No Iraqi atrocity seized the public imagination more vividly than the charge that in the days following the 2 August invasion of Kuwait Iraqi soldiers murdered at least 312 prematurely born babies by plundering their incubators. President Bush, according to his publicists, had Amnesty’s December report at his elbow as he planned to go to war. (The fact that it was at an elbow normally secluded from human rights reports probably had something to do with the fact that his former Chief of Staff, Craig Fuller, was in the employ of Hill and Knowlton, a PR firm retained by the Sabah family.) Bush referred to the incubator charges at least six times in the month before the bombing began, as well as indirectly in his speech of 17 January as explosives descended on Baghdad. Amnesty’s imprimatur – eventually withdrawn – was important in firming resolve for a ‘just’ war across the Coalition.

I first got seriously interested in the incubator story in mid-January when it became clear that other human rights organisations, while detailing many dreadful Iraqi abuses in Kuwait, were treating this particular charge with caution. Aziz Abu-Hamad, a Saudi consultant researching Iraqi abuses for Middle East Watch, had been unable to find any credible eye-witness or testimony to sustain the charges of baby mass murder. Amnesty’s main witness was a Red Crescent doctor on the Sabahs’ payroll. He had no way of knowing whether even the 72 babies he claimed to have buried in Al-Rigga cemetery had died by reason of being taken from their incubators, and had already abandoned his original claimed total casualties of 312.

Abu-Hamad had also found Kuwaiti doctors and nurses in exile ready to dispute the story, insisting that by the time they had left Kuwait, at dates later than the claimed time of the atrocities, incubators were still in place and no infants had been murdered in the manner proposed.

I had a certain predisposition to be doubtful about the charges of baby-murder-by-incubator-theft, having spent much time last year examining a series of cases of alleged child abuse in infant day-care schools across the United States. In the mid-to-late Eighties there had been a wave – over forty cases in all – of detailed allegations of infant abuse and ritual murder in these schools, in which rumour had metastasised at extraordinary speed into the most fantastical allegations. In courts in several States, adult teachers were accused of transporting their victims by broomstick to cemeteries and other locations apt for Satanic ritual. Infants, coaxed by social workers and therapists, accused teachers of cannibalism. Several unfortunates, on the basis of such testimony, were sent to prison for lengthy terms.

There is an indubitably large amount of child abuse in the United States, but almost all of it occurs within the home. The wave of paranoia about abuse in day-care schools seemed to stem at least in part from parental guilt that the economic necessity for both parents to be at work had forced them to ‘abandon’ their children to day care; also from an older fear, familiar from Fifties ‘body-snatcher’ movies, that infant schools are where baneful influences – homosexuality, Communism, ‘new age secularism’ aka Satanism – steal the kids away from ‘traditional family values’ (which as often as not include a penchant for silence about what Uncle William did during the bedtime story).

The part played by rumour in building up the charges about day-care schools seemed equally potent in the incubator allegations (though I should add that Saddam’s agents have certainly murdered children in Iraq and probably some in Kuwait too). The theft of incubators and consequent death of the babies usually seemed to have occurred at a hospital other than the one in which the witness had been working. It also emerged that hospital workers in the maternity hospital in the al-Sabah medical complex, fearful in the early hours of the invasion that Iraqis would steal two particularly advanced incubators, transferred babies from these to other incubators and that prematurely born infants died during the transfer. This incident may have provoked some of the later charges.

When I questioned the incubator story and Amnesty’s research and motives, there was a fairly predictable reaction. Amnesty officials stuck by their story, citing their diligence in cross-checking all such material. Others said that given what Saddam’s agents had done both to Kuwaitis and to their fellow Iraqis – Kurds included – it seemed pernickety to question one crime amid a pattern of horror. The ‘Mandrake’ column in the Sunday Telegraph alerted its readers to my supposed enthusiasm for the arts of disinformation. Some Amnesty officials also had a fallback position: Bush, they said, had been improperly selective in focusing on the incubator charge, instead of quoting impartially from all Amnesty reports about nations involved in the Gulf conflict. From Bush’s bad faith and my own unfair criticism these officials inferred that Amnesty was steering the correct, impartial course between unpalatable extremes. Amnesty International’s US director, John Healey, even suggested that those critics doubting the incubator story were in effect denying all Iraqi human rights abuses as disclosed by Amnesty. In fact, there was only one critic – me – and I emphasised that most of Amnesty’s other charges had substance.

Meanwhile the incubator story was playing a very important part, as all such atrocity propaganda does, in subduing moral qualms about going to war and – war having begun – about killing women and children in the Al-Ameriyah shelter in Baghdad.

Until the Iraqis fled from Kuwait near the end of February, no other journalist joined me in questioning the incubator story even though relevant witnesses were available months earlier. Amnesty officials preserved a defiant public front and the executive director of Human Rights Watch (Middle East Watch’s parent body), Aryeh Neier, publicly reproved me for criticising Amnesty International, even though such reservations about the incubator story had been very properly explored and sustained within his own organisation. Neier ordered Middle East Watch to abstain from all but the most formal comment, making it clear that his priority was to shield Amnesty from all criticism. Collegiality ruled the day.

