A Monstrous War Crime [Iraq]
With more than 650,000 civilians
dead in Iraq, our government must take responsibility for its
by Richard Horton
The Guardian, March 28, 2007
Our collective failure has been to take
our political leaders at their word. This week the BBC reported
that the government's own scientists advised ministers that the
Johns Hopkins study on Iraq civilian mortality was accurate and
reliable, following a freedom of information request by the reporter
Owen Bennett-Jones. This paper was published in the Lancet last
October. It estimated that 650,000 Iraqi civilians had died since
the American and British led invasion in March 2003.
Immediately after publication, the prime
minister's official spokesman said that the Lancet's study "was
not one we believe to be anywhere near accurate". The foreign
secretary, Margaret Beckett, said that the Lancet figures were
"extrapolated" and a "leap". President Bush
said: "I don't consider it a credible report".
Scientists at the UK's Department for
International Development thought differently. They concluded
that the study's methods were "tried and tested". Indeed,
the Johns Hopkins approach would likely lead to an "underestimation
The Ministry of Defence's chief scientific
adviser said the research was "robust", close to "best
practice", and "balanced". He recommended "caution
in publicly criticising the study".
When these recommendations went to the
prime minister's advisers, they were horrified. One person briefing
Tony Blair wrote: "Are we really sure that the report is
likely to be right? That is certainly what the brief implies?"
A Foreign and Commonwealth Office official was forced to conclude
that the government "should not be rubbishing the Lancet".
The prime minister's adviser finally gave
in. He wrote: "The survey methodology used here cannot be
rubbished, it is a tried and tested way of measuring mortality
in conflict zones".
How would the government respond? Would
it welcome the Johns Hopkins study as an important contribution
to understanding the military threat to Iraqi civilians? Would
it ask for urgent independent verification? Would it invite the
Iraqi government to upgrade civilian security?
Of course, our government did none of
these things. Tony Blair was advised to say: "The overriding
message is that there are no accurate or reliable figures of deaths
His official spokesman went further and
rejected the Johns Hopkins report entirely. It was a shameful
and cowardly dissembling by a Labour - yes, by a Labour - prime
Indeed, it was even contrary to the US's
own Iraq Study Group report, which concluded last year that "there
is significant underreporting of the violence in Iraq".
This Labour government, which includes
Gordon Brown as much as it does Tony Blair, is party to a war
crime of monstrous proportions. Yet our political consensus prevents
any judicial or civil society response. Britain is paralysed by
its own indifference.
At a time when we are celebrating our
enlightened abolition of slavery 200 years ago, we are continuing
to commit one of the worst international abuses of human rights
of the past half-century. It is inexplicable how we allowed this
to happen. It is inexplicable why we are not demanding this government's
Two hundred years from now, the Iraq war
will be mourned as the moment when Britain violated its delicate
democratic constitution and joined the ranks of nations that use
extreme pre-emptive killing as a tactic of foreign policy. Some
anniversary that will be.
Richard Horton is a doctor and the editor
of the Lancet
War Crimes & Criminals