When a team of special-operations forces conducted that daring rescue mission and freed Pfc. Jessica Lynch, they found more at the Saddam Hospital than a scared, 19-year-old POW. In the basement they found weapons and munitions and a torture chamber. Coalition forces have found such weapons and military staging areas in other hospitals, schools, and religious sites throughout Iraq. Embedded reporters have filed harrowing stories of Iraqi soldiers executing civilians, forcing teenagers at gunpoint to fight the war and the showering of artillery rounds into groups of fleeing civilian refugees.
Iraq’s gross human-rights violations and continual breach of international laws are not isolated incidents, but the norm. You wouldn’t know it, however, if you listened to many human-rights and antiwar groups.
In writing this in 2003, I feel a distinct sense of déjà vu from my time as an antiwar activist 30 years ago. In 1969 I served on the steering committee of one of the major antiwar groups, the People’s Coalition for Peace and Justice. This group, among other things, argued that the United States and the Saigon government were guilty of war crimes.
It was interesting to see how that issue was handled while I sat in the group’s closed-door committee meetings in Washington. As a young activist then, I was surprised no one raised or denounced the idea of Vietcong or North Vietnamese atrocities. It simply was a non-starter. It was part of a culture to focus only on U.S. attacks on civilians. One of the most passionate persons on this point was a soft-spoken, grandfatherly gentleman named Abe Bloom. Everyone loved Abe. He was kind and warm. He was also one of the official committee representatives of the Communist Party/USA. He strictly followed the line of the party’s Central Committee. And among the pastors, lawyers, and activists on the steering committee, Abe’s proposition was universally accepted: Only evil America was capable of committing atrocities.
I remember when American B-52 bombers had hit the Bach Mai hospital near Hanoi. In righteous indignation, leading antiwar organizers from the PCPJ and other organizations described the Bach Mai attack as a war crime. Later, American antiwar activists who traveled to Hanoi for wartime visits made an obligatory solemn trek to Bach Mai. It became a North Vietnamese pillar, a shrine to American “crimes against humanity.”
This time around it’s clear to me and to most Americans that war crimes are being committed. But it is Baghdad, not Washington that’s the culprit. It’s Iraqi government abuse and terror directed against civilians. And the incidents are transparent and numerous.
One might expect antiwar and especially human-rights advocates to be on top of these dreadful stories. After all, they do claim the “high ground,” asserting they care about Iraqi civilians and Iraqi human rights.
So it was pretty dispiriting to not find much from these groups. For instance, if you search the website for International ANSWER, one of today’s major antiwar organizations, the group has nothing to say about any of the dreadful array of human-rights violations committed by Iraqi officials. Yet at every breath they assail the United States and aggressively push their April 12 demo against Bush.
The International Action Center, a part of ANSWER, and headed by former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark, seems to be living in a fantasyland. While there are no reports or repudiation of Iraqi injustices anywhere in his site, Clark this week published, “Instead of posing as liberators, the U.S. high command has called for open warfare against the Iraqi civilian population. In the last 48 hours, hundreds of civilians have been shot down on the roadways, in their homes, on their farms. The aerial bombings are becoming more indiscriminate as missiles land in markets and residential neighborhoods.” Funny, no embedded reporters have caught onto the story yet.
Since the beginning of the war the track record of major human-rights groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch is even more disheartening. Neither group has targeted its wrath against Iraq. In fact, on March 30 Amnesty International delivered a petition to British Prime Minister Tony Blair, calling on the British and American governments to make more information public about Iraqi civilian deaths and warning both governments to abide by international law.
Over the past two weeks when reports streamed in of Iraqi atrocities, Amnesty International released only one formal human-rights protest. It found evidence of human-rights abuses in 14 countries, including the United States and Britain — but not Iraq. The crimes committed? They are hindering antiwar protests.
Until April 2, Amnesty said little about Iraqi attacks on its own people. On that date the group asked for ” monitors” to be posted in Iraq, but seemed to equate the coalition’s accidental killings with Saddam’s direct targeting of civilians. AI went bonkers on April 3 with the headline “Iraq: People come first — protect ” but there is not a word about Iraqi civilian attacks. Instead, the lead article is about alleged use of cluster bombs in population areas, proclaiming, “Amnesty International is deeply concerned about the high toll of civilian casualties and the use of cluster bombs in U.S. military attacks in heavily populated areas.” It is hardly a credible charge given the coalition forces rather fastidious avoidance of civilian areas throughout Iraq.
AI did criticize Iraq on Voice of America. Claudio Cordone, its top international-law director admitted that Iraqi soldiers wearing civilian clothing were a violation of international law. But in the next breath he berated the United States for its treatment of Afghan and Taliban combatants in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.
Watch isn’t much better. To their credit, on April 3 they finally criticized Iraq for storing about 150 anti-personnel landmines inside the Kadir Karam mosque. There still has not been, however, any mention of Saddam’s widespread effort to intimidate, terrorize and execute Iraq’s own citizens.
The depressing failure of antiwar and human-rights organizations to be bold and outspoken about Baghdad’s responsibility during a dark hour for the Iraqi people may go down in history as the moment when citizen groups saw or heard no evil while the whole world was watching. When self-appointed watchdogs remain silent in the face of killing, terror, and mayhem against innocent civilians, the watchdogs are not only useless, they make a mockery of and liberty.
— Richard Pollock is a vice president for communications at the Cato Institute.