Building a better war

As the U.S. marches toward an invasion of Iraq, Human Rights Watch is trying to do what critics say is impossible: Wield public opinion to create a more humanitarian war.

Published March 6, 2003 7:34PM (EST)

Human Rights Watch is nothing if not pragmatic.

The New York-based organization, which investigates human rights abuses worldwide by traveling to trouble spots to interview victims and witnesses, vehemently opposes human rights abuses -- yet also seeks dialogue with governments guilty of gross violations, and dictators that other human rights groups won't deal with. When total compliance with international law is unattainable, HRW battles for degrees of improvement.

So while antiwar activists are pouring into the streets to protest America's threatened invasion of Iraq, Human Rights Watch (HRW) has taken a proactive role in its own unusual gray area of warfare. Rather than trying to block an Iraqi invasion, or even arguing against it, HRW has, in effect, been trying to build a better war in Iraq. It's not so much supporting the unthinkable, the group insists, as attempting to mitigate the damage of what may be inevitable.

To protect its image as a neutral observer and advocate for human rights, HRW rarely opposes -- or supports -- war, and hasn't taken a stand for or against an American invasion in Iraq. Rather, it's already bringing pressure to bear on the U.S. government to wage as good a war as possible -- by limiting civilian casualties and suffering. That means careful choice of weaponry and targets, and acceptance by the U.S. of its responsibility to quickly respond to the humanitarian disaster that could be triggered by an invasion -- and to prepare for the horrors Saddam Hussein may unleash on his own people in the face of his defeat.

Kenneth Roth, the quietly intense executive director of HRW, spoke to Salon recently from his office in Manhattan about building a better war. He talked about America's troubling history in Iraq, the risk of dangerous alliances with brutal Saddam opponents and the potentially catastrophic fallout from an Iraqi war. Roth also discussed HRW's productive tension with the antiwar movement. While Human Rights Watch has been criticized by some peace groups for its pragmatic approach to war, Roth admits his group needs the movement to maintain world focus on the plight of Iraqi civilians. He worries, though, that once war breaks out, demoralized protesters will abandon their concern for the Iraqi people "at the moment of greatest need."

How do you build a better war?

That question probably strikes most people as odd because many people are opposed to any war. Even if you accept that war is sometimes necessary, there's no avoiding the fact that war can be devastating, not only for the soldiers being shot at, but also for civilians. War does have an inherently evil component to it, even if it is sometimes necessary.

What Human Rights Watch and other groups like us try to do is to say: If it comes to the point when there is a war, for better or worse, how do you make sure that the consequences to civilians are minimized as much as possible? We use as our legal framework the Geneva Conventions, which do not prohibit war; they regulate war. They accept the fact that in the course of a war it's acceptable for one soldier to be shooting at another soldier. What they aim to do is to protect as much as possible people who are not combatants, either because they are civilians or because they are injured combatants or they are captured combatants.

All of these people are protected under the Geneva Conventions, and a soldier no longer is privileged by laws of war to shoot these people. Instead, a soldier has a duty to protect these people. Human Rights Watch sees as our responsibility enforcing these rules. We've tried to push warring parties, whether it's the Pentagon or Saddam or anyone, to do everything possible to spare civilians the consequences of war.

Elliott Abrams, who's in charge of planning for a post-invasion Iraq, has said that the U.S. government has spent months preparing to provide aid to Iraqis after a U.S. military assault, and that military targets have been "carefully tailored" to spare civilian lives. Are you reassured by that?

He's certainly saying the right things. The proof will come in the pudding. It's essential first that Pentagon bombers do everything they can to avoid the further destruction of Iraq's infrastructure. We already saw the devastating consequences from the Gulf War in 1991 when U.S. attacks on electricity had a cascading effect compromising sanitation facilities, water purification, hospitalization, refrigeration -- many elements of modern society that depend on electricity. That cascading effect had profound health implications for the civilian population and led to a very substantially increased death rate.

It seems that the Pentagon has learned a lesson from that. Certainly, in Yugoslavia, the attacks on electricity were done in a way that did not destroy the generators, which are the most difficult to replace, and as a result the humanitarian consequences were less severe.

