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Letters

Vol. 13 No. 6 · 21 March 1991

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‘Bye Bye Baghdad’

Paul Foot’s piece ‘Bye Bye Baghdad’ (LRB, 7 February) not only hits the targets it aims at but also selects the right ones. It is enjoyable journalism from a clear anti-war point of view, But it includes, sadly, a couple of own goals, as well as some factual inaccuracies. The former are more important than the latter.

Paul Foot asks what will be the result of an Allied victory over Saddam? He replies: ‘Will it really lead to more influence for the United Nations, a better world order, a bleaker prospect for dictators? Or will it simply mean that the most powerful state on earth becomes more powerful, and the dictatorships which it supports in its own commercial interests all over the world become more secure?’ It is obvious that he would like the first result but assumes that in practice it will be the second. We do not yet know the full outcome, but the most likely result is one Paul Foot apparently does not consider – that both options occur simultaneously. They are not inconsistent.

It would be a tragedy to spurn the present opportunity to achieve more influence for the United Nations, a better world order and a bleaker prospect for dictators. To ignore it would be to pass up an opportunity to make governments subject to the constraints of principle in a practical way. The fifty or so very small and weak members of the UN feel this acutely. Of course it will also be a victory for the Americans, but without them Saddam Hussein would have been the only victor.

Paul Foot’s argument is also disappointing to those who believe that the great international issues of the coming decade and beyond are human rights and Third World development. Those who take these objectives seriously do not suppose that they will be easily achieved. Victory in these fields will have to be won, if at all, piecemeal and by taking advantage of all favourable opportunities. The UN Charter is a crucial instrument of policy in bringing about improvement in both (connected) fields. The US and other great powers profess to accept the Charter, and never more so than at present. This surely is an important moment at which to try to turn professions into practical policies. Though it was not his intention, Saddam Hussein has created (and maintained) a situation in which there are possibilities of strengthening the UN, deterring dictators, upholding human rights and creating a better climate for Third World development free of the burden of arms purchases. We need to make use of the opportunity, and we will not do this by assuming that it does not exist because some fat cats in America will also profit.

John Thomson
Castle Douglas, Dumfries and Galloway

Iraqi Atrocities

In his article ‘Right Stuff’ (LRB, 7 February), Alexander Cockburn returns to themes relating to Amnesty International’s 19 December 1990 report on Iraqi atrocities in Kuwait –themes which he has previously raised in US publications and to which our US section has already replied. He continues to claim that reports of the large-scale killing of babies removed by or on the orders of Iraqi security forces are ‘entirely untrue’ and that Amnesty International ‘swallowed whole’ an account to this effect by one Red Crescent doctor.

Here are the facts. In our 19 December report we detailed the torture and extrajudicial execution of hundreds of thousands of victims and the imprisonment of several thousand prisoners. The report was based on medical evidence and in-depth interviews with more than a hundred people from about a dozen countries, including interviews by Amnesty International investigators who travelled to Bahrain and Saudi Arabia to talk to victims of abuse, doctors who treated them, other medical personnel, relatives and eye-witnesses. As with all reports where Amnesty International is unable to enter the country concerned, it has been impossible to verify all details. Nevertheless, Amnesty International remains convinced that its report paints an accurate picture of horrifying violations inflicted on victims of many nationalities in Kuwait. Subsequent information has served only to confirm the wide range and intensity of violations we reported.

With regard to the deaths of the babies, Amnesty International believes there is compelling evidence of large-scale killing of incubator babies. Testimony to support this has come from a range of sources of different nationalities, including members of the Red Crescent, medical personnel working in hospitals where the incidents occurred; other medical personnel and people who handled bodies of the victims after their deaths and were involved in documenting these deaths; people who were involved in the burial of the bodies of scores of infants; and a few individuals who reported on specific incidents. All testimonies we received referred to large-scale killings of babies who had been removed from incubators. After our report appeared, conflicting reports emerged about the number of killings. We returned to the sources that were still available and went to others as well. Nothing in our subsequent inquiries gave grounds for revising our overall view about the large scale of the killings, although it is impossible to verify specific figures.

