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Fast spurred by Iraq embargo wins meeting with U.N. official

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
New York

The persistence of protesters fasting outside the U.S. Mission to the United Nations paid off when U.N. Weapons Inspection Director Richard Butler agreed to meet with them Aug. 11 to discuss the impact of eight years of economic sanctions on Iraq.

The protesters, a dozen members of the Chicago-based group Voices in the Wilderness, had been daily telephoning and writing Butler, as well as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Bill Richardson, since they began their fast July 25. Passing out leaflets to some 4,000 passersby, they called attention to the U.N.’s own figures, indicating that 4,500 Iraqi children under age 5 are dying monthly of hunger and disease as a result of the sanctions.

Voices in the Wilderness has made 14 trips to Iraq, bringing some 150 Americans to that nation since 1996. The group has brought medicines and medical supplies to the country in defiance of the eight-year U.N. economic embargo on Iraq.

When faster Ken Hannaford-Ricardi was able to reach Butler Aug. 10, the U.N. official agreed to meet a delegation from the group for 15 minutes at noon the next day. Hannaford-Ricardi accompanied Kathy Kelly and Mike Bremer, both teachers and members of the Catholic Worker movement in Chicago, and Scott Schaefer-Duffy, of the Catholic Worker House in Worcester, Mass. The four spent 40 minutes with Butler and his colleague, Ewen Buchanan.

Schaefer-Duffy told NCR that all left convinced of Butler’s “passion for disarmament.” Butler, an Australian who worked 25 years on disarmament issues prior to becoming the U.N. inspection chief, returned to U.N. headquarters in early August in the wake of Baghdad’s latest refusal to cooperate with inspectors charged with finding, accounting for and destroying Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction.

Kelly said that when the fasters called sanctions “economic warfare,” Butler said they were “a blunt and failed tool,” and encouraged Voices in the Wilderness “to take part in the debate to find a nonviolent and more effective alternative to promote compliance with the law.”

The delegation reported that Butler said, “Disarmament must be done quickly to end the sanctions on the Iraqi people,” and assured the protesters that his inspectors would draw up reports “quickly and honestly. We will give a fair, but not excessively fastidious account of disarmament efforts in Iraq.”

Members of the delegation presented Butler with photographs of malnourished and diseased Iraqi children. Schaefer-Duffy, the father of four, contrasted those photos with a photo of his wife and 2-year-old daughter. Butler told them that security concerns prevented him from visiting Iraqi hospitals and clinics, where Kelly, Schaefer-Duffy and Bremer said they have met dying children.

The 12 protesters ended their fast Aug. 13. Voices in the Wilderness members had also fasted in front of 10 Downing Street in London, the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, and in Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Washington, Missouri and California. The dates selected for the fasts coincided with Butler’s meeting with Iraqi Deputy Premier Tariq Aziz and the 53rd anniversary of the U.S. bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The New York fasters told of U.N. workers’ bringing them bottles of water and juices, even concert tickets. Schaefer-Duffy said U.N. employees, especially those from the Middle East, talked to them, many expressing sympathy with their cause.

Kelly, who coordinates Voices in the Wilderness’ office, has been to Iraq seven times since 1991 and has made more than 500 presentations since the Gulf War urging Americans to call their religious leaders and political representatives urging an end to sanctions. She said she’s “bewildered, dumbfounded and terrified” after each trip, “knowing there is so much misery, desperation and fear, but that our U.S. audience is so limited.”

Schaefer-Duffy, however, said the Catholic Worker fasters had a “mystical and spiritual dimension” that changes hearts and minds. “I believe that a direct result of prayer and fasting is that doors get opened” -- including that of the U.N. weapons inspector, he said.

National Catholic Reporter, September 4, 1998