Just a few initial observations/questions
1. Iraq Body Count is arguing that the documents help provide further information on civilian deaths. No doubt this will add further impetus for the call for militaries to release information on casualties killed in armed conflict. I wonder, however, if IBC has to walk a fine line here – if they say that the information released provides information on hundreds or thousands of previously unknown incidents, it means that they are effectively saying their own methodology was flawed. On the other hand if they say that it confirms their numbers, then they undermine their own argument for releasing information.[Update: IBC is indeed saying that the documents “contain an estimated 15,000 previously unknown civilian deaths.”]
Still, I think they are trying to straddle the middle based on this account here. They’re saying that they are predominantly getting more details (ie: names) from the reports. However, in my mind, this still doesn’t answer the more important question as to whether it’s really a good idea to publish the names of victims on a database a) during the middle of a raging civil war b) located in a Western country, controlled by a technically unaccountable NGO, where the families have no input or control over what is stated. (But a blog post for another day…)
2. The documents seem to be making clear that although Iraqi detainee abuse is something that the world has associated with US troops at Abu Ghraib, it was endemic throughout the country and it was largely carried out by Iraqis against other Iraqis. Many of these incidents were reported but so far it seems that in many cases that no further investigation seems to have been carried out.
This is interesting in that it seems (on the surface at this point) to reflect the same controversy as to the handing over of Afghan detainees by Canadian troops to Afghan jails. If you hand over a detainee, you are responsible for his or her treatment under the Geneva Conventions. If US troops were handing over prisoners to the Iraqis, knew they were being abused and then did not investigate, this could be a serious violation of the laws of war. Particularly if this was systematic.
It will be interesting to see what comes out of this – what was the logic of not investigating further or sooner? Some of the immediate explanations (not excuses) I can think of are:
- Some of these incidents may have been Iraqis captured not by US troops but by other Iraqis and US soldiers were making observations. If this was the case I’m not sure the law is that clear as to who was responsible – I think it would depend at what point during the occupation that this occurred and who had effective control of the country.
- These reflect larger problems with handing over prisoners in conflicts like Afghanistan and Iraq which are very much tied up with the problem of trying to hand over sovereignty. Essentially, a military power is trying to force a country to work, and to have an infrastructure (including prisons) as soon as possible. After all, this is what is expected and what the international community was demanding. So taking over prisons is clearly not allowing Iraq to be sovereign, but not acting may have been a violation of the laws of war. Which is it to be? And I’m sure asking the Iraqi insurgents/leaders/prison guards during the insurgency there nicely to stop electrocuting their prisoners was probably not particularly effective.
This issue of large numbers of detainees located in prisons that do not meet even the most basic international standards in conflicts where Western nations are engaged in an armed conflict (particularly where the state on where it takes place has a de jure sovereignty, but de facto quasi-sovereignty) has emerged as a major problem over the last decade and should be taken up by international legal scholars and Western states so as to hopefully avoid this problem in the future.
This is just a first take – looking forward to what others have to say.