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Activists lament absence of outrage on Iraq

NCR Staff

As bombs began falling once again on Iraq, American peace activists expressed frustration that public concern over that nation’s chemical and biological weapons was not matched by outrage over the deadly toll imposed by eight years of sanctions.

Members of one activist group, Voices in the Wilderness, face stiff federal fines for defying the U.S. embargo of Iraq.

“Kids are dying of leukemia, of blood cancers, and their doctors can’t cope,” said Bishop Thomas Gumbleton, auxiliary of Detroit. “These diseases are totally treatable, but there’s no medicine.”

“It’s a silent genocide,” Gumbleton said, who returned from his fourth trip to Iraq just days before the latest bombing began.

Gumbleton cited statements made in recent weeks by the former head of the United Nations program that permits Iraq to sell a specified amount of oil in order to buy food. That official, Dennis Halliday, said 6,000 to 7,000 Iraqi children are dying every month from respiratory ailments, malnutrition and other diseases directly related to the impact of sanctions.

Halliday stepped down in October in protest. He told reporters he believes sanctions violate the U.N. charter as well as the convention on the rights of the child.

“Where is the press on this?” Gumbleton wondered. “There’s been just a total blackout, a very careful manipulation of the news coming from that country. It’s all to prepare the way to destroy it.”

Gumbleton said that when Scott Ritter, a U.N. weapons inspector, resigned to protest Iraqi refusal to open alleged weapons sites, it generated intense media interest; when Halliday resigned, no comparable coverage ensued.

Kathy Kelly, who coordinates an anti-sanctions campaign called Voices in the Wilderness, said sanctions -- and military strikes -- will not accomplish their stated purpose of forcing reform in Iraq.

“You push a desperate person into a corner and you get an even more desperate response,” she said. “We need to build democratic structures in Iraq, as well as schools and social services, not to say to the Iraqis we’re holding 7,000 of your children hostage.”

Gumbleton said the Catholic response has been disappointing. “We finally got a decent statement out of the bishops’ conference” calling for an end to sanctions, he said, “but there’s been no follow-through. No press conference was held to say this is a big deal, and no bishop went home and did anything with it.”

Members of Voices in the Wilderness recently returned from their 18th trip to Iraq, where they delivered toys, medicine and other items in defiance of U.S. embargo laws. The group, and four of its members, face $160,000 in fines.

Kelly said they had “absolutely no intention” of paying the fines. Instead they will gather in front of the Department of the Treasury building in Washington on Dec. 28 -- the Feast of the Holy Innocents -- in order to explain why they broke the law. They will announce their intention to continue bringing relief to Iraq, “hopefully with plane tickets in hand,” Kelly said.

Gumbleton said that on each of his trips he has also brought medical supplies to Iraq. “I’d be happy if they sent some sheriffs out to arrest me,” he said, suggesting that doing so might trigger some media attention to the sanctions issue.

National Catholic Reporter, December 25, 1998