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World: Human Rights Day Highlights Plight Of Civilians Caught In War

The United Nations has declared 10 December as International Human Rights Day. This year's theme is the protection of civilians in conflict situations. The UN says it's time to think of the countless innocent people who live in the midst of war, are subject to atrocities, and are denied their basic human rights.

Prague, 10 December 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Armed men burst into a civilian home. They beat an elderly man and rape his wife and daughter. This is a depressingly typical tale: soldiers taking advantage of the turmoil of war to commit crimes against innocent civilians, often women and children.

The United Nations says there are countless such people for whom this is a daily reality. These are people who are killed, raped, maimed, and tortured not because they are armed combatants in a battle, but because they have the misfortune of living in a country or region at war.

Today is International Human Rights Day, and the theme this year is the protection of civilians in conflict situations. The UN says it's a chance to reflect on the rights that every one of us is entitled to -- but that are denied to so many.

Jose Diaz from the Office of the UN's High Commissioner for Human Rights said: "The protection of civilians in such a [conflict] situation should be paramount. It is something that this human rights office has been calling attention to in a number of different situations. It was the case during the conflict in Kosovo and in the more recent conflict in Afghanistan -- [civilians] who have nothing to do with the conflict should be protected. Their protection, their safeguard should be paramount and should be of paramount concern for all combatants."

In practice, of course, there's often little concern for civilians' welfare. Diaz said that's why the international community needs to strengthen the system of prosecuting people who are responsible for committing war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide, and other human rights abuses.

That's where the new International Criminal Court comes in. The UN high commissioner for human rights, Sergio Vieira de Mello, said in a statement marking Human Rights Day that the court has given "great hope" for finally bringing an end to genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. "Let us work together towards ensuring the success of this much-needed institution," he said.

Diaz said the court, which came into being in July, will play a key role in bringing war criminals to justice once it's up and running. "The list of ratifications and adoptions [by signatory states] is growing almost daily. We hope to see the court up and running very soon and to get the greatest number of ratifications possible to make it as universal as possible and to send a clear message to anybody who would commit war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide, or other gross human rights violations, to send them a strong message that those crimes will not go unpunished," Vieira de Mello said.

However, the ICC is not without controversy. The United States opposes it due to fears that U.S. soldiers serving as peacekeepers abroad could be charged unfairly with war crimes. The United States has been asking individual countries to sign bilateral agreements promising not to send U.S. troops serving on their soil to the court. Washington has signed several such deals with countries like Romania, Israel, and Tajikistan.

The UN is highlighting the issue of civilian protection at a time of growing speculation over a potential U.S.-led war against Iraq. Human rights organizations are concerned that if a war does erupt, civilians there will fall victim to abuses by local forces on both sides. Vieira de Mello said last week that his main concern, if a conflict breaks out in Iraq or anywhere else, is the protection of civilians.

The incident described at the beginning was cited by Human Rights Watch as a warning of those very dangers. Peter Bouckaert, a senior emergencies researcher with the organization, said it took place in Afghanistan late last year -- and the perpetrators were not retreating Taliban forces, but soldiers of the Northern Alliance, the local allies of the U.S.-led coalition.

Human Rights Watch is urging the United States to make clear that those guilty of serious abuses in a war with Iraq will be brought to justice -- whatever side they're on. And the UN needs to learn the lessons of previous crises so it too can limit any potential abuses, says Human Rights Watch's Loubna Freih. "The UN human rights machinery needs to also be at full speed, looking at any sign of movements, any signs of abuses from any side and reporting that, being able to report that objectively and all the way up to the Security Council and [Secretary-General] Kofi Annan's secretariat," Freih said.

Today, Human Rights Watch issued a set of recommendations for the UN Security Council to better incorporate human rights issues into its work. Among other things, it recommends the UN undertake missions to countries with early signs of crisis. It also says the UN should routinely consult independent human rights experts as part of an early-warning system.