances," more than for any other U.N. member state. There were continued reports of executions of detainees, though such incidents were hard to verify. For example, the Tehran-based Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), an Iraqi Shi`a opposition organization, reported that in mid-March the government executed 500 detainees held in Abu Ghraib prison located west of Baghdad for their alleged involvement in the March 1991 uprising against the Iraqi government. The government reportedly prevented relatives of those executed from holding public mourning ceremonies for their dead. Fierce repression in the southern marshes continued as the government employed artillery and armored divisions in several attacks against villages there throughout the year. The government targeted this area in part because it was a base for small armed resistance groups and a refuge for army deserters. According to SCIRI, the government shelled villages indiscriminately and arbitrarily arrested hundreds of persons there. Iraqi courts imposed penalties of amputation, branding, and death against persons convicted of theft, corruption, currency speculation, and military desertion. The Permanent Mission of Iraq to the U.N. stated in an August 23 letter sent to Human Rights Watch that the government had repealed decrees imposing amputation and branding as penalties for the offense of military desertion. Human Rights Watch was unable to verify this claim or to determine whether such forms of punishment had in fact ceased, but noted that the penalties still applied to other categories of offenders. The continued imposition of harsh U.N. sanctions contributed to a massive public health crisis marked by malnutrition and increasing levels of infant mortality. In response to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990, the Security Council, cognizant of the dependence of Iraq's economy on oil exports, passed resolutions blocking all Iraqi exports and freezing Iraqi assets abroad. It thereby severely constrained Iraq's ability to pay for imports of food, medical supplies, and other basic goods. These resolutions also prohibited all imports except essential humanitarian items. Resolution 687 (1991) conditioned the lifting of this embargo on a determination by the Security Council that the Iraqi government had complied with demands made in that resolution, including the destruction of its chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons programs and the payment of reparations to Kuwait. The Security Council to date had not made such a determination. In response to Iraq's worsening public health crisis, the Security Council passed resolutions authorizing a one-time sale of US$1.6 billion worth of oil provided that Iraq agreed to U.N. supervision of the distribution of supplies and the deduction of some 40 percent of the proceeds for U.N. expenses and war reparations. President Saddam Hussein rejected these conditions as infringements on Iraq's sovereignty, thereby putting this principle ahead of ensuring the most basic material needs of his people. Resolution 986 (1995) offered basically the same conditions for permitting the annual sale of up to $4 billion worth of oil sales to enable Iraq to purchase humanitarian supplies. On May 20, 1996, the two sides signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on the terms of this resolution. However, at the time of this writing, implementation remained stalled. The combined impact on the basic welfare of the civilian population of the sanctions and of the air attacks of the 1991 Gulf War was catastrophic. Chronic food shortages and skyrocketing food prices kept the population on a "semi-starvation diet," according to the World Health Organization, leading to increased incidence of diseases such as marasmus and kwashiorkor. A 1995 report by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) indicated that child mortality – defined as the rate of death among children under sixty months of age – had quintupled since 1990. Based on these results, two of the FAO report's authors estimated over 500,000 sanctions-related child fatalities between 1990 and 1995. According to a joint FAO-World Food Programme assessment mission conducted in 1995, four million Iraqis, most of them children and pregnant or nursing women, were at serious risk of malnutrition. Drinking-water and water-treatment systems, significantly damaged during the Gulf War, continued to operate at limited capacity due to the inability to import spare parts. Shortages of basic and specialized medical supplies led to sharp increases in infectious, parasitic, and water-borne diseases, according to a 1996 report by the independent, New York-based Center for Economic and Social Rights. Since September 1990, the Iraqi government maintained a food rationing system in areas under its control, which according to the 1995 FAO report met only an estimated one-third of caloric needs in 1996. The U.S. mission to the U.N. contested the link between sanctions and the health and nutrition crisis, accusing Baghdad of allocating scarce resources to such projects as the construction of palaces. Human Rights Watch could not ascertain the resources at the government's disposal and the portion of those resources allocated to alleviating the humanitarian crisis. Human Rights Watch believed that the United Nations was bound by customary norms of international humanitarian law. Thus, its economic sanctions – the coercive means employed in pursuit of the objectives of resolution 687 – must conform to these legal requirements. Article 54 of Protocol I to the 1949 Geneva Conventions prohibits the use of starvation of civilians as a method of warfare. International law permits belligerents some latitude in prescribing conditions to ensure that shipments of food and medicine are not diverted from civilian to military uses by their adversaries. However, humanitarian deliveries cannot be blocked for motives other than preventing diversion, such as to punish a civilian population in retaliation for its government's actions. While resolution 687 did not prohibit the import of basic necessities, it blocked Iraq's ability to generate the foreign exchange it needed to purchase adequate amounts of them and thereby contributed to the malnutrition and health-care crisis described above. Furthermore, while various U.N. agencies maintained relief operations in Iraq, these did not resolve the civilian population's food deficit. Further Article 54 concerns arose when implementation of the oil-for-food deal was delayed in late August and early September despite significant progress by the Security Council and Iraq toward reaching an agreement on how supplies would be distributed and on mechanisms for preventing Iraqi diversion. Edward Gnehm of the U.S. mission to the U.N. stated on September 3 that the conditions for the implementation of the MOU no longer existed, voicing concern for the safety of U.N. personnel responsible for distribution of the relief supplies. But the ability of U.N. agencies such as the World Food Programme to distribute goods to civilians largely without interruption during the fighting in the north raised suspicion that the U.S. motive for delaying the MOU was to punish the Iraqis for the military incursion there. Since then, U.S. concerns for observer safety apparently receded. Subsequently, however, Iraq reportedly withdrew from a prior committment to allow freedom of movement of observers, while the U.S. refused to discuss the oil pricing formula until this and other issues were resolved. At the time of this writing, with resolution 986 enacted, a MOU signed, and a detailed distribution plan accepted, the enormity of the suffering in Iraq underscored the responsibility of the Security Council and Iraq to resolve these issues and commence as rapidly as possible the oil sales that would permit humanitarian relief to reach the Iraqi people.

