Introduction – Passionately ‘Sincere’ Truth Reversal
In Parts 1 and 2 of this three-part Media Alert, we showed the dramatic extent to which Tony Blair has attempted to deceive the British public on Iraq. In an earlier Media Alert (February 3, 2003), we described how Blair had changed his stated justification for waging war on Iraq at least five times:
1. Proven Iraqi complicity in the September 11 attacks.
2. Iraqi refusal to readmit UN weapons inspectors.
3. Discovery of undeclared Iraqi WMD by weapons inspectors.
4. Proven Iraqi links with terrorist organisations.
5. Iraqi failure to be sufficiently ‘proactive’ in cooperating with UN weapons inspectors (regardless of whether WMD are found).
To this list must now be added a sixth, ‘moral’ argument. In a recent speech Blair said:
“But the moral case against war has a moral answer: it is the moral case for removing Saddam… Yes, there are consequences of war. If we remove Saddam by force, people will die, and some will be innocent. And we must live with the consequences of our actions, even the unintended ones. But there are also consequences of ‘stop the war’. There will be no march for the victims of Saddam, no protests about the thousands of children that die needlessly every year under his rule, no righteous anger over the torture chambers which if he is left in power, will remain in being…” (‘The price of my conviction’, The Observer, February 16, 2003)
One might almost imagine that Blair’s latest resort to a ‘moral’ case is an attempt at black humour. In reality there have of course been any number of protests about “the thousands of children that die needlessly every year” in Iraq. We at Media Lens have ourselves participated in demonstrations outside Downing Street. Moreover, these protests have been directed not at the Iraqi regime but at the British government.
Blair’s mention of needless Iraqi deaths is a reference to the mass death of children under sanctions reported by the UN, human rights groups and aid agencies. In a recent Newsnight interview Blair argued that “because of the way he [Saddam] implements those sanctions” they are “actually a pretty brutal policy against the Iraqi people”. (BBC2, Newsnight Special, February 6, 2003)
Though you wouldn’t know it from the media’s response to Blair’s claim, this assertion has been dismissed by the very people who set up and ran the sanctions programme in Iraq. To glance even briefly at the facts is to find that Blair is once again employing his favoured strategy – passionately ‘sincere’ truth reversal.
Effectively Terminated – The US/UK Genocide In Iraq
To understand the impact of sanctions, we need to recognise the scale of the destruction wreaked on Iraq by the 88,500 tons of allied bombs dropped during the Gulf War. Eric Hoskins, a Canadian doctor and coordinator of a Harvard study team, reported that the allied bombardment “effectively terminated everything vital to human survival in Iraq – electricity, water, sewage systems, agriculture, industry and health care”. (Quoted, Mark Curtis, ‘The Ambiguities of Power – British Foreign Policy since 1945’, Zed Books, 1995, pp.189-190)
The restriction of resources as a result of sanctions has made the large-scale reconstruction of this infrastructure impossible. In March 1999 an expert ‘Humanitarian Panel’ convened by the Security Council concluded the UN’s ‘oil-for-food’ programme could not meet the needs of the Iraqi people, “regardless of the improvements that might be brought about in the implementation of” the relief programme. (Quoted, Voices in the Wilderness website, March 2002: http://www.viwuk.freeserve.co.uk)
The Panel continued:
“Regardless of the improvements that might be brought about – in terms of approval procedures, better performance by the Iraqi Government, or funding levels – the magnitude of the humanitarian needs is such that they cannot be met within the context of [the oil-for-food programme]… Nor was the programme intended to meet all the needs of the Iraqi people… Given the present state of the infrastructure, the revenue required for its rehabilitation is far above the level available under the programme.” (ibid)
“The humanitarian situation in Iraq will continue to be a dire one in the absence of a sustained revival of the Iraqi economy which in turn cannot be achieved solely through remedial humanitarian efforts.”
Nevertheless, the British and US Governments have continued to claim that mass death in Iraq is the result, not of wrecked infrastructure, lack of funds, and an economy stalled by sanctions, but is the responsibility of an Iraqi regime that has cruelly withheld foodstuffs and medicines from its own people.
In March 2000, we asked former UN Assistant Secretary-General, Denis Halliday – who set up and ran the UN’s ‘oil for food’ programme in Iraq – if there was any truth in the US/UK governments’ assertion that Saddam had blocked the benefits of ‘oil for food’. We quoted a letter by Peter Hain, Minister of State, to the New Statesman in 2000. Hain wrote:
“The ‘oil for food’ programme has been in place for three years… The Iraqi people have never seen the benefits they should have.”
