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Re: [casi] ! OT! A ridiculous appeal.

Dear Elga and List,

<Unfortunately puppet NGOs, such as HRW, are rarely
challenged. But a critical look at their records
and motives might make people less gullible.>

In 1991, Middle East Watch published a report
“Needless Deaths in the Gulf War” in which it assessed
the Gulf War.  Norman Finkelstein challenged that
report in a very critical article "Watching Rights,
Wrongly". I am posting this article here, with
permission from Mr. Finkelstein. I must apologize for
the missing footnotes, but that should not affect the
value of the article.

Watching Rights, Wrongly

Norman Finkelstein

"Who will guard the guardians?"
-- Juvenal

Middle East Watch's Needless Deaths in the Gulf War is
the most comprehensive assessment to date of the Gulf
"war" in light of the laws of armed conflict. To be
sure, MEW understands the scope of its mandate to
include only civilian casualties and damage done to
civilian objects. The reader will have to look
elsewhere for a legal assessment of military
casualties (and the damage wrought on the natural
environment). We do learn, however, that the "allied
coalition" suffered "mercifully few" casualties. MEW
does not editorialize on or, for that matter, even
allude to the Iraqi soldiers killed.

The report's assessment generally conforms with the
picture presented by the mainstream media. It will
also undoubtedly sit well with the Bush/Clinton
Administration and the Pentagon. The "allied" bombing
campaign, we are told, was "in many if not most
respects… consistent with [its] stated intent to take
all feasible precautions to avoid civilian
casualties." At worst, the laws of war "appear" to
have been violated only in "some instances." Iraq's
missile attacks, by contrast, are repeatedly scored as
"flatly violat[ing]", and "serious" and "blatant"
violations of "humanitarian law".

These conclusions, even if valid, would still require
two crucial caveats. In the first place, they no more
prove the virtue of the "allied coalition" than they
do the iniquity of the Iraqi regime. Given the vast
preponderance of force at the disposal of the
"allies", they were never -- in the words of
MEW--"driven by urgent military imperatives to take
steps that might have imposed greater risk on
civilians." Contrariwise, Iraq's recourse to terrorism
was the predictable –if deplorable- reaction of an
absurdly outclassed belligerent.

Second, these conclusions are strictly relative to the
total force brought to bear by each of the two sides.
For example, MEW puts the number of Iraqi civilian
casualties of the US-led offensive between 2,500 and
3,000. Combined Israeli and Saudi civilian casualties
of the Scud missile attacks, by contrast, are put in
the low teens. I will have much more to say about
these figures, and civilian damage generally, further
on. For the moment, however, I would want to stress
that, even by MEW's reckoning, the "allies" were, by a
wide margin, the principal absolute violator of
humanitarian law. This fact is easily missed,
especially given MEW's wildly skewed depiction of Iraq
as a full-fledged, if less-than-exactly matched,
belligerent in the Gulf "war", a point to which I will
also return presently.

Yet one of MEW's central contentions is plainly
invalid. It is not true that the "allied coalition"
generally adhered to the laws of war during the Gulf
conflict. At any rate, the evidence presented in
Needless Deaths does not sustain such a conclusion.
Rather, judging by the material MEW assembles, one is
forced to conclude that US violations of humanitarian
law were staggering in breadth as well as depth. I
want to argue that MEW reaches its own apologetic
conclusions by applying to the "allies" and Iraq a
double standard. Specifically, in the two basic areas
of humanitarian law examined by MEW --"means and
methods of attacks" and "objects attacked"—Iraq is
held to an unusually stringent standard and the
"allied coalition" to an unusually lax one. Indeed I
will argue that a double standard permeates virtually
every facet of the report.