We hope that the Pentagon has learned not to go after any aspect of the infrastructure on which the civilian population depends. The Iraqi civilian population is already 60 percent dependent on rations from the government. Those rations will naturally end as soon as the war starts. The U.S. government, if it proceeds with an invasion, had better be prepared to pick up that slack very, very quickly even in the midst of what could be very difficult fighting. If not, there may be a quite severe humanitarian cost to this war.

It's worth adding, also, that many Iraqis will try to survive this war by fleeing to Iraq's borders and trying to enter the neighboring countries. So far, of the neighbors -- Iran, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria and Turkey - - only Iran has indicated a willingness to allow refugees to cross the border and to seek refuge, and even there it's been a somewhat grudging acceptance with some fairly strict limits on the numbers. Everyone else has said they will not permit refugees to flee into their territory. That's a clear violation of international refugee law, but more importantly, it would mean potentially sending people to their death or to very severe humanitarian situations. We know that there is no such thing as a safe haven in a country at war. Refugees or displaced people should have a right to flee a country at war. We hope that the U.S. government will put pressure on Iraq's neighbors to live up to their international legal duty to allow these people in.

What else can be done to make a war in Iraq more civilized?

Human Rights Watch has been focusing our attention on the various parties to a potential war in Iraq -- not only the U.S. government but Saddam's forces, the anti-Saddam opposition, and the neighboring governments of Iraq. We have concerns with respect to each of them.

With the U.S. government our worry is that, first, they not use certain weapons which we know are likely to cause significant civilian casualties -- for example, cluster bombs. We know that these weapons can be devastating if they're used near civilian populations. During the Yugoslav war, roughly a quarter of the civilians who died as a direct result of the NATO bombing died because cluster bombs were used near populated areas.

So a very simple lesson for the Pentagon to learn is that it simply should not use cluster bombs anywhere near civilians. In Afghanistan, the Pentagon seemed to have drawn that lesson to a significant extent. We need to make sure that they follow through in Iraq. These are the only dumb weapons that the Pentagon considers using in populated areas and it's time to end that exception.

Another issue with respect to the Pentagon is that we know that Saddam is going to use human shields to try to protect his military facilities. That's a war crime that Saddam and his forces would be committing. But that does not relieve the Pentagon of the responsibility of weighing the military advantage of attacking a particular facility against the civilian cost, including the potential loss of lives of the human shields. Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld has simply talked about Saddam committing a war crime and has not accepted the remaining responsibility on U.S. forces to balance the relative military advantage to civilian cost.

A separate set of concerns has to do with the behavior of Iraqi forces. We have every reason to fear that Saddam Hussein, if he sees that his end is near, will bring as many Iraqis with him as possible. This is a man who, by our count, has been responsible for a quarter of a million deaths during his reign. He does not have the ordinary human inhibitions against mass slaughter. So we fear that he will attempt to use whatever chemical or biological weapons he has at his disposal. If he doesn't have those, he will simply use machine guns or artillery to kill as many people as possible, particularly the Kurds in the north or the Shi'a in the south, whom he sees as more generically opposed to his rule.

The question is, how do you prevent that? Obviously, there may be certain military steps that can be taken. But one of the most important things would be to signal to Saddam's lieutenants that if they follow his orders to kill civilians, they will be prosecuted for war crimes and crimes against humanity. That's an important message to send. It's one that President Bush -- on occasion -- has articulated, but it runs counter to the Pentagon's desire to minimize talk of prosecutions for fear that the threat will discourage people from defecting to the U.S. side.

The flip side of our concerns about Saddam's forces is that we are also deeply worried about the behavior of the anti-Saddam opposition. We know that during the uprisings that followed the Gulf War, Kurdish forces in the north and Shi'a forces in the south killed large numbers of Ba'a Party officials or other perceived Saddam supporters. They simply summarily executed these people. Again, we have reason to fear they will pick up where they left off if suddenly a security vacuum is created. If Saddam's forces begin to topple in, say, southern cities like Basra, Karbala, Najaf, the anti-Saddam opposition may believe they can proceed to settle scores that may have been lingering for a decade or more.