In keeping with Amnesty International’s working policies, we shall continue to collect information on these and other human rights violations by Iraqi forces in Kuwait. But it must be emphasised that this is only part of our human rights work, not only in this region but throughout the world.

David Bull
Director,

Alexander Cockburn writes: In the 46 lines it gave to the charges of mass murder of over 350 premature babies, starting on page 57 of its 19 December report, Amnesty International relied on four testimonies, of which only one purported to be an eye-witness account of incubator theft leading to the death of 15 premature babies thus evicted. The most sensational account, that of a Red Crescent doctor on the payroll of Kuwait’s government-inexile, concerned 312 babies, supposedly murdered in the maternity hospital, but the doctor soon reduced the figure to 72, claiming to have buried this number in a graveyard. He did not claim to have been an eye-witness. The second-hand evidence of another volunteer gravedigger accounted for another 36 babies from another hospital ‘buried in one day alone in August’. A final allegation of incubator theft leading to the death of a set of quadruplets was similarly second-hand.

The imprimatur given by Amnesty International to the incubator stories was astonishingly laconic. Its report contained no evaluation or commentary. Mr Bull’s ‘range of sources’ mustered in his third paragraph remains hazy and appears to be different ways of describing the same small number of people. It was not necessary for Mr Bull to defend the full report, as he does in his second paragraph, since I never questioned anything in it beyond the incubator charges. He padlocks himself to his guns on these charges but soon may be calling for a key. Reports from Kuwait in the aftermath of the war are not supportive of Amnesty’s position. In its 1 March edition the Washington Post ran a dispatch from its correspondent William Claiborne, containing the following: ‘At the Kuwaiti Maternity Hospital, part of the al-Sabah medical complex, obstetrician Mohammed Mahfouz said the Iraqis periodically looted equipment that was in short supply in Iraq. But he said the hospital was able to function throughout the occupation. Mahfouz said the Iraqis did not steal any infant incubators as they were alleged to have done early in the war, but added they did take some advanced equipment for sonar scanning and for in vitro fertilisation.’ Similar démentis of the incubator story have appeared in the New York Times and, in the testimony of a Filipino nurse, on the BBC. Rather than stubbornly clinging to a position imprudently adopted, Mr Bull should perhaps be asking why it was that Amnesty International so blithely gave its support to allegations markedly similar to the atrocities laid on Germans by British propagandists during the First World War. I hope to help answer that question for him in these pages in the near future.

Pro-Russian Past

Kenneth Rose knows perfectly well the death of Lord Rothschild has nothing to do with Paul Foot’s comment about his pro-Russian past (Letters, 24 January). Plenty of people wrote about this while Lord Rothschild was alive, yet he never took any legal action to protect his reputation. Apart from Rothschild’s long association with Guy Burgess and Anthony Blunt, it has also been claimed that, while in MI5 during the war, Lord Rothschild argued strongly that Bletchley Park’s code-breaking secrets should be fully shared with the Russians. Long after the war, Rothschild continued his friendship with many left-wing members of the Labour Party who supported Russian views on foreign policy.

