people in violation of long standing Christian traditions about the limitation of the conduct of war, argues Bruce Kent
How 600,000 children died to punish Saddam
Now THE Iraq crisis has been — for the moment at least — satisfactorily defused, the subject will soon be forgotten again. Most of us are bored with hearing about the aftermath of the Gulf war. It all seems a long time ago. The pictures of burnt Iraqi soldiers and of Patriot missiles climbing into the sky are now only dim memories.
But for the people of Iraq there can be no forgetting. The war continues by other means: for them it never ended. And what they are still undergoing is destroying a whole people in violation of long-standing Christian traditions about the limitation of the conduct of war.
In January of this year more than 50 American bishops wrote to President Clinton to remind him that there can be no unlimited use of economic sanctions by one country against another. They reminded him that "the harm caused by sanctions should be proportionate to the good likely to be achieved: sanctions should avoid grave and irreversible harm to the civilian population".
They then listed the effects which current sanctions against Iraq are having on the ordinary population. One million people have died as a result of these sanctions. Sixty per cent of them were children under the age of five. The bishops said 'The 1991 bombing campaign destroyed electric, water, and sewage plants as well as agricultural food and production facilities. All of these structures continue to be inoperative or function at sub-minimal levels because the sanctions have made it impossible to buy spare parts for their repair".
They went on to quote Archbishop Gabriel Kassab of the southern region of Iraq who said in 1997 that "epidemics rage. taking away infants and the sick by the thousand... our situation is unbearable .. let it be known that Security Council Resolution 986 (the so called 'oil for food' resolution) has served to divert world attention from the tragedy while in some respects aggravating it".
The American bishops, calling for an end to sanctions, promised to work with their President to try to find a truly just path to peace in the Middle East.
Many Catholic church leaders have made similar appeals. Mgr James Reinert of the Vatican Mission to the United Nations reminded the General Assembly that "the Holy See has always opposed the use of indiscriminate coercive economic sanctions against a nation when they affect the basic human development of the people. Starvation may not be a means of warfare."
The World Food Programme Chief Emergency Support Officer. with 24 years of famine experience behind him, said in 1995 that what was happening them in Iraq "was compatible to the worst scenarios I have ever seen". The Head of the World Health Organisation described the situation in these terms: "Everything is breaking down. People have to drink polluted water so they become too sick to benefit from food."
Every visitor to Iraq has heard similar comments. "Why are you making war on our children?" was the question recently put to a reporter from a British newspaper by the consultant paediatrician of one of Baghdad's major hospitals earlier this year. Through that city the river Tigris now carries tons of raw sewage which can no longer be processed.
So what is going on? And why have we just, apparently, emerged from yet another crisis? The latest controversy was created by Saddam Hussein, certainly a brutal dictator, by his refusal to allow United Nations weapons inspectors to continue their task. The response of the United States. as ever loyally supported by the British government, was once more to threaten military action of a punitive sort. Indeed. the United States Defence Secretary. William Cohen, did not even pretend that such action required United Nations consent. He said that unilateral military action by the United States had always been an option.
The purpose of the proposed military action was to put pressure on Saddam Hussein and thus to prevent Iraq from acquiring weapons of mass destruction. But as a simple matter of natural justice the United States, with a massive nuclear weapon arsenal itself, is in no position to take the lead. The same month it was preparing to bomb Iraq, the United States was doing its best to force other countries not to vote for a UN resolution calling for a start to nuclear weapon abolition negotiations. Indeed, the US still has a substantial chemical weapon arsenal and has yet to introduce the domestic legislation which would make the Chemical Weapons Convention effective.
There are alternative suggestions. Clearly negotiations with Iraq should be conducted by a less partisan authority. Then it
would be wise to remove current limits on oil sales and to make sure by negotiated onsite inspection that the revenues received are used not only for food and medicine but to rebuild the infrastructure of a country so massively damaged in 1991.
Threats of further bombing can only unite the Iraqi people in hatred of the West. It would be much more constructive to promote and pay for a regional peace conference led perhaps by Egypt at which all the current problems of the Middle East from weapons of mass destruction to territory, oil and water, would be discussed. Israeli nuclear weapons would certainly have to be on that agenda.
We Catholics in this country might well promote an ecumenical visit by Christian peace and justice organisations to find out how devastating the sanction of the last eight years have been and to come up with alternative conflict resolution of proposal.
At the moment we are punishing the children because of the sins of a father who himself hardly suffers at all. The Gospel gives us no authority for such behaviour.
Bruce Kent is chairman of Pax Cluisti