Global Policy Forum

Iraq and the corruption of human rights discourse


By Abdullah Mutawi

Middle East International (London)
February 11, 2000

When Western Human rights groups demand the indictment of Iraqi officials but ignore the genocidal effect of the West's own actions and policies, they effectively draw a distinction between those who can be accused and those who can do the accusing which makes a mockery of universal principles, argues Abdullah Mutawi.

At a time when an International Criminal Court has been established and war crimes tribunals have been set up to pursue charges of genocide and crimes against humanity with respect to Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, the case of Iraq merits some mention. In one of its only public pronouncements on the issue of Iraq and sanctions, Human Rights Watch last month called for the creation of an international criminal tribunal to try Iraqi officials for, amongst other things, crimes against humanity and war crimes. In an audacious display of selective legal reasoning, the US based human rights organization also accused Iraq of failing to comply with its obligations under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

That such an unashamed report should be published now, nearly a decade after the imposition of sanctions, is not a matter of coincidence. The United States, aware that that public opinion is increasingly uncomfortable with the results of its policy towards Iraq, has started to resort to ever more defensive arguments for maintaining sanctions. Most international lawyers would assert that the UN itself has obligations under international law (including human rights and humanitarian law). Article 24(2) of the UN Charter is very clear and unambiguous that Security Council decisions to take action such as imposing sanctions must be in conformity with international law. Yet one of the leading human rights groups in the West appears to have started to tow a spurious line of argument, one which serves US foreign policy interests.

Whose human rights

The Human Rights Watch report omits to point out that the sanctions policy against Iraq has proven to be the single largest violation of the International Covenant on Economic and Social Rights, a violation committed by the Security Council itself. It also calls for a "revision" of the sanctions policy within the framework of the Oil For Food Programme in order to allow increased investment and economic development whilst retaining "comprehensive import restrictions for all military goods and rigorous monitoring of 'dual use' materials". "Dual use" has up to now been defined to extend to items such as chlorine for drinking water, the lack of which has been a decisive factor in Iraq's humanitarian catastrophe.

In its call for setting up a war crimes tribunal to try Iraqi officials, Human Rights Watch conveniently ignores the grave violations committed by Allied forces in their indiscriminate use of depleted uranium munitions which have killed thousands of Iraqi civilians through an "epidemic" of child leukaemia. Collective punishment is prohibited by the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949. Yet the use of these weapons, and indeed the sanctions themselves as a means of collective punishment is not considered by Human Rights Watch as grounds for indictment of Western officials. Apparently, acts committed by the Iraqi regime in violation of human rights are one thing whereas the commission of the same or similar acts by outsiders is another proposition altogether.

Genocide has been unambiguously defined in international law as one of a number of acts, including killing or causing serious bodily or mental harm with intent to destroy - in whole or in part - a national, ethnic, racial or religious group.

It is no longer too controversial to suggest that the sanctions policy against Iraq has targeted a "national group" which has lead to hundreds of thousands of deaths - not to mention the countless number who have suffered serious bodily and/or mental harm. All humanitarian agencies, UNICEF included, now freely admit to this.

This leaves us with intent. It is inconceivable that the effects of combining a large scale military devastation of civil infrastructure with a sanctions policy unprecedented in its comprehensiveness, could not have been foreseen. Even if it can be argued that there was no intent at the outset, once the manifestations became obvious, intent can be said to have formed.

Although there has been a multitude of new reports and assessments of the effect of sanctions on Iraqi civilians, one need only refer back to the warning of impending disaster issued by Sadriddin Aga Khan following his UN sponsored mission to Iraq in the immediate aftermath of the Gulf War. In that report, he said that, even for a "greatly reduced level of services", Iraq needed $6.8 billion over a one-year period in 1991. This broke down into $180 million for water and sanitation, $500 million for health services, $53 million for supplemental feeding, $1.62 billion for general food. Required import of agricultural inputs were estimated at $300 million, and those for the restoration of the oil and the power sectors at $2 billion and $2.2 billion respectively. These were figures prepared for a report to the UN and that was nine years ago.

Clearly the limits on Iraqi exports under the Oil for Food deal were never sufficient to remedy these problems in even the most superficial way. The UN was always the signatory to the cheque-book of the proceeds, and the limits were therefore never more than a tool of political leverage. The Harvard Study Team and the Centre for Economic and Social Rights demonstrated in 1991 and 1996, respectively, the connection between malnutrition, the loss of civil infrastructure (most notably water and sanitation facilities) and excess child deaths. Given all this information, how can it be said that there was no intent ?

