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The quiet war

In 1998, Denis Halliday, the then Chief UN relief co-ordinator for Iraq, resigned his post in protest at the impact of continued economic sanctions on the civilian population. Kathy Kelly is a veteran US peace campaigner, currently best known for her role as joint co-ordinator of the sanctions-busting group Voices in the Wilderness (US). In July both visited Britain to speak at the "Re-energise" anti-sanctions conference held in London. Peace News caught up with them for a chat.

PN: Denis, in your 1998 resignation speech at Harvard you made some very unequivocal statements about the impact of sanctions on children in Iraq. Do you feel that these widely reported statements, with their emphasis on children, have constructed the agenda for anti-sanctions campaigners and activists worldwide?

Denis: I think my resignation and departure—endorsed 18 months later by Hans von Sponeck—has certainly opened up the dialogue, and has made it easier for other people to talk about it. But I don't want to take credit for starting the snowball, though I would like to think I made a small contribution. I still am a “suit” but I am using words like “genocide” and “killing”—and these are the correct words. Just yesterday I was making the point that the [UN] Secretary General—who is a wonderful man and a friend of mine—says things like “The Iraqi children are suffering”. To me that is unacceptable. UNICEF reports that 4000-6000 children under five years old are dying every month. “Dying” is closer, but the real words are that “we the United Nations, the Security Council, London, Washington and the rest of us, are killing nine or ten thousand people every month in Iraq”. This is an active, not a passive, thing we are doing. We have made a decision and we are sustaining it. And that meets the definition of genocide under the UN Convention. And that is why I use that word [genocide] – though it is greatly offensive to Mr Blair and baby Bush.

PN: Kathy, you have credited the Iraqi children with fairly dramatic feats saying, for example, that “The children in this society pull the adults beyond the despair”. Is this just being sentimental – or can you give some concrete examples?

Kathy: I had the chance to live in Basra for seven weeks last summer and if you didn't see the children – who were happy and energetic, running and bouncing around – I think you could see primarily, almost only, situations that would lend themselves to bleakness and despair. It would be normal for people to feel resigned and depressed, but what I saw instead was a sort of determination not to let the conditions get the best of individuals and families. I attribute that to the children. They are incredibly inventive and well behaved, and they are just how you would expect kids to be. So I stand by that [quote] and that's been reinforced over the past four years as well.

PN: In the past, Denis, you have talked about the frequency of child labour and poor educational standards in Iraq. Are you applying a western model of educational and labour values to a Middle Eastern context? Or are you merely reflecting changes within Iraqi society since sanctions have been imposed?

Denis: Well, the answer is the latter. If you look at the history of the Ba'ath Party, for all its failings and all of its waste of millions of [US] Dollars spent on armaments – which of course we were quite happy to sell them and watch them being used in the Iran-Iraq war—the fact is that the Ba'ath Party also invested in social welfare. I think they saw it as the means by which to stay in power. The WHO gave Iraq all kinds of awards for setting up healthcare systems that were unique in the Arab world. The educational standards were incredible. It was a huge success story and we hate to give them credit for it—but they did it. But they did it at a cost, one was military expenditure and the other was that civil and political rights were neglected.

PN: Kathy, you have paralleled the impact of sanctions on children with child abuse (“Maintenance of economic sanctions against Iraq requires us to inflict child sacrifice, to aid and abet the most egregious instance of child abuse in our world today”). In practical terms, how do you think an abuser should be dealt with?

Kathy: I think that it is important to isolate someone who is abusing from the target—or the person who would be the victim of their abuse. Though I don't recommend prison, islands come to mind sometimes! But what do you do with a nation that is behaving as a rogue superpower and is behaving abusively? Well, you would like to think that the United Nations would be able to restrain such a country, but we don't seem to have the mechanisms to allow that right now.

PN: Denis, in 1999 you were awarded the Morocco North-South Co-operation prize jointly with the children of Iraq. Did this “high symbolism” have any practical impact on your relationship with children in Iraq?

Denis: On a practical level, only that the [prize] money involved—US$1000, I think—was fed back to the children of Iraq through Care International. But really it was just a symbolic thing, and I think the children of Iraq deserve it greatly—much more than I do—because of their dignity and the fact that so many have survived, despite the appalling conditions. I met the Iraqi Minister of Education recently and he told me a story about a little boy who sells biscuits near the Ministry and on his tray [the boy] has about 20 biscuits. One day the Minister said to himself “Well, I'll just buy the lot. Then maybe he can go home and go to school— where of course he should be”. So he walked up to the little boy and said “I'll take the whole lot” and the little boy said “No you won't. You can have five! I will not take your charity”. That's the sort of pride and dignity that keeps Iraq going.

