monstrous war crime
With more than 650,000 civilians dead in Iraq, our government
must take responsibility for its lies
By Richard Horton
Guardian" -- - -Our collective failure has been
to take our political leaders at their word. This week the BBC
reported that the government's own scientists advised ministers
that the Johns Hopkins study on Iraq civilian mortality was
accurate and reliable, following a freedom of information
request by the reporter Owen Bennett-Jones. This paper was
published in the Lancet last October. It estimated that 650,000
Iraqi civilians had died since the American and British led
invasion in March 2003.
Immediately after publication, the prime minister's official
spokesman said that the Lancet's study "was not one we believe
to be anywhere near accurate". The foreign secretary, Margaret
Beckett, said that the Lancet figures were "extrapolated" and a
"leap". President Bush said: "I don't consider it a credible
Scientists at the UK's Department for International Development
thought differently. They concluded that the study's methods
were "tried and tested". Indeed, the Johns Hopkins approach
would likely lead to an "underestimation of mortality".
The Ministry of Defence's chief scientific adviser said the
research was "robust", close to "best practice", and "balanced".
He recommended "caution in publicly criticising the study".
When these recommendations went to the prime minister's
advisers, they were horrified. One person briefing Tony Blair
wrote: "Are we really sure that the report is likely to be
right? That is certainly what the brief implies?" A Foreign and
Commonwealth Office official was forced to conclude that the
government "should not be rubbishing the Lancet".
The prime minister's adviser finally gave in. He wrote: "The
survey methodology used here cannot be rubbished, it is a tried
and tested way of measuring mortality in conflict zones".
How would the government respond? Would it welcome the Johns
Hopkins study as an important contribution to understanding the
military threat to Iraqi civilians? Would it ask for urgent
independent verification? Would it invite the Iraqi government
to upgrade civilian security?
Of course, our government did none of these things. Tony Blair
was advised to say: "The overriding message is that there are no
accurate or reliable figures of deaths in Iraq".
His official spokesman went further and rejected the Johns
Hopkins report entirely. It was a shameful and cowardly
dissembling by a Labour - yes, by a Labour - prime minister.
Indeed, it was even contrary to the US's own Iraq Study Group
report, which concluded last year that "there is significant
underreporting of the violence in Iraq".
This Labour government, which includes Gordon Brown as much as
it does Tony Blair, is party to a war crime of monstrous
proportions. Yet our political consensus prevents any judicial
or civil society response. Britain is paralysed by its own
At a time when we are celebrating our enlightened abolition of
slavery 200 years ago, we are continuing to commit one of the
worst international abuses of human rights of the past
half-century. It is inexplicable how we allowed this to happen.
It is inexplicable why we are not demanding this government's
Two hundred years from now, the Iraq war will be mourned as the
moment when Britain violated its delicate democratic
constitution and joined the ranks of nations that use extreme
pre-emptive killing as a tactic of foreign policy. Some
anniversary that will be.
· Richard Horton is a doctor and the editor of the Lancet -
© Guardian News and Media Limited 2007
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