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Protests swell against sanctions

NCR Staff

Demands to end United Nations-imposed economic sanctions on Iraq intensified in mid-February, as 86 people were arrested in a demonstration at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations and two senior U.N. humanitarian officials resigned in protest at the failure of relief programs in Iraq.

Several members of Congress and 11 American-Muslim and Arab-American organizations held a news conference Feb. 16 calling for an end to the sanctions imposed in 1990 after Iraq invaded Kuwait.

The Feb. 14 arrests at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations concluded a weekend of sanctions protests in New York organized by the Fellowship of Reconciliation and Voices in the Wilderness, with local support from Kairos/Plowshares and the Catholic Worker community. Kathy Kelly, who founded the group Voices in the Wilderness in 1996 to protest the sanctions, and Jesuit Fr. John Dear, director of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, were among those arrested.

While some protesters went to the U.S. mission, another group gathered at St. Patrick’s Cathedral and walked to Dag Hammarskjold Plaza, an area near the United Nations.

Speakers, including Dear and Auxiliary Bishop Thomas J. Gumbleton of Detroit, charged that by imposing sanctions, the United Nations and the United States had “declared war on the children of Iraq.”

The Feb. 14 date for the protest was chosen to mark the anniversary of the 1991 bombing of the Al-Amariyah shelter in Baghdad, where, sponsors said, U.S. bombs “massacred hundreds of sleeping people.”

Dear estimated that 500 people from 12 to 15 states came to New York for the weekend of protests.

Opposition to the United Nations’ embargo of Iraq led to resignations by two senior U.N. officials. On Feb. 14, the United Nations’ chief official in Iraq, Hans von Sponeck, announced his intentions to quit because of the failure of the U.N. oil-for-food program.

“Everyone here in the U.N. is concerned over the inadequacy of the performance of the oil-for-food program,” von Sponeck told a Qatar television station. “So I’m not at all alone in my view that we have reached a point where it is no longer acceptable that we are keeping our mouths shut. Our support, my support, my commitment is for the Iraqi people as a group of deprived people whose tragedy should end.”

The German diplomat’s resignation, which takes effect March 31, follows that of his predecessor, Denis Halliday, who left the post in the fall of 1998 and has become a vocal opponent of the sanctions against Iraq.

The United States had frequently criticized von Sponeck for his comments against the U.N. sanctions. State Department spokesman James Rubin told reporters that the U.S. government was “very pleased” about von Sponeck’s departure.

“I’m sure that it will be better for the U.S. government, the people of Iraq and the people of the world after that happens,” Rubin said. Von Sponeck’s “comments on sanctions are irrelevant, beyond his competence and were one of the sources of our concern about his behavior there.”

Jutta Burghardt quit Feb. 15 as head of the United Nations’ World Food Program in Iraq -- an organization responsible for distributing food from the oil-for-food program. According to European diplomats in Baghdad, she said she could not continue her job amid the suffering she attributes to the sanctions.

“It would appear that no person of conscience can go to Iraq and administer an ineffective program -- like oil-for-food -- without becoming enraged,” Hussein Ibich, director of communications at the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, said Feb. 16.

Kelly told NCR that Voices in the Wilderness delegations to Iraq had met with both von Sponeck and Burghardt. “They explained to us what the burdens are in terms of their work,” she said. “The problems they face are attributable to the destruction of infrastructure caused by sanctions.”

She said she was “impressed with their courage to put values and conscience before their career goals.”

“Our hope is that U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan will sense that bravery, and he’ll take brave steps himself to speak vigorously against sanctions,” she said. She called on members of Congress to take similar political risks to bring an end to sanctions.

Several congressmen joined 11 American-Muslim and Arab organizations -- including the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, the Muslim American Society and the Arab American Institute -- at a Feb. 16 news conference to demand an end to sanctions.

“This policy is a weapon that leaves the other side’s weapons completely untouched,” said House Democratic Whip David E. Bonior, D-Mich. “It is a weapon that has killed more than 1 million civilians, mostly children. It’s high time we recognize that this embargo hasn’t hurt Saddam [Hussein] or the pampered elite who support him.”

Bonior, who along with Rep. Tom Campbell, R-Calif., and Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., initiated an anti-embargo letter sent to President Clinton in January, said the economic embargo has done little to weaken the Iraqi government, and has instead victimized Iraqi civilians, particularly children.

“This is infanticide masquerading as policy,” said Bonior. “Who are the real victims of economic sanctions against Iraq? Not Saddam Hussein. The children are the real victims.”

The oil-for-food program that allows Iraq to sell oil in exchange for food or medicine for its population is largely ineffective, said Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, in a statement read by a representative. “Efforts now to deliver food and medicine to civilians have not been successful,” said Kucinich. “People are not receiving aid. The policy does not work, it is counterproductive and has weakened the people who could support the overthrow of the regime.”

Conyers introduced a bill Feb. 16 that would relax nonmilitary sanctions on Iraq, allowing unrestricted export of food and medicine to the country. The bill has the support of 70 lawmakers.

Yousef Al-Yousef, vice president of American Muslims for Global Peace and Justice, told the news conference, “It is time to reinvent U.N. policy toward the people of Iraq. The sanctions in place now are obviously not working. We must find another way.”

Sanctions will prevent Pope John Paul II from visiting southern Iraq during his upcoming pilgrimage aimed at retracing events of the Old and New Testaments. The pope had wanted to visit what tradition says is the birthplace of the patriarch Abraham in Ur, but Baghdad nixed the idea because of the U.N.-imposed no-fly zone above Iraq. Instead of visiting Ur, the pope will hold a special religious ceremony at the Vatican on Feb. 23, one day before his departure to visit Mount Sinai in Egypt.

“I want to carry out, at least spiritually, such a pilgrimage,” the pope said Feb. 16. He asked people to accompany him with their prayers on all the stages of his pilgrimage, including the Feb. 23 reflection dedicated to “Abraham, the father of all believers.”

Wire services contributed to this report.

National Catholic Reporter, February 25, 2000