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February 03, 2005

Comments

Thank you for starting this thread, Sebastian. If I may, I'll re-post my comment from the thread on "The Left", here where it really belongs.

When attackers bomb a TV station, unless everyone there is military personnel (which I don't believe was the case) they are deliberately killing civilians who are just doing their civilian jobs. To argue that they're entitled to do that because civilian jobs include spreading propaganda against the US invasion and against the US, doesn't appear to sit right with the Geneva Convention against harming civilians in time of war.

As an argument, it amounts to "Propaganda is dangerous! It must be stopped!" And I wouldn't argue that propaganda isn't dangerous - but it's not the kind of danger attackers can stop with bombs.

Well, physically, of course, it is: bomb a printing press, and that press can't be used any more to print propaganda: smash a computer, and that computer can't be used any more to research/write material for propaganda: bomb a TV station, and that TV station can't be used any more - etc. The difference is, of course, that while there are usually more than one printing press available, and generally another computer, there often won't be more than one TV station.

The fact remains, though, that killing civilians who represent no direct physical threat to US soldiers - who are not armed and not physically attacking US soldiers - was almost certainly a war crime. As noted by the committee that investigated the bombing of the Kosovo TV station, that was legally justified because the TV station was also a nexus for communications; it was never legally justified because an attacking country is entitled to kill civilians in order to knock out the defending country's propaganda.

We can certainly argue whether the bombing of the Iraqi TV station was a war crime. Granted the point that AI had valid reason to believe that it was, however (see the report on the RTS bombing in Kosovo) there's an even clearer point to be made:

No one press release can say everything.

The press release you link to was put out on March 26 - the very day that the Iraqi TV station was hit. Naturally, it dealt primarily with the war crime that had occurred that day, which that PR was clearly responding to. In an effort at balance, AI mentioned that war crimes had been committed by both sides, and referred to war crimes of a similar nature - deliberate attacks on civilians - committed by Iraqis.

To show that AI is biased, you would have to research all their press releases. )(And press releases aren't a very reliable way of measuring the bias of an organisation: better to look at their core function, and how they perform it. AI's core function is not writing press releases for the media.)

Great posts from both you and hilzoy, Sebastian -- and particularly appropriate on this site, where you are trying to foster rational dialog between people representing a large spectrum of political ideals.

I'll also note that this is a good post, and since I didn't at the time, that Hilzoy's was superb. Good job by both of you.

Political bias can strongly influence how we use and interpret distinctions. Distinctions that make us uncomfortable can be hidden in a broad term. Distinctions which offer an easy way out can be drawn narrowly. When trying to honestly talk with people who disagree with you, you have to be aware of how you are making distinctions and how the distinctions you make are being received by the other party to the discussion. Human beings can't be perfectly aware of such issues, but trying to think about it from time to time certainly can't hurt.

This is excellent, and gets close to the point that I was trying to make in the prior thread about "drawing a moral equivalence". As you say, it's very difficult to clearly communicate subtleties to someone who doesn't share your preconceptions, and as you don't say but as naturally follows, it's similarly difficult to accurately comprehend subtleties from someone who doesn't share your preconceptions.

This doesn't matter to me if the speaker is someone whose bad faith I already feel justified in assuming -- a press release from the Council of Conservative Citizens, I'll read whatever subtleties I like into it, and feel justified in doing so, but that's only because on other evidence I'm certain that they're a bunch of racist jerks.

For those I disagree with politically, but whose good faith I have no independent reason to doubt, though, I believe that I have an obligation to interpret statements with a certain thick-headed literalism, because I know I'm going to have trouble with the fine implications. If the speaker is someone I can interact with, as in blog comments, I'll ask for clarification where what seems to me a likely implication troubles me; where I can't reasonably get such a clarification, I don't feel entitled to treat an implication which I find wrong or distasteful as an independent offense.

This is what bothered me about your reading of the AI press release -- it's a perfectly reasonable reading if you're already certain that AI is a maliciously anti-American group. If you don't start with that as an assumption, you would really have to read all the AI press releases relating to the war, and compare them to the information AI was receiving at the time (i.e. to account for the accuracy and reliability of data about American actions vs. about Iraqi actions, etc.), to figure out if it was biased, and I don't understand you to say that you've done that. Rather, you seem to find the release quoted offensive on its face.

Doesn't that require the sort of clear communication across barriers of political preconceptions that you've identified as very difficult?

Focusing on violations of the boundary issues when the core value is being more seriously attacked can be gravely harmful to the discussion.

I think this is precisely the point many of us on the "left" or "anti-this-war-now" side tried to make when you were famously arguing the precise meaning of the word "imminent" and whether this Administration had portrayed Iraq as an "imminent" threat to get the war on.

I wonder how many words Sebastian has written focusing solely on the violation of this narrow boundary condition when the core value, which should be obvious, is being attacked by such semantic hand waving. And I wonder how gravely it affected real discussions.

I'd have a lot more praise for this post if I had not actually witnessed excruciating examples of Sebastian doing precisely the same thing he is protesting against.

Oh, and AI's sins on this matter (if there are any) didn't result in the Iraq war, Torture, a lot of dead civilians and a 200+ billion dollar price tag.

Seems to me that, like robbing a bank, one would focus the examples and morality plays on things that actually have huge effects rather than focusing on things that - in any reasonable metric - do not even show up on the radar of rational people.

Great post.

Free-speech zones, which are not exclusively the domain of any party or ideology but used to an extreme by the Bush administration, are an even clearer example of ways we're forgetting the core meaning of free speech, not to mention the eroding public interest in these core values as reflected by opinion polls.

If you don't start with that as an assumption, you would really have to read all the AI press releases relating to the war, and compare them to the information AI was receiving at the time (i.e. to account for the accuracy and reliability of data about American actions vs. about Iraqi actions, etc.), to figure out if it was biased, and I don't understand you to say that you've done that.

During and just before the war I read every press release put out by Amnesty International and HRW. I think it was somewhere between 2-3 months worth. I suspect that was approximately 40-60 press releases. If I recall correctly, there was precisely one AI press release that really dealt with the Iraq crimes on any level which approached its attention to the TV station. I can't find it now (I just spent 20 minutes looking around the archives) but in my opinion there was one fair press release. It was one of the longer ones, and it detailed about 2 pages worth of US actions and about 2 pages worth of Iraqi actions. I read them as they came out, but if you want to tackle them now, the Iraq archives (centered around the time of the war) may be found here .

Hal, the question of 'imminent' is not really the focus on boundary issues as I use it above. Perhaps there is a better word for what I am trying to say, but I am not saying it. I use it to describe situations where we intentionally expand the limits of a right or other basic concept beyond most people's moral intuition of the concept. We do this to ensure that all of the basic intuition gets protected. But at times we can focus on minute shifts on the boundary issues which distract us from major upheaval on the core issues. An example of this might be focusing on the exclusionary rule for evidence found illegally while the zone of 'permissible' searches grows to include all sorts of warrantless but non-emergency searches in the drug enforcement arena. My free speech example identifies the contrast between worrying about whether or not certain types of near-obscenity should have their protections expanded while the core value of political speech is narrowed by campaign finance every couple of years. It also plays out ideologically as the free-speech zones which were pioneered against pro-life activists suddenly get use against anti-war activists (and in both cases extremely overblown questions of safety supposedly rule the day).

The difference in the 'imminent' debate is over the core value of when it is permissible to go to war. Bush argued that it was permissible to go to war even when the threat was not 'imminent'. Many of his opponents insisted that one could only go to war when the threat was 'imminent'. That is debating the core issue. The post-war debate on the topic involved Bush's opponents changing the history of the debate into one where Bush accepted the need for an 'imminent threat' and failed to prove it instead of one where Bush did not accept the premise that only imminent threats could be responded to with force. That is an issue of boundaries (which is why I wish I could think of another term for what I want to say), but it is not an issue where defining the outer-limit boundaries of a value distract attention from the core issue. If you want to talk about the 'imminent threat' debate in terms of the boundary issues I'm trying to identify, it would be better to say that worrying about defining the contours of the US's right to guard against non-imminent threats like Saddam distracted attention from the more important threat of say dealing with Russian nuclear weapons--Katherine makes that very argument and it has some validity. I really want another term for the issue because 'boundary' makes it sound like I don't want to draw distinctions which isn't true at all. I just don't want the drawing of the outer-reach boundaries to contribute to slipping of the core values that are in question.

If I recall correctly, there was precisely one AI press release that really dealt with the Iraq crimes on any level which approached its attention to the TV station. I can't find it now (I just spent 20 minutes looking around the archives)

OK, before the war, the Kurdish areas are basically free of Iraq oversight because of the no-fly zone, so there was little likelihood of Iraqi war crimes there. The Coalition forces take Iraq with less than 100 casualties, I think, in an operation that amazed everyone, right? And given the total collapse of the iraqi military, you are scanning AI releases for complaints about Iraqi war crimes? Doesn't that seem a tad off?

I can respect the sentiment that you put in the above post, but to have you defend your reading of AI press releases suggests that you don't get it. The total collapse of the Iraqi military suggests that there was an imbalance of opportunities. If you want to argue that the Coalition forces were throwing more munitions and therefore had a higher chance of being accused of committing war crimes, I could accept that, but you seem to argue that there had to be an equivalent number on each side, so AI is lying. Sure, there could have been Iraqi war crimes, but given that they were in their own country, and the accounts of mass graves appears to be exaggerated, I'm having a hard time seeing why that isn't precisely the kind of bias you talk about in your last paragraph.

