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Iraq: Conference Highlights Human Rights Abuses

Human rights activists are expressing outrage over what they say is Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's crimes against the people of Iraq. Calls to bring the Iraqi leader to justice gained momentum during the weekend at the Iraqi Opposition Conference in New York. RFE/RL's Beatrice Hogan reports:

New York, 1 November 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Human rights activists say Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, operating within a closed regime, continues to commit crimes with impunity against the people of Iraq.

Human rights advocates rallied during the weekend at the Iraqi Opposition Conference in New York to gain international support, network with Iraqi dissidents and bring Saddam to justice.

Ann Clwyd, member of the British Parliament, chairs Indict, a London-based organization launched in 1997 that aims to bring Iraqi war criminal suspects to justice. Speaking to RFE/RL at the conference, Clwyd explains why Iraq must account for its actions.

"Any country that signs the convention on torture or the convention on genocide is obliged by those rules to prosecute someone who comes into their country and is thought to be guilty of torture or genocide."

But gaining an international consensus to bring Saddam to justice is not easy. U.S. Ambassador David Scheffer, who heads the war crimes division at the State Department, explains why:

"The United States government is well aware of the tension that exists in the international system today between a small number of governments that believe that there is something to be gained by maintaining relations with Saddam Hussein's regime and by weakening the UN sanctions program, and others who recognize the need to continue to isolate Saddam Hussein and work toward the day of his downfall and that of his closest associates."

Critics say the Iraqi leader has been able to capitalize on the international dissent and to demonize the West to his people, blaming UN economic sanctions - and those countries that enforce them - for causing the suffering of Iraqis. The sanctions were ordered by the UN Security Council following Iraq's invasion of Kuwait.

Indeed, disagreements within the international community have hampered the establishment of an International Criminal Court (ICC), which was set up by the 1998 Rome Treaty. Only four countries - out of the necessary 60 -- have so far ratified the treaty.

Even when the court is set up, its jurisdiction only covers crimes committed after its establishment. Under its provisions, Saddam would be immune for alleged crimes committed against Iraqis thus far.

This means that Saddam could walk for alleged crimes committed in the past, including the poison gas attacks on Iraqi Kurds in 1988 and on Iranians during the Iran-Iraq war; war crimes against Kuwaitis and the Coalition forces in 1990-1991; and illegal human experimentation in the 1990s.

Scheffer says that Saddam's crimes continue.

"In Iraq today, atrocities are being carried out by Saddam's army against the people of the southern marshes with a ferocity that is as widespread, albeit over a longer period of time, as that waged by [Yugoslav President Slobodan] Milosevic's goons against the Kosovar Albanians."

Documenting the crimes requires the help of eyewitnesses and "human rights detectives." Clwyd says a proper indictment - one that cannot be overturned by technicalities - requires precise evidence, including names, times, dates and places.

"I'm sure that there are plenty of people who have come out of Iraq who were in Kuwait at the time the Iraqis invaded, who perhaps knew something about the Iranian prisoners of war who were killed. Those people exist all over the world and we want to hear from them."

Human rights activists say this evidence Clwyd and other international advocates are collecting will provide the basis for Saddam's ultimate indictment. The human rights organizations represented at the conference say they hope to expand their research network on the front lines and collect more evidence from Saddam's alleged crime scenes in Iraq.

Scheffer is working behind the scenes to create a court where the evidence against Saddam can be presented. He says he is working with member states of the United Nations Security Council to establish an international criminal tribunal to close the legal loopholes and tighten the noose around the Iraqi regime.