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2006-02-28

Exclusive: Former UN Human Rights Chief in Iraq Says US Violating Geneva Conventions, Jailing Innocent Detainees

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The Washington Post is reporting 1,300 Iraqis have died in violence since Wednesday’s bombing of the Askariya shrine in Samara. In his first interview since returning from Iraq, John Pace, the human rights chief for the the United Nations Assistance Mission in Iraq, reacts to the mass killings on the ground. Pace says he believes the U.S. has violated the Geneva Conventions, is fueling the violence through its raids on Iraqi homes and is holding thousands of detainees that are for the most part innocent of any crimes. [includes rush transcript]

We turn now to the War in Iraq. In the latest news at least 31 people have been killed and 75 wounded in three bomb blasts in Baghdad. The attacks come a day after the lifting of a daytime curfew imposed to curb widespread violence over the past few days.

The Washington Post is reporting 1,300 Iraqis have died over the past week making this one of the bloodiest periods since the U.S. invaded the country nearly three years ago. The mass killings began on Wednesday after a bomb destroyed the gold dome of the Askariya shrine in Samarra–one of the holiest sites to Shiite Muslims.

While the bloodshed appears to have at least temporarily subsided, the outbreak of violence last week has raised new concerns about where Iraq is headed. Most of those killed in the past week did not die in roadside bombings or suicide attacks but at the hands of militias and death squads including some units working out of the Ministry of the Interior.

The Washington Post published this dispatch out of Baghdad: "Hundreds of unclaimed dead lay at the morgue at midday Monday — blood-caked men who had been shot, knifed, garroted or apparently suffocated by the plastic bags still over their heads. Many of the bodies were sprawled with their hands still bound." Meanwhile the Independent of London is reporting that hundreds of Iraqis are being tortured to death or summarily executed every month in Baghdad by death squads working out of the Ministry of the Interior.

  • John Pace, Former U.N. Human Rights Chief, Iraq. Up until earlier this month he was the human rights chief for the United Nations Assistance Mission in Iraq. He has worked at the United Nations since 1966 and is the former Secretary to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. He joins us on the phone from his home in Sydney Australia.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: It is his first broadcast interview since he left Iraq. We welcome you to Democracy Now!

JOHN PACE: Thank you very much Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: It is good to have you with us. First, your reaction to what has taken place in these last few days in Iraq.

JOHN PACE: Well, I’m not surprised at all, as a matter of fact, because we have been trying to explain to the world at large that there has been a generalized deterioration in the situation of protection of people in Iraq. There is a breakdown of law and order which is characterized by, technically by the nonfunctioning of the police, of the judiciary, and of the penitentiary institutions. Not to mention the military intervention and the various other factors that provoke a breakdown in protection in Baghdad and most of the country. So I think it is a problem related to the relay of accurate information on the — how serious the situation is in regard to the person in the street in Iraq. The ordinary Iraqi. Who has absolutely no protection whatsoever from the state or from the authorities.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the role of militias in Iraq?

JOHN PACE: Well, you know, they first started as a kind of militia, sort of organized armed groups, which were the military wing of various factions. And they have — they had a considerable role to play in the vacuum that was created by the invasion. With the procedure for the transition of re-integration of the country to more representative forms of government, a number of these militias who were armed wings of political entities found themselves in government. And, therefore, they — many of them now, are actually acting as official police agents as a part of the Ministry of Interior.

Regrettably, they have not — they have not assumed technical responsibility on behalf of the state. They have continued to act on behalf of the factions, as it were. And so many or a large number of the — nonofficial armed groups have now become official police persons. With the results that the good policemen — the good technical police people the residue of those that remained after the rest have been fired — after the invasion are unable to do the job properly. There’s only one or two brigades of them. The others are all made up of militias in police uniform. And regrettably the minister of interior, at least up to now, was himself head of one of the main militias. And regrettably he has not led the police force to, at least under his command, in order to assume a more technical police protection. So you have these militias now with police gear and under police insignia basically carrying out an agenda which really is not in the interest of the country as a whole. They have roadblocks in Baghdad and other areas, they would kidnap in other people. They have been very closely linked with numerous mass executions, at least mass arrests of people who later turned up showing signs of some execution. And so they constitute a major destabilizing factor in the sense that they are responsible for a large degree of the lack of protection of Iraqis in their own country.