PN: Do you have any comment on the potential impact of so-called “smart sanctions” on the children of Iraq?

Kathy: Well, we could have stores lined with commodities—and they could be very tantalising—but if people don't have the cash or purchasing power to buy those commodities, it is a bit irrelevant how much is there. I suppose some people could identify with it in poor neighbourhoods in the US and perhaps other countries as well: TV feeds kids a tantalising array of things they would like to have, but their parents can't always afford to get them, and then the kids can start to feel disappointed and maybe a bit resentful. As they grow older they will have to deal with what Hans Von Sponeck has called the “undue burden of the future” and that is going to be very much on their shoulders. They will be poorly educated, many of them undernourished or suffering from chronic malnourishment symptoms, inheriting an economy that's a shambles, an infrastructure that doesn't function very well, and they will be very cut off from much of the rest of the world.

PN: Does the continuing emotive emphasis within anti-sanctions campaigning on the death of half a million children, and the ongoing daily hardships children experience as a result of sanctions, ever concern you?

Kathy: Well, I am appalled that more people of conscience aren't profoundly disturbed by the deaths of so many hundreds of thousands of children. To be honest I can't get my own head around it. I will stand by the phrase “child sacrifice”. These kids have been punished to death. That should evoke emotional responses of regret and remorse. Is it a good idea to also expand beyond a concentrated focus on the death of children—so that people can have a better sense of the variety of the culture of Iraq? I would certainly think so.

Denis: Well, I think in the establishment, the world of the suits and the “hardnoses”, they probably think we're a bunch of do-gooders who can't control ourselves. But the fact is that it [the death of half a million children] is a reality. Some of us do this from the heart and there is room for that But then you have people like me, who generally don't take that approach, who are “hard, mean, bastards”. We talk about a different Iraq, maybe deliberately to a certain extent. We provide the balance—some information and data—and put it in more cold, logistical terms. But I know that often many people respond better to Kathy than to me, because the anecdotal material helps them to understand.

PN: Denis, as someone who appears to operate in a non-aligned way, with your own agenda, you have in fact spent the past three years being frequently exposed to a fairly large number of peace activists and campaigners. Has this exposure impacted your thinking, and if so in what ways?

Denis: Well, I have very deliberately remained independent. I will work with everybody, I will talk with everybody, I will accept invitations from everybody—with the exception of the government of Iraq. But I don't need to be associated with any one group in order for me to do what I want to do. I think people see me as this UN bureaucrat who suddenly saw the light or something. Well, before I went into the UN I was a student and my father was head of the Irish pacifist movement for 20 years. He is a Quaker, I am a Quaker and we grew up with a tradition of pacifism and of activist work—it's one of the things Quakers do best, or used to at least. I was a volunteer in east Africa where I worked in a community centre and I spent quite a bit of time working on issues such as Irish neutrality and in the anti-apartheid movement. I resigned [from the UN] because I found that what I was doing for a living was totally incompatible with my conscience and that I could not continue to do it. I felt I could do better by being outside.

PN: What do you think peace activists could do—or should be doing—to help and support the Iraqi people, Iraqi civil society and the development of alternatives within Iraq?

Kathy: Well, I do believe in this person-to-person diplomacy idea. I think it is also helpful to the Iraqi people when they know that there are dramatic actions being taken here in support of their civil society some day being able to flourish. I think we should identify the maximum that we can do—I think that if people can't find a form of action that can be sustained and is consistent, they may find themselves wondering in the future “where was I?” and “how did I let that happen?”.

Voices in the Wilderness USA, 1460 West Carmen Avenue, Chicago, IL 60640, USA (email kkelly@igc.apc.org).
Voices in the Wilderness UK, 16b Cherwell Street, Oxford OX4 1BG (+44 1865 243 232; email voices@viwk.freeserve.co.uk)
Care International, 58/10 Boulevard du Régent, 1000 Brussels, Belgium (+32 2 502 43 33; fax 502 82 02; email info@care-international.org; http:www.care-international.org).

Topics: Iraq | Children