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Volume 2, No. 3 - August 2002

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Human Rights: Attacking Iraq--The Humanitarian Consequences
SREERAM CHAULIA

Editor's Note: ["Kashmir Herald dares the US to attack and smash the epicenter of terrorist internationale, Pakistan, and not go on wild goose chases destroying Iraq."]

"Is it going to be an attack for the sake of attacking? Is there an alternative?"
--Masud Barzani, leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, on American preparations against Iraq.

Mainstream media portrayals of the climaxing Anglo-American threat to wage war and get rid of Saddam Hussein have revealed a pitiful incapability of looking beyond the bromide of regional Arab reaction. The US Fourth Estate, which rarely discusses the legality of American foreign military moves, is focusing narrowly on how Washington's allies in the Persian Gulf might turn hostile if a massive bombing operation were carried out against Iraq. For instance, Vice President Dick Cheney's trip to West Asia in March this year received headline coverage in leading American dailies, radio and television channels because he was seen as preparing the ground for attacking Iraq by winning over uneasy Arab allies to the cause. In other words, he was laying the carpet for carpet bombing Iraq and ousting "the most evil man since Hitler," a Madeleine Albright spiel for Saddam that conveniently obfuscates the time when the Iraqi dictator was a hero in the Reagan White House. Bruce Jentleson's book, "With Friends Like These: Reagan, Bush and Saddam 1982-90," captures the spirit of a decade when today's Lucifers were kissed as Archangels.

How inflaming an all-out attack on Iraq can be in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Qatar, not to mention "the whole Muslim world," is the only major botheration that is currently prying on the minds of CNN presenters and Wall Street Journal columnists. A secondary consideration is whether George W. Bush will manage to carry along Europe on the bandwagon of his "total war" on terrorism. Some geo-strategic Pentagon planners have aired supplementary worries like oil boycotts by Middle Eastern suppliers (as proposed by Iran) and the danger of a fuel crisis that will plunge the recessing American economy into depression. Another not-so-far fetched anxiety among pro-Republican quarters is that the attack on Iraq must be postponed in order that the Bush re-election campaign maximizes the windfalls of war hysteria in late 2003, and does not botch up the timing of the assault. A few are still arguing that the casus belli is proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and that things can be brought back from the brink if Iraq agrees to allow UNSCOM arms inspectors back into the country.

Where is the human being in this superabundance of expert opinions and think-tank outputs?

Currently, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is moving thousands of tents and blankets to western Iran (from eastern Iran, where the Afghan operations are being wound up) in anticipation of large-scale Iraqi civilian exodus if American-led forces do the inevitable and flag off Operation "Desert Something" (succeeding Desert Shield, Desert Storm and Desert Fox). Present readiness in the UNHCR is for accommodating and succoring 40,000 refugees, but The Guardian has reported, "some diplomats believe refugee outflows could reach 150,000." Considering that UNHCR under-calculated the rate and speed of Afghan refugee return from Pakistan in the last 6 months, it is better if the organization is prepared logistically for receiving at least 100,000 in western Iran. Saddam forced out nearly 350,000 southern Shias for "disloyalty" during the Iran-Iraq war and they are still languishing as old caseload in Iran. Another 150,000 Shias were expelled from the southern marshlands into Iran during Desert Storm, using tactics like damming rivers, destroying homes and burning crops of Shia minorities suspected of being hostile to Saddam's regime.

Besides Shias in the south, the Kurds in the north, who have been enjoying a rare spell of freedom and economic progress since 1995, are also vulnerable to en masse coerced movement into Turkey and Iran in the event of an US attack. During and after Desert Storm, Kurdish uprisings in the north were ruthlessly mowed down by the Iraqi army, allegedly employing chemical weapons (a la 1988). This caused a gigantic outflow of 2 million Iraqi Kurd refugees into the mountain regions of Turkey and Iran. Since Turkey was unwilling to host all Iraqi Kurds, a UN Security Council resolution launched "Operation Provide Comfort" and set up safe havens and a no-fly-zone within northern Iraq to house those internally displaced Iraqi Kurds who did not manage to cross international boundaries. The generous development space created by UN Resolution 986, which apportioned 13 percent of oil-for-food money to Kurdish self-ruled territories, is going to be torn to shreds if the US attacks. For the umpteenth time in history, the perennially oppressed Kurds will be thrown to the merciless vagaries of Turkish and Iranian border guards and troops.

Repressed Iraqi minorities like Shias and Kurds are especially vulnerable to dislocation in the event of US war on Iraq, since the NATO game-plan is said to be based on the 'Afghan model', i.e. weaning away and arming anti-Saddam groups, just as the Northern Alliance, composed of Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara minority rebels, was bolstered against the Taliban. Needless to say, the majority of Shia or Kurdish civilians are not foot soldiers of rebel militias that claim to be their sole spokesmen, but Saddam is not known for making such fine distinctions. His track record of punishing minorities during conflict is well proven. UNHCR should be therefore prepared for large-scale inflows into both Iran and Turkey, should full-scale military bombing by America begin. The example of NATO's Kosovo war in 1999 is a good parallel here, because Milosevic's forces began forcibly driving out hundreds of thousands of Kosovo Albanians into neighboring countries once the bombing of Serbia intensified.

The prospect of myriad internally displaced persons (IDP) fleeing villages and towns inside Iraq cannot also be discounted. During past wars, Saddam has shown mastery in sealing borders and disallowing Iraqis from becoming refugees and potential "dissidents" for western exploitation. If war is imminent, UNHCR should strengthen early warning systems for IDP situations inside Iraq and be in constant communication with the Red Cross and the UN Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) to bring instant relief and respite to humans who would lose every belonging and hit the road to an unknown destination. Again, the comparison with the Kosovo campaign is informative. The number of Serbs and Roma people who were internally displaced as a result of UN-unauthorized NATO strikes ranged between 200 and 300,000. We are living in an era when artificial distinctions between 'refugee' and 'IDP' are melting and the human rights of all forcibly displaced people are crying to be recognized. Though the visible consequence of America's war will be snaking lines of refugees inching their way to the nearest international border, the humanitarian world cannot sit back and allow depopulation inside Iraq to go unnoticed, be it in the form of evasion from raining western bombs or due to orders of the Iraqi army.

To conclude, the warped projections and conjectures on the "coming war" on Iraq that are being relayed by American mass communication media completely exclude the humanitarian angle. US decision-makers have a new-found spring in their step after the miraculous "victory" in Afghanistan and the freeing of Kabul from the reactionary Taliban. The poltergeists of Vietnam and Somalia have given way to a swagger and arrogance that all future American military missions will be 'liberating' in nature and involve minimum military and civilian casualties. Objective history begs to disagree. CNN never discussed the final count of Afghan people killed and displaced in the recent Afghan war. Let it not be a case that the terrible human consequences of war on Iraq also remain under wraps. Highlighting them would be the only credible way to counter the dominant discourses of "patriot act" and "total war."

[Sreeram Chaulia is with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.]


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