"Means and methods of attack" refers, iner alia, to
the scheduling of attacks and the types of weapons
deployed. Both the "allied coalition" and Iraq, for
instance, are faulted for attacking targets at times
of day that tended to maximize civilian casualties.
Here I want to focus, however, on the matter of
weaponry used. MEW observes that humanitarian law
prohibits the deployment of weapons that "do not have
the technological capability to distinguish between
civilian objects and military targets in populated
civilian areas". Accordingly, it condemns Iraq's use
of the highly inaccurate Scud missile against urban
areas in Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Iraq was not alone in deploying indiscriminate weapons
in urban areas, however. For, contrary to official
(and mainstream media) pretenses, precision-guided or
"smart" bombs accounted for only 7,400 tons (or 8.8
percent) of the approximately 84,200 tons of ordnance
dropped by the "allies" on Iraq and Kuwait. "Dumb"
bombs, which had an accuracy rate of only 25 percent,
thus accounted for fully 76,000 tons (or more than 90
percent) of the ordnance used. Furthermore, MEW
observes that "some of these precision munitions
reportedly were used against Iraqi military targets in
the Kuwaiti theatre of operations, away from any
civilian population, leaving an even smaller
percentage for use in populated areas." MEW deems a
"key" and "critical" question "what percent of the
total number of targets located in proximity to
civilian areas were executed with dumb bombs?".  It
goes on to say that "in the absence of additional
information from the Pentagon on this subject, it is
impossible to assess the allies' compliance with the
laws of war in this respect." To be sure,
circumstantial evidence more than suggest that, in
cities like Basra (where the "allies" were less
constrained by potentially adverse publicity since few
reporters ventured outside Baghdad), the use of
indiscriminate weaponry was widespread indeed. In any
event, MEW's overall conclusion that the "allies"
generally adhered to the laws of war would, in light
of the above admission, appear to be very premature at

One further observation is in order. There is
evidently no objective measure to judge whether or not
a weapon is "discriminate." MEW effectively uses
state-of-the-art weaponry as its standard. But such a
measure bars all but the most technologically advanced
powers from engaging targets in urban areas. Thus, MEW
even condemns Iraq for a Scud attack that struck a
legitimate military site in Saudi Arabia's capital
city of Riyadh, since "the direct hit does not alter
the indiscriminate nature of the weapon used." In
effect, the weaker party to the conflict is placed at
yet a further –nay, an impossible- disadvantage. MEW
does not acknowledge such a bias in its interpretation
of humanitarian law, however, it pretends to apply an
objective and neutral standard. Finally, in
extenuation of the "allied coalition's" extensive
recourse to indiscriminate weapons, MEW notes that
"cost and availability" were "factors in the
preference for dumb bombs." No such concession is
granted in the case of Iraq, however, where it would
seem to apply with considerably greater force.

The laws of war also put definite limits on legitimate
targets of attack. They proscribe the targeting of
civilians and civilian objects to achieve a political
objective. No object indispensable for the sustenance
of the civilian population can be targeted. An object
qualifies as a legitimate target only if it
contributes effectively to the enemy's military action
and its destruction offers a definite military
advantage. Where attacks on legitimate military
targets unavoidably involve the loss of civilian life
and/or damage to civilian objects, humanitarian law
requires that the hard done not be excessive relative
to the military objective. On the other hand, no
attack on a legitimate military target can justify
extensive civilian losses and damages.

Accordingly, MEW condemns Iraq for directing missiles
at Israeli and Saudi civilian targets "with a
deliberate desire to cause as much civilian damage and
suffering as possible" and "terrorize the civilian
population." One "purpose of Iraq's attacks",
according to MEW, "was unquestionably to goad Israeli
forces into actively joining the conflict and,
thereby, split the Arab members of the coalition". It
thereby "flatly violate[d]" the humanitarian law
prohibition on targeting civilians to achieve a
political objective.

Consider now the US and its "allies." They are taken
to task (if perhaps in more cautious language) for
targeting civilian vehicles on highways in Iraq and
the destruction of a post office and bus station here
and a residential dwelling and bank there (cf. esp.
chapter 5, "The View from the Ground: Eyewitness
Accounts of Civilian Casualties and damage"). It is
apparently on the basis of these incidents (and the
Ameriyya air raid shelter which left 200-300 civilians
dead; cf. 128-47) that MEW computed Iraqi civilian
deaths at between 2,500-3,000 and concluded that the
"allied coalition"  adhered – save in "some instances"
– to the laws of war. Yet, reprehensible as these
violations of humanitarian law were, they paled beside
the methodical and intentional devastation of Iraq's
critical civilian infrastructure and the concomitant
(and predictable) massive destruction of civilian
life. MEW does document these colossal violations of
the laws of war but, inexplicably, ignores them in the
report's central conclusions. In effect, MEW
disregards the major human rights crimes and focuses
instead on relatively minor infractions of
humanitarian law. The result is a near-total whitewash
of the US administration and the Pentagon.

