The following is an archived copy of a message sent to a Discussion List run by the Campaign Against Sanctions on Iraq.

Views expressed in this archived message are those of the author, not of the Campaign Against Sanctions on Iraq.

[Main archive index/search] [List information] [Campaign Against Sanctions on Iraq Homepage]

[Date Prev][Date Next][Thread Prev][Thread Next][Date Index][Thread Index]

[casi] The Numbers Game

That there are no doubts about Ba'th party massacres which resulted in
several mass graves is accepted. The numbers are very far from being
"well-documented" though. Kind of reminds me of WMD.

Marc Azar

By John Laughland

The Mail on Sunday
3 August 2003

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

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 believe.

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 thousands.

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.

Sent via the discussion list of the Campaign Against Sanctions on Iraq.
To unsubscribe, visit
To contact the list manager, email
All postings are archived on CASI's website:

[Campaign Against Sanctions on Iraq Homepage]