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UN Human Rights Commission Rejects Call for Emergency Meeting on Iraq - 2003-03-27

The top U.N. human rights body has rejected a call to hold an emergency meeting on Iraq.

The resolution rejected by the 53-country U.N. Human Rights Commission called for considering the effects of war on the Iraqi people and their humanitarian situation. It was sponsored by Russia and a number of Arab and African states.

They argued the commission should reaffirm the application of the fourth Geneva Convention on the protection of civilians by all parties to the conflict.

But wary that a debate would turn political, Canada, Japan, European and several Latin American nations sided with the United States to defeat the resolution.

U.N. Human Rights High Commissioner Sergio Vieira de Mello said grandstanding alone would not improve the conditions of the Iraqis. "The debate culminating in this decision revealed divisions," he said. "Yes, but also the common thread of profound concern over the plight of the Iraqi people."

Mr. Vieira De Mello called on the combatants to respect humanitarian law and "observe meticulous precautions in protecting civilians."

Activist groups including the International Commission of Jurists and the International Federation of Human Rights Leagues say they oppose the war, arguing that it both undermines the United Nations and may cause new customary law practices to arise.

But they also say the U.N. Security Council and General Assembly must ensure that persons suspected of committing war crimes in Iraq will be prosecuted.

The head of the International Commission of Jurists, Louise Doswald-Beck, outlined just what constitutes a war crime. "It would be a war crime to deliberately target civilians," she said. "It also would be a war crime to conduct indiscriminate attacks or be, literally, reckless. In my view of what we are seeing so far, I do not think that is the case, it is mistakes. It is also a crime, for example, if soldiers try to surrender and do not do so, if you attack these persons, then this is a war crime."

Ms. Doswald-Beck says the evidence must be found to back U.S. allegations that Iraq may have executed some U.S. war prisoners.

General Peter Pace, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has said some U.S. soldiers were killed as they attempted to surrender. Fifteen U.S. Army troops were reported captured or killed Sunday when their supply convoy was ambushed in southern Iraq. General Pace said some of the bodies appeared to have bullet wounds to the forehead, suggesting possible execution.

Ms. Doswald-Beck added that physical mistreatment of prisoners of war also would constitute a war crime. She says the International Commission of Jurists and other rights groups are calling for a fact-finding mission to Iraq, once that is possible, and the deployment of human rights observers there for the longer term.