Warren Hoge / New York Times – 2004-06-06 09:57:26
UNITED NATIONS, NEW YORK (June 5, 2004) — The top human rights official for the United Nations said Friday that the mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners by US soldiers could constitute a war crime, and he called for the immediate naming of an international figure to oversee the situation.
Bertrand Ramcharan, the acting high commissioner for human rights, acknowledged that the removal of Saddam Hussein represented “a major contribution to human rights in Iraq” and that the United States had condemned the conduct and pledged to bring violators to justice.
“Everyone accepts the good intentions of the coalition governments as regards the behavior of their forces in Iraq,” he declared in a 45-page report issued at the agency’s headquarters in Geneva. But, Ramcharan added, after the occupation of Iraq, “there have sadly been some violations of human rights committed by some coalition soldiers.”
In an apparent reference to the incidents of abuse at Abu Ghraib prison and to cases where Iraqi prisoners have died in detention, Ramcharan said that “willful killing, torture and inhuman treatment” represented a grave breach of international law and “might be designated as war crimes by a competent tribunal.”
He said it was a “stark reality” that there was no international oversight or accountability for the thousands of detainees, the conditions in which they were held and the manner in which they were treated.
An International Ombudsman Is Needed
To correct this situation, he said, the coalition authorities should immediately appoint “an international ombudsman or commissioner.” That person would be charged with monitoring human rights in Iraq and producing periodic reports on compliance with “international norms of human rights and humanitarian law.”
The report said that the invasion of Iraq “removed a government that preyed on the Iraqi people and committed shocking, systematic and criminal violations of human rights.” It also noted approvingly that Iraqis had gained a freedom of expression never enjoyed during the years of Saddam rule.
Ramcharan, a British educated trial lawyer from Guyana and a longtime UN official, has been the acting commissioner since Sergio Vieira de Mello, the high commissioner, went to Baghdad as chief of the UN mission there last May on what was supposed to be a four-month assignment.
Vieira de Mello was killed in the bombing of the UN’s Baghdad headquarters in August, and Secretary General Kofi Annan subsequently removed all international staff from Iraq. The human rights experts had hoped to go to Baghdad in compiling their report, but ended up instead interviewing people outside Iraq.
No Comment from the White House
There was no immediate reaction from the United States to the report, but the White House’s top lawyer warned two years ago that US officials could face prosecution for war crimes because of the unorthodox tactics of detaining Taliban and Al Qaeda suspects in Afghanistan.
The confidential Jan. 25, 2002 memo, first reported this month by Newsweek magazine, was written by the attorney, Alberto Gonzales. It urged Bush administration officials to declare captives in the war on terror exempt from the Geneva conventions. It said that otherwise, Americans might be subject to “unwarranted charges” of committing or fostering war crimes.
Critics have argued that the Bush Administration’s decision not to grant any suspected Qaeda and Taliban fighters prisoners of war status under the Geneva conventions created the climate under which the interrogation abuses at Abu Ghraib prison occurred.
The report also comes at a moment when the United States is hoping to gain a Security Council resolution shielding US troops serving in United Nations-approved operations from prosecution before the International Criminal Court.
The multinational force remaining in Iraq after the transfer of power to Iraq at the end of this month will be such a UN-sanctioned force.
Abu Ghriab Thwarts US Plan to Win Imunity for Troops
This month, the United States withdrew its bid for a resolution exempting its soldiers when China indicated it might veto the motion. In announcing the diplomatic move, China’s United Nations ambassador, Wang Guangya, said he didn’t want to support a resolution that might grant impunity to people committing abuses like those uncovered at Abu Ghraib.
The investigating officer, Major General George Fay, has a broad mandate to examine intelligence gathering in Iraq and has interviewed dozens of soldiers.
Fay is asking several specific questions about Lieutenant Colonel Steven Jordan, the former head of the Joint Interrogation and Debriefing Center, the statements he made to interrogators and his instructions about treating Iraqi prisoners, said one military intelligence soldier who has been interviewed and who would speak only if promised anonymity. “Fay showed a real interest in Jordan,” the soldier said.
Fay is also believed to be examining an incident at Abu Ghraib last October in which several Iraqi prisoners may have been deliberately hidden from representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross during a visit they made to the prison.
A military interrogator stationed at Abu Ghraib said that, over a six-hour period during the inspectors’ visit, five or six prisoners were put into individual cells, where they were forced to sit in uncomfortable positions. “They had hoods on them and they had their arms bound,” said the interrogator, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity. “They put them over there to hide them from a Red Cross inspection.”
The role of Jordan and the activities of the interrogation center that he directed from late September to late December are among the least understood issues of the widening scandal, and lie at the heart of Fay’s inquiry, a senior army officer said.
Jordan has declined all requests for interviews. He is still in Iraq, working as an intelligence staff officer for Major General Barbara Fast, the top USintelligence officer in Iraq, a senior military officer in Iraq said.
To date, only seven enlisted personnel from a military police company have been charged with crimes in connection with the abuses at Abu Ghraib. Most of those soldiers have argued that they were acting with the knowledge or encouragement of the military intelligence officers, including Jordan and his immediate boss, Colonel Thomas Pappas, commander of the 205th Military Intelligence Brigade.
Major General Antonio Taguba, who first investigated the prison abuses, said in his report, which has not been made public, that he suspected that Jordan and Pappas were “directly or indirectly responsible” for the misconduct.
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