Joe Conason's Journal

The libertarian Cato Institute claims that Human Rights Watch has never criticized Iraq. It's lying.

Published April 10, 2003 10:07PM (EDT)

Long before American conservatives grew indignant about the villainy of Saddam Hussein -- back in the days when upstanding citizens like Donald Rumsfeld and Henry Kissinger were still coddling the dictator -- Human Rights Watch was exposing his regime's mass murders and repression. I know because I've been reading the group's reports on Iraq since 1989, when it presented some of the most compelling evidence of Saddam's genocidal gassing of the Kurds.

But the principled political neutrality practiced by HRW, which gives its reports and campaigns worldwide credibility, makes it a frequent target for opportunistic attacks from the right. Today the Cato Institute published an appallingly vicious piece by Richard Pollock, an ex-leftist who serves as the libertarian group's "vice president of communications," in which he complains bitterly that HRW "apparently can find abuses everywhere except in Iraq." He proceeds to compare HRW with a Vietnam-era group that, according to him, slavishly promoted "the line of the [Communist] party's Central Committee ... Only evil America was capable of committing atrocities."

Pollock smears HRW (and Amnesty International) by conflating them with International ANSWER, the ultra-left front that has indeed served as an apologist for the Iraqi regime -- except that he describes the conduct of the mainstream human rights groups as "even more disheartening."

"Like the anti-war groups," he claims, "neither group has criticized Iraq." That is a truly audacious lie, as anyone who examines the HRW or Amnesty Web sites will instantly discover. Amnesty's site lists at least 113 reports or releases critical of abuses in Saddam's Iraq. The HRW site has 881 listings, including landmark reports on the Anfal campaign atrocities; the massacres in Halabja; the Iraqi government's "bureaucracy of repression," based on an enormous cache of captured documents; and, last week, a report on the depredations of "Chemical Ali."

Pollock insists that he meant to indict HRW for failing to criticize Iraq with adequate vigor since the war began three weeks ago, for its violations of the laws of war. But that isn't what his article says. Anyway, that's just another lie.

Late last month, HRW director Ken Roth publicly warned Iraqi officials that his organization would monitor the regime's wartime conduct on the ground, and would seek "prosecution of anyone who carries out" Saddam's "murderous orders." On March 24, HRW pointed out that displays of POWs on TV by either Iraq or the U.S. violated the Geneva Conventions. On March 31, Roth blasted Iraqi violations of the laws of war, such as combatants disguised as civilians. And on April 4, HRW released an exclusive report based on interviews with deserting Iraqi soldiers in northern Iraq, who described in detail the Baathist execution squads used to discipline Saddam's soldiers.

Of course, I found nothing on the Cato Web site concerning human rights violations in Iraq -- except for the usual boilerplate references to the "murderous tyrant" in its dozens of articles urging the U.S. to avoid war.

Human Rights Watch is one of the most accomplished and useful public interest organizations in the world, with an unmatched record of fighting oppression on the right and left that dates back a quarter-century to its origins as Helsinki Watch. That is more than can be said for Cato, whose officials spend millions annually to shill for the tobacco lobby, the energy industry, privatization of Social Security and other great humanitarian causes.

They owe HRW an immediate retraction and an abject apology.
[3:27 a.m. PDT, April 10, 2003]

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By Salon Staff

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