Rights abuses in Iraq demand investigation

by Cesar Chelala

NEW YORK — President Barack Obama should investigate allegations that American military forces have been involved in human rights abuses in Iraq. Manfred Novak, the United Nations’ chief investigator on torture, says the failure to investigate would amount to a failure by the Obama administration to recognize its obligations under international law.

Nowak’s demands follow WikiLeaks’ massive release of military documents that detail torture, summary executions and war crimes.

According to Nowak, if the files released through WikiLeaks indicate a clear violation of the U.N. Convention Against Torture, the Obama administration has a clear obligation to investigate them. He added that U.N. human rights agreements oblige states to criminalize every form of torture, conducted either directly or indirectly, and to investigate any allegations of abuse.

Although U.S. and British officials have insisted that no official record of civilian casualties exist, the Wikileaks logs show 66,081 deaths of noncombatants out of a total of 109,000 fatalities. Even these high figures do not include many more deaths from other causes during the Iraq conflict.

Information contained in the released information by WikiLeaks detail how U.S. authorities failed to investigate hundreds of reports of torture, rape and murder by Iraqi police and soldiers. According to the Pentagon, when reports of abuse by the Iraq police or Iraq soldiers were received, the U.S. military notified the responsible Iraqi government agency or ministry.

In addition to Nowak’s demands, Phil Shiner, a human rights specialist at Public Interest Lawyers in Britain, said that some of the deaths in the Iraq war logs could have also involved British forces and would be pursued through British courts. Shiner also demanded a public inquiry into allegations that British troops have been responsible for Iraqi civilian deaths during the war.

Article 2 of the U.N. Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment establishes that (1) each state party shall take effective legislative, administrative, judicial or other measures to prevent acts of torture in any territory under its jurisdiction; (2) no exceptional circumstance, regardless of the existence of a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability, or any other public emergency, justifies the invocation of torture; and (3) an order from a superior officer or a public authority may not be invoked as a justification of torture.

In 2006, Novak declared that the situation in Iraq, including the torture of prisoners, was “out of control,” with abuses being committed by security forces, militia groups and anti-U.S. insurgents. “Torture may be worse now than under former leader Saddam Hussein,” he added.

Article 3 of the U.N. Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment states that “No State Party shall expel, [return] or extradite a person to another state where there are substantial grounds to believe that he would be in danger of being subjected to torture.”

The U.S., says Nowak, has an obligation, “whenever they expel, extradite or hand over any detainees to the authorities of another state, to assess whether these individuals are under specific risk of torture.” This rule probably was not followed by U.S. authorities.

Reacting to this new wave of leaks, the Pentagon stated, “Our enemies will mine this information looking for insights into how we operate, cultivate sources and react in combat situations, even the capability of our equipment.”

Unless there is a thorough investigation of abuses, though, we cannot expect an effective closure of this tragic chapter in U.S. history.

Cesar Chelala is an award-winning writer on human rights and foreign policy issues.