Why would some people lie?

Why would some people lie?

November 2020

People are going to say stupid, bombastic shit on Twitter, because it's Twitter. A common refrain among denialists extends this to the evidence of the Xinjiang crisis overall: if it's so obvious, why would people need to ever lie? Before I get into the most salient historical example on fabricated testimony—the Nayirah testimony from 1990—first, here's a particularly indicative exchange between two Uyghur diaspora members I saw on Twitter:

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Uyghur-boy: You all are Team Calm, you think while we are subjected to this kind of ethnic massacre that we can slowly find the evidence and then find a solution... Awhile ago there was a video that appeared of a Han beating three Uyghur children [This is an inaccurate description of the video, apparently first circulated around Japanese twitter], according to Dr @ErkinSidick's retweet of the video these Han use the same manner of beatings against [their own] minors, and the Japanese beneath it basically said the same thing. Don't do the Chinese method of public criticism of a single person. Can the Han who beat their own children so savagely really be any better to us? Nyrola: I was taught that fact can help you win the case, misinformation will fuck you up in court. If you think [sharing] false information will benefit Uyghurs, then go ahead. For the last three years, Uyghurs like me have had enough of a hard time standing up in front of the media under our real names against genocide deniers both mainland Chinese and Western, and then you all come around and try your very best to give them more ammunition. There's nothing else for me to say.

The problem of disinformation is one Uyghur activists openly grapple with on Twitter. If we accept the overwhelming volume of testimony by relatives detailing harrowing disappearances for months or years of family and friends, it is easy to see why concern over fake news becomes secondary at best to them. This is also the same logic that drives many Uyghur Americans vote for Trump, as detailed in this recent CNN article. Super ethical? Probably not. Am I really going to hold it against them at a personal level? Definitely not.

The Nayirah affair: an inaccurate, but popular, comparison

Some further reaches of the Western left, and their peculiar allies, right-wing Chinese nationalists, are fond of comparing the collective body of testimony—documented in everything from Westerners' personal accounts, interviews with former detainees (primarily Kazakh), to entire databases of reeducation victims—to the infamous Nayirah testimony of October 1990, two months before the US would invade Kuwait with the blessing of the UN Security Council. In brief: a Kuwaiti girl gave testimony alleging Iraqi soldiers invading her country had deliberately killed babies in a hospital before Congress. She did not disclose that her father was the Kuwaiti ambassador to the US, nor that her testimony was prepared and coached by a paid PR firm hired by the Kuwaiti government. Investigations by human rights groups revealed the main allegations of the testimony to be fabricated.

The six minutes of Nayirah's testimony from YouTube. The incubator claim occurs around 1:50.

First, regardless of your opinion of the Gulf War, it is hard to deny that her testimony was at least possible. Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in itself faced massive reprobation from the international community. UN Security Council Resolution 660 condemning the invasion and calling for Iraq's immediate withdrawal passed 14-0-1; Iraqi ally Yemen choose not to attend. (Among those fourteen 'yes' votes were the US, UK, Soviet Union, China, Cuba, Ethiopia, Colombia, DRC Congo, and Canada. It would be extremely difficult to draw a more geopolitically diverse pool of countries.) The Human Rights Watch report quoted below details some of the extensive human rights violations the occurred in the aftermath of the invasion, which, again, was super illegal in itself. But Nayirah's testimony seemed impactful. From the New York Times in 1992:

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But before the war, the incubator story seriously distorted the American debate about whether to support military action. Amnesty International believed the tale, and its ill-considered validation of the charges likely influenced the seven U.S. Senators who cited the story in speeches supporting the Jan. 12 resolution authorizing war. Since the resolution passed the Senate by only six votes, the question of how the incubator story escaped scrutiny -- when it really mattered -- is all the more important.

Indeed, Amnesty International did initially corroborate Nayirah's claims in an 80-something page report in 1990. But as Human Rights Watch noted in 1992, a year-and-a-half after Nayirah's testimony:

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After the country's liberation on February 26, 1991, journalists and human rights organizations, local and foreign, satisfied themselves that the story was baseless. Although the occupiers were responsible for many atrocities, this particular claim was widely dismissed as propaganda, aimed at persuading Western public opinion that "the rape of Kuwait" had to be stopped, by force of arms. Some recalled the World War I claims by Britain and France that German soldiers had bayoneted Belgian babies—claims later acknowledged by the allies as having been false.

Human Rights Watch (through its affiliate, Middle East Watch), in fact, had fairly consistently taken issue with Amnesty's initial report and related propaganda as it conducted its own investigations. HRW publicly stated in December 1990 that it was unable to verify the infamous incubator claim, and reiterating as much the following month. HRW eventually concluded that this and other more egregious and outlandish claims of abuse were traceable to the Kuwaiti government-in-exile officials, who did not feel obliged to be conservative in the claims they made; they "believed that psychological and public information campaigns were legitimate tools in combatting a flagrant act of violence and naked aggression."

For their part, Bush administration State Department officials were pissed that Western sources had the gall to contradict the testimony of a handful of doctors and Nayirah. In a February 1992 cable, U.S. Ambassador to Kuwait, Edward W. Gnehm, expressed his anger:

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In our view, the most outrageous aspect of the recent media reports casting doubt on the "incubator story" is that at least two human rights groups, as well as a number of journalists affiliated with reputable organizations, at some point have claimed that after "investigating", they found no evidence of babies dying as a result of Iraqis taking incubators from Kuwaiti hospitals. We believe claims not to have found such evidence are either false or else the "investigation" was so cursory and biased that no other conclusion was possible. Our own experience simply allows no other conclusion.

