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Iraq and the Corruption of Human Rights Discourse

---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Wed, 16 Feb 2000 15:28:19 -0800
From: Lucy Mair <>
Subject: Iraq and the Corruption of Human Rights Discourse

The following article appeared in the 11 February 2000 edition of the
London-based Middle East International.  It was written by Abdullah Mutawi
of CESR's Middle East Program.

Iraq and the Corruption of Human Rights Discourse

When Western Human rights groups demand the indictment of Iraqi officials
but ignore the genocidal effect of the West's own actions and policies,
they effectively draw a distinction between those who can be accused and
those who can do the accusing which makes a mockery of universal
principles, argues Abdullah Mutawi.

At a time when an International Criminal Court has been established and war
crimes tribunals have been set up to pursue charges of genocide and crimes
against humanity with respect to Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia,  the
case of Iraq merits some mention.    In one of its only public
pronouncements on the issue of Iraq and sanctions, Human Rights Watch last
month called for the creation of an international criminal tribunal to try
Iraqi officials for, amongst other things, crimes against humanity and war
crimes.    In an audacious display of selective legal reasoning, the US
based human rights organization also accused Iraq of failing to comply with
its obligations under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and
Cultural Rights.

That such an unashamed report should be published now, nearly a decade
after the imposition of sanctions, is not a matter of coincidence.   The
United States, aware that that public opinion is increasingly uncomfortable
with the results of its policy towards Iraq, has started to resort to ever
more defensive arguments for maintaining sanctions.   Most international
lawyers would assert that the UN itself has obligations under international
law (including human rights and humanitarian law).   Article 24(2) of the
UN Charter is very clear and unambiguous that Security Council decisions to
take action such as imposing sanctions must be in conformity with
international law.  Yet one of the leading human rights groups in the West
appears to have started to tow a spurious line of argument, one which
serves US foreign policy interests. 

Whose human rights

The Human Rights Watch report omits to point out that the sanctions policy
against Iraq has proven to be the single largest violation of the
International Covenant on Economic and Social Rights, a violation committed
by the Security Council itself.     It also calls for a "revision" of the
sanctions policy within the framework of the Oil For Food Programme in
order to allow increased investment and economic development whilst
retaining "comprehensive import restrictions for all military goods and
rigorous monitoring of 'dual use' materials".    "Dual use" has up to now
been defined to extend to items such as chlorine for drinking water, the
lack of which has been a decisive factor in Iraq's humanitarian catastrophe.

In its call for setting up a war crimes tribunal to try Iraqi officials,
Human Rights Watch conveniently ignores the grave violations committed by
Allied forces in their indiscriminate use of depleted uranium munitions
which have killed thousands of Iraqi civilians through an "epidemic" of
child leukaemia.    Collective punishment is prohibited by the Fourth
Geneva Convention of 1949.   Yet the use of these weapons, and indeed the
sanctions themselves as a means of collective punishment is not considered
by Human Rights Watch as grounds for indictment of Western officials.
Apparently, acts committed by the Iraqi regime in violation of human rights
are one thing whereas the commission of the same or similar acts by
outsiders is another proposition altogether.

Genocide has been unambiguously defined in international law as one of a
number of acts, including killing or causing serious bodily or mental harm
with intent to destroy - in whole or in part - a national, ethnic, racial
or religious group.

It is no longer too controversial to suggest that the sanctions policy
against Iraq has targeted a "national group" which has lead to hundreds of
thousands of deaths - not to mention the countless number who have suffered
serious bodily and/or mental harm.   All humanitarian agencies, UNICEF
included, now freely admit to this.

This leaves us with intent.   It is inconceivable that the effects of
combining a large scale military devastation of civil infrastructure with a
sanctions policy unprecedented in its comprehensiveness, could not have
been foreseen.  Even if it can be argued that there was no intent at the
outset, once the manifestations became obvious, intent can be said to have

Although there has been a multitude of new reports and assessments of the
effect of sanctions on Iraqi civilians, one need only refer back to the
warning of impending disaster issued by Sadriddin Aga Khan following his UN
sponsored mission to Iraq in the immediate aftermath of the Gulf War.   In
that  report, he said that, even for a "greatly reduced level of services",
 Iraq needed $6.8 billion over a one-year period in 1991. This broke down
into $180 million for water and sanitation, $500 million for health
services, $53 million for supplemental feeding, $1.62 billion for general
food.  Required import of agricultural inputs were estimated at $300
million, and those for the restoration of the oil and the power sectors at
$2 billion and $2.2 billion respectively.   These were figures prepared for
a report to the UN and that was nine years ago. 

Clearly the limits on Iraqi exports under the Oil for Food deal were never
sufficient to remedy these problems in even the most superficial way.  The
UN was always the signatory to the cheque-book of  the proceeds, and the
limits were therefore never more than a tool of political leverage.
The Harvard Study Team and the Centre for Economic and Social Rights
demonstrated in 1991 and 1996, respectively, the connection between
malnutrition, the loss of civil infrastructure (most notably water and
sanitation facilities) and excess child deaths.   Given all this
information, how can it be said that there was no intent ?