Human Rights Developments in Iraqi Kurdistan

Iraqi Kurdistan remained for most of the year under the control of the two main political parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), headed by Masoud Barzani, and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), led by Jalal Talabani, in their respective zones of influence. The Kurdish administration, established in 1991 after the Iraqi military's withdrawal from parts of Iraqi Kurdistan (see below), was increasingly hobbled by KDP-PUK rivalry. Both parties operated separate military forces, secret police forces, and detention centers. The PUK and the KDP committed a wide array of abuses, including the detention of suspected political opponents; torture and ill-treatment of detainees; and the failure to investigate – or even to acknowledge – such abuses adequately. In addition, the PUK and KDP were responsible for the extrajudicial execution of dissident political activists. On January 11, PUK troops reportedly ambushed a motorcade of leaders of the Labor Party for the Independence of Kurdistan, a small pro-independence Kurdish party, near Arbil. Twenty persons died in this attack, including Muhammad Amin al-Hallaq, a well-known activist. On June 16, thirty inhabitants of the village of Kelkin died in a KDP attack on villages inhabited by members of the Sourchi tribe, according to the Iraqi Kurdish Tribes Society, a London-based organization affiliated with the Sourchis. The society stated that the KDP killed tribal chief Hussein Agha after capturing him alive. The KDP disputed these casualty figures as too high and stated that the fighting had erupted after a member of the Sourchi tribe suspected of spying for the PUK had resisted KDP efforts to arrest him. In late August, Iraqi ground forces and artillery units intervened on behalf of the KDP after KDP-PUK fighting broke out earlier that month, and in the process helped the KDP recapture Arbil, the regional capital. Although the Iraqi army left Arbil by September 2, Iraqi secret police continued to operate there. This renewed presence was of particular concern to members of many Iraqi opposition groups who had flocked to Iraqi Kurdistan in order to carry out their political activities outside of Baghdad's zone of influence. According to the Iraqi National Congress (INC), an umbrella organization for a number of Iraqi opposition parties, advancing Iraqi forces summarily executed ninety-six captured INC military personnel in Qushtapa, south of Arbil, on September 1 and later executed nineteen INC officers at its military headquarters in Arbil. After the capture of Arbil, there were reports of arrests, detentions, and executions of opponents of the Iraqi government and of the KDP. The Iraqi National Turkoman Party released the names of thirty-six of its members it said had been detained by the Iraqi secret police; it also reported that several of these detainees had been executed on September 3. The Islamic Action Organization said that Iraqi forces detained and later executed forty of its members. Various opposition groups reported that members detained by the Iraqi army and secret police were transported to Mosul and Kirkuk, cities that remained under Baghdad's control. The PUK-KDP fighting and the intervention of the Iraqi army caused a significant displacement of civilians. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 50,000 refugees were camped on the Iranian side of the Iran-Iraq border by mid-September; Iranian officials estimated another 100,000 to 150,000 persons were internally displaced on the Iraqi side. Fighting near the Seiran-Band refugee camp between the KDP-Iraqi forces and PUK-Iranian forces on September 18 led to the deaths of up to fourteen refugees and the wounding of forty-seven others. These events aggravated Iraqi Kurdistan's chronic humanitarian crisis. According to the U.N. Inter-Agency Humanitarian Programme, approximately 650,000 persons, or around one-sixth of the population, were dependent on some form of humanitarian assistance. The local population faced not only the U.N. sanctions regime, but also an embargo from government-controlled Iraq during most of the year.

