Kenneth Roth is executive director of Human Rights Watch.

If Saddam Hussein were to try to justify his treatment of hostages in a less impassioned forum than the ones he now favors -- in a court of international human rights and humanitarian law -- he clearly would have a losing case. But the United States and its allies have been reluctant so far to seek justice in such a courtroom, because international law also places important limits on their efforts to starve Iraq into submission. Such selective use of international law puts the Bush administration in a poor position to protest Saddam's lawless ways.

Traditional human rights law, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Iraq has ratified, condemns the taking of foreign hostages as an arbitrary deprivation of liberty. In addition, by affirming the right to life, it outlaws risking the lives of hostages by holding them at sensitive military installations where they may be subject to armed attack.

Saddam has defended his use of hostages by claiming that they are being held to discourage further bloodshed. But the covenant makes clear that there can be no exceptions to a nation's duty to uphold the right to life, even in time of national emergency.

Moreover, the U.N. Security Council, whose resolutions are binding on all nations, has insisted that Iraq permit the "immediate departure" of all foreigners and that it "take no action to jeopardize {their} safety, security or health." Saddam's flouting of that directive can have no legal basis.

Even if war broke out with the United States and its allies, the law governing armed conflict would provide no solace to Saddam. The Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949, which Iraq has also ratified, would forbid the taking of hostages or the use of civilians to shield military targets. Indeed, these acts strike at the heart of humanitarian law, or the laws of war, which require combatants always to distinguish civilians from legitimate military targets. The taking of hostages is viewed as such a serious offense that it is made a "war crime," with violators subject to prosecution and punishment by any of the 166 signatory states.

In addition, the Geneva Convention upholds the right of all citizens of a nation at war to leave the territory of an opposing state. The sole exception would be if, after individualized rulings, Iraq determined that the departure of such citizens would be "contrary to the national interest," and in the event they are to be interned, that detention was "absolutely necessary" for security purposes. Traditionally, however, these powers have been exercised narrowly, mainly to prevent the departure of able-bodied men who might join enemy forces if released, or to intern potential spies.

But it is clear in the present case that Saddam is holding innocent civilians to raise the cost of war and to induce concessions from the United States and its allies. That is precisely the hostage-taking which the Geneva Convention so firmly condemns.

On the other side, however, there are also limits that apply to the nations enforcing the naval blockade of Iraq. The initial U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing the embargo exempted medical supplies and, "in humanitarian circumstances, foodstuffs." A follow-up resolution made clear that the council itself would determine when humanitarian aid was needed, and it required that aid be channeled "through the United Nations in cooperation with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) or other appropriate humanitarian agencies."

These resolutions parallel provisions in the Fourth Geneva Convention that restrict the scope of a blockade in time of war or occupation so long as reasonable assurances can be obtained that humanitarian assistance will not be used by an enemy's military. For an occupied country such as Kuwait, the Geneva Convention requires blockading powers to permit passage of foodstuffs, medical supplies and clothing if the civilian population becomes "inadequately supplied." For Iraq and Kuwait, the Geneva Convention requires blockading powers during an armed conflict to permit passage of medical supplies for all civilians and "essential foodstuffs, clothing and tonics intended for children under fifteen, expectant mothers and maternity cases."

In his joint statement with Mikhail Gorbachev in Helsinki, President Bush endorsed humanitarian deliveries of food and medicine, but in the ensuing press conference he stressed that this should not be interpreted as a "big hole in this embargo" or as support for the view that "now there should be wholesale food shipments to Iraq." In his address to Congress last Tuesday, the president cited only the most extreme case of deprivation -- when "children of Iraq literally need milk" -- to indicate when humanitarian aid might be warranted, without acknowledging the broader requirements of the Geneva Convention.

This selective reliance on international law has a continuing cost. Saddam so far has refused to permit humanitarian deliveries through the ICRC -- the traditional way of ensuring that aid goes to needy civilians instead of the army. And in an effort to raise the ante for the blockading powers, Iraq has begun to deprive some foreigners in Kuwait of food, in violation of its duty under the Geneva Convention of "ensuring the food and medical supplies of the population."

The Bush administration would be in a better position to protest Iraq's use of food as a weapon, as well as Saddam's seizure and treatment of hostages, if it were to more consistently voice its own willingness to abide by international humanitarian law.

The writer is deputy director of Human Rights Watch.