Another destabilizing factor, if I may, is the continuation of the military intervention in the Anbar region where you have military force applied to civilian areas for the announced purpose of hunting down terrorists or other opponents. Resulting in massive displacement and lack and destruction of civilian infrastructure and arrests of large numbers of mainly males in — of a certain age group. The role of the militias, as I have described them, the role of the military intervention, are two major factors that are contributing to a current sense of instability in the country as a whole. We have also the —- this instability is characterized by the massive degree of—- two other factors. One is the kidnapping. Ranging between 122 and 158 days of persons who range from school kids to very wealthy people being kidnapped. And the other is the fact that nobody really has any alternative except to seek to defend himself or herself by their own means. So that in turn provokes more lawlessness. Because tribes, clans, religious groups, subgroups, take the law into their own hands. There is a vacuum at the level of the responsibility of the state to protect its citizens. That is really the cause of this problem.

AMY GOODMAN: We are talking to —

JOHN PACE: My observation has been certainly there are sectarian aspects to the conflict that’s going on. But in my view, at least result from my observation, the sectarian aspect is only a result of the main cause. And main cause is the total breakdown in any kind of law and order. Forget about rule of law. Law and order around the country.

AMY GOODMAN: We have to break stations to identify themselves. We will be back with John Pace in a minute. [break]

AMY GOODMAN: On the issue of death squads I wanted to read to you an excerpt from an article that appeared in the New York Times Magazine last May by Peter Moss, it was entitled "The Way of the Commandos." We are talking to the man who has just left Iraq as the UN Human Rights Chief, John Pace. We are speaking to him in Sydney, Australia, in his first broadcast interview here in the United States.

Peter Moss’ piece reads, "The template for Iraq today is not Vietnam to which it is often been compared but El Salvador. Where, a right wing government backed by the United States fought a leftist insurgency in a 12-year war beginning in 1980. The cost was high. More than 70,000 people were killed, most of them civilians in a country with a population of just six million. Most of the killing and torturing was done by the army and the right-wing death squads affiliated with it.

According to an Amnesty International Report in 2001, violations committed by the army and its associated paramilitaries included extrajudicial killings, other unlawful killings, disappearances and torture while whole villages were targeted by the armed forces and their inhabitants massacred. As part of president Reagan’s policy of supporting anti-communist forces, hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. aid was funneled to the Salvadoran army and a team of 55 special forces advisors led for years by Jim Steele, trained frontline battalions accused of significant human rights abuses."

Peter Moss’ article goes on to say there are far more Americans in Iraq today, some 140,000 troops in all than there were in Salvador. But U.S. soldiers and officers are increasingly moving to a Salvador-style advisory role. In the process, they are backing up local forces that like the military in El Salvador do not shy away from violence. It is no coincidence that this new strategy is most visible in a paramilitary unit that has Steele as its main advisor. Having been a key participant in the Salvador conflict, Steele knows how to organize a counter insurgency campaign led by local forces.

He’s not the only American in Iraq with such experience. He was the senior — the senior U.S. advisor in the ministry of interior which has operational control over the commandos. Steve Castile, a former top official in the drug enforcement operation who spent much of his professional life immersed in the drug wars of Latin America. Castile worked alongside local forces in Peru, Bolivia, and Columbia where he was involved in the hunt for Pablo Escobar, the head of the Medellin cocaine cartel. Your response to this analogy rather than Vietnam, Salvador, in the 1980’s?

JOHN PACE: My knowledge of the situation in Iraq does certainly point out to a variety of styles of addressing the so-called insurgency. And the role of the paramilitaries in Iraq is, I think, we all doubt there is a large component of so-called security personnel, engaged in large numbers in the country with a variety of responsibilities and indeed there was a phase last year when a number of executions that we observed did follow patterns which were quite similar to what we had observed in earlier years in places like Salvador. However, I cannot really subscribe 100% to that analysis, simply because my mandate, my remits and my role did not necessarily a requirement to make such comparisons.

