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End The Sanctions Now
Recently returned from a visit to Baghdad, MICHAEL D. HIGGINS calls on Ireland to take a lead in demanding an end to sanctions against Iraq, arguing that Saddam Hussein can never justify the deaths of children and the use of long-suffering civilians, as tools of opposition to his regime.
Michael D Higgins, 17 Jan 2001
It was in 1982 that I was asked to consider writing a regular column for hotpress. I remember well the shock I felt. Armed with past issues of hotpress and NME, over a weekend in Cork I considered the madness involved, with all the strange material spread around a room. Then I said yes.
From 1982 until 1993 I continued contributing. My motivation, I suppose, was to some degree influenced by the fact that I could write about topics that were current and reach an audience I did not normally reach either in formal politics or through lecturing at U.C.G. in Sociology and Politics. It was thus a robust and vulgar exercise in the best sense of those words.
My contact with young people who read the column was often at night. There s your man... , I would hear and a conversation would ensue about Pinochet or whatever I had been writing about.
In 1993 when I became Minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht my life changed in terms of how the days and nights were spent. The conversations that were spontaneous seemed to be swamped by tasks that were important, urgent and time-consuming, be it in film or broadcasting or the Irish language.
Like hotpress I had changed format, but I was a reader of the paper now, not a contributor. I missed the street encounters and the contacts with a generation vitally interested in the world from El Salvador to East Timor.
Yet while I missed the contact at a personal level I continued to be interested in the lives of young people. After all, my own children were in their late teens heading into their early twenties.
I have, in these years of reflection, been quite shaken at the sudden, intense increase in the exploitation of young people and the filling of their lives with stress, fear, anxiety and pressure from peers. I note the banality of those who speak of and to young people. Phrases like there are a lot of them out there as if they were on the Planet Mars. Such a phrase denotes an important rupture. So many of the attachments to society have become commercialised. So many have been discarded. So many idealisms have been broken through bad faith, that life has become a lonely one for a person who is young in the Nineties. Time has been shortened, space contracted, context obliterated.
Yet there remains a space of indomitable humanity. I remember how moved I was a short while ago at the messages young people were writing on the wreaths at a funeral of one of their friends killed tragically in an accident phrases like you were always there for me , denoting a loneliness in the modern world. The invitation of the nineties seems to have moved from belonging in the world to attacking it.
A recent advertisement states The Celtic Tiger needs more claws ; an educational leader tells graduates that they are the cubs of the Tiger . More interestingly, a recent M.R.B.I. report suggests that only six percent of respondents between 18-24 are interested in world events.
Life, it would seem, has become constricted to sensation purchased as a consumer rather than an invitation to any solidarity offered and shared as a citizen.
Yet my own experiences tell me that much more than six per cent are interested in Iraq, Palestine, World Debt, Aid or the neo-imperialism of the WTO. Even so, the de-politization of an entire generation is a matter for concern.
What is beyond dispute, however, is that everything has changed in just a few years in Ireland. Now we are invited to work very hard at creating an unhappy, disconsolate public, largely uninformed by ethical imperatives. Denis O Brien is to the Irish Nineties what Mother Theresa was to the floating softies of the Eighties.
I have all these thoughts in my mind as I try to write of issues such as the effect of the UN Economic Sanctions on the people of Iraq. Nine years ago I was in Baghdad with David Andrews and Paul Bradford in an attempt to secure and speed the release of Irish medical personnel regarded as messengers of peace by the authorities in Iraq on the verge of war. They were, as their relatives in Ireland saw it, civilian hostages . They were home before the bombing of the 17th January 1991.
I wrote then about my visit in hotpress. Now, nine years later, when discussing my visit of December 2000 on a radio station, I am asked the question, by a reasonable interviewer who felt he represented the callers, why with so many problems at home is Michael D going half across the world to ask about children dying in Iraq?
In answering the question I said that, in my experience, precisely the same people are agitated about poverty and an unjust society at home as are interested in issues of human rights, aid, trade and world debt. And precisely the same people who are not interested in anything beyond themselves at home don t give a damn about world issues such as poverty or the absence of human rights.
Preparing to leave for Iraq on December 9th I reflected on the courage of such exceptional people as Ramsey Clerk, former US Attorney General and Human Rights Campaigner. His book, The Fire Next Time, stands as one of the great testaments to legal integrity and moral courage, and to an engaged jurisprudence and scholarship. That work detailed the war crimes committed by the US during the Gulf War. The questions he raised will not go away. Was it right to bury soldiers in retreat in the desert sand? More importantly was it acceptable to bomb long lines of civilians on suspicion of there being weapons among them?