There is certainly nothing particularly sinister about any of this, since many wealthy people in pre-war years genuinely believed Communism preferable to Hitler and, during the war, felt Russia was doing more fighting than the British and Americans. But what makes Rothschild a particularly valid candidate for a pro-Russian past is his bizarre behaviour after Blunt was publicly exposed in 1979. The more one studies his plan of bringing Peter Wright and Chapman Pincher together (under totally false pretences) to peddle a ludicrous story about Hollis being a Russian spy, the more obvious it becomes that this was a deliberate ploy to distract attention away from himself. Why should Rothschild, a senior MI5 officer, have been so keen to see the Official Secrets Act broken, to make secret payments to Wright through offshore banks, to insist with Pincher that his name should not be mentioned in the resulting book and that the draft chapter about himself be deleted? The whole affair smells of panic. Why should Rothschild have panicked? He certainly had no fear of taking legal action, and later tried to scare Nigel West (and others) with writs. Plainly, he feared that if Wright was left alone to peddle his theories (and if other good investigative journalists got involved), they might unwittingly uncover the truth about his past. Perhaps, after all, Golits-in was right and the two Venona code-names David and Rosa were Rothschild and his wife. As Rothschild was perfectly happy to lend his name and wealth so that mud could be thrown at Hollis, Mr Rose should not be too surprised if some sticks to the subject of his forthcoming biography.

James Rusbridger
Bodmin, Cornwall

Other Places

‘There is a tendency among people who have never lived in the metropolis to suspect that the “real" world exists somewhere far beyond their own pinched horizons,’ writes Anthony Quinn (LRB, 21 February), regretting the misconceptions endemic to ‘anyone who has lived in a province’. It’s nice to know that that good old phrase ‘the provinces’ still has a singular form – OED please note. Quinn may have difficulty finding ‘anyone who has lived in a province’ to confirm his thesis, though. For myself, I have lived in an outer South London suburb, a village in South Wales and Manchester. In ‘the provinces’ all, but only in the first does anyone suffer from ‘the thumping banality of their own experience’ and a sense of being outside ‘the “real" world’. A sense of being condemned to a provincial purgatory is a common reaction to living with your nose pressed to the glass of the ‘metropolis’; most of the country is free from this malady, however. When you actually look, ‘the provinces’ are remarkably difficult to locate.

Provincialism is rather easier to find. Asked to write about Britain, many writers will come up with a precise and vivid image of one city together with a vague and featureless periphery. Oddly enough, this cognitive failure generally passes for normality: after all, everybody knows London. Consider Margaret Drabble’s England. In the South there is London, picked out district by district; in the North there is, not Nottingham or Newcastle, but the entirely imaginary ‘Northam’. Only the metropolis could supply horizons as pinched as these.

Anthony Quinn’s remarks do, however, throw some light on the question of whether English literature is itself too provincial, too much oriented towards the place England rather than the language English. I would suggest that England itself has ceased to be an issue: the real division is not between Bradford and Glasgow or Manchester and Toronto, but between London and (as the pillar-box says) ‘All Other Places’.

Phil Edwards
Manchester

Modest Caveat

You note that the review by Oleg Gordievsky (LRB, 7 February) was ‘translated by Tom Beattie’ from the Russian. The translation reads well. However, did the original Russian text by Mr Gordievsky assert that one book under review (Mr Vaksberg’s) ‘has been excellently translated’? How would Mr Gordievsky know that? Shouldn’t there have been a modest caveat such as ‘British friends have confirmed to me that …’?

John Greer Nicholson
Gananoque, Ontario

Doomed

How unfortunate that the striking advertisement for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (LRB, ) should misquote both the title and the text of one of the greatest anti-war poems in English. The title of Wilfred Owen’s sonnet is given as ‘Anthem of’ – instead of ‘for’ – ‘Doomed Youth’, and the sixth and seventh lines have been conflated. Never mind – all in a good cause.

Nicolas Walter
London N1

Soi Cowboy

Ian Pople’s poem ‘For Jon, Pam, Tom and Katie up in the air’ (LRB, 24 January) raised questions of perception and memory. In particular, we noticed an apparent inaccuracy in the name of a well-known street here in Bangkok, Soi Cowboy, which the poem called ‘Soi Carboy’. An accidental slip of the poet’s memory? A conscious transformation of the caballero appellation? Or perhaps it is a cleverly mimicked dysfunction of memory designed to capture the elusiveness of places visited for only a few days – a verisimilitude of forgetting.

E.L. Smith
Bangkok

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