Line of acceptability

At a recent conference on sanctions, Denis Halliday, former assistant UN
Secretary General and head of the Oil For Food Programme, spoke of the
reactions he would encounter when describing the sanctions policy as
"genocide".    In his experience, when he used this word in any western
setting he could see that he had "crossed an invisible line of
acceptability".    Whilst it is acceptable to call for the trial of Iraqi
officials, it is apparently not acceptable that officials of the UN, the
US, the UK and culpable others should even be called to account.

Halliday's "invisible line" represents the hijacking and corruption of the
human rights discourse.  The notion distinguishes between those who can be
accused and those who can do the accusing.  With the unashamed creation of
this distinction, the fundamental principle in all universalist human
rights language of equality of all before the law is destroyed.

To see this, one only has to examine the history of human rights and the
historic separation of civil and political from  economic and social rights
to see this.    At the time the Universal Declaration was adopted by the
General Assembly in 1948, a utopian notion existed that all these rights
were inter-related, inter-dependent and indivisible.   The two sets of
rights do coexist in the Universal Declaration and ostensibly continue to
do so in the preambles of the elaborative Covenants, the International
Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on
Economic Social and Cultural rights, both completed and signed 18 years
after the Universal Declaration in 1966.  The illusion of co-existence
merits scrutiny however, particularly since the two sets of rights were
clearly separated into the two covenants.

Apparently, one of the main reasons for the separation was that civil and
political rights were to be judicially enforceable, whilst economic and
social rights were to be subject to "progressive realization".   This is a
false distinction and the two doctrines have proven to be interchangeable
in practice.  The argument is frequently advanced that guaranteeing civil
and political rights is the basis of a sound environment for economic
development.   The implication is that economic and social rights will be
realized when economic development has occurred.  Clearly this argument
favours the powerful from the outset.  One only has to look at poverty in
the most developed societies and their failure to protect the most
vulnerable sections to see it disproved.    

In reality it can be seen quite clearly that civil and political rights can
exist comfortably within a free-market system that does not uphold the
economic and social rights of all who live under it.   The separation of
the two sets of rights in the international human rights law framework
meant that economic and social rights would be marginalized - even amongst
scholars - to the status of secondary rights at best and non-rights at worst.

So in the industrialized and globalizing world, people are readily
convinced that they are the beneficiaries of civil and political rights as
human rights, whilst simultaneously benefiting from good economic and
social conditions without the need for a rights discourse upon which to
demand those conditions.  Thus in the same way that the illusion, or even
mythology, of democracy and enfranchisement has been created to manufacture
and sustain the consent of the industrialized or developed societies, so
indeed has an orthodoxy of  selective rights  been created to assuage the
potential for social conscience amongst the middle class masses of the
industrialized world.


The genocidal policy of sanctions on Iraq have been sold, with the
complicity of the mass media,  on advertising-style buzzwords such as
"chemical weapons",  "weapons of mass destruction", "threats to
neighbours", "appalling human rights record" and so on.    

The Western Human Rights paradigm has been defined and dictated for such a
long time by organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights
Watch that this has come to represent the whole of the human rights
discourse - free speech, fair trials, freedom of religion and so on.
Because the western world can afford to protect these ideals, the notion
that democracy reigns eternal at home is proved - at home.    The fact that
say corporations and their overwhelming influence over policy do not even
feature as a player in the modern discourse of  "democracy" is a mere
detail.    Instead, Montesqieu`s doctrine of the separation of the three
organs of state remains, along with universal suffrage, the cornerstone of
a modern bona fide democracy.    The fact that this separation of powers
leaves much to be desired in even the most developed of nations is also a
mere detail.

When the western human rights community talks of "human rights" today, it
is really demonstrating the extent to which its discourse has been
corrupted.   The notion that selected rights can be championed whilst
others can be ignored is quite simply a bastardization of the discourse.
Calling for duties to be enforced selectively is no different.
Organizations like Human Rights Watch will persist in misrepresenting (or
partiallly representing) legal facts because they occupy a privileged and
unchallenged position.   Whether they intend to or not, they end up serving
the wrong interests.  In order to rediscover its integrity therefore, the
Western human rights community must either abandon the modern human rights
language or re-claim it in the same way that the language of democracy must
be re-claimed in order to have meaning to all people rather than the elites.

A system of discrimination in the name of human rights has been instituted
which renders the meaning of human rights meaningless.    What we see, not
only in the case of Iraq but with all nations who are seen to threaten the
interests of the so-called "international community",  is the use of human
rights language as a weapon against those regimes - whilst the
dispensability of their peoples is obfuscated by the confusion that the
bastardized discourse creates.

Lucy Mair
Middle East Program Coordinator
Center for Economic and Social Rights (CESR)
162 Montague Street, 2nd floor
Brooklyn, NY 11201
Phone:  212-634-3424
Fax:  212-634-3425
Check out our website at

**AS OF MARCH 1st:
Phone:  718-237-9145
Fax:  718-237-9147

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