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[casi] on HRW...

Dear List,

in the light of the latest discussions regarding HRW
and its "credibility", I thought it best to repost a
CASI post from the year 2000. It serves as a good
article for those of us who have not seen it, and
reminder for those who forgot...


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

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

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 formed.

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

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

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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