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Human Rights Watch Says Justifying Iraq War on Humanitarian Grounds Comes Too Late - 2004-02-14

A leading human-rights group says the war in Iraq should not be justified as a defense of human rights one of the arguments made by the Bush Administration. Although the military action did topple a brutal government, Human Rights Watch says Saddam Hussein massacred his own people over a span of decades -- not only in the last few years. Why target him now? There are plenty of reasons beyond human rights, say analysts. VOA's Brent Hurd considers the role of human rights in going to war.

President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair almost always highlight the brutality of the Saddam Hussein era when justifying military intervention in Iraq.

In his recent State-of-the-Union address, Mr. Bush said “had we failed to act, the dictator's weapons of mass destruction programs would continue until this day. Iraq's torture chambers would still be filled with victims terrified and innocent. The killing fields of Iraq, where hundreds and thousands of men and women vanished into the sand would still be known only to the killers. For all who love freedom and peace, the world without Saddam Hussein's regime is a better and safer place.” But New York-based Human Rights Watch says that freedom came too late. They believe that if the war was really about the defense of human rights, then the world community should have intervened more than a decade ago.

Tom Malinowski, an advocacy director of Human Rights Watch, said the intervention should have happened in the late 1980s when Saddam massacred thousands of Kurds. He believes while ousted president Saddam Hussein had an atrocious human rights record, he was not actively engaged in massive violations at the time the U.S.-led force invaded Iraq. Mr. Malinowski notes many other regimes with appalling human rights records.

“The kind of human rights behavior that were going on in Iraq in the last year or two, while certainly terrible, were rather commonplace in terms of what happens around the world,” said Mr. Malinowski. “There are a number of other countries where you have that kind of horrific torture and profound repression of political activity. As horrific as Saddam was, there are other governments around the world that repress their people just as badly. North Korea for example, Iran, to some extent Saudi Arabia, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. And if we are going to adopt a rule that that level of repression alone necessitates humanitarian intervention then there are probably a dozen other countries the United States should invade today.”

Mr. Malinowsky believes the most compelling time for intervention in Iraq was just after the 1991 Gulf War when Saddam Hussein murdered nearly one-third of a million Shiite Muslims in southern Iraq. U.S. forces did move in to protect Kurds to the north but stood by as the slaughter of Shiites took place in the south. As a result, says Mr. Malinowsky, the U.S. argument is unconvincing today and raises questions about the motives for going to war. “The problem is that the humanitarian argument was secondary before the war, when it mattered,” he said. “And it has become primary after the war, as the national security arguments have faded or proven false, once it became clear that Saddam did not in fact have a developed weapons of mass destruction program.”

Other analysts say better late than never. Clyde Prestowitz, a former Reagan trade official and author of Rogue Nation, American Unilateralism and the Failure of Good Intentions, says although U.S. policy in Iraq has been inconsistent, removing Saddam Hussein was crucial. “I think Saddam Hussein is one of history's great monsters. So while it is true that the egregious human rights violations like the gassing of the Kurds did take place in the late 1980s, Saddam had a well-oiled killing machine that was running all the time.”

Mr. Prestowitz adds that human rights violations are hardly the only reason for going to war. “Rarely does the United States intervene in a country solely on the bases of human rights violations. We do it when it appears there are also other major issues of direct national interest to the United States.” Mr. Prestowitz believes national interests often determine foreign policy, and injustices may be tolerated for what is considered a greater good. For example, in the 1980s, the United States did not criticize Saddam Hussein's chemical weapon attack that killed thousands of Kurds because Iraq was an ally against the threat posed by the anti-American Iranian regime.

Mr. Prestowitz insists that U.S. intentions are usually good, but if American policy falls short, as happens in an imperfect world, the resulting ambiguity and inconsistency can lead to skepticism. “Because there is a cynicism, it is easy for other people to jump to the conclusion that it this is not really a moral concern, but ulterior motives,” he said. “That is why I think it is important that the United States not be the sole intervener. I think it is important to have the international community behind any kind of intervention, under the umbrella of the United Nations, NATO or other international organizations.”

Observers say the concept of military intervention for human rights violations is a fairly recent development. The Iraq example raises an important question - one the international community has been trying to answer: why and when to intervene - with force if necessary - to stop serious human rights violations.

Observers say the 1999 NATO bombing of Serbia is one example. NATO launched an 11-week air strike campaign against Serb security forces repressing Kosovo's ethnic Albanian majority. The strikes came near the end of almost 10 years of fighting among former Yugoslav republics that killed tens of thousands of people.

Gary Bass, an international affairs professor at Princeton University, says humanitarian interventions began in the 19th century and have increased due to the spread of mass communication and democracy. However, in the past decade, such interventions have been inconsistent. “If you look at the record that major democracies have had during the 1990s, it is actually a pretty dispiriting record. In Bosnia, where it took three and a half years before NATO actually did anything about it. You look at Rwanda, where nobody actually did anything were 800,000 people were killed in three months and there was no western intervention.”

Professor Bass believes that multilateral organizations such as the United Nations are best suited to hold the world to a standard of universal human rights. Bernard Kouchner, founder of Doctors Without Borders, agrees. “We are looking with all the rest of the world for the United Nations to provide an early warning system to prevent genocide,” he said. “It's very difficult to say at which level we are obliged to intervene. Violations of human rights means mass murders. My big regret is that we were not together [in Iraq]. The European Union and the USA should go together to protect the people because a united international community is absolutely powerful. Disunited it is not.”

Human rights groups say when more countries are convinced a humanitarian cause is at stake, the better the case for intervention. The case is less compelling with fewer nations.