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UN Human Rights chief appeals for protection of Iraqi civilians

[JURIST] Speaking Thursday at the 59th General Assembly of the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva following a Commission decision - previously reported in JURIST's Paper Chase - not to hold a special session to debate humanitarian and human rights consequences of the current conflict in Iraq, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights [official website] Sergio Vieira de Mello made a fresh appeal to all parties in the war to respect fundamental civil liberties and observe meticulous precautions in protecting civilians:

As High Commissioner for Human Rights, my principal concern, as is yours, is for the human rights of all people the world over and the need for these rights to be protected. In a statement I issued on the day that hostilities began in Iraq, and which I reiterated before you when introducing my report on the work of my Office – and which I repeat again now – I called on all parties to the conflict to respect fundamental human rights and humanitarian law and to observe meticulous precautions in protecting civilians.

I repeat this because it can never be said enough – not least while we continue to see, in conflict after conflict, civilians bearing the brunt of the violence.

We must also remember that the human rights crisis in Iraq did not begin a week ago. The human rights of the Iraqi people have been violated for many years, as has been abundantly documented by the Special Rapporteurs of this Commission on the situation of human rights in Iraq, as well as reputable human rights experts in non-governmental organizations....

Our concern also requires us to recall that the Iraqi people have also suffered as a result of the sanctions regime imposed on Iraq.

We are now over a week into hostilities. Prisoners have been taken by both sides. Combatants and civilians have been killed; many have been injured. Property has been damaged. Water, sanitation and other basic necessities essential for sheer survival are unavailable to significant numbers of civilians. No-one in this room can be anything but increasingly concerned for the welfare of the people of Iraq.

In such difficult circumstances as war, indeed particularly in war, humanitarian law and fundamental human rights must be protected on the ground by the parties to the conflict. No-one can be arbitrarily deprived of his or her life. No one can be subjected to torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. No-one can be arbitrarily arrested or detained. Persons deprived of their liberty should be afforded all the guarantees provided by international law, and prisoners of war should be treated humanely and strictly in accordance with the provisions of the Third Geneva Convention.

I must also call on all parties to observe the rules applicable in armed conflict, particularly the principle of distinction between combatants and non-combatants.

Parties must never direct attacks against the civilian population or civilian objects, even if the purpose is to strike at a military target. This is true even if human shields are being used. Conversely, states must never use such an abhorrent practice as intentionally placing civilians in harm's way.

States must never make civilians the object of attack and must consequently never use weapons that are incapable of distinguishing between civilians and the military. They must preserve infrastructure and other assets essential to the civilian population – including, of course, religious and historical sites – as well as protect the environment of Iraq. Tragic experience demonstrates that the precision of modern weapons, particularly at long range, is not reliable, not least in densely populated, urban areas. So let me state quite clearly here, and this is an appeal, a strong, urgent appeal: If there is any doubt at all, restraint and refrain must be the watchwords. In other words, do not attack that particular target.

There must be no reprisals against the civilian population. Humanitarian assistance must not be hindered. In short, the parties must take every possible precaution to ensure that civilian casualties do not occur.

All these, you will agree with me, are categorical imperatives.
A complete transcript of the UN High Commissioner's remarks is available from UNHCHR.

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