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War victims' list sparks furore

Calmy Rey's move has met with strong political opposition Keystone

Plans by the Swiss foreign minister, Micheline Calmy-Rey, to publish on the Internet a list of civilian victims of the war in Iraq have provoked a furore in Switzerland.

This content was published on March 31, 2003 - 21:57

Human rights groups say the list could be used for propaganda, while opponents accuse Calmy-Rey of using the war as a political platform in an election year.

The foreign ministry was not willing to comment on the list ahead of its planned publication, expected in the next few days.

But Calmy-Rey told the weekend press that its purpose was to "give an overview" of the number of civilian casualties and to drive home the reality of conflict.

The list is not expected to include military casualties from either side of the conflict.

"There are already now many civilian victims," Calmy-Rey told the SonntagsBlick newspaper. "Only when we see a full list will it become clear to us how awful [the war] is."

Accuracy

The government is reportedly gathering names and statistics from various unspecified sources, although the Geneva-based International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) told swissinfo it had not yet been contacted concerning its statistics.

The ICRC is the only humanitarian organisation operating inside Iraq and the organisation's expatriate and Iraqi staff have visited numerous hospitals in the main cities of Baghdad and Basra since the start of the war.

According to chief spokeswoman, Antonella Notari, it would be very difficult to establish an accurate picture of the number of the victims in Iraq.

"We certainly don't have an overview of the situation of casualties in all of Iraq," she told swissinfo.

"We are only a partial source of information on such numbers and it depends very much on which hospitals our people have been visiting and the numbers we get from hospital staff."

Witnesses

"If we're not first-hand witnesses and if we don't have access to first-hand information, we would never get drawn into making conclusions from numbers," she added.

Amnesty International told Swiss radio that the number of civilian casualties could not be determined precisely and warned that such information could be "easily used for propaganda purposes".

Within Switzerland, the plan has drawn criticism from across the political establishment.

The president of the House of Representatives' foreign policy commission, Lilly Nabholz, told Swiss radio that the idea was ill-advised and should be abandoned.

Her party, the centre-right Radicals, criticised Calmy-Rey - a Social Democrat - for using the list as a means of garnering popular support ahead of general elections in Switzerland later this year.

"It appears strange to us that all those victims in Iraq are being used, or indeed abused, for a political campaign... in fact it's nothing else," spokesman, Christian Weber, told swisssinfo.

"Thoughtless"

His words were echoed by the rightwing Swiss People's Party, which slammed Calmy-Rey's idea as "thoughtless".

"I think for Micheline Calmy-Rey it is important because we have elections in Switzerland this year and she wants to do all the best for her party and that's how we should see these actions," spokesman Yves Bichsel told swissinfo.

"We don't see the point of this list... The information the Swiss government gets comes from the Iraqi government and other organisations involved there.

"We can never be sure these names are correct and that there are no problems connected to them."

Bichsel added that he hoped the foreign ministry would reconsider publishing the list and he called on the government to "limit" the foreign minister's actions.

Propaganda

"First of all there's the danger that it will become part of the propaganda of this war and we also fear that it might be unfair to the relatives of the people who died," he said.

"Do they really know that the names of theirs husbands and sons are published all over the world?"

The Social Democrats rejected the suggestions of political motivation, saying that Calmy-Rey was fulfilling her responsibilities towards the Swiss people.

"We really welcome this idea... as long as it can be put into practice," said party spokesman, Jean-Philippe Jeannerat.

"There is great uncertainty among our population and many people ask themselves how many victims there are and who they are," he added. "If the foreign office can get as much objective information as possible, the Swiss population will appreciate it."

Geneva Conventions

In her newspaper interview, Calmy-Rey also implied that it was Switzerland's duty to draw attention to the innocent victims of the war since it is the depository state of the Geneva Conventions.

The conventions, which were established in 1949, outline rules of conduct during war, which include the protection of civilians and soldiers.

Albert Stahel, a political scientist at the University of Zurich, agrees that Switzerland has an obligation to remind the world of the importance of the conventions, since it is both the cradle and custodian of international humanitarian law.

"This is the first time that such a move has been proposed [by a government] so that's something new," he told swissinfo.

"It's certainly important that Switzerland takes such a step," he added. "A lot of people are forgetting the use and importance of humanitarian law and so I'm in favour of it."

Military victims

While Stahel said he supported the idea of a civilian list, he added that it would carry more clout if it included both military and civilian victims.

"If victims on both sides were listed, I'm sure then the Americans would react," he said, "Because they would see the Swiss are not only concerned about the Iraqi losses but also about the American and British... and that would certainly be important."

In her newspaper interview, Calmy-Rey said the decision not to include the military victims in Iraq was based on the fact that "contemporary wars kill more civilians than soldiers".

"We have been told about a clean war," she added, "but war is never clean."

swissinfo, Anna Nelson in Geneva and Billi Bierling

In brief

The Swiss government is due to publish a list of Iraqi civilian victims of the US-led war in a bid to drive home the harsh reality of the conflict.

The move has met strong opposition from some political parties, which questioned its usefulness and the political motives behind it.

Iraqi officials say over 425 civilians have been killed so far in the conflict, but have given no figures on military casualties.

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