Iraq Conflict: Following the "Laws of War"?

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Dual Purpose

U.S. officials charge that President Saddam Hussein has intentionally placed his military equipment around civilian sites: schools, mosques and hospitals. It's unlikely that any U.S. military personnel will ever be legally accountable for causing civilian casualties in Iraq. But they have an incentive to follow the rules of war for political and humanitarian reasons.

Perhaps the trickiest issue is when targets can be both civilian and military. In the first Gulf War, Washington planners intentionally bombed Iraq's civilian infrastructure, which is specifically banned by the Geneva Conventions, because Iraq's military capacity depended on it. NATO forces bombed Serbian Television during the Kosovo conflict, killing 16 civilians, because Washington claimed it was an instrument of propaganda and repression.

For individual soldiers on the ground, applying the rules of war correctly can be impossible. Distinguishing between civilians and Iraqi gunmen, for example, has been complicated by paramilitary forces who fire on U.S. troops at night and walk around unarmed and in civilian dress during the day.

Finding a Court

The key to keeping the laws of war relevant, scholars maintain, is to ensure that war criminals are caught and tried in court. In the first Gulf War, no Iraqi was ever tried in court for war crimes.

The United States would like to try Saddam Hussein and his regime for war crimes, but finding a suitable forum for such a trial could be a problem. Washington opposes the International Criminal Court (ICC) because, U.S. officials maintain, it does not offer enough safeguards to stop the court from launching politicized prosecutions of Americans. A United Nations tribunal is probably out of the question, because the UN does not support the death penalty. Any U.S. military tribunal, meanwhile, would not be seen as impartial.

The most attractive option, according to experts, would be an ad hoc tribunal inside Iraq, or possibly Kuwait, using some Muslim judges, where war criminals could be tried for crimes dating back to the first Gulf War.

The success in prosecuting war criminals has been poor. "It's basically a history of impunity," said Dworkin. "But in recent years, things have changed with tribunals for ex-Yugoslavia and Rwanda, Sierra Leone and East Timor, and now the ICC. None of these bodies are without flaws but they indicate a growing demand that the world's worst offenders should be held accountable."

More Iraq Stories from National Geographic News
National Geographic News: Iraq
Humanitarian Crisis Looming for Iraq, Aid Workers Warn
National Geographic TV Reporter Embedded in Iraq
Dogs of War: Inside the U.S. Military's Canine Corps
Iraq Conflict: Following the "Laws of War"?
Dolphins Deployed as Undersea Agents in Iraq
Geography Shapes Nature of War in Iraq
Iraq War Threatens Ancient Treasures
Photographer Tells of Iraqi Kurds "In Agony"
Iraq Expert Predicts "Problems of Control"

More National Geographic Iraq resources:
Hot Spot: Iraq
History and Culture Guide
Maps and Geography

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