HRW was pissed at the Ambassador's whining and proceeded to deconstruct his cable, and the testimony they had discredited, in their report line-by-line.

Amnesty International was also pissed about being used as a political tool by Bush. In January 1991, its director published a full article rebuking the Bush administration for its hypocrisy over human rights in the Middle East, an article which for some reason only seems to be archived in the student newspaper of Boston College. In April 1991, Amnesty acknowledged many of the accusations made the previous fall, and subsequently issued a full retraction of their report.

That the false testimony of a 15-year-old could sway a nation to war is an immensely disturbing thought, but it should be stressed that it is by no means certain that her testimony was the determinative factor in getting the US to launch Operation Desert Storm; Bush wanted the war, and he probably would've gotten it anyways, in my opinion. I also want to point out that Nayirah had a reason to lie that was not just pure malevolence: her homeland had been violently invaded. So I don't blame her, a child. Regardless, we should think about what this kind of performative testimony—later deemed "atrocity porn"—means for our assessment of human rights abuses in Xinjiang.

Is Xinjiang just Nayirah 2.0?

In short, no, not by any reasonable judgment.

Iraq severely restricted information about the conditions of Kuwait; international observers and activist groups were not granted access. Still, HRW had been interviewing Kuwaiti refugees beginning the same month of Nayirah's testimony, and found that none "had provided credible testimony as to the death of any premature infant in this fashion; and most witnesses denied categorically that such incidents had occurred." HRW still noted extensive human rights abuses, but it formed its position based on the totality of the evidence they encountered first hand.

In contrast, the claim of incubators taken to kill babies relied on four sources Nayirah, Dr. Ahmed Abdel-Aziz al-Hajeri, Dr. Abdalla al-Hammadi, and Dr. Hussein Basha. HRW knew both Drs. Basha and al-Hajeri worked for the Kuwaiti government. They also realized that Dr. al-Hammadi's testimony was highly inconsistent and varied over time. Overall, their claims were massively outweighed that of the handful of flimsy doctors cited by Amnesty and the testimony of Nayirah.

In other words, the influx of testimony detailing disturbing human rights abuses in Kuwait under Iraqi occupation was the norm. The nature of war and human memory means a lot of testimony is muddled, vague, or somewhat contradictory. But it was clear from HRW's fieldwork that the totality of witness accounts cast extreme doubt on the above four figures' claims.

Compare this with the Xinjiang crisis.

In Kazakhstan, activist organizations like Atajurt Eriktileri have worked extensively to document ethnic Kazakhs caught up in China's sweeping internment of Muslims, which they put on YouTube. (For background on the group's founder, who was arrested and agreed to cease criticism of China as part of a plea deal, see this article in the Diplomat. Many Kazakhs cross the border to work in China.) International human rights groups like HRW and Amnesty have written extensively about the crisis as well, including detailed reports on mass surveillance techniques with clear methodology. And the Xinjiang Victims Database works tirelessly to try to collect, categorize, and verify victims' and their relatives' testimony with video, print, and other evidence. You can filter the database by strength of evidence as well, I'd recommend starting out with the top 5% or so. Every once in awhile, someone might get it wrong, but these mistakes very much appear to be exceptions to the norm, or we'd presumably see a lot more Chinese state media highlighting such errors.

The numerous accounts of mass internment and reeducation in Xinjiang broadly agree: it is extremely traumatizing, degrading, and arbitrary. Abuse is frequent. It is denigrating to Muslims, especially Uyghurs, and it causes significant anguish and suffering for detainees and their communities. It is not humane.

Atajurt Eriktileri activists giving accounts of Kazakhs who have gone missing in the camps in Xinjiang. (February 2020 on
Atajurt Eriktileri activists giving accounts of Kazakhs who have gone missing in the camps in Xinjiang. (February 2020 on YouTube)

The Nayirah testimony about incubator babies had a clear scope and goal: to muster support to liberate Kuwait from occupying forces. It took a consulting firm to put together and began to fall apart after further scrutiny almost immediately after it was delivered. It also was traceable to specific Kuwaiti officials. The sheer volume of witness testimony alone from Xinjiang documenting serious human rights abuses and coercive violence against Muslims detained without trial there is orders of magnitude greater than it ever was for the Kuwait incubator babies hoax. How would such an effort be coordinated? Uyghur Human Rights Project activists are indeed heavily involved—as one would certainly expect—but their activism is not the sole, nor driving, factor. It took a government-in-exile and a PR firm to coach a single witness; it is a major stretch to say that the testimony of hundreds of released detainees and the relatives of those still detained would be the same sort of operation. And even if it were—why would it continue in the face of pretty blatant failure to change Chinese policy, foment unrest, or otherwise advance US interests beyond its ability to condemn human rights in China (which it will do anyways)? To those who assert all of the evidence is fabricated, press them on the how and the why. The answer is usually not very sophisticated.

Does this mean every single thing every single Uyghur or Kazakh says is always 100% accurate or true? Of course not. But it should be abundantly clear that the comparison to Nayirah's testimony is wildly inappropriate.

Conclusion

You're going to see lies on Twitter dot com. Accusations of mass human rights abuses should be examined with care and due diligence. Demanding 100% perfect reproducibility, consistency, and verifiability (thought much of this testimony, as later posts will show, is remarkably consistent and verifiable), particularly in the context of a country where access to information is severely limited, is absurd. Use your brain and think things through. And for the love of god, stop making this out to be a Nayirah thing. It's not.