The Panama invasion and the laws of war

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December 2007





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This article considers the conduct of armed parties in the invasion of Panama on 20 December 1989 by United States forces, in relation to the standards established by the international laws of war and the Geneva Conventions of 1949. The article confines itself to the conduct of US and Panamanian armed forces from the commencement of hostilities, and does not consider arguments for or against the invasion itself. The authors, on behalf of the US‐based Americas Watch, a human rights monitoring organization, visited Panama in January 1990, and collected information contained in the article. The article concludes that US forces failed in their Geneva Convention obligations with respect to the detentions of Panamanian POWs and civilians. It also concludes that US forces failed to exercise precautions to minimize collateral civilian casualties in the attack on the Panamanian military headquarters. It finds that Panamanian forces put non‐combatant civilians at risk by dressing in civilian clothes and firing from civilian‐occupied structures. It estimates the number of Panamanian civilian dead at approximately 300. The article further considers protection of human rights under the new Endara government, and the plight of refugees left homeless by the invasion.