The previous genocidal actions of Saddam Hussein against the Kurdish population were raised by me in the eighties in Dail Eireann, to little general interest I have to say. The victims were Kurds and the mustard gas came from a country within the European Union. Insufficient attention too has been given to the deaths of 30-60,000 of the Shii population who rose against Saddam with US and British encouragement in March 1991 and who were later abandoned. Neither should we forget that Saddam s weapons of years of destruction before 1990 came from the West.
However, such activities as those of Saddam Hussein do not and never can justify the use of the civilian population of Iraq as pawns in a game that began over oil and that continues as a feature of a geopolitics where there is only one global player, where interests have replaced morals at the centre of foreign policy.
Above all, nothing can justify the loss of children's lives a result of sanctions that far from achieving their stated objective, have secured Saddam in power and indeed converted his status to that of a regional hero. It is morally indefensible, it seems to me, to use the civilians of Iraq as tools of opposition to Saddam Hussein s administration. The preceding and succeeding genocidal actions of Saddam Hussein, I repeat, do not justify what is now taking place.
An academic argument is now under way in some journals as to what the true figures for child deaths and malnutrition are. Some academics, it is claimed, take Iraqi health statistics at face value and lend themselves to being victims of propaganda when a figure of 7,500 child deaths per month is used. However, no estimate from any agency or source is less than 2000 per month. Therefore, there is no denying that between 60 and 70 Iraqi children die needlessly every day. The academic argument, I have to say, puts me in mind of the arguments about the Irish Famine and the number of deaths attributed to starvation.
Of course it would be useful to have a benchmark figure not only of the number of children dying but also of those suffering from the various forms of malnutrition child hunger, stunted growth and wasting of bodies. To the Iraqis, as our delegation was told, the gathering of health statistics is a domestic government function covered by considerations of sovereignty. To the coalition against Iraq particularly Britain and the US this is an attempt by the Iraqi Government to use child deaths as propaganda for consumption by a gullible international humanitarian community.
To me, the important fact is that the children are dying needlessly . The sanctions, far from working as intended, are killing civilians, including children, and they are tearing the heart out of whatever civil society might be possible for a population of over 22 million Iraqis. That is what should concern us all.
I often think of that evening when the bombing began. The Irish public like others dominated by the journalistic cynicism and sycophantic militarism of Sky TV looked on at the destruction, not of military targets alone, but of the infrastructure of a country from which most of the major belief systems of the world s religions had sprung. The war was a video game. Television covered the event less as news than as combat television entertainment. Later it would be the Kosovo Video Game, as, once again, the victory of militarism over diplomacy would merge seamlessly into entertainment. Even our Taoiseach and partner, on a visit to our peacekeepers in the Lebanon, donned military fatigues for the photos.
What is left after the television trail of intelligent missiles? A devastated landscape. Broken pipelines. Leaking reservoirs. Water-borne diseases. Much of this would go unnoticed if it were not for a deadly paradox that haunts the victors, if one can use that word, in the Gulf War the medical consequences for their own soldiers of using depleted uranium. As different countries of the alliance assess the state of health of their own soldiers it becomes possible that the rise in the death rate of Iraqi children from leukaemia might also merit consideration. Child leukaemia in certain parts of Iraq has trebled.
The parliamentary delegation which visited Jordan and Iraq, and of which I was part, consisted of David Andrews, John Gormley and Senators David Norris and Michael Lanigan. All had an exceptional interest in the Middle East and the effect of the sanctions in particular.
Unlike the previous time I visited Iraq, it was not possible to fly into Baghdad because of the bureaucracy attending the sanctions. Instead, we travelled by jeep from Amman in Jordan, 1100 kilometres along a highway through the desert, to Baghdad.
One could not but be struck by the continuous traffic of oil tankers between Jordan and Iraq. The vehicles are old and they leak. The sides of the road are blackened with spillages. One can see old trucks parked alongside the Bedouin community tents. Unrepaired pipelines make the vehicles necessary for an endless cycle of transportation.
In Baghdad, the Al Rasheed Hotel s foyer has a new mosaic at the entrance. A gesture of defiance, it depicts George Bush over the message Guilty of murder . The hotel itself is showing signs of the sanctions but continues in business with about 20% occupancy.
