The Right Exit: What Are the Responsibilities of an Occupying Power in Its Withdrawal?

By Roth, Ken | New Statesman (1996), March 15, 2004 | Go to article overview
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The Right Exit: What Are the Responsibilities of an Occupying Power in Its Withdrawal?


Roth, Ken, New Statesman (1996)


The Geneva Conventions impose detailed duties on the occupying powers in Iraq to protect the civilian population. But what are the duties of a "de-occupying power"? The question is coming to the fore as American and British forces contemplate handing over at least formal sovereignty to an Iraqi government on 30 June.

International law provides surprisingly little guidance. Yet basic decency suggests that some duties are still owed the people of Iraq--and that a cut-and-run strategy would be wrong.

First and foremost, the coalition authorities must provide security. Some resistance to the occupation was perhaps inevitable. But decisions made in Washington have exacerbated the daily toll of bombings and assassinations. The Bush administration's rush to war in March 2003 gave coalition forces enough troops to prevail in combat, but not enough to preserve the peace. Washington's insistence on acting without UN approval made most other governments unwilling to fill this policing gap. The ensuing looting and chaos allowed rival forces to empty arms caches, later to be used in attacks on coalition troops and Iraqi civilians in an epidemic of violence.

The problem was only compounded by the blanket dissolution of the Iraqi army--even though many of its members had not been complicit in Saddam Hussein's atrocities. That left a security void and a bazaar of unemployed men ready for resistance recruiters.

The coalition troops are working feverishly to rebuild Iraqi security forces to restore order, but this process will not be anywhere near complete by 30 June. Until it is, coalition forces should continue to bear that burden.

There is also the threat of communal violence. The issue is not simply the alleged efforts of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the terrorist leader, to whip up Shia-Sunni hatred. The oil-rich city of Kirkuk in northern Iraq remains a tinderbox, with Kurds hoping to return to homes now occupied by beneficiaries of Saddam Hussein's "Arabisation" policy. The spring planting season is likely to see a surge of Kurdish returns, but the proposed Iraq Property Claims Commission, which would resolve competing claims, has yet to be established.

Departing coalition forces are also responsible for the political structure they leave in their wake. The interim constitution adopted on 8 March reflects a careful balance between national and parochial interests and Islamist and secular concerns. But one major, unresolved issue involves the role of women. The interim constitution contains laudable language guaranteeing women equal protection under the law, but similar guarantees in other Middle Eastern constitutions have not prevented gender discrimination on marriage, divorce, inheritance, child custody and citizenship. A decision by the Iraqi Governing Council in December to relegate such matters to the religious courts showed the danger of discrimination to be real.

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