This was Halliday’s response:
“There’s no basis for that assertion at all. The Secretary-General has reported repeatedly that there is no evidence that food is being diverted by the government in Baghdad. We have 150 observers on the ground in Iraq. Say a wheat shipment comes in from god knows where, in Basra, they follow the grain to some of the mills, they follow the flour to the 49,000 agents that the Iraqi government employs for this programme, then they follow the flour to the recipients and even interview some of the recipients – there is no evidence of diversion of foodstuffs whatever +ever+ in the last two years. The Secretary-General would have reported that.” (David Edwards, Interview with Denis Halliday, March 2000, http://www.Media Lens.org)
We asked Halliday about the issue of medical supplies. In January 1999, George Robertson, then defence secretary, had said, “Saddam Hussein has in warehouses $275 million worth of medicines and medical supplies which he refuses to distribute.” Halliday responded:
“We have had problems with medical drugs and supplies, there have been delays there. There are several good reasons for that. One is that often the Iraqi government did some poor contracting; so they contracted huge orders – $5 million of aspirins or something – to some small company that simply couldn’t do the job and had to re-tool and wasted three, four, five months maybe. So that was the first round of mistakes. But secondly, the Sanctions Committee weighed in and they would look at a package of contracts, maybe ten items, and they would deliberately approve nine but block the tenth, knowing full well that without the tenth item the other nine were of no use. Those nine then go ahead – they’re ordered, they arrive – and are stored in warehouses; so naturally the warehouses have stores that cannot in fact be used because they’re waiting for other components that are blocked by the Sanctions Committee.”
We asked Halliday what he thought the motive was behind blocking the one item out of ten:
“Because Washington, and to a lesser extent London, have deliberately played games through the Sanctions Committee with this programme for years – it’s a deliberate ploy. For the British Government to say that the quantities involved for vaccinating kids are going to produce weapons of mass destruction, this is just nonsense. That’s why I’ve been using the word ‘genocide’, because this is a deliberate policy to destroy the people of Iraq. I’m afraid I have no other view at this late stage.”
The British government claims that Saddam is using the money from the ‘oil for food’ programme for anything other than food. Peter Hain, for example, stated: “Over $8 billion a year should be available to Iraq for the humanitarian programme – not only for foods and medicines, but also clean water, electricity and educational material. No one should starve.” Halliday responded:
“Of the $20 billion that has been provided through the ‘oil for food’ programme, about a third, or $7 billion, has been spent on UN ‘expenses’, reparations to Kuwait and assorted compensation claims. That leaves $13 billion available to the Iraqi government. If you divide that figure by the population of Iraq, which is 22 million, it leave some $190 per head of population per year over 3 years – that is pitifully inadequate.”
Both Halliday and his successor Hans von Sponeck resigned from long careers with the UN insisting that Western sanctions policy was “genocidal” – resignations that were unprecedented in the UN at such a senior level – but the media almost completely ignored them. Last time we checked, Halliday, for example, had never been mentioned in the Observer.
Blair can make his outrageous case for a ‘moral war’ now because journalists have long ignored reports from groups like Save the Children Fund UK, which has described the economic sanctions against Iraq as “a silent war against Iraq’s children”. (Quoted, Voices in the Wilderness UK, March 2002: http://www.viwuk.freeserve.co.uk)
The Catholic Relief Agency, CAFOD, has described the sanctions as “humanly catastrophic, morally indefensible and politically ineffective. They are a failed policy and must be changed”. (Milan Rai, War On Iraq, Verso, 2002, p.175)
Human Rights Watch has said: “the continued imposition of comprehensive economic sanctions is undermining the basic rights of children and the civilian population generally” and “the [Security] Council must recognise that the sanctions have contributed in a major way to persistent life-threatening conditions in the country”. (August 2000, http://www.viwuk.freeserve.co.uk)
Seventy members of the US Congress signed a letter to President Clinton, appealing to him to lift the embargo and end what they called “infanticide masquerading as policy”. (Quoted, Philadelphia Enquirer, April 1, 1999)
John and Karl Mueller stated in the journal Foreign Affairs in May-June 1999 that the “sanctions of mass destruction” imposed by Clinton and Blair, had up to that point killed more civilians in Iraq than “all the weapons of mass destruction in human history”. (‘Liberal Apologetics For Imperialism: Paul Starr And The American Prospect On Clinton’s Foreign Policy’, Edward Herman, ZNet, November 21, 2000)
With the wholehearted complicity of the media, the US and UK governments have been able to blame the Iraqi regime for the suffering. The BBC’s Ben Brown has said:
“He [Saddam] claims UN sanctions have reduced many of his citizens to near starvation – pictures like these [of a malnourished baby and despairing mother] have been a powerful propaganda weapon for Saddam, which he’ll now have to give up.” (Ben Brown, BBC News, June 20, 1996)
ITN’s John Draper:
“The idea now is targeted or ‘smart’ sanctions to help ordinary people while at the same time preventing the Iraqi leader from blaming the West for the hardships they’re suffering.” (John Draper, ITN, 10:30 News, February 20, 2001)
The Observer’s Nick Cohen:
“I look forward to seeing how Noam Chomsky and John Pilger manage to oppose a war which would end the sanctions they claim have slaughtered hundreds of thousands of children who otherwise would have had happy, healthy lives in a prison state (don’t fret, they’ll get there).” (‘Blair’s just a Bush baby’, The Observer, March 10, 2002)
The ‘claim’, as we have seen, is not Chomsky’s or Pilger’s at all.