Again, the way to avoid this is, on the one hand, to send a strong message that people who commit these atrocities will be prosecuted. Second, it's important for the Pentagon -- as its forces presumably rush toward Baghdad for the ultimate battle -- not to ignore the security vacuum that will be created in the south, but to vigorously patrol those areas to try to avoid reprisal killings.

That runs counter to the Pentagon's instincts to avoid any risk to its forces. Undoubtedly, patrolling in newly occupied territory is risky. But the responsibility to ensure security to prevent atrocities would lie with the United States if it becomes the occupying power. And that requires the kind of vigorous policing that the French and the British in the past have been willing to do, but the U.S. has been extremely reluctant to do in places like Kosovo or Bosnia, but which they will absolutely have to do in southern Iraq.

Are you concerned about accommodations the U.S. might make with other Iraqi leaders in an effort to ease the way for an American occupation?

If you look at Saddam's crimes, you have crimes like the Anfal genocide of 1988, in which 100,000 mostly Kurdish men and boys were rounded up and executed. Now Saddam may have directed this, but this is not something any single man can do by himself. There were other people, like Ali Hassan al-Majid -- otherwise known as "Chemical Ali" -- who oversaw the gassing and executions of many Kurds. There were other lieutenants. It would be awful if under some misguided effort to retain a viable Iraqi state people like this were given a "get-out-of-jail-free card" in return for simply cooperating with the U.S. invading forces.

We think it's important -- not only as a matter of respect for Saddam's victims, but also as a matter of deterring future Saddams -- not to forget the crimes that these people have committed, but to hold them accountable. We want the Pentagon to resist the temptation to forgive and forget with the hope that it will somehow make a U.S. occupation of Iraq easier.

Are we in danger of picking the wrong partners in the war on terrorism as we did in the war on communism?

Yes. One of the things we saw during the Cold War was that it provided a readymade excuse to ignore human rights. You saw this in the U.S. support for the Contras in Nicaragua, the murderous Salvadoran government. In Africa you could see it in U.S. support for Mobutu in Zaire or Siad Barre in Somalia, Doe in Liberia. There were a range of vicious tyrants around the world whom the United States supported militarily, economically, because they were on our side in fighting communism.

That kind of logic, we fear, is picking up again today in the name of fighting terrorism. Not only is that simply wrong morally in a very straightforward sense in that the U.S. should never be on the side of murder, torture and repression, but it is also profoundly counterproductive.

If the United States is going to win the fight against terrorism, it cannot do that by itself. It's going to need cooperation from people around the world to help with law-enforcement efforts to dissuade would-be terrorists. But the United States will not be able to gain that cooperation if it sends the signal that the ends justifies the means because that's precisely the warped logic of terrorism. Terrorists believe that the ends of their vision of a just world somehow justify their means of blowing up the World Trade Center. That logic is one that we have to be very careful not to embrace ourselves -- accepting murder or torture or repression in the name of the very laudable goal of fighting terrorism.

If the United States is going to gain the cooperation of Indonesians or Pakistanis or Afghans, people who we need to identify and single out terrorists for arrest and prosecution, it is essential that we not signal to them that we are not indifferent to the fate of their countrymen whether in a U.S. detention facility or through U.S. support of repressive governments in their country.

What is the best way to fight terrorism?

I am absolutely convinced that terrorism can be beaten and defeated through lawful means. Use vigorous law enforcement efforts -- at times maybe even military force, if necessary -- but make sure that the United States maintains the high ground, make sure the entire war is fought consistently with human rights standards.

That means, for example, not supporting the warlords in Afghanistan simply because it's cheaper than supporting an international peacekeeping force. That means in the case of, say, Pakistan, not simply writing off efforts to reestablish democracy there simply because Musharraf happens to be on our side in fighting terrorism. Rather, make clear to the Pakistani people that the United States stands with their democratic aspirations.

It means when it comes to detention facilities -- for example Bagram Airbase in Afghanistan-- the United States repudiate the apparent practices there of torture, that, according to the Washington Post, are being engaged in right now. The Post detailed the so-called stress and duress techniques that U.S. interrogators were using at Bagram, and the Bush administration to this day has not denied those well-documented allegations. Instead it is apparently nodding and winking and saying, "Yes, indeed, this is something that is going to go forward." That sends a horrendous signal to the rest of the world that suggests that whenever they are facing a serious security threat they, too, can torture.