The "allied" assault wrought, in the now famous words
of the United Nation's mission that visited Iraq in
March 1991, near-apocalyptic results upon the economic
infrastructure of what had been, until January 1991, a
rather highly urbanized and mechanized society. Now,
most means of modern life support have been destroyed
or rendered tenuous. Iraq has, for some time to come,
been relegated to a pre-industrial age, but with all
the disabilities of post-industrial dependency on an
intensive use of energy and technology.

Food, agricultural and water-treatment facilities were
destroyed, in violation of the laws of war which
protect objects necessary for the survival of the
civilian population. Crucially, the Iraqi electricity
generating system was crippled. By the end of the war
only two of Iraq's 20 electrical plants were
functioning, generating less than four percent of the
pre-war output. This destruction had –in MEW's words –
"devastating" consequences for the civilian
population, since Iraq was "reliant on electrical
power for essential services such as water
purification and distribution, sewage removal and
treatment, the operation of hospitals and medical
laboratories, and agricultural production." True, the
Iraqi electrical system was an integrated grid; but it
still did not constitute a legitimate military target.
In the first place, MEW argues persuasively that the
electrical plants probably did not contribute
effectively to Iraq's military action and their
destruction probably did not offer a definite military
advantage to the "allies". A second and decisive
consideration is that no object can be targeted if its
destruction would result in the massive loss of life.

And, to judge by the evidence cited by MEW, the human
misery caused by the devastation of Iraq's civilian
infrastructure was massive indeed. A UNICEF
representative in Iraq noted in late May that the
"vicious circle" of poor hygiene, contaminated water
and poor diet left about 100,000 Iraqi children under
one year of age susceptible to diarrhea and
dehydration. A Harvard Medical Team which visited Iraq
at roughly the same time estimated that some 170,000
children under the age of five would die in the coming
year from gastroenteritis, cholera, typhoid and
malnutrition as a result of the "allied" assault – in
particular, "the destruction of electrical generating
plants.. and the consequent failure of water
purification and sewage treatment systems."  (It is
one of the singular oddities of Needless Deaths that,
in a report that is nothing if not tediously
redundant—e.g., the same quotes are cited over and
over again—the extraordinary UNICEF and Harvard
figures are each mentioned only once and almost in
passing. Next to them, incidentally, the 200-300
deaths resulting from the attack on the Ameriyya
shelter – deemed by MEW the "most tragic" civilian
disaster of the war and accordingly examined in minute
detail—do not even amount to a blip on the screen).

What is more, the human catastrophe was predictable.
Indeed, it was premeditated. MEW reports that the
"grave" repercussions for civilian health of targeting
the power source for water, sewer, and refuse disposal
facilities were documented in "meticulous detail" in
the United States Strategic Bombing Survey of Germany
and Japan during World War II. Thus, US military
planners of the air war should have "readily
anticipated" the calamity that ensued in Iraq. And it
was anticipated, eagerly. The point was to inflict so
much human torment that Saddam would be forced from
power or placed at the mercies of the US. For example,
MEW reports that "US Air Force officials involved in
planning the war have indicated that one purpose of
destroying the electrical system was to harm civilians
and thus encourage them to overthrow Saddam Hussein."
It cites one Air Force planner's statement to the
Washington Post that the targeting of the plants was
intended to send a message to the Iraqi people: "We're
not going to tolerate Saddam Hussein or his regime.
Fix that, and we'll fix your electricity."

