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Sanctions amount to genocide, activists say

Special to the National Catholic Reporter

Warfare and genocide were terms used by two activists to describe the impact of economic sanctions on Iraq, where the World Health Organization attributes at least 5,000 deaths each month of children under 5 to sanctions-related malnutrition and disease.

The speakers, Denis Halliday and Phyllis Bennis, painted a grim picture of the effects of U.S. policy and called on the religious community to take action to end sanctions on moral grounds.

Launching a 21-city tour in Seattle Feb. 15, they drew a crowd of 500 at the University of Washington. Halliday, former United Nations assistant secretary general and administrator in Iraq of the oil-for-food program, resigned in October, refusing to participate further in the policy. Bennis, from the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C., has been working as an analyst of Middle East and U.N. affairs for 20 years.

“Morally we are on very barren ground,” said Halliday. “We don’t want to be held responsible for what is genocide in Iraq today.”

Bennis added: “When the U.S. kills 200 children today and 200 children yesterday and 200 children tomorrow, this is no longer a political issue, it’s a moral issue.”

Halliday, a Quaker from Ireland, tells what he witnessed during 13 months in Iraq: acute and chronic malnutrition at 30 percent among children; less than 50 percent of Iraqis with access to clean water; raw sewage everywhere, including in hospitals; and educational and social infrastructure in crisis.

“We need to classify sanctions as a form of warfare,” Halliday said. “There have been possibly a million deaths since 1991 -- if that’s not warfare, I’m not sure what is.”

He points to the U.N. oil-for-food program as grossly underfunded to feed a population of 23.5 million, falling especially short in providing adequate animal proteins.

While making no excuses for Saddam Hussein, he said sanctions are pushing young members of the Baath party to further extremism; they are beginning to see Saddam and others as too moderate.

Halliday said three issues will be key to any resolution:

First, lift economic sanctions, with massive credit made available to help rebuild infrastructure.

Second, build on U.N. Security Council initiatives to increase disarmament in Iraq and the whole Middle East.

Third, have Western countries step back and allow Iraq and the rest of the Middle East to build a way to work together. “Otherwise, we’ll never get away from this circle of violence,” he concluded.

Bennis, who is a Jew, emphasized the need to shift to a moral debate. “There is a way in which the discourse about sanctions has been skewed. We need to look at a faith-based discourse to get back on track,” she said to religious leaders at a separate meeting.

Asked whether moral response can ever influence public policy, she responded: “Not very often and certainly not ever easily. But we need to use moral energy to create pragmatic policy initiatives.” Later she added: “We need to address the racism and Islamophobia that underlies our policy.” With Halliday she agrees that the demonization of Saddam Hussein has spread to the entire Iraqi population.

Bennis, in her analysis, claimed the United States subverted the purposes of the United Nations by acting unilaterally in the Middle East. She cited U.N. security resolutions that she said the United States violated during its bombing campaign in December 1998. Bennis said U.S. officials should be accountable for lying about international law.

“These are lies with far greater consequence than lies about who slept with who,” Bennis said, drawing applause from the audience.

She said the economic sanctions against Iraq should be ended immediately, while the United States and the United Nations strengthen military sanctions and region-wide disarmament.

National Catholic Reporter, March 5, 1999