A federal judge has ordered the human rights group Voices in the Wilderness to pay $20,000 for violating the sanctions against Iraq. A decade ago, Voices in the Wilderness began openly violating the sanctions, bringing in symbolic amounts of medical, educational and humanitarian aid to Iraq on a regular basis. We speak with the group’s founder, Kathy Kelly. [includes rush transcript]
Over the past several years, the White House and some powerful Congressional Republicans have aggressively investigated what they refer to as the “United Nations Oil for Food Scandal,” alleging that UN officials and others took kickbacks from Saddam Hussein’s government or otherwise benefited from the UN program. While there have been some cases of fraud or profiteering uncovered involving individual UN employees and others, it has hardly proved the scandal that some in Washington would like to have the public believe. Moreover, many of the central figures profiting from the sanctions on Iraq–among them some powerful US corporations–have faced almost no consequences for their corruption.
Beyond this, some of the most experienced Iraq activists say that the real scandal is the ongoing devastation caused by more than a decade of US-led United Nations sanctions against Iraq. This month marks the 15 year anniversary of those sanctions and this past weekend, the US Treasury Department took action against the organization that made its life’s work ending those sanctions against Iraq: the Chicago-based Voices in the Wilderness. A decade ago, they began openly violating the sanctions, bringing in symbolic amounts of medical, educational and humanitarian aid on a regular basis. They stated publicly and repeatedly that in the long tradition of nonviolent, direct action, they were breaking what they believe to be unjust laws. This past weekend, a federal judge ordered Voices in the Wilderness to pay a $20,000 fine. The U.S. Treasury Department initially imposed the fine in 2002, days after Voices participated in international actions to oppose the U.S. buildup for war against Iraq. At that time, the group was holding demonstrations urging the US Congress not to give Bush the authority to attack Iraq.
Here is the group’s founder, Kathy Kelly outside of the UN compound in Baghdad in October 2002.
- Kathy Kelly, speaking in Baghdad, October 26, 2002.
Voices in the Wilderness released a statement in response to Saturday’s ruling, saying that they will not pay “a penny of this fine.”
Their statement said: “The economic sanctions regime imposed brutal and lethal punishment on Iraqi people. The U.S. government would not allow Iraq to rebuild its water treatment system after the U.S. military deliberately destroyed it in 1991. The U.S. government denied Iraq the ability to purchase blood bags, medical needles and medicine in adequate supplies–destroying Iraq’s health care system. “We chose to travel to Iraq in order to openly challenge our country’s war against the Iraqi people. We fully understood that our acts could result in criminal or civil charges. We acted because when our country’s government is committing a grievous, criminal act, it is incumbent upon each of us to challenge in every nonviolent manner possible the acts of the government. “We continue to oppose the U.S. occupation of Iraq, which continues the devastation of the Iraqi people.”
- Kathy Kelly, founder of Voices in the Wilderness. Her new book is called “Other Lands Have Dreams: From Baghdad to Pekin Prison”
AMY GOODMAN: This is the group’s founder, Kathy Kelly, outside the U.N. compound in Baghdad in October 2002.
KATHY KELLY: We’re here in front of the United Nations because we believe every member state of the United Nations General Assembly and the entire Security Council has a terrific responsibility right now as these very crucial debates take place to say to the U.N., “No blank check for the U.S. to attack Iraq.”
AMY GOODMAN: Kathy Kelly speaking in Baghdad, October 2002. Voices in the Wilderness released a statement in response to Saturday’s ruling saying they won’t pay, quote, “a penny of this fine.” Their statement said, quote, “The economic sanctions regime imposed brutal and lethal punishment on the Iraqi people. The U.S. government would not allow Iraq to rebuild its water treatment system after the U.S. military deliberately destroyed it in 1991. The U.S. government denied Iraq the ability to purchase blood bags, medical needles and medicine in adequate supplies, destroying Iraq’s health care system. We chose to travel to Iraq,” the statement said, “in order to openly challenge our country’s war against the Iraqi people. We fully understood that our acts could result in criminal or civil charges. We acted because when our country’s government is committing a grievous criminal act, it’s incumbent upon each of us to challenge in every non-violent manner possible the acts of the government.” The statement went on to say, “We continue to oppose the U.S. occupation of Iraq, which continues the devastation of the Iraqi people.”
We’re joined now in Chicago studio by the founder of Voices in the Wilderness, Kathy Kelly, author of the new book, Other Lands Have Dreams: From Baghdad to Pekin Prison. Welcome to Democracy Now!
KATHY KELLY: Thank you, Amy.
AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. Well, talk about this fine and what your plans are right now.