The media has been less accurate and honest even than Blair in claiming that the mass death of Iraqi children is a fabrication. The Guardian’s David Leigh and James Wilson, for example, described the evidence of mass death in Iraq as merely a “statistical construct” and “atrocity propaganda”. (‘Counting Iraq’s victims – Dead babies always figure heavily in atrocity propaganda, and Osama bin Laden is merely the latest to exploit them. But what is the truth?’ The Guardian, October 10, 2001)
The Observer declared:
“The Iraqi dictator says his country’s children are dying in their thousands because of the West’s embargoes. John Sweeney, in a TV documentary to be shown tonight, says the figures are bogus.” (Sweeney, ‘How Saddam ‘staged’ fake baby funerals’, The Observer, June 23, 2002)
In his Observer article, Sweeney cited and dismissed one of the many sources of credible evidence of mass death:
“In 1999 Unicef, in co-operation with the Iraqi government, made a retrospective projection of 500,000 excess child deaths in the 1990s. The projection is open to question. It was based on data from within a regime that tortures children with impunity. All but one of the researchers used by Unicef were employees of the Ministry of Health, according to the Lancet.”
We asked Hans von Sponeck, who ran the UN’s ‘oil for food’ programme in Iraq, what he thought of Sweeney’s argument. This was his response:
“Sweeney’s article is exactly the kind of journalism that is Orwellian, double-speak. No doubt, the Iraq Government has manipulated data to suit its own purposes, everyone of the protagonists unfortunately does this. A journalist should not. UNICEF has used large numbers of international researchers and applied sophisticated methods to get these important figures. Yes, the Ministry of Health personnel cooperated with UNICEF but ultimately it was UNICEF and UNICEF alone which carried out the data analysis exactly because they did not want to politicise their work… This article is a very serious misrepresentation.” (Email to Media Lens Editors, June 24, 2002)
No one would deny that Saddam Hussein is a brutal and oppressive dictator, but claims made by the government and media that Iraqis have always experienced current levels of suffering under Saddam are not borne out by the facts. According to the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Country Report for Iraq, prior to the imposition of sanctions the Iraqi welfare state was “among the most comprehensive and generous in the Arab world”. (Iraq: Country Report 1995-96)
In a December 1999 report the International Committee of the Red Cross noted:
“Just a decade ago, Iraq boasted one of the most modern infrastructures and highest standards of living in the Middle East”, with a “modern, complex health care system” and “sophisticated water-treatment and pumping facilities.” (ICRC, ‘Iraq: A Decade of Sanctions’, December 1999)
In 1996, the Centre for Economic and Social Rights reported of pre-Gulf War Iraq:
“Over 90% of the population had access to primary health-care, including laboratory diagnosis and immunisations for childhood diseases such as polio and diphtheria. During the 1970s and 80s, British and Japanese companies built scores of large, modern hospitals throughout Iraq, with advanced technologies for diagnosis, operations and treatment. Secondary and tertiary services, including surgical care and laboratory investigative support, were available to most of the Iraqi population at nominal charges. Iraqi medical and nursing schools emphasised education of women and attracted students from throughout the Middle East. A majority of Iraqi physicians were trained in Europe or the United States, and one-quarter were board-certified specialists.” (UN Sanctioned Suffering, May 1996 http://www.cesr.org)
The situation in Iraq under sanctions could not be more different. Richard Garfield, a renowned epidemiologist at Colombia University in New York, concluded that “most” excess child deaths between August 1990 and March 1998 were “primarily associated with sanctions”. (Garfield, ‘Morbidity and Mortality Among Iraqi Children from 1990 Through 1998: Assessing the Impact of the Gulf War and Economic Sanctions’, March 1999)
Garfield noted that, in tripling since 1990, the death rate of children in Iraq is unique, as “there is almost no documented case of rising mortality for children under five years in the modern world”. (John Mueller and Karl Mueller, ‘The Methodology of Mass Destruction: Assessing Threats in the New World Order’, The Journal of Strategic Studies, vol.23, no.1, 2000, pp.163-87)
These facts are utterly banished by a media system which understands that the demonisation of Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi regime is vital for justifying war. Also missing is even the tiniest hint that London and Washington are responsible for the deaths of more than a million people in Iraq – the same people that Blair and Bush are now seeking to ‘liberate’.
