WASHINGTON—An international coalition of lawyers and human-rights groups is gathering evidence to determine whether American and British troops committed war crimes in Iraq.
They intend to use the 9-month-old International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands, to prosecute government and military leaders who may have violated international humanitarian law, and point to the dropping of anti-personnel bombs in civilian areas as an example of such a breach.
But taking on the United States will not be easy, since the Bush administration has refused to ratify the treaty establishing the International Criminal Court (ICC).
Lawyers with the Center for Constitutional Rights and the Center for Economic and Social Rights in New York, two groups that had opposed to the U.S.-led invasion, along with colleagues in Britain, say that their investigation of possible coalition war crimes will ensure that both sides in the war are held accountable.
"We don't want a victor's justice," said Michael Ratner, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights. Referring to U.S. plans to bring Iraqi leaders to justice, Ratner said, "If there's going to be an investigation of Iraq, there should also be an investigation of the coalition."
He said the groups are collecting evidence from multiple sources, including the International Committee of the Red Cross, Amnesty International as well as journalists and so-called human shields in Iraq. They plan to investigate reports of 33 civilian deaths following the apparent dropping of cluster bombs on al Hilla on April 1, and the bombing of a marketplace in Baghdad on March 28, where at least 60 people reportedly were killed. They also condemn U.S. strikes on the Palestine Hotel and the destruction of the al Jazeera TV station's office in Baghdad on April 8, resulting in the deaths of three journalists.
Ratner believes that such incidents could constitute a violation of international humanitarian law, which prohibits the indiscriminate use of weapons. He argues that when used in residential areas, cluster bombs "become an indiscriminate weapon" because they fail to distinguish between civilians and military targets.
Reuben Brigety of Human Rights Watch expressed "profound concerns" about the use of cluster bombs—anti-personnel weapons that release deadly bomblets. Whether their use in Baghdad constituted a war crime depends on "whether or not these weapons were used indiscriminately, whether or not civilians died as a result, and whether or not those attacks were systematic," he said.
Feisal Istrabadi, a lawyer with the Iraqi Forum for Democracy, a political action group in Michigan, is confident the United States would prosecute its war crimes if credible evidence were found. But he argued, "The war crime in the first instance was committed by the government of Iraq in commingling its forces with the civilian population."
He accused the groups investigating the United States of trying "to delegitimize what was done by coalition forces."
"I'm always amazed by the indifference of certain groups at the utter brutality of Saddam Hussein in dealing with his people," Istrabadi said. "Yet they make out charges against the very people who have saved Iraqis from their own government."
Ratner and Shiner say the process will be as fair and independent as possible. Next month, Shiner plans to convene a panel of five international law experts in London to debate the issue and produce a final report.
However, Philippe Sands, a visiting law professor at New York University from the University of London, said the United States will not face the ICC. "The (United Kingdom) is a party to the (ICC) statute so all UK nationals are subject to the jurisdiction of the ICC," he said.
Feisal Istrabadi said the activists were lucky they weren't in Iraq. "They can do what they want," he observed. "No one drags them away kicking and screaming in the night." Theirs was the kind of freedom Iraqis hoped for, he said.
Center for Constitutional Rights: www.ccr-ny.org
Center for Economic and Social Rights: www.cesr.org
Iraqi Forum for Democracy: www.iraqifd.org
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.