Thinking back on what the Iraqi people have suffered in recent decades, one is conscious of why the population is weary. It is showing the effects of a war against Iran that cost between 250,000 and 300,000 lives, a Gulf War that cost over 100,000 lives, and the Kurdish and Shii revolts of 1991 that cost thousands more and now economic sanctions. Households sell their books, the inner doors of their houses, their carpets all in order to live.
It is an extraordinary achievement that life can continue. Yet the force of the statement made by a US commander during the Gulf War We will drive you back into the dark ages rings in one s ears. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the economic sanctions are about the pauperisation of the Iraqi middle class, the humiliation of a people with a cultural history that goes back to at least 12,000 BC. That is how the Iraqi people see it. That is why the sanctions, combined with the loss of life in Palestine, has the capacity to not only ignite a regional catastrophic war, but even to provoke a global conflict between Islam and the West.
Both terms Islam and the West urgently need a deep and informed analysis. TV video games will not do that and if a new global conflict merges it will probably owe as much to ignorance as to any proximate cause.
The Deputy Foreign Minister of Iraq was not impressed by an Irish Parliamentary Delegation to the Inter-Parliamentary World Union Meeting in Jakarta in October. The delegation votes were cast against the inclusion of a motion on sanctions sponsored by Belgium. When it was included, the two deputies left in charge of the vote voted against the resolution. Ultimately, it was carried by 850 votes to 250 approximately, with Ireland, the US and the UK among the 250.
The vote was an embarrassment for our visiting delegation. To say it created a certain frisson would be to put it mildly. No issue of text could justify this action however. It was a disgraceful vote.
From the Iraqi point of view use of the term humanitarian is not acceptable. As Tariq Aziz put it, We are not a refugee camp . In his view Iraq is being impeded from producing, selling, and spending their own oil revenues on repair of infrastructure , health, education and housing. According to the report of Kofi Annan, Secretary General of the UN in November 2000, $2.31 billion of aid was blocked in the sanctions committee of the UN.
It is also difficult to reject the Iraqi view that in terms of UN inspection the row about which brought the sanctions into existence some members of the earlier teams have been discredited, with accusations of intelligence gathering given substance by subsequent revelations.
It is also the Iraqi government s view that the goal posts will continue to be moved and that suspension of the sanctions rather than their cancellation is all that is ever spoken of. There is thus little incentive for them to facilitate the successor to the inspection body UNSCOM. Yet this must happen. It must be negotiated. The atmosphere that enabled 80 per cent of weapons of mass destruction to be destroyed in the first eighteen months of UNSCOM has to be recreated. The proposed UNMOVIC team of inspection could be made acceptable with new and neutral proposals from a country such as Ireland.
There is no doubt but that the general issue of sanctions and resolution 1284 of the Security Council will be revisited and soon. On that substantive issue, Ireland will be required to indicate its attitude towards retaining or ending the economic sanctions.
At stake is nothing less than the well-being of a country which, as a former Taoiseach put it, is the cradle of civilisation.
Between the Tigris and the Euphrates in the late 4th Millennium BC the first cities emerged. City States emerged and irrigation systems built on canals that are still the subject of study, were established. I remember over 20 years ago, as a young lecturer on Urban Sociology speaking of the city of Ur and the Sumerian Empire. Ur was a centre of trade and manufacture before 2500 BC. It is from this region that the code of Hammaurabi came. It is the birth place of prophecy and prophets.
On to this region has rained death and destruction in recent years. The memory of mankind over thousands of years is obliterated by contemporary acts of aggression and the victory of violence over diplomacy.
One is left with a number of questions:
Can sanctions be justified?
Are they in accordance with International Law?
Are the sanctions being operated with humanitarian concern?
Are the sanctions helping civil society in Iraq?
Are the sanctions achieving their stated purposes of weakening Saddam Hussein?
The answer to all of the above is NO.
Are the sanctions affecting the lives of civilians who are powerless and children in particular?
Are the sanctions dubious in International Law?
Should sanctions be ended and a new dialogue opened?
I believe the only answer to the above is YES.
Many delegations from Ireland have gone to Iraq in the past mostly to sell beef. On the Security Council we will be expected to be interested in the people of Iraq. How is the war to be ended? How will we know when it is ended? What guarantees will be created for eliminating weapons of mass destruction by holding civilians hostage? Whose interests are served by military exhaustion of stocks and their replacement?
So many questions. So many connections to be made. Is it not better to have envisaged an alternative to militarism than to have been a passive pawn of what one s heart and head feels to be wrong? Now is a time for involvement and activity rather than passivity or a selfishness based on ignorance and moral indifference. I believe much more than six per cent of 18 to 24 year olds believe this to be so.