But the fact is this there is considerable element of so-called private security in Iraq today which alongside the large criminal element and the other non-criminal elements, if you like, like the militias and the armed forces do spin off alarming degree of violence inside the country. And regrettably hardly any of this violence is ever investigated or followed up. And so I would say yes, there are death squads. They do follow a pattern in Iraq of a sort.

Coincidentally, there are also from time to time and within the private security umbrella people from various other countries who are contracted as private security to protect among others, I suppose, government installations in Iraq. And these would include, I don’t know Chilean, Salvadoran, and Peruvians and others — as they do — Nepalese and so on. But I prefer to look at the situation in Iraq and on its own, on its own merits as it were, rather than compare it to other situations because the particularities of the situation in Iraq are quite unique in that respect, especially for the UN, where you have a process of re-stabilization of the country at the political level without a corresponding serious effort at re-stabilization at the security level of the country. If you look at this schizophrenic situation, you will see there are political negotiations going on to form a government to establish a policy, to establish the development strategy and so on. Whereas on the other hand, you see nothing on the security side except further deterioration, including as a result of government intervention, further deterioration of security of people in Iraq. And that, of course, neutralizes completely any serious effort at re-stabilizing the country. Unless you have a police force that’s acting in the interests of society and the interests of the country at large and efficiently so, and therefore as a corollary to that, the withdrawal and the nonexistence of military intervention, then you cannot have a serious political resolution in the country.

And this is the problem in Iraq today. You have a disparity between the political dialogue on the one hand and the dialogue of violence and murder on the other. They are both going in different directions. I would personally much prefer to — for the benefit of clearer analysis focus on the — on the fact that Iraq itself presents and refrains from comparing it to behavior patterns and other situations. Having said so, it is correct and my observations would confirm that at least at a certain point last year and in 2005, we saw numerous instances where the behavior of death squads was very similar, uncannily similar to that we had observed in other countries, including El Salvador.

AMY GOODMAN: And these death squads, again, many of the men being found dead are clearly tortured, cigarette burns, drill bits drilled into them.

JOHN PACE: The majority are — but then again, there are quite a large number that are simply executed with a bullet the head, for instance, or two. The prevalence torture is quite clearly established regrettably. Especially as a result of these — it presents itself on observation of these groups that are found in various parts of the country.

AMY GOODMAN: We are talking to John Pace. He’s the former UN Human rights chief in Iraq. He has just come out and is back home in Sydney, Australia. I wanted to ask you, John Pace, about the prisons. If you could comment on the U.S. and Iraq-run prisons. The Abu Ghraib photos that have become so well known. The black sites, the ghost detainees, the detainees whose names are not known, who are kept off the records.

JOHN PACE: Well let me say first of all that our observations reflect that Iraqis who are detained under U.S. custody have constantly expressed a deep desire not to be transferred to Iraqi detention, I think it is very important to set that out. They have made it very clear in spite of their unjust detention in most cases and in spite of the other hardships they would like us to be transferred to Iraqi jurisdiction.

Now this accounts for a proportion of them, not a majority. But the reasons why they are so — so unhappy at the prospect of being transferred to Iraqi jurisdiction is clear, that’s because their prison system simply is very primitive and conditions are extremely harsh, and the risk of torture and tree is rife, especially because that also includes treatment as a threat to the relatives who — in an effort to buy them out. That’s one consideration.

On the other hand, the problem with the detainees held by the U.S. especially is due to the fact that as you surely understand, the U.S. presence in Iraq is — particularly its role in shoring security is sanctioned by the security counsel of the United Nations. And as such — in response to the wish of the Iraqi transitional authorities, the United States have accepted to support efforts of the Iraqis in shoring security, that’s a technical position.

But the detainees that are taken and held by the U.S. are not really detainees in the strict sense of custodial terms, they are technically internees held for imperative reasons of security and internment for imperative reasons of security is very carefully — is very carefully protected, very carefully circumscribed by international law. As internee is in the a detainee, is certainly not a prisoner. None of the conditions relating to internment are actually being observed in regard to those persons held by United States as suspects for — as a result of the various military operations.

