British police have recently begun investigations of allegations that the Iraqi President, Saddam Hussein, committed war crimes during the conflict in the Gulf in 1990 and 1991. The criminal case concerns the plight of 4,500 British citizens and thousands of people from other countries who were held hostage in Iraq and Kuwait a decade ago. The British hostages were held, often in appalling conditions, for up to five months. The London-based group Indict has spent five years compiling evidence of war crimes and brutality by the Iraqi leadership, including witness statements, and millions of captured documents. The case, which was passed on to UK Attorney General, has been referred to the police, and may now be further investigated by Scotland Yard. This could eventually lead to a war crimes indictment against the Iraqi president, Saddam Hussein, and his deputy prime minister, Tariq Aziz.
Conspicuously missing from the current war crimes probe is Saddam’s more serious record of acts of genocide, atrocities and human rights abuses, much of which occurred with the military and financial support of the United Kingdom, the United Kingdom, and European powers. One of the most horrific examples of this is the March 1998 massacre of an estimated 5,000 Iraqi civilians in Halabja by Saddam’s forces, in a brutal chemical weapons attack utilising mustard gas and nerve toxins. “Entire families were wiped out and the streets were littered with the corpses of men, women and children”, reported the Washington Post (24/3/88). “Other forms of life in and around the city – horses, house cats, cattle – perished as well.”
Such atrocities committed by Saddam occurred not to any meaningful Western indignation, but to Western consent, complicity, and active military support. The materials, technology and know-how to manufacture and use weapons of mass destruction were siphoned to the regime throughout its crimes against its own population, as well as during its war with Iran. The Guardian reports that Saddam’s aggression was “fuelled by the arms industries of Britain and the rest of Europe, the Soviet Union and the United States” (4/3/00) é so much so that after the genocide at Halabja, rather than halting arms supplies to Saddam’s regime, the Western powers escalated their military support of the regime. For instance, U.S. Department of Commerce figures show that after the Halabja massacre, the U.S. was granting new licenses for arms technology exports at a rate more than 50 per cent greater than before Saddam’s gassing of the Kurds. Such grotesque war crimes, for which the West bears equal responsibility, have been ignored by the present inquiry.
Saddam was not the only party responsible for war crimes during the 1991 Gulf War. The Allied forces committed grave violations of international law and war crimes in their bombardment of Iraq from 1991 to 92, by deliberately targeting civilians and civilian infrastructure in the country. Middle East Watch, affiliated to the U.S. based Human Rights Watch, confirms that the Allies bombed and destroyed centres for civilian life, commercial and business districts, schools, hospitals, mosques, churches, shelters, residential areas, historical sites, private vehicles and civilian government offices. In aerial attacks, including strafing, over cities, towns, the countryside and highways, Allied aircraft bombed and strafed indiscriminately. The bombing “effectively terminated everything vital to human survival in Iraq – electricity, water, sewage systems, agriculture, industry, health care”, reported Eric Hoskins, a Canadian doctor and coordinator of a Harvard study team on Iraq. “Food, warehouses, hospitals and markets were bombed. Power stations were repeatedly attacked until electricity supplies were at only 4 per cent of prewar levels.” The same team reported: “The children strive to understand what they saw: planes bombing, houses collapsing, soldiers fighting, blood, mutilated and crushed bodies. The children fight to forget what they heard: people screaming, desperate voices, planes, explosions, crying people. They are haunted by the smell of gunfire, fires and burned flesh.” As a direct result of this bombing campaign, at least 25,000 men, women and children were killed. The Red Crescent Society of Jordan estimated 113,000 civilian dead, 60% of them children, the week before the end of the war. According to the Nuremberg Charter, this “wanton destruction of cities, towns, or villages” is a Nuremberg War Crime. These crimes are also in violation of Articles 48, 51, 52, 54 and 55 of Protocol I Additional to the Geneva Convention 1977. Yet clearly the current investigators do not consider this war crime perpetrated by the West against Iraqi civilians of any significance.
