Human rights in Saddam Hussein's Iraq

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Hangings in Saddam-era Iraq.

Iraq's era under President Saddam Hussein was notorious for its severe violations of human rights. Secret police, torture, mass murder, rape, deportations, forced disappearances, assassinations, chemical warfare, and the destruction of southern Iraq's marshes were some of the methods the country's Ba'athist government used to maintain control. The total number of deaths related to torture and murder during this period are unknown. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International issued regular reports of widespread imprisonment and torture.

Documented human rights violations 1979–2003[edit]

Human rights organizations have documented government-approved executions, acts of torture and rape for decades since Saddam Hussein came to power in 1979 until his fall in 2003.

Mass grave.
  • In 2002, a resolution sponsored by the European Union was adopted by the Commission for Human Rights, which stated that there had been no improvement in the human rights crisis in Iraq. The statement condemned President Saddam Hussein's government for its "systematic, widespread and extremely grave violations of human rights and international humanitarian law". The resolution demanded that Iraq immediately put an end to its "summary and arbitrary executions... and the use of rape as a political tool and all enforced and involuntary disappearances".[1]
  • Full political participation at the national level was restricted only to members of the Ba'ath Party, which constituted only 8% of the population.
  • Iraqi citizens were not legally allowed to assemble unless it was to express support for the government. The Iraqi government controlled the establishment of political parties, regulated their internal affairs and monitored their activities.
  • Police checkpoints on Iraq's roads and highways prevented ordinary citizens from traveling across country without government permission and expensive exit visas prevented Iraqi citizens from traveling abroad. Before traveling, an Iraqi citizen had to post collateral. Iraqi females could not travel outside of the country without the escort of a male relative.[2]
  • The activities of citizens living inside Iraq who received money from relatives abroad were closely monitored[citation needed].
  • Halabja poison gas attack:The Halabja poison gas attack occurred in the period 15–19 March 1988 during the Iran–Iraq War when chemical weapons were used by the Iraqi government forces and thousands of civilians in the Iraqi Kurdish town of Halabja were killed.[3]
  • Al-Anfal Campaign: In 1988, the Hussein regime began a campaign of extermination against the Kurdish people living in Northern Iraq. This is known as the Anfal campaign. The attacks resulted in the death of at least 182,000 people, many of them women and children. A team of Human Rights Watch investigators determined, after analyzing eighteen tons of captured Iraqi documents, testing soil samples and carrying out interviews with more than 350 witnesses, that the attacks on the Kurdish people were characterized by gross violations of human rights, including mass executions and disappearances of many tens of thousands of noncombatants, widespread use of chemical weapons including Sarin, mustard gas and nerve agents that killed thousands, the arbitrary imprisoning of tens of thousands of women, children, and elderly people for months in conditions of extreme deprivation, forced displacement of hundreds of thousands of villagers after the demolition of their homes, and the wholesale destruction of nearly two thousand villages along with their schools, mosques, farms and power stations.[3][4]
  • In April 1991, after Saddam lost control of Kuwait in the Persian Gulf War, he cracked down ruthlessly against several uprisings in the Kurdish north and the Shia south. His forces committed full-scale massacres and other gross human rights violations against both groups similar to the violations mentioned before. Estimates of deaths during that time range from 20,000 to 100,000 for Kurds, and 60,000 to 130,000 for Shi'ites.[5]
  • In June 1994, the Hussein regime in Iraq established severe penalties, including amputation, branding and the death penalty for criminal offenses such as theft, corruption, currency speculation and military desertion, while government members and Saddam's family members were immune from punishments ranging around these crimes.[6]
  • In 2001, the Iraqi government amended the Constitution to make sodomy a capital offense.
  • On March 23, 2003, during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Iraqi television presented and interviewed prisoners of war on TV, violating the Geneva Convention.
  • Also in April 2003, CNN revealed that it had withheld information about Iraq torturing journalists and Iraqi citizens in the 1990s. According to CNN's chief news executive, the channel had been concerned for the safety not only of its own staff, but also of Iraqi sources and informants, who could expect punishment for speaking freely to reporters. Also according to the executive, "other news organizations were in the same bind."[7]
  • After the 2003 invasion of Iraq, several mass graves were found in Iraq containing several thousand bodies total and more are being uncovered to this day.[8] While most of the dead in the graves were believed to have died in the 1991 uprising against Saddam Hussein, some of them appeared to have died due to executions or died at times other than the 1991 rebellion.
  • Also after the invasion, numerous torture centers were found in security offices and police stations throughout Iraq. The equipment found at these centers typically included hooks for hanging people by the hands for beatings, devices for electric shock and other equipment often found in nations with harsh security services and other authoritarian nations.

