June article 2012

Reflections – June 2012

Friends: Those who’ve followed these postings know that my legal battle with the federal government over a $16,000 fine (for traveling to Iraq to bring medicine without a U.S. license) has ended. The judge dismissed the government’s efforts to collect saying the government waited too long to sue. See Bert’s Case for a history of the legal issues.

I’ll continue to reflect here on what these past years working on the Iraq sanctions issue have meant to me. I begin this month by writing about the U.S. State Department.

A few days ago, a writer for Newsweek magazine contacted me. She wanted to discuss the case of an Iraqi-American Shakir Hamoodi who has been sentenced to 3 years in jail for sending money to his family and to families of friends living in Iraq. This poignant paragraph describing the situation comes from the HelpHamoodi.org website.

At around 1992, when the situation [in Iraq] became very bad, Dr. Hamoodi learned that his sister lost her baby because she could not afford $10 for simple antibiotics. The constant pleas for help were a daily occurrence, and Dr. Hamoodi looked for a way to help his family members survive this dark period in their lives.

During nine trips to Iraq, I witnessed a widespread lack of medicines even in hospitals.

From 1993 to 1997, Madeleine Albright was the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, followed by her position as U.S. Secretary of State from 1997 to 2001. In 2004, Amy Goodman, host of the program Democracy Now!, had this exchange with her:

AMY GOODMAN: Well, the sanctions against Iraq.

MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: The sanctions against Iraq were put on because Saddam Hussein had invaded Kuwait. But there never were sanctions against food and medicine. And you people need to know there never were sanctions against food and medicine, and I was responsible for getting food in there and getting Saddam Hussein to pump oil. (emphasis added)

How could Shakir Hamoodi – or the group Voices in the Wilderness to which I belonged – be fined or put in jail for delivering medicine to Iraqis? It is beyond doubt that medicines were always part of the U.S. sanctions on Iraq, but never part of the UN sanctions. (See Judge Robart’s ruling regarding both embargoes.)

Yet here we have Ms. Albright, forcefully pronouncing that “you people need to know there were never sanctions against food and medicine” – which is simply untrue! (You can watch her statement in the middle of this very good 9-minute video on the sanctions.)

Last month I quoted this paragraph from the book My Life is My Message: “Those who are convinced that truth and justice is on their side seize every opportunity of entering into a dialogue with the opponent. Those who use physical force do not comprehend the power of thoughts and disregard the efficacy and validity of the process of dialogue.”

I repeat the quote to write about Ms. Albright and the U.S. State Department’s actions which suggest they think it is not necessary to be scrupulously truthful in public dialogue. (As to Madeleine Albright’s view of dialogue vs physical force, she famously asked Colin Powell, “What’s the point of you saving this superb military for, Colin, if we can’t use it.” So much for her view of a military to be used only for defense – as required by the UN charter.)

One would reasonably assume that Madeleine Albright is in a position to know what she says about U.S. sanctions. Yet she emphatically states a significant untruth: that the U.S. never embargoed medicine. I replied to the Newsweek writer that she should write this:

Do we want to be a country that denies medicine to those in need — when we know suffering and death will result, especially among young children — in order to coerce their government to do what we say?

And then hides what we are doing from ourselves? And then punishes someone who tries to save lives?

But there is more. Perhaps Madeleine Albright and the State Department would say, “Yes, we admit the U.S. had an embargo on medicine but, after all, you could ask for a license.” In fact, a question often posed of us is, “Why didn’t you ask for a license?”.

I have several answers to this.

By what authority does the U.S. government have to demand a license from any American to send medicine to those in need – to anyone, anywhere, at anytime? And to deny that person a license to deliver medicines, if the government chooses, without having to give any reason at all! Would any one of us recognize such an authority if it was a loved one in our own family who was suffering and dying?

Requesting a license to be allowed to send medicine grants legitimacy to that authority. And, as was put to me, requesting a license, granted or not, is like taking a silence pill.