Blair is right that sanctions are a brutal policy – they have exacerbated problems rooted in the Gulf War smashing of Iraqi infrastructure and have prevented the Iraqi economy from recovering. The solution is not to smash more Iraqi infrastructure in another assault designed to generate “Shock and Awe” on a traumatised Third World country already shocked and awed by suffering.
The information above highlights two central features of modern politics:
1) The extraordinary willingness of politicians to deceive and manipulate the public, even to the extent of reversing the truth.
2) The vital role of the establishment media in suppressing truth and covering up Western atrocities.
It seems clear to us that if we are to seriously challenge the deceptiveness of the political system, then we must also challenge the deceptiveness of the media. Challenging the media is not merely an optional extra, it is fundamental to releasing the state-corporate stranglehold on public awareness, and so on public opinion, and so on democracy.
A Further Note On Blair
In 1999 Blair declared a “new internationalism” where “the brutal repression of whole ethnic groups will no longer be tolerated”. (Quoted, Noam Chomsky, The New Military Humanism, Common Courage Press, 1999, p.3) Literally weeks later, Blair remained silent as Britain’s Indonesian business partner continued its genocide in East Timor, destroying 70% of all public and private buildings, and herding 75% of the population across the border into West Timorese militia-controlled camps, where hostage taking, killings and sexual assault were daily occurrences. The slaughter was in revenge for the Timorese vote for independence in the August 30 referendum, and was the final act in a bloodbath that claimed more than 200,000 East Timorese lives over 25 years. About this (and the killings from January 1999 onwards), Blair and the rest of the Nato ‘moral crusaders’ had nothing to say. Indonesian historian John Roosa, an official observer of the referendum, reported:
“Given that the pogrom was so predictable, it was easily preventable… But in the weeks before the ballot, the Clinton Administration refused to discuss with Australia and other countries the formation of [an international force]. Even after the violence erupted, the Administration dithered for days.” (Quoted, New York Times, September 15, 1999)
Mary Robinson, the UN commissioner for human rights, wrote at the time:
“The awful abuses committed in East Timor have shocked the world. It is hard to conceive of a more blatant assault on the rights of hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians. For a time it seemed the world would turn away altogether from the people of East Timor, turn away from the plain evidence of the brutality, killings and rapes. Action, when it came, was painfully slow; thousands paid with their lives for the world’s slow response. It was the tide of public anger that stirred world leaders to intervene, however belatedly, on behalf of the East Timorese.” (Robinson, ‘We can end this agony’, The Guardian, October 23, 1999)
One further example can help us to understand the sincerity of Blair’s ‘moral’ case for war. In explaining his reasons for bombing Serbia in 1999, Blair declared:
“The principle of non-interference [in other countries’ affairs] must be qualified in important respects.” Sovereignty was all very well; but war crimes, acts of genocide and serious violations of human rights “can never be an internal matter”. (Quoted the Guardian, March 15, 2000)
One year later, Blair said of the murderous war unleashed by Russia against the civilian population of Chechnya:
“Well, they have been taking their action for the reasons they’ve set out because of the terrorism that has happened in Chechnya. We’ve been calling for restraint in the Russian action, but this is a fight that has been going on – a civil war within Russia.” (ibid)
The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. In writing letters to journalists, we strongly urge readers to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.
Write to Alan Rusbridger, Guardian editor:
Email: [email protected]
Write to Simon Kelner, editor of the Independent:
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Write to Roger Alton, editor of the Observer:
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Write to Richard Sambrook, BBC director of news:
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Write to Jonathan Munro, head of ITN newsgathering:
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Write to BBC’s Newsnight programme:
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Why are you not drawing attention to the hypocrisy of Blair’s ‘moral case for war’? Are you aware that the UN and aid agencies have reported that sanctions, not the Iraqi regime, are responsible for the mass death of civilians in Iraq under sanctions? In March 1999 an expert ‘Humanitarian Panel’ convened by the Security Council concluded on the UN’s ‘oil-for-food’ programme:
“Regardless of the improvements that might be brought about – in terms of approval procedures, better performance by the Iraqi Government, or funding levels – the magnitude of the humanitarian needs is such that they cannot be met within the context of [the oil-for-food programme]… Nor was the programme intended to meet all the needs of the Iraqi people… Given the present state of the infrastructure, the revenue required for its rehabilitation is far above the level available under the programme.”
Former UN Assistant Secretary-General, Denis Halliday, who set up and ran the UN’s ‘oil for food’ programme, has said:
“Washington, and to a lesser extent London, have deliberately played games through the Sanctions Committee with this programme for years – it’s a deliberate ploy… That’s why I’ve been using the word ‘genocide’, because this is a deliberate policy to destroy the people of Iraq. I’m afraid I have no other view at this late stage.”