Sunday, January 23, 2005

Targeting sympathizers

Praktike has some good ramblings on the "Salvador option," appropriately entitled "Wading into the Conspiracy Swamps." He cites some new sources, but I want merely to address one particular point he raises, and which a lot of people have commented upon from the original Newsweek story. Namely, the alarming comment that the new special ops units would "target Sunni insurgents and their sympathizers," something that feels reminiscent of the kind of indiscriminate death-squad activity we remember from El Salvador.

However, it's important to know what is meant precisely by this term. If it means persons who provide direct logistical support or, say, weekend warriors, then under many circumstances, in my understanding, they can become legitimate military targets.

Why might "sympathizers" refer to this kind of active participant, and not just your average Iraqi citizen who sympathizes in a more passive way? Well, the 200,000 figure being bandied about includes "40,000 hardcore fighters attacking US and Iraqi troops, with the bulk made up of part-time guerrillas and volunteers providing logistical support, information, shelter and money," according to the director of Iraqi intelligence. (Which is why that number can't really be compared to the number of US forces in Iraq, of course.)

HRW doesn't specifically address this issue in its FAQ on international humanitarian law and Iraq, but they do say the following:
Human Rights Watch believes that customary humanitarian law (as reflected by mny provisions of Protocol II) also requires that in a local uprising against an armed force, civilians not taking part in the hostilities must not be subject to direct or indiscriminate attack, acts intended to spread terror, or starvation as a method of combat, among other things.
So, by extension, civilians who do take part in hostilities may be subject to direct attack?

It's been years since I've been in the human rights business, so I'm not sure what to think, but I think these are pretty muddy legal waters. But this is also why I prefer to talk about the ethical issues of warfare, which should set a higher bar than international humanitarian law.

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