Commentary

Where Are the Human Rights Groups?

By Richard Pollock
April 10, 2003

When a team of special operations forces conducted that daring rescue mission and freed Pfc. Jessica Lynch, they found more at the Saddam Hussein Hospital than a scared, 19-year-old POW. They found weapons and munitions, and some sort of torture chamber. Coalition forces have found such things in other “neutral” places, which Iraqi forces have also used as military staging areas or even command posts. In addition, embedded reporters have filed stories of Iraqi soldiers shooting civilians and forcing teenagers at gunpoint to fight the war. Also, there are published reports of Iraqi women and children being executed by the Saddam-loyal fidayeen.

Such evidence (and more) reveals Iraq’s human rights violations and continual breach of international laws that govern warfare. But you wouldn’t know it if you listened to the “mainstream” human rights groups. They apparently can find abuses everywhere except in Iraq.

And that’s why I’m feeling a sense of déjà vu. I was a committed anti-war activist during the Vietnam War. In 1969 I served on the steering committee of one of the major anti-war 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. I was surprised that no one raised or denounced the idea that the Vietcong or North Vietnamese were committing 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 accepted: Only evil America was capable of committing atrocities.

I remember when American B-52 bombers had inadvertently hit the Bach Mai hospital near Hanoi. In righteous indignation, leading anti-war organizers from PCPJ and other organizations described the Bach Mai attack as a “war crime.” Later, American anti-war 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.”

So, 30 years later, I feel as if I’ve been here before. 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 is the culprit. The Iraqi government’s war crimes are transparent and numerous.

In a perfect world, one might expect anti-war 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. Wouldn’t it be grand, for example, for human rights groups to demand that Baghdad end its use of civilian hospitals for military purposes? Wouldn’t it be wonderful to hear the firm voice of the human rights community assail Saddam for forcing the conscription of children, and by turning his guns against its own civilians?

Unfortunately, we don’t live in a perfect world. We get the real thing. It is so dispiriting to find silence from the human rights groups. For instance, if you search the Web Site for International ANSWER, one of today’s anti-war organizations, the group has nothing to say about any of the shocking human rights violations committed by Iraqi officials. Yet at every breath, they assail the United States.

The International Action Center, a part of ANSWER headed by former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark, publishes updates on the war on its Web Site. Yet there are no reports or repudiations of Iraqi actions against their own people. Clark publishes “Report from Baghdad.” However, many of these “reports” are not written from Baghdad, but from Havana. Clark reported on day four of the war: Coalition bombing hit the Al Qadisiya district in Baghdad, “very near the University Hospital at Yarmuk.”

The track record of major human rights groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch is even more disheartening. Like the anti-war groups, neither group has criticized 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.

During the week that reports of Iraqi atrocities came in Amnesty International released a 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? America and Britain are hindering anti-war protests.

Similarly, Human Rights Watch doesn’t really talk about any Iraqi transgressions. The group made a passing reference to Iraq and the Geneva Conventions, but used it as an opportunity instead to bash the United States. They said: “The United States is right to insist that Iraq honor the Geneva Conventions. But its position is weakened by failure to practice what it preaches in holding 641 prisoners without charges at the U.S. military facility in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.”

The failure of anti-war and human rights organizations to hold Baghdad responsible for its crimes may cripple their credibility and legitimacy. 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 human rights and liberty.

Richard Pollock is vice president of communications at the Cato Institute.