'Saddam's Dirty Dozen'[edit]

According to officials of the United States State Department, many human rights abuses in Saddam Hussein's Iraq were largely carried out in person or by the orders of Saddam Hussein and eleven other people. The term "Saddam's Dirty Dozen" was coined in October 2002 (from a novel by E.M. Nathanson, later adapted as a film directed by Robert Aldrich) and used by US officials to describe this group. Most members of the group held high positions in the Iraqi government and membership went all the way from Saddam's personal guard to Saddam's sons. The list was used by the Bush Administration to help argue that the 2003 Iraq war was against Saddam Hussein and the Baath Party leadership, rather than against the Iraqi people. The members are:

  • Saddam Hussein (1937–2006), Iraqi President, responsible for many torturings, killings and of ordering the 1988 cleansing of Kurds in Northern Iraq.
  • Qusay Hussein (1966–2003), son of the president, head of the elite Republican Guard, believed to have been chosen by Saddam as his successor.
  • Uday Hussein (1964–2003), son of the president, had a private torture chamber, and was responsible for the rapes and killings of many women. He was partially paralyzed after a 1996 attempt on his life, and was leader of the paramilitary group Fedayeen Saddam and of the Iraqi media.
  • Taha Yassin Ramadan (1938-2007), Vice-President, born in Iraqi Kurdistan. He oversaw the mass killings of a Shi'a revolt in 1991.
  • Tariq Aziz (1936–2015), Foreign Minister of Iraq, backed up the executions by hanging of political opponents after the revolution of 1968.
  • Barzan Ibrahim al-Tikriti (1951-2007), Hussein's brother, leader of the Iraqi secret service, Mukhabarat. He was Iraq's representative to the United Nations in Geneva.
  • Sabawi Ibrahim al-Tikriti (1947-2013), Hussein's half brother, he was the leader of the Mukhabarat during the 1991 Gulf War. Director of Iraq's general security from 1991 to 1996. He was involved in the 1991 suppression of Kurds.
  • Watban Ibrahim al-Tikriti (1952–2015), Hussein's half brother, former senior Interior Minister who was also Saddam's presidential adviser. Shot in the leg by Uday Hussein in 1995. He has ordered tortures, rapes, murders and deportations.
  • Ali Hassan al-Majid (1941-2010), Chemical Ali, mastermind behind Saddam's lethal gassing of rebel Kurds in 1988; a first cousin of Saddam Hussein.
  • Izzat Ibrahim ad-Douri (b. 1942), military commander, vice-president of the Revolutionary Command Council and deputy commander in chief of the armed forces during various military campaigns.
  • Aziz Saleh Nuhmah (b. ?), appointed governor of Kuwait from November 1990 to February 1991, ordered looting of stores and rapes of Kuwaiti women during his tenure. Also ordered the destruction of Shi'a holy sites during the 1970s and 1980s as governor of two Iraqi provinces.
  • Mohammed Hamza Zubeidi (1938-2005), alias Saddam's thug, Prime Minister of Iraq from 1991 to 1993 – to have ordered many executions.

Number of victims[edit]

Estimates as to the number of Iraqis killed by Saddam's regime vary from roughly a quarter to half a million,[9][10] including 50,000 to 182,000 Kurds and 25,000 to 280,000 killed during the repression of the 1991 rebellion.[11][10] Estimates for the number of dead in the Iran-Iraq war range upwards from 300,000.[12]

Other atrocities[edit]