"And given the total collapse of the iraqi military, you are scanning AI releases for complaints about Iraqi war crimes? Doesn't that seem a tad off?"

Nope. There are documented cases of the Iraqi army using human shields, shelling Basra, and inhabiting occupied schools and hospitals during the short war. These were not focused on by Amnesty International despite the fact that they go to the very core of the protections which are supposed to be so important to AI.

This can also happen when somone mistakes the part for the whole--as in equating all Republicans with the most extreme members of the Christian Right.  Even among the Christian Right there are differing extremes.  I'm quite confident that most of you who dislike Pat Robertson would get along well with my parents who also dislike Pat Robertson.  But my parents are firmly a part of the Christian Right, and the Republican Party, nonetheless.

Are you conflating political disagreement with personal dislike? I lived in the south long enough to know and like many people who are of the Christian Right. But that doesn't mean I regard their political views as reasonable.

"Are you conflating political disagreement with personal dislike?" Nope. The "Christian Right" is not a monolith, and if it must be treated as one, we shouldn't pretend that it is defined by its most radical members. Which I believe is the exact same problem we had earlier with "The Left".

Sebastian: These were not focused on by Amnesty International

By what metric are you determining that? By their press releases?

The post-war debate on the topic involved Bush's opponents changing the history of the debate into one where Bush accepted the need for an 'imminent threat' and failed to prove it instead of one where Bush did not accept the premise that only imminent threats could be responded to with force.

I disagree -- it was really an issue of the two sides talking past each other. You were talking about Just War theory, while your opponents were simply talking about scare-mongering.

Huh. When I look at that website I see this, complaining about Iraqi forces dressing as civilians in violation of the laws of war, this, asking both sides, without naming either to refrain from bombing/shelling civilians (This seems reasonable to me, given that both sides were, in fact, dropping bombs and firing shells that were killing civilians. You may cavil that we were only killing civilians to the extent absolutely necessitated by the military situation, but the Iraqis were killing civilians unnecessarily -- nonetheless I can't really see this as a place where 'moral equivalence' is wrong), and this, dealing with mistreatment of POW's. By the standard you applied to the TV station press release, the last is harder on the Iraqis than on us, in that their misconduct is addressed in the first paragraphs and ours is only addressed at the end. (I would note in this regard that our misconduct in relation to prisoners appears to have been, overall, factually worse than that of the Iraqis -- we've maltreated prisoners rather severely. While they certainly committed bad acts in this regard, the situation simply didn't give them the scope, in terms of numbers of prisoners or in terms of time, to commit the type of bad acts we've committed.)

I'm not getting a clear picture of what Iraqi war crimes you think AI should have issued press releases about that they ignored -- the releases on the site do not present a picture of bias that I can see.

"These were not focused on by Amnesty International despite the fact that they go to the very core of the protections which are supposed to be so important to AI."

I'm no expert on Amnesty International, though I've sporadically been a member from time to time in the past, but "the very core," and many penumbras beyond, for AI has always been concern for prisoners of conscience, and freeing them, and not about prosecuting or documenting war crimes, which is a peripheral concern, at least in the years past when I was paying closer attention.

"While they certainly committed bad acts in this regard, the situation simply didn't give them the scope, in terms of numbers of prisoners or in terms of time, to commit the type of bad acts we've committed."

Although if you go back to the way the Iraqi regime treated POWs at the time of the first Gulf War in 1991.... (And let's not even get into the Iran-Iraq War horrors.)

Sorry, that took a while, so I didn't see the last few posts. On the 'shelling Basra', weren't both sides shelling Basra?(I found the stories I was asking for since my post yesterday) We were killing civilians to achieve our military objectives -- they were killing civilians to achieve their military objectives, putting down an insurrection in the city. If it was legitimate for the Iraqis to fight at all (that is, carrying on the war was not in itself a war crime) wasn't putting down an insurrection of people attempting to fight for the US a legitimate military objective? At that point, we're talking about whether each side avoided killing civilians to the best of their ability; is it so out of line to address both sides in the same release?

Gary:

Certainly -- but the press releases we're talking about relate to current events of Gulf War II. If you want to talk generally about which country's actions netted out to be morally preferable, the US or Hussein's Iraq, even as a fervent opponent of the war I don't have any trouble saying that Hussein's Iraq was generally much worse.

Amnesty International is torn between being an organization that tries to document human rights violations, and an organization that actively tries to shame governments into stopping them. You have a better chance of shaming a government like the U.S. than a government like Iraq.

It's the same reason the Red Cross broke its confidentiality pledge about Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib and "accidentally" let those memos leak--when it does not do such things for other countries. (Of course, the U.S. government was falsely claiming that they were totally okay with the Red Cross documents being released, which added to the temptation.)

I suspect that there may be a long term cost to an organization's effectiveness, if it alienates the U.S. right enough that they start claiming that Amnesty is anti-American and unreliable and just start dismissing everything they say.

There is also another reason for focusing on the U.S.: we are the most powerful country in the world, by a lot. If we go off the rails morally, we have a tremendous capacity to do harm and kill people, even if we have not gone anywhere near as far off the rails as other countries in the world that are much less powerful. I would guess that we have killed more civilians in the war on terror than the other side has. And we have pretty certainly killed more Muslim civilians than we have lost American soldiers and civilians combined. I don't think this makes us morally equivalent to our enemies, not even close. There's a very real difference between killing civilians on purpose and by accident. Intentions matter. But good intentions do not excuse you from facing up to all the consequences of your actions, especially the easily foreseeable consequences of your actions.

"I would guess that we have killed more civilians in the war on terror than the other side has. And we have pretty certainly killed more Muslim civilians than we have lost American soldiers and civilians combined."

I can only speak for myself, but I'm very very wary of making statements such as this, even carefully phrased as a "guess," absent something reasonably resembling available figures that can be reasonably generally agreed upon by most to be fairly credible. Do you have a cite for anything like that?

In any case, back to my original point about 'drawing a moral equivalence' and mind-reading -- Sebastian, I'm not asking you to concede that AI isn't biased and anti-American. (I was, admittedly, surprised not to find anything more specific on the 'human shields' or intentionally putting military installations in civilian locations. I'm not sure why AI wouldn't have raised those issues more vehemently to the extent that they had good information about them).

But treating the individual press release you cited as an offense is not reasonable. To the extent that you have a gripe, it's that you have knowledge of specific Iraqi war crimes that were ignored or underplayed by AI. Complaining that a specific document, principally concerned with one topic, doesn't deal in the detail you'd like with a related topic, is simply unreasonable. I'm not trying to change your opinion of AI, here; I'm just trying to draw your attention to what strikes me as a flawed mode of argument, and one whch is likely to lead to poorly based accusations of misconduct.

But treating the individual press release you cited as an offense is not reasonable. To the extent that you have a gripe, it's that you have knowledge of specific Iraqi war crimes that were ignored or underplayed by AI. Complaining that a specific document, principally concerned with one topic, doesn't deal in the detail you'd like with a related topic, is simply unreasonable.

Sure, the problem here is that I intentionally investigated AI's press releases at the time, and formed a personal opinion. That involved reading one or two releases a day for a couple of months. I'm not willing to spend the hours necessary to reconstruct it so I chose what I think is a classic example of what bothered me about AI. I do think it is a classic example, and I do think if you were spend the hour or to necessary to read all the press releases in that period you too would find that they really downplay Iraqi action--including some of the clearest violations possible. For example, even when they do mention Iraqi abuses, it is in a general way. There is never anything like the TV station report. But I'm not basing my opinion solely on the press release--it is merely illustrative. If it isn't convincing by itself, I understand.

Katherine,

I suspect that there may be a long term cost to an organization's effectiveness, if it alienates the U.S. right enough that they start claiming that Amnesty is anti-American and unreliable and just start dismissing everything they say.

I'm pretty much there with Amnesty International. At this point I don't think it even tries to give a complete picture, and I don't trust it to. I think it is deeply anti-American and in its high level press pushes it would much rather focus on lesser American problems rather than provide a full picture which happens to include American problems. Not to overportray my own moderate tendencies, but if I feel that way you can be pretty sure that more conservative people reject almost anything they say out of hand. They squandered a lot of political capital with conservatives in the 1980s by suggesting that there was no difference between our death penalty practices and those of China or Iran (two countries which can kill you 2 minutes after the sentence is passed and for rather different offenses), and their slant on the war hasn't earned anything back. The problem with an organization refusing to make important distinctions is that the general population learns they aren't worth listening to.

And that is precisely one of the reasons I didn't bother with any of the early reports on Americans torturing people. I know from experience that the AI definition of torture when applied to the US runs practically from glaring at someone all the way to chopping off fingers. After years of exaggeration I assumed that they were talking about things that I wouldn't consider torture. And I wasn't wrong in that assumption. The problem with the boy who cried wolf is that the villagers weren't logically wrong to ignore him. He had wasted their time many times before.

Gary--you're at least half right, and maybe more, but I don't think all the way right. I'm basing it on the same things as everyone else--things like the Iraq Body Count and the Lancet survey and the Human Rights Watch report, as well as our superior technology & the fact that I just cannot think of a single conflict where many, many more of our enemies have died than our soldiers. Again, I think this is a matter of technology and training--if it comes to actually targetting civilians, we are much better; there's no comparison.

