Safe Havens for Saddam's Victims

April 09, 1991

The United Nations should move urgently to set up safe havens within Iraq for a human tide of refugees fleeing the Baghdad regime. Even though it would be unprecedented for the world organization to take such action without the approval of the host government of a member state, the sheer magnitude of the calamity Saddam Hussein has unleashed upon the Kurdish and Shiite people requires collective world action.

The United Nations, after all, was founded so that the Hitler horror would never happen again. One of its implicit purposes, in addition to construction of a world peace order, was to prevent a brutal dictatorship from inflicting a merciless pogrom upon its own citizens. Surely the plight of tens of thousands of Shiites in the U.S. zone of occupation in southern Iraq and the hundreds of thousands of Kurds crammed up against the Iraqi-Turkish border are deserving of extraordinary help.

Their perilous condition is a direct result of decisions by the United States and the United Nations to use force to eject Iraq from Kuwait. Therefore, the U.N. and the U.S. have an unshirkable responsibility to protect defenseless people from the death and destruction being unleashed against them by the Iraqi dictatorship.

The aid airlift belatedly organized by the Bush administration will bring considerable relief to the Kurdish refugees. But this is only a stopgap. The larger question is what is to become of refugees who are overwhelming Turkish and Iranian governments none too eager to welcome them. Neither group should be left to the mercies of Saddam.

Given the choice of being "sucked into" an Iraqi civil war or getting American troops out of the gulf, President Bush is picking the latter with almost unseemly haste. Whether the small replacement U.N. peacekeeping force can do the job is questionable. A larger U.N. force with a mandate to fulfill a larger mission may be needed.

Even more difficult precedents are at stake in proposals to use force if necessary to form a sanctuary zone for the Kurds in northern Iraq. Many nations may be leery of doing anything -- even preventing genocide -- that might weaken the U.N. rule against non-interference in their internal affairs. Moreover, there is a danger that establishing safe enclaves of safety for Kurds and Shiite might lead to the very dismemberment of Iraq that the Bush administration has vowed to oppose.

All these factors must be weighed as the world community tries to protect Saddam's victims. But action there must be, with Saddam's ouster the ultimate goal. The U.N. cannot avert its face from the tragedy now taking place if there is ever to be a code of international law and decency.

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