Of nearly 2 million refugees created by the 1991 crackdown on dissent, it is estimated that 1,000 died every day for a period of months due to unsanitary and inhumane conditions.[13] The destruction of Shi'ite religious shrines by Hussein's regime has been called "comparable to the levelling of cities in the Second World War, and the damage to the shrines [of Hussein and Abbas] was more serious than that which had been done to many European cathedrals."[14] Methods of torture used by Hussein's regime included assault with brass knuckles and wooden bludgeons; electric shocks to the genitalia; scorched metal rods being forced into body orifices; the crushing of toes and removal of toenails; burning off limbs; lowering prisoners into vats of acid; poisoning with thallium; raping women in front of their family members; burning with cigarette butts; the crushing of bones; the amputation of ears, limbs, and tongues; and the gouging of eyes.[15] After the 1983-88 genocide, some 1 million Kurds were allowed to resettle in "model villages". According to a U.S. Senate staff report, these villages "were poorly constructed, had minimal sanitation and water, and provided few employment opportunities for the residents. Some, if not most, were surrounded by barbed wire, and Kurds could enter or leave only with difficulty."[16]

Iraq sanctions[edit]

Researcher Richard Garfield estimated that "a minimum of 100,000 and a more likely estimate of 227,000 excess deaths among young children from August 1991 through March 1998" from all causes including sanctions.[17] Other estimates have ranged as low as 170,000 children.[18][19] UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy said that

if the substantial reduction in child mortality throughout Iraq during the 1980s had continued through the 1990s, there would have been half a million fewer deaths of children under-five in the country as a whole during the eight-year period 1991 to 1998. As a partial explanation, she pointed to a March statement of the Security Council Panel on Humanitarian Issues which states: "Even if not all suffering in Iraq can be imputed to external factors, especially sanctions, the Iraqi people would not be undergoing such deprivations in the absence of the prolonged measures imposed by the Security Council and the effects of war." [20]

The US State Department has stated that Iraq was offered the Oil-for-Food Program designed to alleviate the humanitarian condition of Iraq in 1991 but that Iraq refused to accept it for years. It claimed:

In Northern Iraq, where the UN administers humanitarian assistance, child mortality rates have fallen below pre-Gulf War levels. Rates rose in the period before oil-for-food, but with the introduction of the program the trend reversed, and now those Iraqi children are better off than before the war. Child mortality figures have more than doubled in the south and center of the country, where the Iraqi government—rather than the UN—controls the program. If a turn-around on child mortality can be made in the north, which is under the same sanctions as the rest of the country, there is no reason it cannot be done in the south and center. The fact of the matter is, however, that the government of Iraq does not share the international community's concern about the welfare of its people. Baghdad's refusal to cooperate with the oil-for-food program and its deliberate misuse of resources are cynical efforts to sacrifice the Iraqi people's welfare in order to bring an end to UN sanctions without complying with its obligations."[21]

In addition, President Bill Clinton argued that Iraq actually had more money to spend on humanitarian supplies under the sanctions regime than it had prior to the Persian Gulf War, adding that "we have worked like crazy" to avoid the unnecessary suffering of civilians.[22] Critics of sanctions, however, argued that the UN's restrictions on and approval process for items that could (allegedly) be used for chemical or biological weapons exacerbated the situation.[23] Activist Anthony Arnove noted that northern Iraq received disproportionate funding under the Oil-for-Food Program.[24] However, Michael Rubin in the Middle East Review of International Affairs noted that northern Iraq started from a worse baseline due its lack of existing governmental infrastructure, made fewer purchases per capita, as half the funds it was allocated went unspent; that northern Iraq was under a separate blockade by the central government; and that UN workers had rebuilt water purification facilities all over Iraq and engaged in dozens of other projects in an effort to compensate for the UN restrictions on and approval process for potential "dual-use" chemicals. Rubin argued that the sanctions regime should have saved lives because it required the government to spend at least 72% of its income on providing for its people, whereas it had previously never spent more than 25%.[25] Studies taken after the overthrow of Saddam's regime revealed that the previously reported childhood mortality figures for South/Central Iraq were inflated by more than a factor of two and that the childhood mortality rate in those regions was even lower than the rate in northern Iraq.[26]

Foreign policy analyst Milton Leitenberg stated: "All alleged post-1990 figures on infant and child mortality in Iraq are supplied by the Iraqi government agencies."[27] Iraq denied UN requests to admit independent experts to assess living conditions.[28] In Significance, economist Michael Spagat argues that the ICMMS survey, the only one (of four) international sanctions surveys (graphed in his paper) to show a dramatic increase in child mortality, is suspect because of the abusive, manipulative nature of the Iraqi regime. He offers two possible explanations for the north/south discrepancy:

First, the Kurdish zone was free of Saddam’s control. In the South/centre, though, the reaction of Saddam Hussein’s regime to the sanctions must be part of a full explanation for child mortality patterns in this zone. ... A second potential explanation for the strange patterns displayed by the South/Centre in the [data] is that they were not real, but rather results of manipulations by the Iraqi government.[26]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "UN condemns Iraq on human rights". BBC News. 2002-04-19. 
  2. ^ JURIST - Dateline
  3. ^ a b "Whatever Happened To The Iraqi Kurds?". Retrieved 2009-09-25. 
  4. ^ "Iraq: ‘Disappearances’ – the agony continues". 2005-07-30. Retrieved 2009-09-25. 
  5. ^ "ENDLESS TORMENT, The 1991 Uprising in Iraq And Its Aftermath". Retrieved 2009-09-25. 
  6. ^ "Human Rights Watch, Iraq archive". Retrieved 2009-09-25. 
  7. ^ Jordan, Eason (April 11, 2003). "The News We (CNN) Kept To Ourselves". The New York Times.  (requires login)
  8. ^ "Mass Grave Discovery In Iraq Could Fuel Divisions". Retrieved 6 July 2016. 
  9. ^ War in Iraq: Not a Humanitarian Intervention, Human Rights Watch, January 26, 2004.
  10. ^ a b "A Lifesaving War". 29 March 2004. Retrieved 6 July 2016. 
  11. ^ Endless Torment: The 1991 Uprising in Iraq And Its Aftermath, Human Rights Watch, June 1992.
  12. ^ "WAR STATS REDIRECT". Retrieved 6 July 2016. 
  13. ^ "Iraqi Deaths from the Gulf War as of April 1992," Greenpeace, Washington, D.C. See also “Aftermath of War: The Persian Gulf War Refugee Crisis," Staff Report to the Senate Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on Immigration and Refugee Affairs, May 20, 1991. The figure of nearly 1,000 deaths per day is also given in "Kurdistan in the Time of Saddam Hussein," Staff Report to the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, November 1991, p.14.
  14. ^ Milton Viorst, "Report from Baghdad," The New Yorker, June 24, 1991, p. 72.
  15. ^ Perazzo, John, Iraqi Horrors, FrontPage Magazine, November 29, 2002.
  16. ^ “Kurdistan in the Time of Saddam Hussein," p. 15. See also "Civil War in Iraq," Staff Report to the Committee on Foreign Relations of the U.S. Senate, May 1991, pp. 8-9.
  17. ^ "Morbidity and Mortality Among Iraqi Children". Retrieved 2009-06-15. 
  18. ^ "Reason Magazine – The Politics of Dead Children". 2002-03-01. Retrieved 2009-05-30. 
  19. ^ "The Wages of War: Iraqi Combatant and Noncombatant Fatalities in the 2003 Conflict. PDA Research Monograph 8, 20 October 2003. Carl Conetta". Retrieved 2009-05-30. 
  20. ^ Iraq surveys show 'humanitarian emergency' UNICEF Newsline August 12, 1999
  21. ^ "Saddam Hussein's Iraq". Retrieved 2009-09-02. 
  22. ^ "Bill Clinton Loses His Cool in Democracy Now! Interview on Everything But Monica: Leonard Peltier, Racial Profiling, Iraqi Sanctions, Ralph Nader, the Death Penalty and Israel-Palestine". Retrieved 6 July 2016. 
  23. ^ "Hans Koechler (ed.), ECONOMIC SANCTIONS AND DEVELOPMENT -- Studies in International Relations, XXIII -- Vienna: International Progress Organization, 1997". Retrieved 6 July 2016.  line feed character in |title= at position 71 (help)
  24. ^ Arnove, Anthony. Iraq Under Siege: The Deadly Impact of Sanctions and War, South End Press, April 2000.
  25. ^ Rubin, Michael (December 2001). "Sanctions on Iraq: A Valid Anti-American Grievance?" 5 (4). Middle East Review of International Affairs: 100–115. 
  26. ^ a b Spagat, Michael (September 2010). "Truth and death in Iraq under sanctions" (PDF). Significance (journal). 
  27. ^ Milton Leitenberg, “Saddam is the Cause of Iraqis’ Suffering,” Institute For the Study of Genocide Newsletter, No. 28, n.d.
  28. ^ New York Times, September 12, 2000.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]