On the first half, I can't phrase it more carefully than "guess." On the second one, you are correct: I should have phrased it much more carefully because the studies have an even harder time separating civilian and non-civilian casualties and figuring out who is responsible for a death than they have identifying the total number of fatalities. I should have said "I would also guess, with more confidence".

The only number that's really close to being established is the number of U.S deaths: 1436 military deaths in Iraq, 1100 of which came in hostile actions. 154 military deaths in Afghanistan. 232 U.S. civilian contractors in Iraq. I can't find an estimate for U.S. civilian contractors in Afghanistan. If it were the same ratio of military: contractor deaths as in Iraq, there would be 25, but I would guess it's not the same ratio at all, as we have never tried to govern Afghanistan the way the CPA governed Iraq, and as the terrorists have been actively targetting civilian contractors. 2976 deaths on September 11. I don't know how many Americans were killed in the attacks on Bali, Madrid, Riyadh and the Pakistan consulate and some I'm forgetting. The numbers I've seen are 8 in Riyadh, 1 in Bali and apparently 0 in Madrid. I don't know whether the anthrax attacks should be included in the total. So I would say, a low of 4729 and a high of maybe 4800.

Estimates of civilian casualties from U.S. bombing in Afghanistan range from somewhere in the hundreds to over 3000. (That author is clearly not unbiased--the main use in that article is the description of other surveys' total numbers, I wouldn't necessarily trust his evaluation.)

This is the famous Iraq Body Count site, which works from media reports. They attempt to separate out military and civilian Iraqi deaths but do not separate fatalities caused by the coalition, the Iraqi police or the insurgency--here is the database of specific incidents.

This is an AP study of morgue records in Baghdad and the provinces of Karbala, Kirkuk and Tikrit, finding that 5500 people died violently there from May 1 2003 to April 30 2004. That number could include insurgents, though it is also possible that families would be less likely to bring their bodies to the morgue. It would include attacks caused by both the U.S. and insurgents. It would not necessarily include deaths where the cause of death was obvious. Those provinces and areas I believe have higher than typical population and higher than typical levels of violence, but the most violent places--Fallujah, Ramadi, Samarra, Najaf--do not seem to be included. And this study excludes the period of "major combat operations" and excludes everything that's happened since May 1, 2005.

This is one of the better discussions I've seen of the Lancet study. this follow up is also good. The 8000 to 194000 range of excess deaths does not exclude either deaths caused by insurgents or deaths of insurgents; however, the study definitely stated that the most common cause of death is U.S. bombing. One of the surveys was in Fallujah, which I'm certain has a higher than average number of deaths and a higher than average proportion of deaths caused by U.S. bombing. I know they excluded Fallujah as an outlier for the total number of deaths; I don't know if they excluded Fallujah before concluding that the most common form of violent death was U.S. bombing.

I realize the numbers are flawed, and I agree that I should have phrased it much, much more carefully. After reviewing the data again more thoroughly, I find it almost impossible to believe that many Iraqi civilians have been killed than Americans, but if you look more carefully at the data you realize just how hard it is to sort out deaths caused by insurgents and terrorists and deaths from US. troops, and deaths of insurgents and civilians. If I had to guess I would still guess that we've been responsible for more civilian deaths in Iraq than the insurgents but it's very uncertain.

I absolutely do not think this is off limits for discussion until we have reliable, generally agreed on numbers. There will not be generally agreed on figures without some attempt by the government to find them.

As I've argued before I think it's a bad mistake to go to war in the name of peace and freedom, and a war that depends on hearts and minds, and not attempt to do civilian casualty counts. I really hope the Pentagon at least does them in secret & shows them to the Secretary of Defense and the President.

Sebastian--that's a bad mistake I think. You may not like their emphasis, or their definition of "torture" or "war crime", but in addition to press releases they publish detailed reports of who died, who was sent to prison, exactly what abuses the prisoners reported to them, who told what to them when, where they found the bodies, and all the rest. And in those reports, they are scrupulously careful about getting their facts right. Skip the press releases and read the reports, skip the conclusions of reports and read the specific factual allegations--sure, fine, fair enough. But I wouldn't dismiss everything.

For example, even when they do mention Iraqi abuses, it is in a general way. There is never anything like the TV station report.

This simply isn't literally true -- I linked above to two AI releases, one complaining about the incident where the Iraqis released footage of American POWs, and another rebuking Iraq, quite strongly, for the use of combatants dressed in civilian clothing.

I get your general point, that you regard AI as systematically unreliable. You wouldn't (if I understand you correctly) object to the TV station press release in the context of an AI which you believed to fairly deal with non-American crimes. Given that you believe that AI doesn't sufficiently object to crimes not committed by Americans, however, you brought it up as another example of over-the-top hostility toward American actions not matched by similar hostility toward Iraqi actions.

Taking all that as read, outside of the context of your pre-existing belief (whether justified or not) in AI's bad faith, there's nothing wrong with that press release. If there were what you regarded as a sufficient number of specific press releases on Iraqi war crimes, the TV station release would be fine -- the gripe isn't that statement, it's the absence of other statements. This can be a valid gripe, but it isn't one based on the press release you quoted.

This may sound like quibbling, but I think it's important in the context of disputes with people (unlike, in your case, AI) whose good faith you wish to credit. If you get into the habit of regarding statements as offensive or wrongful because, in isolation, they address one problem while not addressing what you regard as a greater problem, you're going to mischaracterize a lot of innocent statements as offensive or wrongful.

Sebastian: They squandered a lot of political capital with conservatives in the 1980s by suggesting that there was no difference between our death penalty practices and those of China or Iran (two countries which can kill you 2 minutes after the sentence is passed and for rather different offenses)

You keep repeating this allegation, but without saying where you got it from. Did you find it on the AI website? If not, where did you get it?

Here's a pretty complete set of AI documents on Iraq, if anyone wants to do a more systematic look. I just looked at a few. It is flatly untrue that they never condemn Iraqi or insurgent abuses, but you could make a good case that they're holding the U.S. to a different standard. I nominate this release for most likely to make Sebastian's head explode, but I maintain that it is not very hard to separate out the factual reporting from the editorializing and they get their facts right.

Sebastian: I know from experience that the AI definition of torture when applied to the US runs practically from glaring at someone all the way to chopping off fingers. After years of exaggeration

And again - sorry not to have added this to my previous comment - where are you getting this information from? The AI website itself? Which reports or press releases?

The reason I ask is because I am and have been an AI member, off and on, and my strong recollection is that consistently, over the years, AI doesn't mention the US all that much. I've written many letters, at AI's behest, to protest incidents and to support prisoners: I used to belong to a group that met monthly to do just that. And while I couldn't give you percentages or numbers, my impression is that AI deals with countries all over the world - certainly it doesn't focus on the US particularly.

So when you claim that AI is consistently anti-American, I have to wonder where you're getting your information from.

"...and the Lancet survey...."

My very non-comprehensive look at the time led me to largely dismiss the Lancet report as lacking credibility. However, as I indicate, I don't propose that I either looked at it in a definitive way, or do I propose myself as someone who authoritiatively could, so I certainly don't insist everyone must agree with my tentative evaluation.

"I absolutely do not think this is off limits for discussion until we have reliable, generally agreed on numbers."

I agree; I didn't and wouldn't propose that the topic should be "off-limits." I merely stress caution and care.

Once again, Obsidian Wings shows itself to be the cream of the crop in the blogosphere.

"Sebastian--that's a bad mistake I think."

Well it led me to erroneously dismiss AI storys of what I would consider torture. So it was clearly a mistake of some sort or another. But I think it was a mistake which was made very easy because of their blatant bias and cried wolf history.

"So when you claim that AI is consistently anti-American, I have to wonder where you're getting your information from."

Jesurgislac, for at least 15 years I have been an avid reader of both national and international news sources. I am not a member of the group because I disagree with their stance on the death penalty. Nevertheless I have been exposed to their press releases and stories based on their reporting for 15 years--much of it rather predating the internet. I did not form my opinion of them based on a single reading or a couple of stories. I formed my opinion of them reading scores of stupid comparisons between the Chinese and US implementations of the death penalty, a decade of comparing Iran hanging a girl one day after being convicted for being sold into prostitution with the US executing a mass murderer after 10 years of appeals. I formed my opinion based on their crappy treatment of American bombing on what they hype as a massacre on the "Highway of Death" during the first Gulf War. Sorry AI, but if you refuse to surrender and you are a soldier, you can still get bombed. (And frankly if we had destroyed the army on that highway Saddam wouldn't have been as likely to survive the rebellion which happened later.) I also have repeatedly noted their complete disinterest in the kind of pressure that can be needed to actually get rid of totalitarian societies. I get my opinions of AI from their own carefully crafted press releases and their own publicity. If the impression I get of the organization's hideous inability to make moral distinctions and to weigh actions in reality is in fact mistaken, there is no one to blame but AI.

Sebastian
If I were to take the same metric to you and form my personal opinion of your argumentation based on your stance on abortion, say, I think you would howl at the unjustice of it all. Your personal opinion of AI seems largely set by your disagreement with them on the death penalty, while failing to acknowledge that someone may view the death penalty precisely as you do abortion, which is one of your key examples in the post.

As for the highway of Death, I note a disturbing catch-22 in that you feel that any soldier in a uniform opposing the US should be killed even after command and control has broken down (and I reference your postings on the wounded insurgent incident along with your comments above), yet feel that the absence of a uniform provides for the invalidity of the Geneva conventions to be applied to those captured.