Outfits like Amnesty and the Rights Watch groups survive thanks to financial contributions from donors who often have strong political opinions. These groups need respectability, so that their researches will be quoted in the press. The more ample the coverage, the more constant the flow of necessary funding. The fiercer the allegations of liberal bias from the US State Department – as aimed, for example, against Americas Watch in the mid-Eighties – the more sensitive the human rights organisation will become, and the more prudent in locating the median line of respectable opinion. This is what happened with Americas Watch at a crucial moment in the Contra war.

None of this should be discomfiting, so long as it is borne in mind that human rights organisations have biases and inhibitions. In a recent discussion in the Nation premised on the statement that ‘in principle, concern with human rights has no politics,’ Neier remarked laconically in a footnote that ‘as used here, the term “human rights” refers only to civil and political rights. In much of the world, human rights also refers to economic and social rights ...’ With the remark that such issues of definition were ‘important’, this most eminent human rights official passed on to other matters, noting only that the matter required ‘more extended discussion than is possible here’. Such discussion, if and when it occurs, could usefully be based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, whose stipulations, particularly Articles 23 through 26, most certainly refer to economic and social rights.

Given such inhibitions – particularly the fear of being dismissed as ‘propagandist’ or otherwise parti pris by the mainstream press – the spectrum of the permissible or the sayable in human rights material is narrower than might be supposed, and the desire for a sensational press release on occasion greater.

Nineteen weeks into Iraq’s occupation of Kuwait, Amnesty put out an eighty-page document. Twenty-three years have gone by since Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Amnesty has yet to produce as comprehensive a single report on Israeli abuses against Palestinians. Why the urgency only in the case of Kuwait? Although the use of torture in the occupied territories has been authoritatively documented since as far back as 1977, Amnesty for years exhibited a great delicacy on the topic. Many critics of Amnesty’s reporting on Israeli abuses insist that standards of proof are far more rigorous here than elsewhere, requiring independent testimony in the case of torture. Professor Joseph Atick of the Institute of Advanced Study at Princeton, who has done much work for Amnesty, told a colleague of mine recently that ‘Amnesty is careful about how they gather information in the Middle East ... If there’s a dispute where a soldier has shot a civilian, Amnesty would like to interview the soldier as well as other Palestinians. Atick, whose Amnesty chapter at Princeton urged expansion of the organisation’s work in the occupied territories, suggests – as do others – that since the beginning of the Intifada Amnesty’s work has improved, though he also says that ‘at the fund-raising level some administrators tried to get us to tone down work out there.’

Such prudence is not confined to Amnesty, and Middle East Watch’s own record in this area was undistinguished for many years, though it is currently embroiled in charges that it is biased against Israel, by dint of having declined to accept as conclusive the praise of some investigators for the state of Israel’s prisons. Many exhaustive works of research on Israeli abuses are simply rejected by the mainstream press as being from a priori tainted sources, such as AI Haq or the Palestine Human Rights Campaign.

Amnesty’s published a report on Nicaragua in February 1986, at a crucial stage in Ronald Reagan’s campaign for $100 million in Contra aid, a campaign that culminated a few months later in Congressional approval. The report’s manifest bias provoked a storm in Britain, where it was assailed by the Labour Party.

The report contained five pages detailing human rights abuses by the Contras and thirty pages of violations ascribed to the Nicaraguan Government. For the latter it relied heavily on the unverified charges of right-wing sources. Amnesty’s ‘investigators’ never confronted government officials with their allegations, even though the Nicaraguan Government was open to such enquiries. As one of Amnesty’s investigators conceded to Jonathan Steele of the Guardian, Amnesty had not visited any of the prisons whose conditions it discussed in the report, adding: ‘I can’t say we weren’t allowed to visit prisons.’ The report never mentioned, in its summary of concerns, the name of the prime source of human rights abuses here, the United States.

The hypocrisy comes in the denial by human rights organisations that they, inevitably, play politics. Often the politics are sufficiently implicit as to be unrecognised even by the organisations concerned. On the evidence of two Americas Watch enquiries, Neier maintains that no more than about three hundred civilians were killed during the US invasion of Panama. Other estimates, including that of the Catholic Church, have yielded figures five or ten times higher. In the first of the two reports Americas Watch cited US Southern Command briefings and officials fifteen times or more as sources of reliable information. By contrast, only one Panamanian human rights group was mentioned in the report, the Comite Panameno de Derechos Humanos, whose president at the time was Dr Osvaldo Velasquez. During the first hours of the invasion he was at the US Army base in Quarry Heights serving as witness to Guillermo Endara as he was sworn in to the Presidency. By the end of January Dr Velasquez was preparing to travel to Geneva, where Endara had named him as ambassador.

Much of Amnesty International’s work is of high quality, but the lapses are of consequence. In the case of the incubator story Amnesty tried to hardball itself out of trouble and, on an allegation on a par with the confections of British propagandists about the Germans in the First World War, backed down rather tardily. In the middle of a propaganda blitz it did the wrong thing, as tends to happen in blitzes.

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