The Right to Monitor

Given the tight controls on free expression and the pervasive presence of Iraqi secret police, no independent human rights organizations functioned in government-controlled Iraq. The government repeatedly refused to grant a visa to Max van der Stoel, the U.N. special rapporteur on Iraq. Monitoring human rights conditions through contact with persons inside Iraq posed significant dangers to correspondents there. Iraq continued to reject the recommendation of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights to allow for the stationing of human rights monitors on its territory. The state-controlled Iraqi press did not report on human rights violations. While the government often granted visas to foreign journalists wishing to cover the effects of the sanctions, the climate of fear and the presence of government-appointed minders prevented reporters from gathering much information on other human rights issues. Prior to the KDP takeover in August, human rights groups in Iraqi Kurdistan operated openly, though not without risk of detention or other harassment by the KDP, PUK, or Iraq. After the Iraqi intervention and the increased presence of Iraqi secret police in the area, those human rights monitors who did not flee adopted a lower profile, although, in contrast to the situation in government-controlled Iraq, they were able to function to some extent.

The Role of the International Community

United Nations

The Security Council continued to implement a series of resolutions aimed, among other things, at disabling Iraq's capacity for the manufacture, deployment, and use of certain weapons of mass destruction. (On the humanitarian effect of the U.N. sanctions, see above.) The U.N. Special Commission (UNSCOM) charged with the on-site inspection and destruction of Iraq's biological, chemical, and missile capacities oversaw in May and June the destruction of the al-Hakam plant near Baghdad, which U.N. officials stated could produce biological weapons. The Commission on Human Rights had since 1991 provided for a special rapporteur on Iraq. Chief among the commission's recommendations was the stationing of human rights monitors in Iraq, a call that went unheeded. The U.N. Inter-Agency Humanitarian Programme, in coordination with the Iraqi government, maintained a relief effort to mitigate the impact of the sanctions on the Iraqi people. The operation was coordinated by the U.N. Department of Humanitarian Affairs and is implemented by U.N. agencies and some sixty international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). This program provided over $1.2 billion in humanitarian relief in the five years ending in April 1996.

United States

In 1991, in the aftermath of Baghdad's harsh suppression of rebellions in southern and northern Iraq, the U.S., in conjunction with the U.K. and France, established a "safe haven" in northern Iraqi Kurdistan and "no-fly" zones in the north and south of Iraq, claiming authority from Security Council Resolution 688. These resulted in the withdrawal of the Iraqi army from much of Iraqi Kurdistan, which led to an improvement in the human rights situation there. The "no-fly" zones shielded the de facto Kurdish self-rule region and inhabitants of the south from Iraqi air strikes, though they did not prevent ground attacks in the north by neighboring Iran and Turkey or Turkish air attacks against suspected Turkish Kurdish rebel bases in northern Iraq. Statements by U.S. officials emphasized that human rights were not among U.S. strategic interests in the region. In a television interview on September 17, Secretary of Defense William Perry explained that while the U.S. maintained a "humanitarian interest" in the Kurds of northern Iraq, its "vital interests" lay in the Arabian Gulf's oil fields. Similarly, Assistant Secretary of State Robert H. Pelletreau told the House Committee on International Relations on September 25 that U.S. efforts were focused on minimizing Iraq's threat to the U.S.'s regional allies through a strategy of containment, and that a "strong U.N. sanctions regime" was a part of this strategy. The U.S. response to tensions in northern Iraq in mid-1996 reflected this priority. After the Iraqi army's actions in Iraqi Kurdistan in August and September, the U.S. response on the ground was to launch missiles against military installations in southern Iraq and to expand the southern "no-fly" zone. This move, while perhaps reassuring to U.S. allies in the Gulf, was of little direct benefit to the population at immediate risk from the military operation in the north of the country. To its credit, the U.S. agreed in September to evacuate and provide asylum to Iraqis employed by the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance and other U.S. government agencies in northern Iraq, and later did the same for members of CIA-supported opposition groups active there. But, by early November, Washington had not agreed to evacuate or protect persons working for U.S. or other NGOs. The U.S. continued to criticize publicly Iraq's human rights record. However, it did not give a high priority in its efforts at the U.N. to the stationing of human rights monitors there.
This report covers the events of 1996

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