The international community’s collective complicity in the UN sanctions regime that has been imposed on the Iraqi people, is yet another example of a war crime ignored by the current inquiry. The International Commission of Enquiry on Economic Sanctions, whose Co-President is former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark, charges American, British and UN officials with “causing the deaths of more than 1,500,000 people including 750,000 children under five, and injury to the entire population of Iraq by genocidal sanctions.” “The criminal acts charged include the deliberate and intentional imposition, maintenance and enforcement of an economic blockade and sanctions against the people of Iraq from August 6, 1990 to this date with full knowledge constantly communicated that the blockade and sanctions were depriving the people of Iraq of essentials to support and protect human life.” The essentials denied to the Iraqi people under the sanctions regime include medicines and medical supplies, safe drinking water, adequate food, insecticides, fertilisers, equipment and parts required for agriculture, food processing, storage and distribution, hospital and medical clinic procedures among numerous other essential human services. The Commission thus concludes that U.S., UK, UN and other officials “have committed genocide as defined in the Convention against Genocide against the population of Iraq including genocide by starvation and sickness through use of sanctions as a weapon of mass destruction and violation of Article 54, Protection of Objects Indispensable to the Civilian Population, of Protocol I Additional to the Geneva Convention 1977.”
The selective nature of the current probe into Saddam and its intent to indict the Iraqi dictator, illustrates clearly that the most powerful members of the international community are effectively immune to the stipulations of international law, being capable of violating them at will without fear of legal accountability. While the Islamic Human Rights Commission (IHRC) welcomes this important step to prosecute the Iraqi President for one of his war crimes, if this procedure is to rooted in genuine humanitarian concern, then it should be applied consistently not only to the taking of British hostages, but to the other horrific war crimes perpetrated by Saddam’s regime – along with the war crimes perpetrated against the Iraqi people by the forces of the United Kingdom, the United States and European powers during the 1991 Gulf War and continuing to this day in the form of an illegal sanctions regime.
Similarly, the humanitarian principles which make necessary the indictment of Saddam Hussein due to his massive war crimes, also make necessary the indictment of other war criminals of equal standing. For instance, international law demands that the war criminal Ariel Sharon, now the Prime Minister of Israel, should be prosecuted and indicted for his long record of atrocities against the Palestinian and Lebanese people. As Israeli defence minister in 1982, Sharon directly ordered the deliberate bombardment of residential areas in Beirut, Sidon and other Lebanese cities the Israeli invasion, killing thousands of Lebanese and Palestinian civilians. He also oversaw the siege of west Beirut, deliberately depriving civilian residents of food, water, safe passage and access to medical care. Along with other Israeli officials, Sharon was responsible for arming, training and protecting the perpetrators of the genocidal massacres of Palestinian and Lebanese refugees in Sabra and Shatila camps in September 1982. These acts constitute grave breaches of the Fourth Geneva Convention, war crimes, and crimes against humanity.
Indeed, even though he has only been Israeli Prime Minister for less than a month, Sharon has already ordered measures which further violate the Fourth Geneva Convention including blockades which have reduced the Palestinian civilian population in the occupied territories to extreme poverty and in some areas near starvation, and resulted in deaths due to deliberate deprivation of access to medical care.
Failing to apply standards of justice to other perpetrators of war crimes such as the Western powers or Israel, is evidence of a gross double standard among those who claim to advocate human rights, and signifies that the United Kingdom as well as the international community at large, is willing to tolerate atrocities against innocent civilians as long as they are committed by the leaders of friendly regimes. It also demonstrates clearly the bankruptcy and hypocrisy of the contemporary human rights discourse, and how it has effectively been abused by powerful members of the international community to suit their own interests.
Mr. Nafeez Ahmed is a political analyst and human rights activist based in London. He is Director of the Institute for Policy Research & Development and a Researcher at the Islamic Human Rights Commission.