Iraq’s Torture by Sanctions

Against the Current, No. 91, March/April 2001

an interview with Kathy Kelly

KATHY KELLY, ORGANIZER for Voices in the Wilderness, has been involved in the struggle around ending sanctions against Iraq for the past decade. David Finkel interviewed her for Against the Current in January 2001.

Against the Current: What was it that motivated you to dedicate these past ten years to the struggle against the Iraq sanctions (among the many social justice issues that exist?)

Kathy Kelly: My first trip to the Middle East was in January 1991, shortly before the war began. I joined the Gulf Peace Team, a nonaligned, nonpartisan group of international peace activists encamped on the Iraq-Saudi border between the warring parties.

To be honest, I knew very little about the Middle East when I joined the Gulf Peace Team. I believe in pacifism, and I knew enough about the United States to know that it wasn’t going to war with Iraq because it couldn’t tolerate invasions, nor was the United States unable to accept a dictatorial government in another country.

It was clear that the U.S. goal was to protect its ability to control an oil-rich part of the world.

Voices in the Wilderness, which began in January of 1996, campaigns to end the economic war against Iraq. I suppose my motivation could be summed up in Ammon Hennacy’s comment: “You can’t be a vegetarian between meals, and you can’t be a pacifist between wars.”

In the case of Iraq, the war has never ended — Desert Storm changed into an economic warfare, one that has been far more brutal, far more devastating to innocent civilians, than even the worst of the bombardment. And it’s shrouded in secrecy — most people don’t even know that over a half million children, under age five, have died as a direct result of economic sanctions.

I’m motivated to be a voice for Iraqis who have next to no constituency here in the United States, but also to help educate U.S. people about our involvement in ongoing warfare against children. I want people at least to know that we’ve turned the United Nations, an organization founded to eliminate the scourge of warfare, into an instrument of warfare that primarily targets children.

ATC: How many times have you visited the country?

K.K.: I visited Iraq once during the Gulf War and once immediately following the war. With Voices in the Wilderness delegations, I’ve visited Iraq thirteen times.

ATC: What are the major changes, for better or worse, that you’ve witnessed over this period?

K.K.: This is a difficult question to answer. I should clarify that I don’t speak Arabic, and that during most of my trips we’ve spent no more than ten days in Iraq.

During the summer of 2000, I had a chance to stay with families in the poorest section of Basra, in the south of Iraq, for seven weeks. After that trip, I felt we had at least gotten an inkling of what it is like for people to endure ten years of an economic siege, of being unable to sell what they have in order to get what they need.

We became familiar with the daily grind of having little access to phones, of doing without electricity, of surviving sweltering heat without even a ceiling fan, of coping with contaminated water, and even the untreated water was in limited supply, of eating the same meal every day, and of hearing warplanes overhead almost every morning — U.S. warplanes.

My impression of the dignity and forbearance of Iraqi people I met deepened greatly over that summer. I think those qualities of Iraqi people I’ve met have been a “constant” — if anything changes, it is just my ability to see and experience those qualities a little more clearly.

However, it does seem to me that during our first several delegations, we would frequently hear Iraqi people comment that they expected some “breakthrough” that would bring an end to the sanctions in the near future.

I remember sensing that the suggested breakthroughs were like the “chain gang rumors” I remembered hearing when I was in prison. [Kathy Kelly is a veteran of pacifist antiwar and tax refusal –ed.] A rumor would start about some new law or policy that would occasion releases for hundreds of women, and somehow the whole prison would buzz with the rumor and it would fuel hopes for many women.

I remember being so surprised when, a few months later, a new rumor would start and once again women would become hopeful. Well. It stands to reason I guess that if hopes are repeatedly dashed, people reach a point where they no longer dare to hope.

I sense that many Iraqis whom we now meet have reached this point. We hear comments that reflect grim determination to persist, but we seldom hear of hopes predicated on actual events.

ATC: How have the past ten years changed you?

K.K.: I’ve been grateful for the chance to focus on one issue and work steadily to better understand that issue and the many ramifications it has on people both in Iraq and in the United States.

I suppose I’ve become a bit more confident about speaking to people regarding our perspective about the reasons the United States maintains the sanctions. On the other hand, I’m humbled by how steeped I am in my own culture and in a way of life that presumes we have an automatic right to take other people’s resources at cut rate prices.

ATC: It’s widely perceived that the U.S. government’s ability to maintain the international sanctions regime is crumbling. Do you think that’s accurate? How much practical difference does the resumption by a few countries of air links with Iraq make, for example?

K.K.: I think it’s premature to say that the sanctions regime is crumbling, but recent developments have revealed starkly the isolation of Britain and the United States on this issue. We’ve also seen the impatience of the international community with the slow pace of policy change.

For example, French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine marked the tenth anniversary of the invasion of Kuwait, and the imposition of sanctions on Iraq, by stating that the sanctions were “cruel, ineffective and dangerous: cruel because they punish exclusively the Iraqi people and the weakest among them, ineffective because they don’t touch the regime, which is not encouraged to co-operate, and dangerous because they accentuate the disintegration of Iraqi society.” (Reuters, 2 August 2000)

The air flights into Iraq have assuredly been a nonviolent means of dramatic resistance to the economic sanctions. Since the unauthorized flight from France on 22 September, over thirty such flights have occurred, undertaken by many countries, including U.S. allies such as France and Turkey and historic enemies of Iraq such as Iran and Syria.

