Saddam Hussein, War Criminal

January 22, 1991

By our count, Saddam Hussein has already violated three articles of the Geneva Convention on treatment of prisoners-of-war and is well on his way toward breaching at least two others.

* In "brutally parading" (President Bush's words) American POWs on Iraqi television, he has transgressed Articles 13 and 14, which state that prisoners must be "treated humanely" and not subjected to "insults and public curiosity" or disrespect for their "persons and their honor."

* Because two POWs showed signs of having been beaten and spoke words about "peaceful Iraq" that must have been forced )) out of them, he apparently violated Article 17 edicts against "physical or mental torture" (and) other forms of coercion."

* In threatening to use POWs as human shields, the Iraqi dictator could contravene Article 19 which states that POWs must be kept "far enough from the combat zone for them to be out of danger" and Article 23 which states that "no prisoner of war may at any time be sent to, or detained in, areas where he may be exposed to fire in a combat zone, nor may his presence be used to render certain points or areas immune from military operations."

If Saddam Hussein is ever brought before an appropriate tribunal and convicted of these violations, he could be dealt with as a war criminal -- the first high-ranking government official to encounter such a fate since the Israeli execution of Adolf Eichmann and the Nuremberg trials of Nazi enforcers. The United States also charged Lt. William Calley, one of its own officers, with "war crimes" after the My Lai massacre in Vietnam.

Humane treatment of prisoners-of-war has been an objective of international law since the piracy era of the 17th century, when the "principle of universal jurisdiction" opened marauders on the high seas to criminal prosecution by whatever nation nabbed them. The first Geneva Convention on the rules of war was held in 1864 and then updated periodically, the latest in 1949.

Because the full authority of the United Nations has been invoked against Iraq's occupation of Kuwait, the present conflict could turn out to be of major legal importance if it ends well. Control of the use of force has long been the mushiest sector of international law, primarily because governments so jealously guard their powers to defend themselves and pursue their interests. Now that the five permanent members of the Security Council have found the Baghdad regime in violation of no less than 12 resolutions, future would-be aggressors may have reason to pause before pouncing if Saddam Hussein suffers the fate he deserves.

They also might learn that affronts to civilized norms can bring down upon them the wrath even of democratic societies embroiled in debating a particular conflict. President Bush says "America is angry" over the treatment of our POWs. He is right. Nothing the Iraqi leader has yet done is better calculated to unite the American people in the face of all the sorrows and suffering war will bring.

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