Has Blair Sexed Up Saddam's Atrocities, Too?

James Daly james.irldaly at ntlworld.com
Thu Aug 7 02:33:26 MDT 2003



      Has Blair Sexed Up Saddam’s Atrocities, Too?

      by John Laughland

      08/06/03: (Mail On Sunday) As Tony Blair waltzed out of his
final press conference and off to Barbados last week, he once again
sidestepped crucial questions on Iraq. Indeed, faced with the collapse
of his pre-war "intelligence" on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction,
Tony Blair is falling back on human rights abuses committed by Saddam
Hussein as the new justification for his war.

      In the past ten days, Mr. Blair has said at least three times –
including once on the floor of the House of Commons – that the United
Nations is claiming that some 300,000 bodies lie in mass graves in
Iraq, and that this alone justifies the US-UK invasion.

      In making this claim, Blair is doing with this evidence exactly
what he did with the intelligence about weapons of mass destruction.

      He is stretching it to the limit, and even telling a partial
untruth; he is obscuring the bits which contradict his view of the
world; and he is attributing an authority and a reliability to the
information which it does not have.

      First, the figure does not come from the United Nations. Blair
has emphasised the UN as the source, and stressed that the figures
does not come from the British or American governments. But the real
source is a private non-governmental organisation in America called
Human Rights Watch. UN officials may have lent credence to the figure
by quoting it in their speeches, but it is not an official UN figure.

      Nor is it an official Red Cross figure. The International
Committee of the Red Cross is the body which is responsible in
international law for establishing the names of people missing in
conflict. It is not the role of a private, unaccountable organisation
like Human Rights Watch. While Red Cross officials in Geneva say they
might privately accept it as a working basis for evaluating the scale
of their task, they absolutely refuse to give the figure their
official support. "We would not say that there are 300,000 people
missing in Iraq," Antonella Notari, a spokesman, told me.

      Human Rights Watch currently has two staff in Iraq. This
compares with about 800 Red Cross staff, and a substantial United
Nations presence. The International Committee of the Red Cross has had
people in Iraq ever since 1980, and the United Nations has had a huge
operation there since the end of the Gulf War in 1991. By contrast,
Human Rights Watch has had its few staff in the main part of Iraq only
for the last few weeks.

      Moreover, Blair is quite wrong to imply that the 300,000 figure
(which in any case he has inflated a little from the actual Human
Rights Watch figure of 290,000) is the numbers of people killed by
Saddam. This is not even what Human Rights Watch claims. Their report
speaks of an estimated 290,000 missing, "many of whom are believed to
have been killed". In other words, their deaths have not been
established, and some or all of them may still be alive.

      The methods used by Human Rights Watch to calculate these
numbers are questionable. They do not have anything like complete
lists of the names of people missing. Nor do they even seem to know
how many names are on the lists they do have. How can you claim to
have reliable information about missing people if you do not even know
their names?

      In the past, these methods have led to appalling exaggerations
of the numbers of people killed in conflict. In the Kosovo war of
1999, Human Rights Watch stated categorically that the number of
people killed unlawfully by the Serbs was "certainly" more than 4,300.
This was the number of bodies which had by then been exhumed.
Moreover, Human Rights Watch claimed to have itself documented 3,453
killings, based on interviews. But the legal indictment against
Slobodan Milosevic, the former president of Yugoslavia, refers to 564
killed, not thousands.

      In fact, the Human Rights Watch figures are not even their own
figures. Instead, they come from other people. One of their main
sources is the Kurds in Northern Iraq. They can hardly be regarded as
neutral observers. For the last twenty years, the Kurds have been
fighting the Iraqis for their autonomy. In the very bloody,
decade-long Iran-Iraq war, they sided with Iran, a massive and very
powerful country. The Kurds present Iraqi military action against
their forces as "genocide", which Human Rights Watch does too.

      But this presentation of the Kurds as passive victims is absurd.
In 1996, when the two Kurdish factions started to fight each other,
one of them asked Saddam to send the Iraqi army to help, which he did.
Moreover, my sources within one of the two groups, the Patriotic Union
of Kurdistan, confirm that the PUK has its own death squads, which it
uses to eliminate political enemies. How many of these victims are
being counted by Human Rights Watch or Tony Blair?

      Because the figures come from other people, even Human Rights
Watch does not present them as anything other than estimates. Although
Tony Blair speaks as if the figure has been firmly established, the
actual Human Rights Watch report is massively hedged around with

      Caution should also be exercised because of the unreliability of
eye-witness accounts which have not been subject to judicial
cross-examination. Human Rights Watch did not start to interview the
witnesses of one of the worst alleged atrocities until between four
and five years after the events. Some of the evidence is clearly
unreliable. One report quotes a man saying, "They blindfolded us … and
then they put us in Landcruisers with shaded windows." But how could
he know the make of the car, or the colour of the windows, if he was
blindfolded? The same man claims to have escaped alive from a mass
grave, a story I have heard too many times in Kosovo to find easy to

      No one would deny that huge numbers of people have died in Iraq
in the last two decades. The Iran-Iraq war claimed hundreds of
thousands of lives. Huge numbers were killed by the Americans in the
first Gulf War, and their bodies were sometimes bulldozed into mass
graves. Amnesty International reckons that Saddam executed a few
hundred people a year. If true, it is an appalling level of violence –
so why exaggerate it? It is, incidentally, far lower than the rate at
which we have killed Iraqi civilians in the war on Saddam. The
civilian death toll in the last few months is at least 6,000.

      But people do have an extraordinary tendency to exaggerate the
figures whenever mass killing is alleged. In May, a mass grave was
discovered near the town of Hilla: the BBC correspondent, Stephen
Sackur, said, "I have personally counted 200, 300 bodies." But which
had he counted? 200 or 300? Within hours, the numbers were inflated
from a few hundred to 3,000 and then to 10,000 or 15,000. The official
from Human Rights Watch alleged to me that "tens of thousands of
bodies" had already been exhumed in Iraq. But when I pressed him on
this, he had to admit that the figure was, in fact, in the low

      Tony Blair has come very close to meeting his own political
death for sexing up information about weapons. It seems that he simply
cannot get out of the habit where human rights abuses are concerned.

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