Finally, your personal opinion of AI fails to take into account the structure of AI. AI works on a chapter based system, and the AI chapters attempt to cause change in situations outside of their own country. That is one way that they try to create a structure that reduces the problem of moral distinctions. That this creates more chapters outside of the US is a result of that structure. AI is not their 'carefully crafted press releases and their own publicity' any more than you are your blog posts on ObWi.

As a sidenote, it may surprise you to know that the voices who protested the strongest about the atomic bombing of Japan were conservative and military voices, including William Buckley, Henry Luce, James Reston, Admirals Leahy and Nimitz.

"Your personal opinion of AI seems largely set by your disagreement with them on the death penalty, while failing to acknowledge that someone may view the death penalty precisely as you do abortion, which is one of your key examples in the post."

I'm not particularly pro-death penalty. I'm not sure it is worth it as an institution. The death penalty is not a make or break issue for me. I object to an organization that cannot make distinctions between the injustice of the death penalty when employed without appeal on a teenage girl sold into prostitution and a US mass murderer with a decade of appeals. I object to the pretense that there is not a moral distinction between the two. I object to condemnations comparing the US to China and Iran because all three have 'the death penalty' as if there is no moral distinction between killing a murderer and a teenage girl who got pregnant. That is moral blindness. I especially object to it because it is horribly callous to the pregnant girl in Iran to compare her execution to that of a mass murderer.

If you look at the authors and deliverers of the press releases and reports, you will see an amazing uniformity of names among the writers and styles of opinions among the reports. If that happens by reflection of the group instead of by careful craft, it is all the more damning in its blindness.

I'm not sure what your point about the atomic bomb is.

Actually Sebastian, if you want to judge AI's coverage of Iraq, I suggest that you go their annual reports from 1983, 1988 and 1989, when they were using using chemical weapons against Iran and their own citizens. You know, right about the time the Reagan administration was making nice with SH and the years when the Reagan and Bush I administrations were helping Saddam by increasing the Commodity Credits Corp. loan guarantees.

Full disclosure: I conducted new member orientations for AI at their USA national headquarters here in NYC from 1987 to 1996. At that time (and it may still be the case) the largest section in the world was the US section. One constant of criticism towards AI is that every nation - either the government or media - that is on the receiving end of criticism from AI accuses AI of being anti-that country. My favorite two quotes were from 1981:

1.) "It does not even try to hide its true Soviet character." - an official reply from the Government of Guatemala in response to a report by AI, 1981.

2.) "The role of coordinator in the massed propaganda attack against the USSR belongs to Amnesty International." - Radio Moscow, 1981 in response to a report about prisoners of conscience in the USSR.

A think a far greater act of Anti-Americanism is promoting someone to be Attorney General after having written memos defining deviancy (torture in this cae) down.

My point about the atomic bomb was just to suggest that you reflect on your claiming that AI's stance about the Highway of Death tainted their entire reportage.

You know, right about the time the Reagan administration was making nice with SH

Sorry for the out of context humor, but when I read that, I stopped and I wondered what Sebastian's relationship with the Reagan admin was.

"My point about the atomic bomb was just to suggest that you reflect on your claiming that AI's stance about the Highway of Death tainted their entire reportage."

No, it was emblematic of their entire reportage. And bombing actual soldiers who aren't surrendering isn't the same as nuking a city by my set of distinctions.

Had they any opportunity to surrender? (Again, this is a reasonably serious question, I don't have a vivid enough memory of the news at the time to be certain of what I'm about to say.) My recollection of the situation was that the Iraqi army was disorganized and fleeing, and that there were not American troops of the ground to which they had the opportunity to surrender.

If you look at the authors and deliverers of the press releases and reports, you will see an amazing uniformity of names among the writers and styles of opinions among the reports. If that happens by reflection of the group instead of by careful craft, it is all the more damning in its blindness.

Er . . . it happens because in any such organization, there are a handful of people in their communications department authorized to be listed as contacts on news releases or otherwise to be contact points for the media or other inquiries. The individual listed as the contact is not necessarily the author of the release, nor would they have independently compiled the information, nor would it have been authored to reflect their personal opinion.

And as I said, if the near uniform tone of the AI press releases represents a large cross section of the membership, that only makes things worse as far as I'm concerned.

On the issue that AI fails to "make distinctions" between the US and e.g., the Chinese or Iranian death penalty: I think this goes back to the point I was attempting to make about the TV station press release.

I doubt that there is any AI statement saying: "We regard the execution of pregnant teenagers by Iran as morally equivalent to the execution of murderers by the US," or anything that could be regarded as a literal equivalent. (If there is, I apologize and hang my head in shame.) What you must be objecting to, if anything, is statements roughly of the form: "AI considers use of the death penalty a violation of human rights, and requests that the following countries that now have the death penalty stop using it: China, Iran, the US." You are offended by the placement of the US on a list of countries with other countries that you consider absolutely incomparable with it, despite the fact that, in a thick-headedly literal sense, it belongs on the list (That is, if the criterion is "uses the death penalty", all three of those countries, in fact, do). In other words, it isn't that they literally equate the US with other death-penalty-using countries, it is that they do not always explicitly differentiate it from other death-penalty-using countries.

At that point, my question is, what do you want from AI? Do you want them to abandon their opposition to the death penalty as practiced in the US? Because that seems unreasonable. Do you want them to not mention what they regard as US wrongdoing until all other countries have been brought to at least the US's standard of behavior? Again, that seems unreasonable -- if they regard US use of the death penalty as a problem, and believe they can affect it through publicity, why is the fact that other countries are both worse behaved and more intransigent a reason not to? Do you want them to draw attention separately to, e.g., Chinese bad acts in this regard? Because they do, of course.

Your objection to AI seems to come down to a belief that it is unacceptably rude to speak the name of the US in the same sentence as that of countries that are much worse, even if what has been said is literally true. Attributing bad faith to the entire organization because it speaks truthfully, albeit disrespectfully, of the US, seems to me to be an overreaction, and one which, in the case of the recent torture issues, one which has led you into error.

LizardBreath,

The pattern of criticism of AI by those who have an animus towards AI usually runs in the following directions:

1.) Zero-sum. If AI is reporting about the situation in Gitmo, then they are ignoring Darfur. Not borne out by the facts.

2.) They are only seeking to smear the US. Not if you dig a little deeper.

3.) Selective extraction. This actually is a criticism that the critics are often guilty of. George H. W. Bush relied on and publicly cited AI reports on occupied Kuwait in the run up to Gulf War I, while making no mention of rapes, murders and torture in Haiti taking place at the same time after the overthrow of Aristide in 1991.

Your objection to AI seems to come down to a belief that it is unacceptably rude to speak the name of the US in the same sentence as that of countries that are much worse, even if what has been said is literally true. Attributing bad faith to the entire organization because it speaks truthfully, albeit disrespectfully, of the US, seems to me to be an overreaction, and one which, in the case of the recent torture issues, one which has led you into error.

I really think that is the heart of the matter.

Sebastian, thanks for your response to my query. Liberal japonicus, Randy Paul, and LizardBreath have pretty much said what I would have said in reply, so I don't see any need to recapitulate their points.

However, with regard to the Highway of Death: exactly how could Iraqi soldiers have surrendered, in your opinion? They were being bombed and strafed from the air, and (at that point) represented no threat to any Allied troops: there were none in the vicinity. You feel they should have surrendered in order to avoid being massacred, if I read you rightly: how, and to whom, could they have surrendered?

Wow. This is the most ironic thing I have seen all day.

Sebastian's original post is all about needing to see important distinctions. A major point therein is the importance of understanding where the other side is coming from, and doing what you can to understand what the distinctions they are making mean to them.

But then in the comments thread he attacks AI for not understanding the importance of a distinction that is important to him (Sebastian) but not to them (AI).

Very strange. Very, very strange.

OF COURSE AI is not going to be super-careful to make a distinction between types of cases where the death penalty is carried out. To them, the death penalty is wrong, full stop. If you're practicing it, you need to stop. They don't care who is being killed, or for what crimes -- they just want it to stop.

Asking them to systematically make that kind of distinction is demanding precisely what you said you can't demand of somebody else -- that THEY think using YOUR distinctions.

Example. Personally, I feel that there are some abortions that are morally acceptable, and some that are really disturbingly wrong. Having an abortion because you wanted a boy not a girl is not ok. Having an abortion because you were raped by your father is ok. Having an abortion because if you don't have an abortion you're going to die -- that's ok too.

Hard-core pro-life people do not make that distinction. The Catholic Church makes martyrs and heroes out of women who know that their pregnancy will kill them but opt against abortion anyway, because any "abortion is a grievous sin."

When pro-life people talk about x million abortions per year in the United States -- and yes, they do so in press release form! -- do I have the right to call them "morally blind" because they do not make the distinction between abortions that I think are morally acceptable and abortions that I do not think are morally acceptable? Are they to be dismissed as moral idiots with nothing to contribute?

Of course not. They're not morally "blind." They are just using a different understanding of the moral universe, an understanding under which there is no distinction between acceptable and unacceptable abortions.

If I want to argue with these people, I need to do so. I need to try to show them that their moral universe, which does not allow for such distinctions, is flawed. I need to press the moral relevance of the distinction between paternal rape and sex-of-the-baby situations. I need to see how they react to the discussion. The discussion may be long and difficult. But it needs to happen. Until it does, if I simply dismiss them because they think differently than I do, then I am the one with the moral blinders on.

"In other words, it isn't that they literally equate the US with other death-penalty-using countries, it is that they do not always explicitly differentiate it from other death-penalty-using countries."