How do you pressure governments to build a better war?

The most important tool we have is the tool of exposure. Human Rights Watch for the most part is composed of investigators who go to the trouble spots around the world and speak to the eyewitnesses, the victims, the people who have firsthand knowledge about human rights abuses. By writing up their findings in the form of the reports we regularly issue we expose these atrocities to public scrutiny. Fortunately, the public generally believes in the human rights standards that we uphold. When we show that the United States government or anybody else is falling short of those standards, the public is unhappy with that and the government in question finds it embarrassing. That process of shaming can be a very powerful tool to push governments anywhere in the world to be more respectful of human rights.

We also at times will invoke additional diplomatic or economic pressure. For example, we might go to the World Bank or to major donor governments and say: Don't extend this grant or loan unless the following human rights abuse is stopped. In extreme cases we will encourage prosecution of offenders. We've been a major proponent of the creation of the International Criminal Court, the new global war crimes tribunal, that is now in the process of being established -- a major priority for Human Rights Watch. What that represents is a clear statement by the international community that even if tyrants can compromise their own national judicial system as a way of preventing their prosecution at home, there will always be an international tribunal sitting in The Hague, waiting to receive them as soon as they step outside the cozy confines of their own country and are subject to arrest elsewhere.

You've referred to U.S. reconstruction in Afghanistan as being done "on the cheap." Can you explain what you mean?

The United States has obviously done a tremendous service to the Afghan people by ridding it of the Taliban. If you look today at Kabul, the capital, where there are many international peacekeepers and a significant international presence, life is far, far better than it was before the Taliban were overthrown.

The problem is that the United States government as well as the Europeans have been unwilling to devote the political and military capital to extend a serious peacekeeping presence outside of Kabul. Instead, what they have done is essentially bought security in the rest of the country on the cheap by delegating it to various warlords.

Human Rights Watch recently sent a team to the western Afghan city of Herat to see what life is like under a warlord, in that case Ismail Khan. What we found was that women had been packed up back in their burqas, they were for the most part denied the right to travel outside without a male relative; many were denied the right to go to school. There was no public dissent; people who dared to say negative things about Khan's government risked death threats and torture. There was no civil society, no independent press. It was essentially Taliban redux -- life under the Taliban without the Taliban. That is hardly what most Americans thought they were doing when the Taliban was overthrown, but that is the cheap way to reconstruction in Afghanistan.

Now the Bush administration is pledging that Iraq will be different, but its record in Afghanistan hardly gives a reason for confidence. If all that the Bush invasion of Iraq accomplishes is to substitute one tyrant for another -- awful as Saddam has been -- that will be far, far short of the grand promises of a new democratic Iraq that we hear increasingly emanating from Washington. Frankly, I have to accept those pledges with skepticism, given the awful record that the United States has had in Afghanistan outside of the capital.

What will happen to the Kurds if the U.S. invades Iraq?

In many ways the Kurds have never had it so good as the last decade. They have suffered horribly under various regimes, and of course the worst case was the Anfal genocide. They have been the target of repeated use of chemical weapons. They have been ignored or compromised or betrayed by the United States on many occasions, including even during the 1991 uprising, after the Anfal genocide, after the United States had continued giving commodity credits and loan guarantees to Saddam despite his commission of this genocide. After Saddam invaded Kuwait and lost the Gulf War, the United States still refused to come to the aid of the Kurdish uprising but allowed Saddam to use helicopters to crush that uprising. Only belatedly did the United States establish a no-fly zone in the north which ultimately has led to the creation of the Kurdish mini-state or quasi state that has existed in northern Iraq for the last decade. So the Kurds have been betrayed and have suffered horribly for years.

What they fear now is yet another betrayal. I think that they fear that whatever autonomy they have been able to secure, whatever civil society that's been allowed to emerge in northern Iraq -- and indeed, there's a relatively free atmosphere in northern Iraq -- that this will come to an end if Saddam's overthrow leads to the emergence of another thug on the order of Ismail Khan in Herat. Unless the United States really lives up to its expressed aims of establishing democracy in Iraq, there may be a stronger centralized government that reasserts its control over Iraq's Kurdistan under circumstances of far less freedom than the Kurds enjoy today.