I do not see how the above passages from Needless
Deaths can be reconciled with MEW's main conclusion.
The most essential Iraqi civilian infrastructure was
comprehensively destroyed. The predictable result was
-- and continues to be-- massive destruction of Iraqi
civilian life. The avowed purpose of this devastation
of Iraqi civilians and civilian objects was to achieve
the political objective of unseating Saddam or forcing
him to comply with American dictat. In each instance,
the "allies" were guilty of an egregious violation of
humanitarian law. Indeed, consider MEW's observation
that, " [i]nsofar as the civilian population is
concerned, it makes little or no difference whether [a
civilian facility] is attacked and destroyed, or is
made inoperable by the destruction of the electrical
plant supplying it power. In either case, civilians
suffer the same effects – they are denied the use of a
public utility indispensable for their survival."

MEW thus conceded that the "allies" effectively bombed
hospitals and sewage treatment and water purification
plants, which are the kinds of war crimes that would
have led to hanging at Nuremberg. Yet MEW concludes
that the "allied" bombing campaign was "in many if not
most respects… consistent with [its] stated intent to
take all feasible precautions to avoid civilian
casualties" and that the laws of war "appear" to have
been violated only in "some instances."

The same double standard that on the one hand indicts
Iraq for "flatly violat[ing]"and "serious" and
"blatant" violations of humanitarian law, and, on the
other, condemns the "allies" merely for transgressions
in "some instances" of it, informs every aspect of
Needless Deaths. Here I will recount several typical

(1) MEW is not averse to divining the most malevolent
motives behind Iraqi conduct during the Gulf "war".
Thus the "obvious reason" of avoiding "allied" aerial
surveillance does not, for MEW, sufficiently explain
Iraq's decision to fire the Scuds at night. It darkly
speculates that, since the targeted Israeli
residential neighborhoods were most populated after
dusk, Iraq "may also" have launched nighttime attacks
to maximize casualties.

Likewise, it speculates that the Scuds were aimed with
"care" ("in particular") at Jewish civilians in
Israel, since many missiles hit Tel Aviv but none the
largely Arab populated municipality of Jafo one
kilometer to the south. Yet, MEW then condemns the
Scud as wildly inaccurate "since 50 percent of the
missiles would not come within even one kilometer of
the target."

MEW also speculates in the case of the "allies" – but
in the opposite direction. Thus it reports an "allied"
attack on an "isolated" Bedouin encampment (the
nearest highway was 60 miles, the nearest military
installation 70 miles and the nearest town 100 miles
away) that left 14 civilians dead. This would seem to
have been a clear-cut case of an indiscriminate attack
on Iraqi civilians. Not so. For – "although it is
difficult to understand how it reasonably could be
expected" that Iraqi mobile missile-launchers and
accompanying vehicles "could travel easily over desert
roads so distant from major highways" – MEW "assumes"
that the attacking aircraft "were seeking to destroy
concealed" Scuds in the Bedouin tents.

Consider, finally Israel. MEW notes in passing that,
in the case of each Scud missile that landed in the
West Bank, Patriot missiles were "not fired." Such a
remarkable coincidence verily begs for speculation.
(Recall, incidentally, that, under international law,
Israel, as the occupying power, is duty-bound to "take
all the measures in its power" to "ensure as far as
possible" the safety of the Palestinians in the West
Bank and Gaza). None is forthcoming, however. MEW
simply reports with comment that the IDF "was said to
be investigating" what happened.

(2) Iraq is repeatedly condemned by MEW for
"terrorism" against a civilian population because of
the press releases filled with "utterly ghoulish
language" that it issued after each Scud missile
attack. I will leave it to one side the aptness of
characterizing the ex post facto description of a
missile attack – however "ghoulish" – as terrorism.
The larger question is why MEW didn't also condemn the
"allied coalition", which caused the massive
destruction of civilian life to achieve a political
objective, for "terrorism"? Rather, the worst MEW
accuses it of in this regard is targeting "civilian
morale." Earlier on, MEW observes: "Although
technically there may be a distinction between morale
and terror bombing, they are, in practice, treated the
same. It has often been observed that what is morale
bombing to the attacking force is terror bombing to
the civilians who are targeted." Revealingly, in its
assessment of Iraq ("terrorism"), MEW takes the
perspective of the "civilians who are targeted",
whereas in its assessment of the "allies" ("morale
bombing"), it takes the perspective of the "attacking

