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Activists defy Iraq embargo, reject fines


Voices in the Wilderness, a group that works to end the economic sanctions against Iraq, has said it will not pay fines of more than $150,000, which its members may face for bringing aid to Iraq in defiance of the U.S. sanctions.

The Chicago-based group received a “prepenalty notice” from the U.S. Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control in early December. The notice proposed a fine of $120,000 to Voices in the Wilderness for the “exportation of donated goods, including medical supplies and toys.” Four individual members of the group may face fines of $43,000 for engaging in “currency travel-related transactions” with Iraq.

The Dec. 3 notice gave the group 30 days to respond to the proposed fine, to “set forth the reasons why the penalty should not be issued” or should be lessened.

In response, Kathy Kelly, coordinator of the campaign, said in a Dec. 30 letter to the Office of Foreign Assets Control that the group “will not consent to pay any fine.”

“With respect to the enforcement of this embargo, we are conscientious objectors,” Kelly wrote. “We will not allow a government to dictate to our conscience. We will not allow the U.S. government ... to order us to cooperate with a strategy designed to starve the people of Iraq, to deprive them of medicine and medical supplies, spare parts for infrastructure, pencils for school children, chlorine for water and sewage treatment, toys, employment or any of the essentials necessary to sustain daily life.”

The letter said that economic sanctions hurt “the poorest, weakest and most vulnerable populations” and violate international law by targeting civilians. Members of the group regularly return to Iraq with medical supplies and other goods.

The group asked that the proposed fines be dismissed but said that if the office chose to pursue them, “we would welcome that opportunity as yet another forum for public debate on the morality and legality of the embargo against Iraq.”

A Treasury spokesperson said that the group’s response will be factored into the final decision on the proposed fine.

In an interview with NCR, Kelly reiterated that they do not intend to pay the fines. “We’ll do anything we can to avoid payment,” she said. “We feel that any resources we have need to go to the Iraqi people and towards educating the American public.”

The full text of the Voices in the Wilderness response can be found on the group’s Web site at www.nonviolence.org/vitw/hearthevoices.html

National Catholic Reporter, January 15, 1999