No. They have regularly used a public argument along the lines of--the death penalty is bad, horrible regimes use it like China and Iran--the US should be ashamed to be similar to those countries.

Randy Paul, I have made quite explicit what I dislike about AI. There really isn't any need to guess. I do not have the zero-sum objection. I do not say that they only attempt to smear the US. I do not even say that is their principle focus. However I do believe they have an anti-American tendency which is revealed in their emphasis. This emphasis is revealed in the stories they choose to highlight internationally, the stories they choose to use their media captial on, and the stories they choose not to highlight. I can't be sure I'm not selectively extracting because I don't read every single press release they have ever put out. But I did read every single press release they put out during the war period in Iraq on the subject of Iraq. And I did find that AI was selective in reporting and emphasizing US problems which were less important in favor of reporting Iraqi crimes which went to the very heart of war crimes. If you were to review the link I provided to AI's own site, you would find the same. Furthermore I am a regular reader of the international press, so it is not as if I am missing the AI reports that wouldn't appear in the US.

Your objection to AI seems to come down to a belief that it is unacceptably rude to speak the name of the US in the same sentence as that of countries that are much worse, even if what has been said is literally true.

This is not my objection at all. My objection is found in the title of the post--failure to draw distinctions. AI emphasizes one class of crimes (in the cited case they emphasize something that is not even certain to be a crime) when committed by the US while de-emphasizing another class of crimes when committed by opponents of the US. They do so regularly. They do so publically. They also regularly use terminology in much broader scope than is normally appropriate to hide distinctions that many people are willing to make. See my crime=jaywalking and genocide example above.

And yes, it is frustrating that when AI finally gets around to reporting actual problems people like me aren't likely to listen initially. But it is a completely logical reaction when a group fails to make useful distinctions for 30 years--it gets ignored.

Jesurgislac, fleeing soldiers are legitmate targets under international law. Full stop. They could have surrendered in Kuwait. They should have surrendered in Kuwait. They could have done what thousands did and made clear that they were surrendering when the planes and helicopters approached (remember the 'funny' stories of people surrendering to helicopters throughout the war?). Fleeing is not surrendering. And frankly, it is too bad that we reacted to the horror of the international agencies and press by allowing most of the army to flee back to Iraq. That allowed Saddam to have access to military equipment that ought to have been destroyed and was used later to maintain his grip on power.

Sebastian: Jesurgislac, fleeing soldiers are legitmate targets under international law. Full stop.

You brought up the point that they should have surrendered to escape being massacred: I just wondered how you thought they should have done it. As far as I can make out from your answer, your feeling is that once they started retreating from Kuwait rather than surrendering to the Allied military there, it was too late and they deserved to be massacred for not surrendering earlier. Do I have that right?

Sebastian: AI emphasizes one class of crimes (in the cited case they emphasize something that is not even certain to be a crime) when committed by the US while de-emphasizing another class of crimes when committed by opponents of the US. They do so regularly.

But you can't actually cite an occasion when they do it?

. . . emphasizing US problems which were less important in favor of reporting Iraqi crimes which went to the very heart of war crimes. If you were to review the link I provided to AI's own site, you would find the same. Furthermore I am a regular reader of the international press, so it is not as if I am missing the AI reports that wouldn't appear in the US.

If we assume arguendo that the point made earlier concerning the mission of AI is correct-- to attempt to nudge national governments towards altering their behavior vis a vis the issues which AI champions -- and given that the entire reason behind the Iraq adventure was "regime change" -- getting rid of the existing government and replacing it with . . . well, nothing for two years except an interim government led by the US administrator -- what would have been the point? Which Iraqi government would they have been appealing to? The one in the spider hole?

Kent, you write

If I want to argue with these people, I need to do so. I need to try to show them that their moral universe, which does not allow for such distinctions, is flawed. I need to press the moral relevance of the distinction between paternal rape and sex-of-the-baby situations. I need to see how they react to the discussion. The discussion may be long and difficult. But it needs to happen. Until it does, if I simply dismiss them because they think differently than I do, then I am the one with the moral blinders on.

Ahh, but AI is not at all interested in that discussion. To them: bombing a Saddam-run TV station at night when it is closed and genocide--war crimes. To them: executing a pregnant girl for unchastity and executing a mass murderer--death penalty. To them: keeping someone awake for 20 hours and cutting off their fingers--torture. They aren't interested in it further than that--they are the exact analouges of the Christian right in terms of willingness to discuss their terms AND in the self-righteousness they employ while talking about them.

And in fact it is worse than I just outlined. The US bombing a TV station at night when it is closed--something they will highlight as a war crime. The Iraqi army shelling Basra--something they will give cursory mention to. Same week. Different actors. Different response. Inappropriate response. Disinterest in useful distinctions.


RE: "If I want to argue with these people, I need to do so."

In general, I don't argue with Amnesty International. In general I don't listen to them at all. I do that because I don't want to have to sort through our definitional differences only to find that 80% of the time they are talking about the US I don't care about what they care about. It is the same reason most of us don't bother listening to Pat Robertson's group. But in Amnesty International's case it is too bad, because I would love to listen to a group that reported on human rights violations in a sense that tracked most people's understanding of the term within 70-80%.

Sebastian: because I would love to listen to a group that reported on human rights violations in a sense that tracked most people's understanding of the term within 70-80%.

"most people"? I was unaware that you knew what "most people" think. Exactly how did you get this information?

I do that because I don't want to have to sort through our definitional differences only to find that 80% of the time they are talking about the US I don't care about what they care about.

Amnesty International, as a consistent policy, never asks people to take action against crimes/atrocities committed by their own government, in their own country of residence.

If your only objection to AI is what they think of the US, you can ignore it with regard to the US: pay attention to what they say about the rest of the world.

I do not say that they only attempt to smear the US. I do not even say that is their principle focus. However I do believe they have an anti-American tendency which is revealed in their emphasis. This emphasis is revealed in the stories they choose to highlight internationally, the stories they choose to use their media captial on, and the stories they choose not to highlight.

What of it? Seriously, I can accept, for the purpose of argument, that AI may hold the US to a higher standard than it holds, e.g., Iran -- complaining more vehemently about smaller offenses when they are committed by the US -- and again for the sake of argument, I'll say that that could be explained by anti-US bias*. Why would that, if true, constitute a reason to ignore the facts they report?

I can see it as a reason to feel dislike for AI, or to ignore their editorializing about the US, but the leap you've made to ignoring them as a source of facts appears unwarranted.

* I don't actually think that bias is the explanation; rather, I think AI considers the US a basically decent country on which pressure is likely to have an effect, and so it's more worthwhile pressuring us, than, e.g. Iran.

The Iraqi army shelling Basra--something they will give cursory mention to. Same week. Different actors. Different response. Inappropriate response. Disinterest in useful distinctions.

I linked an AI statement relating to the shelling of civilians in the Iraq war above. They, in fact, do not draw a distinction between the Iraqi shelling of civilians and the US shelling of civilians. What was the useful distinction they failed to make there?

"Why would that, if true, constitute a reason to ignore the facts they report?"

Because the facts they tend to report tend to be completely uninteresting to me. Bombing a TV station is so far from the core concept of 'war crime' that to me it isn't worth my time. So the facts they report in such cases are a waste of my time. Often they will talk about 'torture' or 'war crimes' that sound bad when they omit pertinent facts but when I research them don't sound so bad at all. Once again I was wasting my time. And while wasting my time, they also tend to unjustifiably insult my country. At some point that becomes annoying enough that it doesn't seem worth paying attention to the. At some point, when you hear 'war crimes' describe things which aren't bad enough and you hear 'torture' describe inconveniences rather than torture enough, and when you hear 'lack of civil rights protections' enough from people who think it is cute to apply the term to the US and Iran in the same sentence. At some point you don't want to wade through it. It is the same reason you all don't read FreeRepublic. It isn't that the useful information is near-zero. It is that getting to it isn't worth it. But it is sad when they report something real that most other groups wouldn't report, and those who won't read them or listen to them miss it. I fully admit that.

"I linked an AI statement relating to the shelling of civilians in the Iraq war above. They, in fact, do not draw a distinction between the Iraqi shelling of civilians and the US shelling of civilians. What was the useful distinction they failed to make there?"

The US wasn't shelling civilians, that was a failure to note the responsible party. And unlike the TV station (where they could have not identified the party and it would have been obvious anyway) not identifying the party is tarring both.

Sebastian: The US wasn't shelling civilians

The US used cluster bombs in built-up areas.

Also google 'daisy cutters'. Bold off

You cannot seriously be comparing Amnesty International to Free Republic. If you don't want to wade through the editorializing, read the reports, not the press releases. Or read Human Rights Watch instead if you like.

None of our shells killed civilians? You know that's not true, we (coalition forces) shelled Basra, and civilians died as a result -- what you must mean is something like "We shelled civilians to the absolutely minimum extent possible to serve our legitimate military goals." The Iraqi shelling that you were talking about was intended to put down an insurrection -- people fighting against the Iraqi government. This is a legitimate military end. You can, and obviously do, say, that we killed the minimum number of civilians necessary to serve our military ends, and that the Iraqis used unnecessarily indiscriminate force. Nonetheless, I can't see the killing of civilians with artillery as categorically different when we do it and when they do it.

Katherine wrote:

You cannot seriously be comparing Amnesty International to Free Republic.

Why, are you suggesting the comparison might be unfair to the Free Republic?