And here’s a further answer: the Seattle Times made a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to the U.S. sanctions agency (OFAC) and found that in 1993 there were seven license requests to send medicine to Iraq. Four were denied. But even when two were granted, OFAC said no U.S. person may use his or her own money to buy the medicine.  (So that six out of seven requests for a license to send medicine by Americans were denied in 1993.)

Here is the text of that restriction from one license granted to an American company:

All fees and other payments must come
from a source not currently within the United States or
within the possession or control of a United States
person, including its overseas branches.

No justification is given for denying Americans the right to buy needed medicine.

Denying medicine to those in need is unequivocally “an act dangerous to human life.” When done to overthrow a government it is an admission of terrorism.  If it were only an issue of whether medicine was embargoed, I could perhaps consider it an unintentional misunderstanding among State Department personnel. But in 1999 something happened which I find not amenable to such an generous understanding.

On August 12, 1999, UNICEF issued the results of a major survey of Iraqi child mortality. Their press release said, “… if the substantial reduction in the under-five mortality rate during the 1980’s had continued through the 1990’s, there would have been half a million fewer deaths of children under-five in the country as a whole during the eight year period 1991 to 1998.”

Below is the plot of child mortality in Iraq from 1980 to 2000 from that UNICEF report. The difference between the red and the green lines represents 500,000 dead Iraqi kids.

Mortality rates according to Unicef Report, August 12, 1999

The UNICEF report was devastating evidence of the impact that US policy was having on the Iraqi civilian population, especially the children. In response the U.S. State Department issued their own report titled “Saddam Hussein’s Iraq” containing this plot.

Mortality rates according to US State Dept. Report, Sept. 1999

The plot shows that the 1991 Gulf War had absolutely no impact on child mortality rates in Iraq – except to cause an improvement in Northern Iraq. This completely flies in the face of the 46,900 excess deaths in 1991 reported in the New England Journal of Medicine – and the 500,000 excess deaths reported by UNICEF over 1991-98.

There is not a single footnote or source to indicate where the data for this U.S. State Department plot comes from. The sole purpose of the plot, as far as I can judge, is to contradict the conscientious surveys done by respectable medical professionals.

In effect, it covers up half a million deaths of Iraqi children. I can find no generous explanation for this — other than it’s an act of extreme dishonesty by the U.S. State Department. By covering up those deaths, the consequence is to allow the U.S. to continue a murderous policy which would kill more innocents over the next four years.

It’s painful to realize that my government would behave this way. But truth is truth.

Albert Einstein said many wise things, not only about physics. About inner truth he said, ““Unthinking respect for authority is the greatest enemy of truth.” Which brings me to what I’d said I wanted to reflect on, “activism as a tool for coming to truth.”

I was raised to have “respect for authority” – to be a Nice Jewish Boy – to be polite and not to challenge others. This is obviously not an unqualified virtue. In the middle-class, comfortable social environment I grew up in, with the education I received in 12 years of public schooling, that respect became significantly “unthinking” and “automatic”.

Since none of us like to think of ourselves as unthinking and acting automatically, the question becomes how can we see these disagreeable qualities in ourselves. How can we see more of the truth of who we are?

Being an activist on this issue has forced me beyond my initial disbelief and anger. It has forced me to look at my own life – and my formal and social educations – to admit the times where I’ve accepted beliefs because they were “convenient and comfortable.” Even when I sensed that there was evidence to the contrary, if I was willing to look at it.

This is one way in which activism has been, for me, a tool for coming to a deeper truth.

I expect I’ll write more about this next posting. But this post has gone on quite long. So I’ll end with two notes about the plots from UNICEF and from the U.S. State Department: if you get this as an email (from your subscription to IraqiKids.org) and the plots don’t appear in your email, try putting IraqiKids.org into your browser.

In 1999 I wrote an extensive comparison of both reports. It’s available here. It debunks a number of U.S. claims and has 46 endnotes (compared to zero for the U.S. report!)

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