There is a serious problem there of the legitimacy under which they are held. That’s — that doubt is made further — made more serious by the fact — by the realities. In other words, the numbers, the large numbers, which are being held as internees, the duration, the long time when they are held, where they are held. A lot of them are held in detention centers like Abu Ghraib which is a multiple detention center, you have various wings.

AMY GOODMAN: John Pace, would you say that the United States is violating the Geneva Conventions?

JOHN PACE: In this respect, I would say so, yes. Certainly not observing the terms of internment, for imperative reasons of security. That’s quite clear. And I do recall that our office at the appropriate time had shared this view with our colleagues of the U.S. Mission in Baghdad. It is a matter of concern because of the large numbers involved and the duration of the detention. You know, the vast majority of these people are innocent and when they are rounded up, by the time that they leave, quite a number of them are no longer as innocent as they were when they entered. Because obviously they are exposed to hardcore people who have a certain degree of violent instinct in them.

AMY GOODMAN: What percentage of the people, the prisoners, the thousands of prisoners would you say are innocent when they are brought in?

JOHN PACE: Oh, I would say the vast majority I would say between 80%, 90%. You know, this rounding up is quite blindly done, of course, because of the immediate circumstances surrounding the situation. Whether it is the result of a military onslaught, air attacks, or whatever other means are used, or whether they are in reaction to, let’s say a car bomb blast or another act of violence dedicated against people in Iraq.

AMY GOODMAN: Would you say that the — since the U.S. invasion that the invasion-occupation has made Iraq a breeding ground for terrorists?

JOHN PACE: Well, it certainly has. There’s no question about it. For various very clear reasons. It is in the my personal opinion. It is a matter of even history because the degree of violence has increased exponentially since the invasion. The number of foreign, if you like, terrorists or violent people, whatever you wish to call them, attracted to the conflict is large, huge. So you have several foreigners even in their own prisons, not to mention that they are still out who have been attracted to Iraq simply for their desire to as it were, sorry to say, have a go at the United States.

The general stability in the country is due to the way in which the country has been kind of blown apart in terms of its social structures and social fiber, therefore making it vulnerable to also internal and external violent and criminal elements. On the other side, there has not been a corresponding serious attempt at controlling that violence because there is no civil police force to speak of. The army itself is only now being reconstructed. And — but Iraq is far, very far from having a — or, Iraqis are far from having the kind of minimal protection that one would expect from the state.

AMY GOODMAN: John Pace, would you say that the raids the U.S. military goes on the houses, communities of Iraq, is increasing the violence?

JOHN PACE: Oh, yes. That’s, of course, a constant provocation. According to the numerous estimates we get in our interviews, this is a recurrent theme. But that is classic of trying to apply, trying to apply some degree of control by using a military element as a interim civil police element. Trying to, you know, swat a fly with, you know, with a bomb, instead of with a swatter. And the difference in the sensitivities is, of course, huge, and animosity correspondingly so. And both the boys and ladies in uniform on the United States’ side and the others on the civilian side, are not prepared to extend much — many courtesies to each other. The degree of sensitivity is considerable. And indeed, it’s reflected, I’m sure you know this, because it is common knowledge, that if there is any element that unites the Iraqis in spite of their several internal differences is the desire to see the end of the occupation, the end of the military presence in Iraq.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think the US has to pull out now?

JOHN PACE: Well, you know, the army, there’s really very little place for a military intervention in a situation — if you want to have normalization again, that is. There is a remarkable — a remarkable absence of serious attention to the need to have civil police element and a judiciary that can work. These elements do not exist at the moment. On the contrary, in regards to the police, they have been, a number of them, large number of them have been associated with being perpetrators, rather than protectors of human rights problems.

AMY GOODMAN: We have to leave it there. I want to thank you very much, John Pace for joining us, outgoing United Nations human rights chief in Iraq, speaking to us now from Australia. Thank you so much.

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