Seriously though since AI is an actual organization rather than an electronic bulletin board in which anyone can post pretty much anything they want, AI ought to be held to a higher standard of care in what they say, how they say it, and what relevant facts they include or omit. Sebastian Holsclaw’s is quite correct in that they often distort things (usually falling short of actually lying) and do tend to take a BAF mentality. I’m wiling to admit that they were quite useful at a point such as when they originally focused on the imprisonment of “prisoners of conscience” but at some point they let their activism in other areas (e.g. death penalty abolition) distort their original mission.

Now if must read them, double and triple-check them and take what they say with a 50lb bag of Morton System Saver.


Maybe this is out of place and/or ad hominem. If so, I apologize. But it seems like the real complaint is their anti-Americanism, not their failure to make the proper distinctions. If they were failing to make the proper distinctions but were pro-American, would you really dislike them as much?

Ahh, who am I kidding? I have the same problem. I dislike institution or person X for not-all-that-good reason Y, but I come up with a more intellectually compelling reason Z to dislike them, and insist that my dislike is based on Z rather than Y.

"None of our shells killed civilians?"

Arghh. Distinctions. The Iraqi army was shelling civilians. Our troops weren't even in the city yet. They were not shooting at us, missing, and accidentaly killing civilians. They were shooting at, hitting, and purposely killing civilians.

Kent, their anti-Americanism is revealed in their inability to make distinctions. I'm not sure the ideas are as separate as you think, but I'm certainly not trying to hide the fact that it is their anti-Americanism that irks me. Legitmate criticism may cause me concern or make me uncomfortable. But that isn't anti-Americanism and that isn't what I'm talking about. What I'm talking about it the indiscriminate mixing of huge amounts of what I see as illegitimate concern with small amounts of real concern. And at some point I have decided not to bother with trying to wade through it. And I know that it may not sound like it, but I am much more open to annoying sources of information than many conservatives. So if I've written it off, you can be sure most conservatives have as well. That is merely what it is. If it isn't important to Amnesty International that their views be heard by conservatives (much less actively received by them) they should by all means not worry about it. I merely used them as an example of how choosing not to make distinctions that your audience might make can tend to shut down conversation. But if they aren't interested in having a conversation with people like me, they really shouldn't worry about it. I suspect that will hurt their overall effectiveness, but that is really for them to decide.

"The Iraqi shelling that you were talking about was intended to put down an insurrection -- people fighting against the Iraqi government."

Whoa, I missed this statement. I haven't seen any indication at all that this was true. Basra was not in a state of insurrection, and indiscriminately shelling it isn't a legitimate way to find insurrection. Or wait, would indiscriminately shelling Sadr city have been ok? I don't think you are going to agree to that.

The Iraqi army was shelling civilians. Our troops weren't even in the city yet. They were not shooting at us, missing, and accidentaly killing civilians. They were shooting at, hitting, and purposely killing civilians.

Hmm... look, I'm not defending the Iraqi actions here as good, or nice, or as anything other than horrible, but they weren't shelling Basra, as I said above, out of causeless malignity. They were shelling Basra to stop an insurrection -- people fighting the Iraqi government. They wouldn't have been shelling Basra if there weren't people fighting the Iraqi government in there. THOSE people were legitimate military targets -- whether they're in uniform or not, people fighting on the side of your enemy are legitimate targets. (It would have been better, of course, had the Iraqi army simply surrendered, but if fighting the war in itself wasn't a war crime, then killing those residents of Basra who had taken up arms against the Iraqi government wasn't a war crime.)

So what we did was shell Basra, trying to take out military targets, but with the full knowledge that our shells would kill civilians. What they did was shell Basra, trying to kill people who had taken up arms against the Iraqi government, but with the full knowledge that their shells would kill people who hadn't.

I am certain that we devoted more care and thought to minimizing the number of civilian deaths than the Iraqi army did, but these situations do not appear to me to be categorically incomparable.

(On preview, I just saw your last post. I'm refreshing my memory on the facts of all this out of Google and what I've found is pretty indefinite -- if you've got a good source of the facts be a pal and point me to it. I haven't found a clear source of the allegation that Iraqi forces shelled Basra -- just second-hand references to it (oddly, often sourced to AI.). Where I've seen mentions, it's been linked to the simultaneous uprising in Basra -- that is, as intended to put down that uprising.

My grasp of the facts is admittedly ill-sourced, but are you suggesting that the Iraqi Army was shelling an Iraqi city for no reason at all -- just for the hell of it? That would certainly be a war crime if true, but awfully bizarre. As I've said, I haven't got a clear memory of the facts, or a good source on this point -- I'll defer to any source you have.)

On rereading that it sounds as if I were taking the position that the Iraqi shelling of Basra wasn't a war crime. I'm not saying that it wasn't a war crime -- probably was -- but there's an equivalent argument that our conduct in shelling areas with civilians was also criminal.

"My grasp of the facts is admittedly ill-sourced, but are you suggesting that the Iraqi Army was shelling an Iraqi city for no reason at all"

The explanation I heard was that they were attempting to drive civilians out of the city and toward the US forces to make an attack from the US much more difficult. But that is a recollection from reporting at the time. I can't find it now.

Ick -- if true, certainly ghastly, and in a different category from civilian deaths caused by our shelling of Basra.

Given that my goal here is to defend AI, rather than the conduct of the Iraqi government (for whom I hold no brief) I have to wonder if the difficulty we've both had finding a clear version of the story explains the fact that there isn't a sufficiently detailed contemporary denunciation from AI. If it was a story that came out as secondhand reports, and the facts were unclear at the time, that would justify the 'there have been reports of', more guarded tone, vs. the TV station thing where the facts and the US intent were unambiguous.

BTW, I think my comparison of AI to FreeRepublic is not quite apt since FreeRepublic is a mostly unmoderated forum. I think a better comparison would be to InstaPundit--Employs often misleading hyperbole, skews things to his point of view, intelligent but highly annoying to people not instinctively aligned with him, highly condescending and self-righteous, comes up with some useful stuff but you have to wade through tons of irritating crap to get through to it.

Randy Paul, I have made quite explicit what I dislike about AI. There really isn't any need to guess. I do not have the zero-sum objection. I do not say that they only attempt to smear the US. I do not even say that is their principle focus. However I do believe they have an anti-American tendency which is revealed in their emphasis.

This is an inference you are making based on your disagreement with some aspects of their mission. It's an opinion, but if you wish to make an empirical analysis of their position, you need to look at the entire scope of their history and not just a period in which they criticized the US when Bush decided to invade Iraq based on frankly, false premises.

If you want to criticize AI, I think that you would have a legitimate beef if you took them to task for the criticism of the German government's prison isolation of the Baader-Meinhof gang in the late 1970's.

Another common criticism of AI is the expectation that it should focus on issues that the critic feels are worth focusing on. The organization cannot simply be all things to all people. A woman at an orientation I gave a few years ago said that all she wanted to work on were cases of female genital mutilation. While I assured that AI opposed these acts, if that was all she wanted to work on, then AI was probably not the best group for her to get involved with.

If you believe that AI has an anti-American bias, then you also need to consider that nothing occurs in a vacuum. If the current AG didn't write memos in an attempt to redefine international law in a self-serving fashion, if Abu Ghraib didn't happen and if the Bush administration wasn't determined to toss out habeas corpus when it wasn't convenient, then some of the height would be off of the US.

Nevertheless, consistency is a hallmark of AI. The only countries I see in Western Europe not included in their 2003 report are Liechtenstein, Norway, Iceland, San Marino, Andorra and Vatican City. In Africa the only countries not mentioned are Benin, Botswana, Cape Verde, Djibouti, Gabon, Ghana, Lesotho, São Tomé e Príncipe and Seychelles, with the exception of Ghana, these are among the smallest of Africa's nations. Check the list out here.

The problem is still one of emphasis. They choose to spend thier media captial in very specific ways--and that reveals an anti-American focus based on the severity of the problems focused on compared to the severity of the problems which could be focused on. You are arguing the way a Christian fundamentalist would argue about homosexuality. They would say: It isn't the only thing we care about, look at the large charity groups we run. They would be correct. But the MAIN places they spend their political capital do not include charity. One of the most significant ways they spend their media capital revolves around attacking homosexuals. And that is just as forceful a criticism of AI, for precisely the same reasons.

Sebastian: The problem is still one of emphasis.

Assuming your analysis is accurate (which I doubt*) Don't you feel it's rather flattering than otherwise than AI believes the US is more likely to be shamed into good behavior than (for example) Saudi Arabia?

Just wondering.

*I doubt it, since I think you're noticing AI more when they publish material that's critical of the US than when they publish material that's critical of other countries. Therefore, you think their media strategy is focussed on being anti-American. As a long-term member of AI, you're certainly wrong about what they do as an organization, and unless you can show me an independent statistical analysis of topics covered by AI press releases that proves your point, I simply assume your bias is influencing your perceptions.

I read lots of papers, including international papers. I see what AI pushes into them. I don't read everything that they produce, but I do see the fruit of their PR labor.

Sebastian: I see what AI pushes into them. I don't read everything that they produce, but I do see the fruit of their PR labor.

...which doesn't actually contradict what I said about your bias changing your perceptions.

Now it's beginning to reek of projection, Sebastian.

"which doesn't actually contradict what I said about your bias changing your perceptions."

Ummm, unless I am psychologically incapable of reading stories that AI puts out about other countries in major newspapers, it kinda does. Unless I am incapable of noticing the high-profile stories that AI pushes about other countries, it does. I am quite capable of noticing high profile stories. I do it every day.