On a related matter, Iraqi press statements are
typically dismissed by MEW as "an outpouring of
rhetoric", "rhetorical bravado","propaganda",
"bombast" "a flourish of characteristic rhetoric"
etc., designed, inter alia, for the consumption of the
"Arab masses." Yet, such charged language is never
used to characterize "allied" press statements. The
closest MEW comes is an occasional reference to
"elaborately rehearsed military briefings" or the Bush
Administration's "carefully constructed image of
perfection" or a Pentagon report that "misleadingly
reinforces the impression that…" Consider, however,
the following typical quotations chosen at random from
Needless Deaths:

We are doing absolutely everything we possibly can in
this campaign to avoid injuring or hurting or
destroying innocent people. -- General Schwarzkopf,
January 18

We're being very, very careful in our direction of
attacks to avoid damage of any kind to civilian
installations. -- General Schwarzkopf, January 27

I think I should point out right here that we never
had any intention of destroying all of Iraqi
electrical power. -- General Schwarzkopf, January 30

We are doing everything possible and with great
success to minimize collateral damage. – President
Bush, February 5

We are going to such great lengths to target military
facilities and military installations and to not try
to do any damage to civilian targets. – House
spokesman Marlin Fitzwater, February 11

Our pilots, I would stress, go to extraordinary
lengths to try to avoid civilian damage. In most cases
they've been very, very successful. – US Brig. General
Richard Neal on the bombing of Basra, 11 February

We know this to be a military command-and-control
facility and targeted it for that reason… We targeted
it, we bombed it very accurately, we bombed a building
that had barbed wire around it, not an indication of a
bomb shelter. We bombed a building that had a
camouflage roof pained on it for whatever reason,
again, [it] didn't look like a bomb shelter. –Lt.
General Thomas Kelly of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on
the bombing of the Ameriyya air raid shelter, February

Each of these statements is flatly contradicted by the
evidence compiled in Needless Deaths. Why, then,
didn't MEW dismiss them as "propaganda", etc...
designed for public consumption? Indeed, had MEW
attended at all to the real meanings of words, it
would not even have labeled them as "propaganda",
etc., but simply as lies – and flagrant ones at that.

(3) Not only does MEW refrain from plainly denouncing
the Bush Administration lies, it sustains the
Administration's central myth that what unfolded in
the Gulf between 17 January and 28 February was a
"war. Consider the statistics in the table.
Military casualties:
allied coalition/ 350

Civilian casualties:
allied coalition/14

Damage to civilian objects:
allied coalition/$50-150 million
Iraq/ $20-200 billion

Tonnage of ordnance dropped:
allied coalition/84,200

Notwithstanding this wildly imbalanced balance sheet,
MEW manages to devote almost a third -- 100 pages —of
its report findings on the Gulf "war" to the Iraqi
missile attacks. The wonder is that it was able to
fill all this space. It does so by, among other
things, devoting page after page to the copious
documentation of Scud attacks that caused "no
casualties or damage." Indeed, one page is even given
over to a Scud "attack" that apparently never
happened! Had MEW been at equal pains to document the
results of the 84,200 tons of ordnance dropped by the
"allies", Needless Deaths would have filled out not
several hundred but several hundred thousand pages. As
it is, Needless Deaths perpetuates the central Bush
Administration myth that Iraq was a full-fledged, if
perhaps less-than-exactly matched, belligerent.

The truth is that what unfolded in the Gulf between 17
January and 28 February was not all a "war" but, as
several commentators have honestly observed, a
"slaughter." Its core – the systematic destruction of
Iraq's essential civilian infrastructure – was a "form
of biological warfare, designed to ensure long-term
suffering and death among civilians so that the US
would be in a good position to attain its political
goals for the region" (Noam Chomsky).
One would not understand any of this reading Needless

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