New Century, Old Crime

by Alexander Cockburn

The Nation magazine, Jan. 31, 2000


On January 15, the birthday of Martin Luther King and the ninth anniversary of the Gulf War, ten people began a month-long fast on the steps of the Capitol in Washington. They're members of Voices in the Wilderness, the Chicago-based group that has been trying to marshal public opinion against the sanctions against Iraq instigated by the United States through the UN. The group won't eat, and will spend each day lobbying around town.

There are plenty of awful US policies that have survived the turn into this new century, but few are as malignant as the sanctions, which have been killing Iraqis at a steady rate since 1990. UNICEF and other UN agencies in Iraq reckon that more than a million civilians, mostly children, have died from malnutrition and disease as a result of the embargo. Despite the UN's oil-for-food program (whose lethal stipulations were detailed last September in CounterPunch, the newsletter edited by Jeffrey St. Clair and myself), UNICEF estimates that more than 4,500 children under the age of 5 die each month as a consequence of this same embargo.

The embargo, we must not forget, is demonically designed to prompt gnawing, endless suffering throughout Iraq's social economy. The water is filthy and dangerous because chlorine and larger cleansing mechanisms are forbidden. Every illness is magnified and protracted, often fatally, because the simplest medicines and equipment are similarly embargoed. The pretext is "dual use"- meaning the UN will forbid a compressor for a dentist's drill that might perhaps be used for some military purpose-but the strategy is to drive Iraq into the basement of Third World nations.

US policy clearly intends to keep the embargo going indefinitely. The latest adjustment-UN Resolution 1284, passed on December 17, with three of the five permanent Security Council members, China, Russia and France, abstaining-inaugurates a new schedule of inspections, but if anything the prognosis is actually worse. Under the old schedule, the embargo was to have ended when the inspectors declared Iraq cleansed of weapons of mass destruction. Under the new one it will merely be suspended.

I talked to Nicholas Arons, one of the Voices in the Wilderness, as he prepared for the fast. A month ago he was in Iraq. There he'd visited a public primary school in Mosul. "When they heard Americans were coming, three children began shaking and screaming. Their mothers had to be fetched to pick them up. We found out they were traumatized because a cement bomb from an American plane patrolling the northern no-fly zone had just hit the school. Some children were severely wounded." Arons went on to describe how a teacher respectfully but angrily explained to him why bombs and shattering glass don't cultivate a new generation of leaders or protect minorities or change the regime in Iraq.

The fast, Arons said, addresses a moral question. It is "the imposition of deprivation toward a political end. More children have died in Iraq as a result of this embargo than died in Hiroshima or the Bosnian war. The Iraqi economy has been devastated.

The education budget has gone from $2 billion to $27 million. Nearly every Iraqi child has had to watch a relative die of violence or preventable disease. By forsaking food for one month, we intend to dramatize the issue of the sanctions, demonstrate to Congresspersons and State Department officials (as well as to the Iraqi Mission in DC and New York, who share culpability for this disaster) our sincerity, and tell our friends in the anti-sanctions movement that people need to make literal and major sacrifices in order for sanctions to near their end."

Representatives Tom Campbell, a Republican from San Jose, California, and John Conyers, a Democrat from Detroit, have circulated a letter calling for a change in US sanctions policy. So far it's been signed by thirty-one members of the House.

A few score, a few hundred perhaps even a few thousand people every day, pledging to fast till February 11, either on the Capitol steps or at a federal building in their local town, would back these brave people and join in denunciation of the inhumanity of the embargo, forever a bloodstain on the Clinton Administration and its predecessor. And, yes, there's not one of the major candidates for the presidential nomination who does not deem sanctions a splendid idea. Bradley, the liberals' darling, thinks they should be toughened. Close your eyes, throw a dart at the ballot sheet and you'll be almost certain to hit a mass murderer.


Voices in the Wilderness is at 1460 West Carmen Ave., Chicago, IL 60640,(773)784-8065,

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