"Now it's beginning to reek of projection, Sebastian."

Odd term to use, Randy. What specifically do you think I am projecting? Am I projecting the reading of international papers onto Amnesty International? Am I projecting a secret hatred that I harbour of America onto Amnesty International?

No, I think that you are projecting a hatred of any criticism of the US into being anti-Americanism.

Indeed, you've been reading the press releases of recent AI reports some of which centered on the US role in Iraq. Yet I pointed out that if you wished to make an accurate comparison of AI's comments on Iraq, you would need to review their reportage during the 1980's up until Gulf War I on Iraq. Did you know, for example that in April 1981, AI put out a report titled Iraq: Evidence of Torture? Did you know, for example that in 1988 after the Halabja chemical attack on the Kurds, when AI presented photos of the victims, US officials said that it was "inconclusive?" Did you know that AI became the first NGO to appeal directly to the Security Council on this issue? You can find this in Samantha Powers' A Problem Form Hell: America in the Age of Genocide.

In other words, you're comparing apples and oranges and taking what I feel is a very self-serving narrow view of the data.


Sebastian: Ummm, unless I am psychologically incapable of reading stories that AI puts out about other countries in major newspapers, it kinda does. Unless I am incapable of noticing the high-profile stories that AI pushes about other countries, it does. I am quite capable of noticing high profile stories. I do it every day.

Yet somehow you fail to notice when AI criticizes other countries, and only notice AI's criticism of the US.

Your claim that you perceive AI to be biased against the US is not borne out by any detailed statistical analysis of AI press releases. You are merely asserting that your memory of stories you have read is sufficient to deem AI anti-American. Presuming that you do not have a perfect memory, which I happen to doubt, I suspect you are simply (and naturally, I should add) remembering AI's press releases about the US better than you are AI's press releases about other countries.

With the added factor that, in US media, press releases about the US would get more publicity, be more high-profile, anyway - nothing to do with AI, everything to do with US media disinterest in anything happening outside US borders.

Other than that, what Randy Paul said.


"In other words, you're comparing apples and oranges and taking what I feel is a very self-serving narrow view of the data."

and

"With the added factor that, in US media, press releases about the US would get more publicity, be more high-profile, anyway - nothing to do with AI, everything to do with US media disinterest in anything happening outside US borders."

I honestly wonder sometimes if you bother reading what I write.

A) I don't read just the US media. In fact I don't even read mainly the US media.

B) Number of reports is not at all the same as number of reports that AI spends its media capital on. Identifying the number of reports on different countries does not even come close to addressing the fact that they hype certain reports and do not hype others. And the ones they hype tend to be A) lesser offenses by B) the United States. I have made that point repeatedly in this thread. To repeat the parallel with fundamentalist Christians, I can guarantee you that more of their time and money is spent on charitable work than on anti-homosexual politics. But they spend their political and media captial on anti-homosexual themes. And it is not a legitimate analysis of them to say that their political and media focus is on charity. It is not. It is on an anti-homosexual agenda. The same is true of AI. I am perfectly willing to admit that AI puts out reports on all sorts of countries. But they do not spend their media capital on very many reports. And when they do, it is often about the US. And when they chose to highlight things re the Iraq war, they chose to highlight US minor action and downplay much worse Iraqi action. That last sentence is just a fact. My interpretation doesn't even come in until I speculate on why that is so.

Lets see if you two can dodge my point again. I'm guessing you won't even mention it.

No Sebastian, it's an opinion as is my position and we'll have to agree to disagree. You have taken one unique snapshot and sought to extrapolate from that. That's not analysis.

I'm not dodging a point. My experience with the organization is a lot more extesnive than yours is and although you come to a conclusion that you find satisfying for your beliefs, I find your methodology to be limited in scope and self-serving. In other words, simply because you say it's a fact it doesn't make it so.

You dispute but do not contradict.

Does AI spend more of its media capital on the US than other countries?

If no, please name the other country you believe it spends more of its media capital on. When you have done so I will look for such stories in major publications over the last 5-10 years.

Does AI spend more of its media capital on the US than other countries?

Could you define "media capital"? I'm not sure if you're referring to PR budget, the analogue of "political capital" or what.

Sebastian,

Oh I do contradict. The word you're looking for is refute. If I reject your methodology then my argument is that your entire case is weak and you haven't made your argument. You assume that AI directs all its media capital through press releases. I have years of experience with the organization to know that is simply not the case. You ignore reports, campaigns, Urgent Actions, Regional Action Networks, the Freedom Writers Network and numerous other methods AI employs to address the issues it's concerned with.

AI has many sections around the world, many of which have their own website. Have you examined all of them? Have you read all the press releases each section puts out? Have you read all of the reports each section puts out? Have you researched their urgent actions, their casework, their campaigns, their outreach efforts, their Regional Action Networks?

As I said, we have to agree to disagree. I have a job and I don't have the time to devote to this. I do know this, however: I have met enough people from across the political spectrum who are msot appreciative of AI's efforts on their behalf. Bet you haven't talked to any of them.

Sebastian: I have made that point repeatedly in this thread.

You have asserted that point without proving that point. Your bias is against you.

I'm considering Randy Paul's refusal to answer with the name of country he believes AI focuses more of its media push on despite his alleged intimate knowledge of its programs an admission that there is no such country.

You assume that AI directs all its media capital through press releases. I have years of experience with the organization to know that is simply not the case. You ignore reports, campaigns, Urgent Actions, Regional Action Networks, the Freedom Writers Network and numerous other methods AI employs to address the issues it's concerned with.
...
Have you examined all of them? Have you read all the press releases each section puts out? Have you read all of the reports each section puts out?

First of all you have a lot of nerve. Clearly you haven't even bothered to follow the link to AI's own website which I provided. On Iraq it has the press releases and summaries and reports.

The crux of your argument, that I have not done almost infinite research into individual chapters, is so completely non-responsive as to be a complete dodge. I am focusing on the things which AI chooses to push into the international media spotlight. No institution (except the media itself) has the ability to push its every concern into the international media spotlight. A group like AI can probably only do so 3 or 4 times per year. I don't need to do deep research into chapters to be aware of which stories those are. I need only read from a diverse set of international news sources on a very regular basis. I see the stories that AI bothers to push into the international spotlight. I don't need to know all of the methods that it uses to spend media capital. Honestly I don't need to know about any of them. I've done more research than I needed to by looking up its actual press releases. I can see the result and it is exactly as I have portrayed it.

Just as you don't need to attend every evangelical church in the United States to notice that one of the few things they bother to take action on with their national political capital involves homosexuality, I don't need to investigate every chapter in AI to see how it spends its political captial.

Direct question--do you believe that a large focus of the national political capital of the Christian Right is spent on issues regarding homosexuality. If the answer is yes, how do you know that? How do you know that a huge portion of their political will is not spent on home-schooling support, providing shelter for the homeless, replacing buildings in disaster-stricken areas, providing job training for the out-of-work? These are all things that churches associated with the Christian Right do on a regular basis. But I wouldn't ask you to investigate all those things to discover the main political focus on a national level. It wouldn't be necessary. Their political focus is on a few fairly narrow issues--homosexuality being the most prominent. And we all know this because of how they spend their media and political capital. It isn't that they fail to do other things. It is that when they have to channel their limited ability to get only part of their message out to through the media, they focus on what they see as the evils of homosexuality.

AI does the same thing. They do many laudable things on the small scale. But when they want to get their message out, when they want to push something in the media--it is more likely to be about the US than any other country.

That is focus.

There are other countries that do many worse things. AI does not use their limited ability to communicate through strongly pushing their stories in the international media about those things nearly as often as it chooses to communicate criticism of the US.

That is why I say they have an anti-American focus.

"Oh I do contradict. The word you're looking for is refute. If I reject your methodology then my argument is that your entire case is weak and you haven't made your argument."

Nope, I chose that word carefully. You dispute my methodology but you do not contradict the conclusion. I have both a methodology and a conclusion. You reject my methodology but you don't go out of your way to reject my conclusion. It is of course possible that I could have a flawed methodology and a correct conclusion.

You claim to have a much deeper understanding of Amnesty International than I do. I'm inclined to believe that you do. Therefore, if you believe that AI spends more of its media push on any country other than the US please name the country.

Sebastian: I'm considering Randy Paul's refusal to answer with the name of country he believes AI focuses more of its media push on despite his alleged intimate knowledge of its programs an admission that there is no such country.

Because there is no such country that AI "focuses its media push on" - you are simply declaring that you believe that it's the US. Why should Randy Paul invent a country that AI is biased against, the way you have invented AI's bias against the US?

There are other countries that do many worse things. AI does not use their limited ability to communicate through strongly pushing their stories in the international media about those things nearly as often as it chooses to communicate criticism of the US.

I do not have the impression Amnesty targets the US more that other countries. I glanced at their Dutch website and the press comments of the last two months were:


USA: 4 out of 32 = 12.5%
Europe (incl. albania, serbia & croatia): 9 out of 32 = 28%
Asia: 7 (icl. Indonesia) out of 32 = 22%
Afrika: 9 out of 32 = 28%
Middle East: 2 out of 32 = 6%
Worldwide: 1 out of 32 = 3%

After that I looked at their current newspage:


Nepal, World Social Forum, Sudan, USA (open letter about appointing Gonzales), Europe, Serbia and Montenegro, Vietnam, Sudan, Albania, Colombia, World Social Forum (again), Syria, India.

