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America’s Criminal Occupation

by ROGER NORMAND

Eeach new revelation of torture, abuse, lies and cover-up exposes the American occupation of Iraq as a criminal enterprise masquerading as liberation.

There has been much speculation as to whether Washington’s neoconservative rulers actually believe the nonsense about freedom and human rights or whether they are driven solely by power and profit. It makes little difference to the people of Iraq. After 30 years of Western-sponsored domestic tyranny, they must now suffer the brutal depredations of foreign occupation. As the popular Iraqi saying goes, “the student is gone; the master has come.”

The American script portrays all Iraqi opposition–not just attacks against civilians–as terrorism, even though international law recognises the right to resist occupation through armed struggle. The same script dismisses U.S. abuses as isolated excesses. But the dehumanisation of Iraqis evident in the photos from Abu Ghraib prison is not the handiwork of a few “bad apples.” It is part and parcel of an American policy that seeks to justify imperialism in an explicitly post-imperial world order. In this respect, torture is only the visible tip of a vast iceberg of lawless behaviour. In the routine grind of maintaining occupation, U.S. forces are committing war crimes and human rights violations on a daily basis.

The laws of occupation–derived primarily from the Hague and Geneva Conventions and the International Bill of Human Rights–impose two fundamental obligations on Occupying Powers. First and foremost is to withdraw military forces and end the occupation as soon as possible. Second is to safeguard the rights of the occupied population during the temporary period before the occupation is ended. The occupier gains no sovereign rights and is prohibited from manipulating the country’s future, plundering its resources, and repressing its people.

As documented in a recent report by the Center for Economic and Social Rights, U.S. occupation policy stands in contradiction to these basic legal principles. The report’s major findings can be summarised as follows:

Failure to Allow Self-Determination. The U.S. is appointing Iraqi leaders without elections or popular participation (the handpicked Prime Minister is a known CIA asset), retaining control over security matters, building an extensive network of military bases throughout the country, and transforming the economy along free market lines. Under these conditions, the purported “transfer of sovereignty” on June 30 is a form of political theatre without legal effect, regardless of the fig leaf of legitimacy provided by the United Nations Security Council. Genuine self-determination requires the free exercise of political choice, actual control over military and security affairs, and authority over social and economic policy. Until this happens, Iraq will remain an occupied country, and the U.S. will remain accountable as an occupying power.

Failure to Ensure Public Safety. The U.S. created a climate of unchecked lawlessness by eliminating the entire army and police forces without a back-up plan to maintain public safety–predictably resulting in a dramatic increase in violent crime throughout the country, especially directed against women. The U.S. also violated international law and caused untold damage to the people and heritage of Iraq by allowing the wholesale looting of cultural institutions, private businesses and governmental offices–with the notable exception of the Oil Ministry. This occurred in plain view, and at times with the active encouragement, of American troops.

Detention and Torture. The Red Cross estimates that up to 90 per cent of Iraqis in detention are innocent civilians swept up in illegal mass arrests and held incommunicado from family members without charge or due process. U.S. forces also hold family members of wanted suspects as hostages. Once detained, prisoners may be subject to a range of abuses, including physical and sexual torture, rape, and murder. The Bush Administration continues to cover up command responsibility and deny that these abuses meet the legal definition of torture, even though a number of secret government reports have surfaced explicitly authorising the use of torture against alleged “terrorists”.

Collective Punishment. Taking lessons from Israeli war crimes in occupied Palestine, the U.S. has imposed collective punishment on Iraqi civilians. Tactics include demolishing civilian homes, ordering curfews in populated areas, preventing free movement through checkpoints and road closures, sealing off entire towns and villages, and using indiscriminate force in crowded urban areas, causing widespread and unnecessary civilian casualties. Moreover, ambulances, medical staff and facilities, and journalists–given special protections under the Geneva Conventions–have been frequently targeted.

Failure to Protect Economic and Social Rights. Already damaged by war and 12 years of sanctions, essential public services such as electricity, water, and sanitation have only deteriorated under the American occupation, leading to increased poverty and widespread violations of the rights to life, work, health, food, and education. The U.S. exacerbated joblessness by summarily dismissing workers with any association to the former Baath regime, including civil servants, teachers, engineers, and other professionals; 60 per cent of Iraqis are now unemployed. The health infrastructure is a shambles, drugs and medical supplies are in short supply, and medical staff report disease outbreaks and increased mortality throughout the country. Over 70 per cent of the population depends on a monthly food ration and 11 million Iraqis are classified as food insecure. The education system has broken down, with two-thirds of school-age children in Baghdad skipping school because of dilapidated conditions, lack of teachers, and fears of crime.

Fundamentally Changing the Economy. The U.S. is violating the prohibition against changing Iraq’s economic structure by imposing drastic free market “reforms” through executive fiat. These orders permit privatisation of state enterprises, 100 per cent foreign ownership of Iraqi firms, tax-free repatriation of all investment profits, 40-year leases on contracts, a flat tax rate of 15 per cent, and the abolition of all tariffs and protective trade measures. In effect, the entire reconstruction process has been run as a form of thinly disguised plunder, with politically-connected American (and some British) corporations pocketing billions of dollars in bloated contracts while Iraq slides into chaos and poverty.

To top it off, the U.S. has granted its occupation forces blanket immunity under local law for any and all crimes committed in Iraq, no matter how egregious. This is the modern version of legal extraterritoriality formerly enjoyed by the British in their colonial holdings.

The pervasive and systematic lawlessness underpinning the occupation of Iraq is no accident. The neoconservatives in Washington understand that the rule of law stands as an obstacle to unleashing the full force of the U.S. war machine. They understand that the “New American Century” requires new rules of engagement, that the endless war against evil and terror requires dividing the world into “us and them” according to the dictates of American power rather than universal standards of legality. So George Bush repackages unilateral aggression–defined as “the supreme international crime” by the Nuremberg Tribunal–as preventive war, while his top lawyer derides the Geneva Conventions as “quaint and outdated.”

This appears to mark a radical break from past American policy. But it is more accurately understood as an extension and intensification of the longstanding tradition of “U.S. exceptionalism”–the doctrine whereby every country in the world except the U.S. (and favoured allies like Israel) is bound by international law. The invasion and occupation of Iraq is merely the gold standard of U.S. exceptionalism, an attempt to elevate double standards to the status of law itself rather than a privileged exception to the law. In a sense, the Bush Administration has attacked not only Iraq but the entire United Nations system of post-colonial sovereignty.

The manipulation of legal language to serve unlawful ends is, of course, not a uniquely American position. Throughout history, powerful nations have stood above the law and claimed the right to liberate “less civilised” peoples through the use of military violence disguised as humanitarian intervention. The rhetoric of freedom masks the reality of conquest, subjugation, pillage, and torture. Occupied peoples have resisted such unwelcome liberation by all means at their disposal, from non-violent mass action to guerilla war, until either the invader is thrown out or the population is conquered and subdued.

The occupation of Iraq is proving to be no exception to this time-tested paradigm. The American empire, which appeared invincible only a year ago, is floundering in the sands of Mesopotamia. The only question remains how many people will have to die before Iraqis are allowed to exercise genuine self-determination.

ROGER NORMAND is Director of the Center for Economic and Social Rights, a human rights organisation based in New York. He has led fact-finding missions to Iraq, Palestine and Afghanistan in recent years.

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