I think the U.S. government is unmistakably aware that the alliance that joined the United States for the Desert Storm and subsequent desert slaughter of 1991 no longer exists. But I think that while many countries may want to take the far more significant step of unilaterally breaking the sanctions by undertaking trade with Iraq, there still exists a substantial fear that a country which defies the United States may in fact become the next target of U.S. economic warfare.

Consider, for example, the latest U.S. threats to undermine the government of Venezuela in the wake of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s August 2000 visit to Iraq.

ATC: How would you sum up what Voices in the Wilderness has achieved? Is government harassment continuing at the same level as the mid-1990s?

K.K.: In 1996, very few mainstream peace and faith-based organizations focused on the effects of U.S. economic warfare against Iraq. Now, almost every major U.S. peace group and all the major Christian denominations have denounced the economic sanctions, and many are sending delegations to Iraq and organizing ways to generate nonviolent confrontations with the current policy.

I think Voices in the Wilderness helped accelerate that development. We used a very simple grass roots strategy of sending delegations of ordinary people to Iraq, in open and public defiance of U.S. law, and then asking the returning delegates to “hit the ground running,” through outreach to their local media, and through speaking as widely as possible to local groups about what they had seen and heard in Iraq.

We also organized fasts, vigils, walks and various nonviolent civil disobedience actions to challenge U.S. policy makers and to urge the member states of the UN to change their policy.

Actually, we’ve been treated with kid gloves by the U.S. government. Seven days after we announced the campaign on January 15, 1996, the U.S. Treasury Department warned us that we could face twelve years in prison, a one million dollar fine, and a $250,000.00 administrative fine.

We thanked them for the clarity of their warning and stated that we understood the potential consequences when we began the campaign but that we couldn’t be governed by unjust and pitiless rules. My passport was confiscated following a February 1998 trip to Iraq, but the State Department facilitated a process for me to get a new one in May of 1998. (They kept the old one as evidence of a crime being committed.)

In December 1998, we received a pre-penalty notice of $160,000.00 in fines, but no attempt has been made to collect this money. We politely said, “add it to the tab,” and assured the government that we did exactly what we’ve been accused of doing, that we’ll continue to travel to Iraq and violate the sanctions, that we won’t be paying any fines, and that we invite them to join us. Since then, we haven’t heard a word from the U.S. government.

ATC: Ten years ago, people who were actively opposing the Gulf War and then the sanctions were often perceived as being supporters or sympathizers of Saddam Hussein’s regime, which of course most of us aren’t. Has that perception changed as people see the sanctions basically accomplishing nothing?

K.K.: Some years ago, a very astute observer of U.S. policy toward Iraq over the past two decades gave me a piece of advice. “Look,” he said, “when people accuse you of supporting the current regime in Iraq, say to them, `Hey, don’t mix me up with (Republican Senator) Arlen Specter and George Bush. They’re the ones who put Saddam Hussein in power in the first place.’”

Ten years ago, the United States could have removed Saddam Hussein from power when the U.S. military had amassed a massive arsenal in Iraq. I personally don’t support use of threat, armed force and murder to accomplish change, but nevertheless this country had the capacity then to enact the so-called “regime change<170> that the U.S. has been calling for over the years.

They could have done it then, but they chose not to, and George Bush very clearly told us why they left the regime in power following the Gulf War. The United States and its allies didn’t want Iraq to fragment. They wanted the Iraqi regime to remain intact, crippled externally but strong internally.

That was their policy then, and I believe it’s still their policy today. They don’t want to articulate it, and instead they posture about the U.S. desire to change the Iraqi government, but if they wanted Saddam Hussein removed from power, he would have been gone a long time ago.

They’ve wanted to keep him in power as a convenient excuse to maintain the economic sanctions and to continue a huge U.S. military presence in the region. The largest lobby on Capitol Hill is the defense lobby, and the U.S. weapon makers have made huge gains in peddling weapons to Iraq’s neighboring states. The second largest lobby on capitol hill is AIPAC (the American Israeli Political Action Committee) and this group also sees advantages in keeping a strong U.S. troop presence in the region while keeping Iraq in a state of misery and disrepair. U.S. policy makers have achieved their goals, but at a terrible, terrible price of hundreds of thousands of innocent lives.

ATC: From these ten years, what would you say has been the most encouraging thing you’ve seen in your own society?

K.K.: The most encouraging thing I’ve seen in our society has been the increasing sensitivity on the part of young people toward environmental and human rights issues and the readiness to begin changing their life styles in order to live in more fair relations with other people.

What’s more, a new generation of student activists is helping develop “the further invention of nonviolence” by refusing to cooperate with the U.S. government in bold and very compelling actions undertaken in the mass demonstrations in Seattle and Washington, D.C.

Regarding the least encouraging development, it’s clear that the most pressing problem we face, in the United States, is the energy crisis and yet we’ve seen no significant efforts to solve this problem. In fact, we now have two Texas oilmen occupying the White House, Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney, whose strategy is to produce more American oil so that U.S. people can consume more oil.

In Iraq, we’ve seen the effects of the Clinton Administration’s strategy of maintaining control over an oil-rich area of the world. I’d be vastly more encouraged by efforts on the part of the U.S. administration to encourage our people to wean ourselves off of gas-guzzling habits and to learn some basic principles of simplicity, service to others, equitable trade relations and the readiness to share our resources.

ATC 91, March-April 2001