Frontpage of the USA Amnesty website (which will be more inclined to focus on the USA, just as the Dutch site will focus more on the Netherlands) shows stories about Sudan, Pakistan and Vietnam. Their 'news section' had items about China, Egypt, Sudan, Vietnam, Albania, Peru, USA (about Gonzales), Albania, Argentina, USA. And if I go back till december last year it adds Inda 2 times, USA 6 times, Indonesia 2 times, Nepal, Kuwait, Europe and Iran.

For the USA that is 8 out of 24 = 33%

Their general site: Sudan, Vietnam, Tsunami, Human Rights as big stories. In the sideline as news: China, Nepal, Serbia and Montenegro, Europe, Albania & Colombia. In the sidelines as reports: USA (the same open letter about Gonzales again) & Albania.

I glanced at the French website, assuming that that one might be biased against the US. Frontpage, countries mentioned: Sudan, Brasil, Bosnia, Mexico, Turkmenistan, Myanmar, Irak, Israel and Sudan again.
Latest press releases: 30 about countries/regions, 2 of those about the US (7%).

Seeing that this is a period of war, occupation, detention and torture by the US it does not strike me as heavily biased against the US.


By making this about "media capital" blaming AI for the differential coverage that their reports and press releases receive. If AI issues a report saying that something terrible is happening in the Sudan, it isn't going to get a lot of media play unless it's truly mindbogglingly horrific. This isn't due to pro-Sudanese bias, it's due to a combination of racism and general indifference to what happens in the developing world -- it's very difficult to get the American media to develop an interest in a story about Africa. (I simply don't know about the UK/European media -- I would expect they're the same, but I don't read enough of them to know.)

The flip side is that heavy media attention to a story about US bad acts isn't necessarily due to either (a) more effort from AI publicizing it or (b) anti-US bias -- a perfectly reasonable explanation is that American and European audiences are simply more interested in reading about the US than they are about terrible things happening in Indonesia.

Dutchmarbel, once again, total number of stories 'covered' does not answer the question. Out of hundreds of stories per year only a very very few will be pushed by AI. Most will have a report issued and very little further action taken. You can be unconvinced that that is important if you want. But you aren't responding to me if you are just looking at the raw number of stories. By analogy, a political party has hundreds of things in its platform, but it does not have hundreds of top priorities. Merely listing 'opposition to the death penalty' and then dividing that by total number of topics in a party platform would do almost nothing to reveal how focused that party was on that issue. A party which spent all of its political capital trying to stop the death penalty would look much less interested than one which only mentioned it once and caved on every vote if the former party had 25 platform items while the latter had 12 using that kind of analysis.

Sebastian: Out of hundreds of stories per year only a very very few will be pushed by AI.

Lizardbreath answered this claim five minutes before you posted it.

Jesurgislac, do you believe that homosexuality is a high priority concern of the US Christian Right? How is that revealed to you?

How can you compare the Christian Right with AI? One is an amorphous group of people while the other is an organization with a chain of command and a procedure for doing things. That we had a commenter who had better knowledge of the inner workings here might have been an opportunity to try and understand, but I guess that's not working for you.

Sebastian, post link to the "US Christian Right"'s website, and I'll give you an analysis comparable to Amnesty. But mind, it must be the "US Christian Right"'s website, the one that exactly corresponds to www.amnesty.org in every respect.

Go on.

Dutchmarbel, once again, total number of stories 'covered' does not answer the question. Out of hundreds of stories per year only a very very few will be pushed by AI. Most will have a report issued and very little further action taken. You can be unconvinced that that is important if you want. But you aren't responding to me if you are just looking at the raw number of stories.

In our press they don't push the US much. You had someone working for them who told you that they do not push the US much. I counted the press notes and stories on various amnesty websites and the US was not overrepresented. So all 'measerable' evidence so far says that they do not have an anti-US bias. The only counter-argument is your 'feel' about what they do and do not push, which is also based upon what *you* deem of comparable importance (for me having a public execution is sligtly more gruesome than having an execution with a tribune for the selected few, and I really do not understand why there is a high moral difference for you - but that is because I am fervently anti-capital punishment).

Frankly, so far all the evidence points towards your "feel" being wrong.

Ahh, so it being an amorphous organization makes it more likely that you can tell what its public agenda is? You don't like the political party analogy either?

According to this style of analysis, the US Green Party is equally concerned with Nuclear Issues and Education and the Arts. It apparently looks at Equal Rights for Women and "Justice for Native Hawaiians" as equal priorities.

The problem with low level analysis of number of documents produced or number of bullet points mentioned is that it does not differentiate between stuff produced and almost never acted upon, and stuff that the political entity in question actually puts its weight behind. Failure to differentiate between such things, is a rather spectacular method of dodging the question.

Do you honestly believe that Amnesty International, or any organization, pushes all items on its agenda equally?

We talk all the time on this site about how the US Christian Right pushes its ideas on homosexuality. I would argue many things, but I would never be so arrogant as to argue that it really does not 'push' its agenda on homosexuality by noting how many other things it mentions from time to time or that it has other interests as well. That would be self-evidently ridiculous. It is true that the fundamentalist churches which make up the Christian Right do hundreds of other things. But that doesn't change the argument one bit. What is true about that for a loose collection of churches with informal leadership is even more true for a tighter collection of chapters with a more centralized leadership.

You are talking right past my concern. It is always possible that I am wrong. But we will never find out in this discussion because not a single one of the people talking here has even tried to address my concern.

Sebastian: You are talking right past my concern. It is always possible that I am wrong. But we will never find out in this discussion because not a single one of the people talking here has even tried to address my concern.

You have failed to provide any evidence that what you are concerned about is so, except for your unverifiable "feel". As all the evidence says your "feel" is wrong, there's not a lot we can do to address your concern.

there's not a lot we can do to address your concern

Actually, Jes, there is. We can discuss the internal structure of AI to give Sebastian a better idea of why the emphases that occur do, as Randy Paul has. We could present objective evidence based on AI material, as dutchmarbel has done. But I think that 'trying to address my concern' means 'agreeing with my point of view'. That's going to be a toughie.

"As all the evidence says your "feel" is wrong..."

So far I have not seen evidence presented regarding the topic of my "feel". You are talking past me by presenting evidence as if all topics on which Amnesty International offers comment are topics which Amensty International prioritizes its efforts and for which it employs its full range of media capabilities.

I don't mind if you disagree with me. I don't mind if you think I'm totally wrong. I don't mind if you criticize the fact that I'm not a paid researcher who has spent years analyzing the problem--though I think that is rather beside the point. I do mind when you suggest that you have answered me when in fact you have ignored almost every point I have raised. I would be surprised to find that you believe Amnesty International pushes all of its press releases equally. Since I would be shocked if you believed that, I presume you don't want to engage the question. Which is fine. It would be empirically difficult to measure. Furthermore, I don't require anyone to engage my thoughts or concers or questions. I just want you to understand that you aren't addressing it if you bring up raw number of press releases and find the percentage of them that are about the US.

Liberal: But I think that 'trying to address my concern' means 'agreeing with my point of view'. That's going to be a toughie.

I agree.

Sebastian: I do mind when you suggest that you have answered me when in fact you have ignored almost every point I have raised.

You have not raised any answerable points. You really haven't. You've asserted that you think that Amnesty International focusses on US issues more than it does on other countries, that you perceive it "pushes" press releases about the US more than it does press releases about other countries.

You have shown no evidence that this is so. I would be surprised if you could, but you haven't even tried. You've asserted fifteen years of reading the media, including international media, but you must realize that as we're not telepaths, we can't take your fifteen years and analyse them, can we?

I would be surprised to find that you believe Amnesty International pushes all of its press releases equally. Since I would be shocked if you believed that, I presume you don't want to engage the question. Which is fine. It would be empirically difficult to measure.

It does not push everything equally; it has campaigns about specific themes.
Current campaigns:
- stop violence against women (women in warzones worldwide)
- control arms (target whole world, current emphasis on France)
- death penalty (you know who you are and the company you keep)
- stop torture (you know who you are and the company you keep
- refugees have rights (sudan, tsunami, rwanda, malysia, UK, Europe, Malta, Syria (US/Netherlands), Japan)
- International Justice; target country of the month is Turkey, you know who opposes it and the company they keep
- Economic globalization and human rights (Bhopal vs Dow Chemicals, Nigeria and oil, blood diamonds trade(US & UK), international norms for companies)
- child soldiers (Worldwide, more than half a million children under-18 have been recruited into government armed forces, paramilitaries, civil militia and a wide variety of non-state armed groups in more than 85 countries. Emphasis is on Africa)
- Human rights defenders in Latin America and the Caribbean
- treaty bodies

I checked in the archive of my Dutch newspaper about news from AI in the last month. Criticized are (in chronological order going backwards): Nepal, world (n Sudan), Indonesia (Atjeh), Thai prisons, Abu Ghraib, German police, Croatia, violence against women, Turkey, Bhopal (Dow), UN (because of Dafur), Turkey, US (treatment detainees), Congo, Congo, Tunesia, Italy, European Union, Nigeria, UK, Laos, Dafur, Uzbekiztan, Netherlands, Iran, Iran, Burkina, Syria, Netherlands, Iraq (christian churches), Netherlands, Netherlands, Tibet, Dafur, Cuba, Israel, Turkey, NATO, Marocco, Middle-East, US in Iraq, Turkey, Kashmir --- and that is where I stopped counting, may 2004.

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