Al-Ahram Weekly Online   31 July - 6 August 2003
Issue No. 649
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The real point

The US says the release of photos and video footage of the bodies of Uday and Qusay is consistent with the Geneva Conventions; Arabs are saying they are in violation, Rasha Saad reports


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Uday and Qusay
On Saturday, 24 July United States troops began bulldozing the villa where they killed Saddam Hussein's sons Uday and Qusay the previous Tuesday. Though the site is now entombed, ethical debates about the US decision to release macabre photos and video footage of the Hussein brothers' bodies will probably not soon be buried.

Sensing the oncoming criticism, US officials were quick to justify their measure.

Paul Bremer, US civilian administrator in Iraq said that the release of photos "will help convince people that these two people are dead [and] we are making the point that the Ba'athists are finished".

Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld commented on the uniqueness of the situation. "These two individuals are particularly vicious individuals... The Iraqi people have been waiting for confirmation of [their death]," he said. "And they, in my view, deserved having confirmation of that."

In March, Washington vigorously criticised Saddam for releasing pictures of slain US soldiers and POWs, claiming this violated the Geneva Conventions. Furthermore, the Web site of the Arabic satellite news channel Al- Jazeera came under fire in response to its release of video footage of US POWs.

The White House, however, insisted that the release of photos of the two brothers were consistent with the Geneva Conventions and rejected comparisons with Iraq's wartime photos of slain US soldiers and prisoners of war.

"It is consistent with the Geneva Convention... There is a huge difference from those who would use photos for propaganda purpose in a despicable way," White House Spokesman Scott McClellan claimed.

However the explanation did not seem convincing to Arab pundits who accused Washington of double standards. Jihad Al- Khazen, a senior columnist in Al- Hayat newspaper criticised Rumsfeld's statement.

"I remember distinctly that Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld objected vehemently several times against Arab TV stations which showed pictures of dead American soldiers, then I heard him saying that they want to release the pictures of Uday and Qusay to prove that they were dead. I would have believed this excuse had the pictures been starkly clear but they were not," Al-Khazen told Al-Ahram Weekly.

Al-Khazen also believes that the US sought to kill the two brothers instead of capturing them alive in revenge of Saddam Hussein and his Baath regime. "They could have besieged the villa if they wanted them alive. However, there is an obvious element of revenge in the American approach to the remnants of the former regime."

He charged the Americans with stooping to the level of Saddam Hussein. "They claimed that they were against Saddam's brutality, but they were equally brutal when they showed their disfigured and unrecognisable bodies," Al- Khazen said.

Regarding the legality of releasing or publishing photos of combatants' bodies, William Schabas, professor of Human Rights Law at the National University of Ireland and director of the Irish Centre of Human Rights, believes that the issue is not addressed in the convention in the first place.

" The Geneva Conventions and human rights instruments do not address the issue of displaying photos of corpses at all. One cannot say that they authorise this nor that they, at least explicitly, prohibit it," he told the Weekly in a telephone interview.

According to Schabas, the fact that one or another country makes absurd interpretations of the Geneva Conventions does not mean there are loopholes, or that new provisions are required. The main point, he says, is that the conventions need to be applied and respected, derisively citing the US government's "perverse interpretation" of the third Geneva Convention concerning prisoners of war, by which it refuses to apply the convention to those being held at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, and Israel's refusal to apply the fourth Geneva Convention concerning civilians.

Schabas explained that the reason why prisoners of war should not be subject to public curiosity is so that they will be protected from abuse and reprisal, a concern that emanated from incidents during World War II which is "not very relevant to the circumstances in the US-Iraq War of 2003".

The killing of the brothers Hussein has been regarded as an attempt to boost the morale of US soldiers who have been targeted in the course of Iraqi resistance. According to political analysts, news of the brothers' death also shifted the focus in the US from the faulty intelligence regarding Iraqi weapons of mass destruction that George Bush used in promoting war. It likewise overshadowed the suicide of Dr David Kelly, the British scientist who took his life after being interrogated by the Ministry of Defence over suspicion that he was the source of a BBC report on how the government exaggerated its intelligence on Iraq.

British writer Robert Fisk also warned that the killing of the two brothers would, contrary to US expectations, heat up resistance against the coalition soldiers. This week in The Independent he wrote that the US theory assumes that once Saddam Hussein's family is decapitated the resistance will end. The real situation, he believes is that US troops are also being attacked by a growing Islamist Sunni movement, which never had any love for Saddam.

"More Iraqis were reluctant to support the resistance for fear that an end to American occupation would mean the return of the ghastly old dictator. If he and his sons are dead, the chances are that the opposition to the American- led occupation will grow rather than diminish -- on the grounds that with Saddam gone, Iraqis will have nothing to lose by fighting the Americans," Fisk stated.

Indeed coalition forces continue to come under daily attack. Ambushes in the last week have killed 11 US soldiers, five of them in the three days immediately after the killing of Uday and Qusay.

Even if these most recent attacks are not related to direct anger over the exhibition of the brothers' bodies to the world, the incident has nevertheless stirred sentiments in the Arab and Muslim world.

"Although Uday and Qusay are criminals, displaying their corpses like this is disgusting and repulsive. America claims it is civilised but is behaving like a thug," Saudi civil servant Saad Brikan, 42, told Reuters.

The release of photos was also condemned by Muslim scholars in the Arab world.

"What happened is a mutilation of the dead," Souad Saleh, who sits on a committee entrusted with issuing fatwas at Egypt's Al- Azhar, the world's highest seat of Sunni Muslim learning, said to the Associated Press.

The photographs released on Thursday, 24 July showed bruised and bloodied faces. On Friday, 25 July the bodies lay on gurneys in a joint US Army Air Force morgue at Baghdad International Airport. Their faces had been reconstructed by morticians and medical staff though the rest of their bodies were marked with bullet holes, burns, bruises and scars from previous surgeries.

"Showing them this way just to prove they are dead is the most blatant violation of the sanctity of the body," said Saleh.

Hamza Mansour, secretary general of the Islamic Action Front in Jordan said the display violated Islamic custom. "The bodies of Uday and Qusay should have been washed, shrouded and buried immediately, but the Americans have no respect for our traditions and doctrine and they acted in a very unethical manner," he said.

In a poll conducted by Al- Jazeera.net from the 26 July to 29 July, 67.6 per cent of 70,293 total respondents disagreed with the release of photos and video, 29.4 per cent agreed and three per cent said they did not know.

However, Schabas believe that while releasing the photos is not ethical, what is important now is to secure the human rights of the Iraqis at large. "The display of the corpses of the sons of Saddam Hussein is ugly and distasteful, but it is probably better to focus on the protection of Iraq's civilian population, and the full observance of the fourth Geneva Convention by the occupying armies," he said.

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