Line of acceptability

At a recent conference on sanctions, Denis Halliday, former assistant UN Secretary General and head of the Oil For Food Programme, spoke of the reactions he would encounter when describing the sanctions policy as "genocide". In his experience, when he used this word in any western setting he could see that he had "crossed an invisible line of acceptability". Whilst it is acceptable to call for the trial of Iraqi officials, it is apparently not acceptable that officials of the UN, the US, the UK and culpable others should even be called to account.

Halliday's "invisible line" represents the hijacking and corruption of the human rights discourse. The notion distinguishes between those who can be accused and those who can do the accusing. With the unashamed creation of this distinction, the fundamental principle in all universalist human rights language of equality of all before the law is destroyed.

To see this, one only has to examine the history of human rights and the historic separation of civil and political from economic and social rights to see this. At the time the Universal Declaration was adopted by the General Assembly in 1948, a utopian notion existed that all these rights were inter-related, inter-dependent and indivisible. The two sets of rights do coexist in the Universal Declaration and ostensibly continue to do so in the preambles of the elaborative Covenants, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural rights, both completed and signed 18 years after the Universal Declaration in 1966. The illusion of co-existence merits scrutiny however, particularly since the two sets of rights were clearly separated into the two covenants.

Apparently, one of the main reasons for the separation was that civil and political rights were to be judicially enforceable, whilst economic and social rights were to be subject to "progressive realization". This is a false distinction and the two doctrines have proven to be interchangeable in practice. The argument is frequently advanced that guaranteeing civil and political rights is the basis of a sound environment for economic development. The implication is that economic and social rights will be realized when economic development has occurred. Clearly this argument favours the powerful from the outset. One only has to look at poverty in the most developed societies and their failure to protect the most vulnerable sections to see it disproved.

In reality it can be seen quite clearly that civil and political rights can exist comfortably within a free-market system that does not uphold the economic and social rights of all who live under it. The separation of the two sets of rights in the international human rights law framework meant that economic and social rights would be marginalized - even amongst scholars - to the status of secondary rights at best and non-rights at worst.

So in the industrialized and globalizing world, people are readily convinced that they are the beneficiaries of civil and political rights as human rights, whilst simultaneously benefiting from good economic and social conditions without the need for a rights discourse upon which to demand those conditions. Thus in the same way that the illusion, or even mythology, of democracy and enfranchisement has been created to manufacture and sustain the consent of the industrialized or developed societies, so indeed has an orthodoxy of selective rights been created to assuage the potential for social conscience amongst the middle class masses of the industrialized world.


The genocidal policy of sanctions on Iraq have been sold, with the complicity of the mass media, on advertising-style buzzwords such as "chemical weapons", "weapons of mass destruction", "threats to neighbours", "appalling human rights record" and so on.

The Western Human Rights paradigm has been defined and dictated for such a long time by organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch that this has come to represent the whole of the human rights discourse - free speech, fair trials, freedom of religion and so on. Because the western world can afford to protect these ideals, the notion that democracy reigns eternal at home is proved - at home. The fact that say corporations and their overwhelming influence over policy do not even feature as a player in the modern discourse of "democracy" is a mere detail. Instead, Montesqieu`s doctrine of the separation of the three organs of state remains, along with universal suffrage, the cornerstone of a modern bona fide democracy. The fact that this separation of powers leaves much to be desired in even the most developed of nations is also a mere detail.

When the western human rights community talks of "human rights" today, it is really demonstrating the extent to which its discourse has been corrupted. The notion that selected rights can be championed whilst others can be ignored is quite simply a bastardization of the discourse. Calling for duties to be enforced selectively is no different. Organizations like Human Rights Watch will persist in misrepresenting (or partiallly representing) legal facts because they occupy a privileged and unchallenged position. Whether they intend to or not, they end up serving the wrong interests. In order to rediscover its integrity therefore, the Western human rights community must either abandon the modern human rights language or re-claim it in the same way that the language of democracy must be re-claimed in order to have meaning to all people rather than the elites.

A system of discrimination in the name of human rights has been instituted which renders the meaning of human rights meaningless. What we see, not only in the case of Iraq but with all nations who are seen to threaten the interests of the so-called "international community", is the use of human rights language as a weapon against those regimes - whilst the dispensability of their peoples is obfuscated by the confusion that the bastardized discourse creates.

The author of this essay, Abdullah Mutawi is of CESR's Middle East Program

Lucy Mair
Middle East Program Coordinator
Center for Economic and Social Rights (CESR)
162 Montague Street, 2nd floor
Brooklyn, NY 11201
Phone: 718-237-9145
Fax: 718-237-9147
Email: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

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