At this stage of the conflict in Iraq, do laws of war exist on more than paper?

Sunday 18/12/2016

Scenes of bloodshed in Iraq prompted observ­ers to question the laws of war. Do they matter considering flagrant determination by not only terrorist factions and insurgents but governments to disregard human rights?

In the war against the Islamic State (ISIS), there is no longer one belligerent. The muddier the field of battle becomes, the easier it is for one side to advertise the wrongdoings of another to rationalise its own, be those perpetrated by state or non-state actors.

Many analysts are seemingly desensitised to the incalculable loss of lives in countries where ISIS continues to test its political fantasies.

The Iraqi government recently renewed air strikes on the ISIS-controlled border town of Qaim. Iraqi warplanes are said to have bombed three densely populated spots along Qaim’s central commercial street. Among those killed were street vendors, shop owners and pensioners waiting to collect their monthly allowances alongside women and children.

Footage released by the ISIS-run Amaq media arm show fires devouring the marketplace, vehicles and buildings. Bodies were strewn about and the bloodied wounded was rushed to safety.

The attack killed scores of civilians, wiping out entire families, but was described by Iraqi Interior Ministry spokesman Saad Maan as “a successful operation, executed with the help of detailed and reliable intelligence”.

No mention was made by the brigadier-general of the civilians exterminated in strikes ordered by the government he represents. While governments ought to act as the intervening fence between civilians and terrorists during times of war, Maan’s words betray this responsibility.

“If a state is not party to a treaty,” it remains “bound by the same rules under customary international law,” senior lecturer Eric Jeanpierre of the Kingston Law School in London said. Laws that distinguish civilians from belligerents apply in Iraq, he noted.

The two main obligations of a state fighting such wars were to “not intentionally target civilians” and “not to kill indiscriminately” but a grey area emerges when it comes to the exercise of air sovereignty and precision bombing, often to appalling results, Jeanpierre said.

A day after the strikes on Qaim, Iraq’s Interior Ministry released a statement in which it claimed to have successfully targeted two ISIS dens, including a two-storey structure housing 25 foreign fighters and another house in which 40 militant targets were struck. It dismissively rejected reports of civilian deaths. The government accounts we are left with are entirely different from witness testimonies.

“The death count of the victims of Qaim has in fact been rising,” revealed senior researcher Omar Farhan from Amman-based War Crimes Documentation Centre. “The names of individuals originally documented as ‘injured’ have now been added to the list of the dead. Three closely linked locations were targeted, each of which was bustling with activity”.

Farhan added that “the people who died were not legitimate targets and among the names we have gathered none are ISIS commanders”.

A former resident of Qaim who asked to remain anonymous said “none of the targets killed were weapon-wielding terrorists… The act was intentional like we have seen before.”

When does the law of war apply and when does it not? Jeanpierre asserts that adherence to international norms hinges upon “the reliability of information” used to conduct strikes.

Yet in the case of Qaim, the killing of civilians appears to violate the Geneva and The Hague conventions.

International humanitarian law, as codified in the Geneva Convention’s Article 51 and additional protocols, specifies that civilians should “enjoy general protection against dangers” that may arise due to military operations. Civilians are therefore to not be the object of attacks, nor are acts of reprisal justifiable.

“Civilians may be collateral damage but, in that case, the number of civilian casualties has to be proportionate to the military advantage gained,” Jeanpierre said.

If the laws of war exist but are only applied selectively, do they carry any weight or just exist on paper? The ever-shifting landscape in the conflict makes the implementation and oversight much more impossible.