"Where you stand determines what you see, and how you live." That’s how Voices in the Wilderness members began our statement explaining why we’d decided to stay in Baghdad during the 2003 Shock and Awe bombing of Iraq. During the long war of the economic sanctions, we had stood at the bedsides of numerous mothers who held dying infants and looked at us with imploring eyes, asking "Why?" We saw too much of the catastrophic military and economic violence inflicted on ordinary Iraqis to ever consider giving up on efforts to end UN/US economic sanctions. We had returned to our homes haunted by the gasps of children in hospital wards that served as little more than "death rows" for infants, and we had tried to alert people in the U.S. and the U.K., people with some level of control over their governments, about how those governments brutally and lethally punished Iraqi children for political actions they could not control.
Where you stand determines what you see. For the latter half of June, eight of us will do plenty of standing, again in opposition to economic punishment of ordinary Iraqis, with children bearing the hardest punishment. We’re fasting for fifteen days leading up to the June 28-30 UNCC deliberations over whether to saddle the poorest Iraqis with billions of dollars of Saddam Hussein’s debt.
We’re standing in Geneva, which is one of the most comfortably elegant cities in the world, and where the future of one of the world’s most desperate countries will be decided. Although I’m fasting here, taking only water (and that morning cup of coffee), I feel awkward about living in such an exquisitely cushy environ while trying to speak up for people who are going to bed hungry in deteriorating homes, lacking access to clean water, exasperated and frightened by round after round of violence, and bearing scorching temperatures that won’t let up for another two months.
The Iraqis I’m thinking of will never see the people we see entering the United Nations Compensation Commission (UNCC). We stand in front of the entrance to the UN in Geneva, holding signs and banners that say to the UNCC, "You, too, are accountable. In your meetings, June 28 30, please discuss justice for Iraqis."
The UNCC’s officials, accountants, claims analysts, and lawyers have played a crucial role in manipulating Iraq’s economy throughout the last decade. Quite possibly, few have visited Iraq or read the reports filed by their colleagues in the World Health Organization, UNICEF or the Food and Agriculture Organization. We met the people filing those reports regularly, on every visit to Baghdad. They often implored us to go back to the U.S. and beg our government to recognize that economic sanctions punished the most vulnerable people in Iraq. They showed us tables and accounting which proved that over 500,000 young children half a million children under the age of five might have survived if the sanctions had not crushed Iraq’s economy and prevented Iraq from continuing a trend that was steadily reducing infant mortality rates.
For UNCC workers who read the accounts, it must have been difficult to cooperate with the U.S. and UN in a strange set of priorities that gravely contradicted fundamental UN mandates. After the UN Security Council established the Oil for Food program in 1996, the Saddam Hussein government, desperate for more oil revenue, agreed to pay 30% of Iraq’s oil revenue, yearly, to compensate countries, corporations and individuals claiming damages from Hussein’s invasion 1990-1991 invasion of Kuwait. (The 30% level was established by a UN Security Council Resolution passed in 1991 and only implemented in 1996 when sales of Iraq’s oil began under the Oil for Food program). All of the claims to individuals, claims which amounted to 3 billion dollars, have now been settled by the UNCC. It’s easy to imagine needy individuals submitting those claims.
But beyond the individual claims, shouldn’t the UNCC members have re-examined their priorities? They could have told the wealthy countries and corporations with outstanding claims, "We’re sorry, but you will have to wait. Iraq’s oil resources should immediately be reinvested into Iraq to give the people there, particularly the children, a chance to survive." This sort of statement would have cohered with UN mandates to protect the rights of children and uphold human rights.
Saddam Hussein’s regime showed ruthless disregard for the rights of its citizens. But the oil-for-food program, with all of its flaws, did save lives and many more could have been saved had their been more revenue available and had the UNCC showed more urgent compassion for humanitarian concerns.
Some UNCC workers clearly were troubled. We’ve recently learned of two lawyers who resigned for conscientious reasons.
But for the most part, the system moved along, and you can examine multiple lists, for each year between 1996 and 2003, of countries and corporations whose claims for many billions of dollars were paid out, from Iraqi oil revenue, after the UNCC deemed their claims to be just. So far, the UNCC has approved $52.1 billion of Iraqi oil revenue in payment to individuals, companies and governments. That was their priority. Allowing Iraqi oil revenue to pay for food and medicine that could have saved hundreds of thousands of children seems not to have been part of their discussions. From June 2830, the UNCC will hold its final round of discussions before determining how much more of an outstanding $65 billion in reparation Iraq should be required to pay for the 1990-91 war making.
This time, it’s crucial to assure that members of the UNCC are fully aware of Jean Zeigler’s UNICEF report which states that 7.7% of Iraqi children under age five are currently suffering from acute malnourishment. It’s vitally important that they read the May 2005 UNDP report that details catastrophic conditions because of impure water, erratic electricity, and high unemployment.
A June 17, 2005 World Food Program report should be on their agenda. It shows significant shortfalls in rice, sugar, milk and infant formula. A recent UN survey notes that more than half the population lives below the poverty line. The median income fell from $255 in 2003 to $144 in 2004. Put these reports together and its tragically easy to see that the 7.7% of Iraqi children under age five suffering from acute malnourishment, a disease often referred to as wasting, might not survive more cuts in Iraq’s budget for human services.
Hans von Sponeck, a former UN Humanitarian Coordinator in Iraq, who resigned his post as an act of conscience, stood with us on the first two days of our fast. Speaking to a Reuters reporter, Hans said, "It is incredible that these people, completely outside the structure, should be bringing a message that they should know inside." Gesturing at the buildings across the street, Hans laid out the responsibility the people inside the UNCC bore for violating the UN charter. "The UNCC has no legitimacy for one day longer, " he said. "It is not a colonial master." Hans von Sponeck also pointed out that you can’t have it both ways. If Iraq is now a sovereign country, then the Iraqi government should be negotiating how much money it owes to creditors.
Our literature calls for a cancellation of all of Iraq’s odious debt and a moratorium on reparations payments.
Various UN workers stop to chat with us from time to time. One told us to be assured that members of the UNCC were very aware of our presence.
An accountant told me that he was terribly troubled by policies that lined the pockets of wealthy companies and contributed toward suffering of innocent people. "Accountants can find a kind of relief in just working with numbers," he said, looking bemused. "Numbers don’t talk back."
Neither do dying children. International conscience must be represented by those willing to stand up for them, within the UN and in every community that believes Iraq’s children have a right to live.