To Secretary Rumsfeld
. . . . . .
By Kenneth Roth
Editor's Note: Kenneth Roth
is the executive director of Human
Rights Watch, the largest U.S.-based
international human rights organization. Human Rights Watch investigates,
reports on, and seeks to curb human rights abuses in some 70 countries.
Previously, Mr. Roth was a federal prosecutor for the U.S. Attorney's Office for
the Southern District of New York and the Iran-Contra investigation in
We are writing you with regard to several incidents in Iraq involving actions by United States forces that appear to violate the 1949 Geneva Conventions. These incidents involve the demolition of homes of Iraqis on at least four recent occasions in situations that did not meet the test of military necessity, but rather appeared to be for the purpose of punishing or compelling the cooperation of the family in question. In two of these incidents, U.S. forces also reportedly detained close relatives of a person that the U.S. was attempting to apprehend. In these cases the individuals detained were themselves not suspected of responsibility for any wrongdoing.
The most recent of these incidents was reported in an Associated Press dispatch of January 3, 2004. According to this report, U.S. forces operating in or near Samarra destroyed the home of Talab Saleh. Witnesses told the AP that Saleh is suspected of orchestrating attacks against U.S. forces. However, there was no indication in the report that the house was being used in carrying out an attack at the time it was demolished. The AP also reported that troops arrested Saleh’s wife and brother, saying they would only be released when Saleh surrenders.
The Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949, which applies during military occupation, prohibits the punishment of any person for an offense that he or she has not personally committed. This prohibition outlaws any use of “collective penalties” or reprisals against civilians or their property.
In addition, the detention of close relatives for the purpose of prompting the surrender of a wanted person appears to be in violation of the strict international humanitarian law prohibition against hostage-taking. Under the laws of war, a hostage is a person taken into custody for the purpose of compelling some course of action by the opposing side. Taking hostages is a grave breach of the Geneva Conventions—in other words, a war crime.
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