December 10, recognized internationally as human rights day, is an opportune moment to look at human rights in Iraq.
Recent attention has been focused on the trial of Saddam Hussein, whose rule was infamous for its violations of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which calls for freedom from unlawful deprivation of life, torture, disappearance, and arbitrary detention.
The problem is that Iraqis are still not free from these grave violations of their human rights. While in the past such abuses were carried out in Iraq by Saddam Hussein’s regime, they are now inflicted on Iraqis by three different sources: the insurgents, the Iraqi security forces, and the US military.
The disregard for human life on the part of the insurgents is evident from the daily bombings that have led to thousands of civilian deaths and make Iraqis fear for their lives whenever they are out on the streets. Insurgents are also responsible for kidnapping hundreds of Iraqis and foreigners, such as the four members of the Christian Peacemakers Teams who are currently being threatened with death.
The new Iraqi security forces are also implicated in grim human rights violations, including executions and disappearances, especially against Iraq’s Sunni population. In November, a secret detention facility was discovered in the basement of the Interior Ministry building, where some 170 prisoners were being held, some of them with signs of having been tortured and starved. John Pace, human rights chief for the United Nations Assistance Mission in Iraq, declared on December 5 that there were an estimated 14,000 people being illegally held in Iraq’s prisons. And former Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi accused the Iraqi security forces of operating death squads and compared their human rights abuses to those carried out under Saddam Hussein.
While the US administration has condemned abuses by Iraqi security forces, it has little moral authority to do so. US military personnel have been implicated in torture not only at Abu Ghraib, but at other detention facilities in Iraq as well. In September, Human Rights Watch released a report in which three US army personnel described routine severe beatings and other abuses conducted from 2003 to 2004 at an operating base near Falluja. The human rights violations, which included applying chemical substances to detainees’ skin and eyes and breaking the leg of a detainee with a baseball bat, were carried out under orders or with the approval of superior officers.
Recently it was revealed that the US military used the chemical weapon white phosphorous during its siege of Falluja in November 2004. This is the same chemical that Saddam Hussein was suspected of using against the Kurds.
No violation of violation of human rights could be more egregious than wrongful death. The number of Iraqis killed since the US invasion began in March 2003 is unknown, but estimates range from 27,295, according to researchers at the Iraq Body Count project, to over 100,000, according to a study published in October 2004 in the prestigious medical journal The Lancet. The US destruction of the Iraqi infrastructure and the failure to rebuild are also violations of Iraqis’ basic rights.
Another measure of human rights—the equality of women—has suffered a major blow since the US occupation. Women have been the victims of a post-invasion wave of kidnappings and rapes and they have been among those illegally detained and abused under detention. Women have suffered from the surge in unemployment and the lack of basic services such as electricity and clean drinking water. The US occupation has also moved Iraq from a more secular society where family matters were determined by civil law to a more religious society where women are not considered equal to men in matters such as marriage, child custody and inheritance. The Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq says that since the invasion and the strengthening of the conservative clerics, women’s rights have been set back by 50 years.
Saddam Hussein was indeed a brutal dictator, and Iraqis who opposed his regime did so at their own peril and that of their families. But the US invasion of Iraq has replaced one catastrophic human rights situation in Iraq with another one. After 30 years of a brutal dictatorship and 13 years of inhumane sanctions, many Iraqis had high hopes that their lives would improve. They are, unfortunately, still waiting.
Medea Benjamin and Andrea Buffa work for the human rights group Global Exchange, www.globalexchange.org