Human Rights Watch could be criticized for not being aggressive enough in fighting for human rights by advocating military action against particularly repressive regimes. On the other hand, antiwar activists could criticize the organization for not taking a stronger stand against a war in Iraq -- or any war, for that matter -- to protect what could be considered the ultimate human right -- to live. How do you negotiate a path between those two positions?

This is an issue that often comes up and it's a very difficult one. It's important to note that there is a difference between pacifism and support of human rights. The two are similar in many respects. I think people come to the two causes out of quite similar motivations. But a pacifist is against war in any circumstance. A human rights activist accepts that sometimes war is necessary whether you like it or not. We see our role as trying to mitigate the harm that arises to civilians in the course of war.

Have you supported any wars?

The only kinds of wars that we have supported have been on the very rare occasions when we feel that war is the only way to stop genocide -- or comparable mass slaughter. For example, we did support a war -- unfortunately without success -- in the case of the Rwandan genocide, where we urged anyone to intervene. No one from the international community did. It really took, ultimately, Rwandan forces from Uganda to come in and stop the genocide.

Similarly, we urged military intervention in the case of Bosnian genocide, particularly just after the massacre in Sbrenica. There, within a month or so, the U.S. government and its allies did heed the call from Human Rights Watch and others, and that genocide was brought to an end.

It's only in the extreme cases in which war is a lesser evil to the systematic slaughter of civilians that Human Rights Watch will take a position on whether there should be a war or not. In any other circumstance we are strictly neutral.

In the case of Iraq, even though Saddam has been responsible for genocide in the past, that of course was at a moment when the U.S. was supporting him. While we are fully aware of Saddam's horrendous past human rights record, there is no serious allegation that today he's committing the kind of mass killing that would lead Human Rights Watch to call for his overthrow.

So why would we go to war with him now?

The U.S. has offered a range of justifications, and because Human Rights Watch doesn't take a position on whether there should be a war in Iraq or not, I'm not going to comment on them. The one thing I can say is that the claim that this is being done for human rights reasons has an element of truth in that, undoubtedly, this is one of the worst regimes and the Iraqi people will probably be better off without Saddam.

But one has to look at it also somewhat cynically because at the moment of the most intense killing by Saddam, whether it was the use of chemical weapons during the Iran-Iraq War or Saddam's genocide against the Kurds, these were all moments when the United States was supporting him. The U.S. gave him ongoing intelligence support while he was using chemical weapons against Iranian troops. The U.S. continued to give him commodity credits and loan guarantees after he had slaughtered the Kurds.

So to suddenly say that Saddam's horrendous human rights record justifies war -- it's difficult to sustain that in light of the U.S. government's abysmal record of standing up to Saddam when it really mattered.

Are we going to war no matter what?

I don't think it's inevitable in the sense that there could still be a coup. It's conceivable that Saddam could choose to go into exile. There are a number of things that could happen that might avoid a war. But it seems increasingly unlikely that anything the Iraqi government could do in terms of compliance with Security Council standards would be sufficient to deter an administration that seems quite determined to go to war.

What will happen to the antiwar fervor once war breaks out?

Clearly, there have been massive demonstrations throughout the world against the war. There is a danger that if war proceeds, everybody just throws up their hands and says, "Well, that's Bush, what can we do about it?"

I worry about that. Frankly, I think that it's much more likely than not that there will be a war, despite public opposition. In that circumstance, it's essential that pressure be brought on the Bush administration -- both because of its own conduct and its capacity to affect Iraqi conduct -- to do everything possible to spare civilians.

My fear is that at the moment of greatest need -- when war might break out -- that the mass mobilization we've seen over the last few months suddenly throws up its hands in despair. That is the moment when we need the help of every one of those protesters.

I hope that everybody realizes that even if they lose the battle over whether there is a war or not, there is still another battle to be waged, a critically important battle -- and that is the battle to spare civilian lives in the midst of war.

By Mary Papenfuss

Mary Papenfuss is a writer and editor in Paris.

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