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[casi] recent postings about mass graves

Dear list,

I am hesitant to wade into a discussion which has already generated much
heat. Nonetheless I regard Tom Young's recent postings as an abuse of the
current terms of the CASI list, and urge the moderator to prevent any
postings in a similar vein.

With the current lack of focus in CASI activities, it is difficult to
delineate the terms upon which discussion should take place on this list.
However, several members have expressed the desire that the list be used to
provide information and analysis regarding the current humanitarian
situation in Iraq. I think this mandate is a broad but sensible one.

Intelligent comments regarding mass graves arguably fall into this
category: they supply information about the politics of the past in
present-day Iraq; about regard for human rights under the Coalition
Provisional Authority; and so on.

Tom Young's emails have not, thus far, done this. They are not written in a
spirit of scepticism, but instead with an unremitting disbelief, without
justification, of any atrocities having taken place. This has taken the
form of the repetition of rumours, speculation taken as fact, and the
entirely selective presentation of evidence. The basis for such analysis is
similar to the conflations of evidence regarding weapons of mass
destruction which members of this list have so roundly denounced.

- Several postings take the involvement of a political group such as Dawa
to indicate that the entire report is likely to be fabricated.

- Others take the mere presence of excavation equipment to indicate that,
rather than excavation being carried out, the "construction of a mass grave
'scene' has been taking place".

- Local informants, crucial for documenting the existence of atrocities,
are, in these accounts, not solicited but "recruited", with no
justification given for the use of this term.

- Other postings vacillate between entirely denying the existence of graves
(prefaced, without any discussion, by the parenthesised adjective
'imaginary'); and acknowledging their existence, but asserting that they
are the result of 'US-sponsored' massacres, or internecine fighting. These
two positions cannot be sustained together.

- The scepticism about responsibility for Halabja expressed in Jude
Wassinski's memo likewise rests upon a selective use of evidence, as Glen
Rangwala pointed out in the posting on this list in 2002
( ).

- The possible contents of sealed bags are cooly described without any
justification, on the basis of photographs.

Regardless of the quality of such analyses, however, they add nothing at
present to our understanding of how to help Iraq. The investigation of mass
graves should be carried out with seriousness, sensitivity and accuracy in
the pursuit of a process of reconciliation. Members of this list should
urge support for such projects, as Amnesty International have done. But I
suspect that most members of this list have little experience with mass
graves, nor much knowledge, beyond newspaper and NGO reports, of the
investigations currently taking place in Iraq. Until investigation has been
carried out and the results published, therefore, groundless speculation
about open-source information contributes nothing to our understanding of
the humanitarian situation in Iraq.

These are practical reasons to end the postings of such speculation. There
is also, however, an ethical reason. Regardless of their foundation in
truth, mass graves are not a subject which should ever be discussed with
"resigned amusement" or "simple laughter"
( ). A photograph of a
mass grave, real or not, should never be described as "a beauty"
( ). Members of this list
constantly urge the Occupying Powers to take seriously the reality of Iraqi
deaths by war and sanctions. If we are to be consistent, and humane, we
should treat Iraqi reports of past atrocities with similar precision and
seriousness. We have no access to information which would allow us to be
precise, while past postings have shown none of the appropriate

Mike Lewis

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