KATHY KELLY: Well, Amy, it was interesting that Judge John Bates in Washington, D.C. Federal Court concluded a 17-page opinion by quoting the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. And he quoted from King’s letter from a Birmingham jail in which Dr. King said, “Those who break an unjust law should do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty.” And what we want to say to Judge Bates and to the United States government is that if Judge Bates were to choose to put any one of us in jail, then we would go openly and lovingly, but we won’t pay one penny, not one dime, to these war criminals to continue putting U.S. productivity into attacks against Iraq’s people or into the imperial designs to seize Iraq’s oil revenue. It’s something that, relying on Dr. King’s teachings, we in conscience cannot do.
And so we see our resistance to paying this fine as a way for us to continue our conscientious objection to the ghastly suffering that’s being imposed on Iraqi people and the risks that are being imposed on U.S. soldiers that are sent to Iraq. It seems to us that it’s been very, very difficult, whether you appeal to the executive, the legislative or the judicial branch of government, to be able to influence, exercise almost any kind of control on a government that is so ruthless and reckless at this point. And so we certainly think that the 60% of the U.S. public that now expresses disapproval of this war has a chance, a real chance to begin to build confidence in our responsibility to claim conscientious objection, to find ways to withdraw collaboration with what, as you have said so clearly, has been a 15-year stretch of war-making, both military and economic, against people who meant us no harm.
And even now, as we reflect back on 500,000 children under age five who were brutally and lethally punished, the children who committed no crime, but who couldn’t survive the economic sanctions, now we find from the United Nations Development Program and from Special Rapporteur on Hunger working for the United Nations, Mr. Jean Ziegler, that 300,000 Iraqi children are suffering from acute malnourishment. Children don’t recover from acute malnourishment. There are chronic problems for the rest of their lives. And when we then combine that fact with the 60% of rural areas in Iraq that don’t have potable water and 20%, at least, of the urban areas have contaminated water, what chance do these little tiny infants have, children under age five, if they’re acutely malnourished and then they get typhus or cholera or dysentery or diarrhea?
I recently read a Medicine for Peace report giving descriptions of horrible conditions in Iraqi hospitals. And that same morning I got a desperate call from a woman we know well in Iraq, and her daughter had been a passenger in a car that was shot at by — in now Baghdad, the most violent city in the world, gunmen who shot into the car, a bullet went through the face of the 17-year-old daughter, and the conditions when the daughter went to a major Baghdad hospital for reconstructive surgery were so bad, grainy x-rays that couldn’t be read, no anesthetics available. Imagine this youngster going through surgery without anesthetics. And the conditions so unsanitary that the family brought the child home from the hospital, hoping to give better care at home. And this is a family that I first met in Basra in the poorest neighborhood, where the houses were crumbling all around them.
We can’t collaborate. We simply can’t collaborate with the idea of continuing to pour United States productivity into force protection, into more weapons, more bullets, more police training. Voices in the Wilderness wants to take this opportunity to conscientiously object to war, in concert, we hope, with the growing confidence in this country that we have a responsibility to bring these troops home, bring them home now, bring them home alive, and pay reparations to Iraqi people for the terrible suffering we have caused.
AMY GOODMAN: Very quickly, Kathy, you wrote a letter to Senator Carl Levin. We have heard a good deal about the so-called Oil-for-Food scandal. But you are focusing here on U.S. corporations that profited during the time you are being fined for bringing in humanitarian aid under the sanctions regime. Can you explain?
KATHY KELLY: Well, we wrote to Senator Carl Levin, because on May 17, the Senate Foreign Investigations Committee presented very telling testimony about the ways in which two major Texas-based oil companies had been involved from 2000 to 2002 in smuggling that was quite lucrative. The Bay Oil company had paid kickbacks to Saddam Hussein’s government in order to get very profitable contracts, and it was clear that the United Nations over an eight-month span had notified the Treasury Department, the Office of Foreign Assets Control, the group which went after us, about these kickbacks, and there was no action taken.
And another company, Odin Oil, had actually docked seven huge oil tankers at a port called Khor al-Amaya and was offloading oil that had been smuggled by the Jordanians onto their own ships. Apparently, according to the testimony that Carl Levin gave, the Odin Oil executives even questioned the United States Navy, “Is this okay?” And they were given word, “Yes, there will be no interference.” And so, there was a terrific amount of smuggling that had always gone on across the Jordanian border, across the Turkish border, and United States officials had all along turned a blind eye to that, in fact given outright approval, according to Joy Gordon.
And so, Senator Carl Levin asked the OFAC executive officials why they never went after enforcing the economic sanctions against these major oil companies, and Senator Levin was told by OFAC that they didn’t believe that the Office of Foreign Assets Control was responsible to police the enforcement of United Nations economic sanctions. Well, when we declared that we would break those sanctions openly and publicly in 1996, on Martin Luther King’s birthday, seven days later, we had a very stiff letter of warning that if we persisted we would face heavy penalties and possible jail time. And then, throughout the time that we broke the sanctions, although really the OFAC people were certainly slow in actually imposing the fine, we nevertheless were on their radar screen, and they saw it as their responsibility.
AMY GOODMAN: And we did call OFAC, the Office of Foreign Assets Control and the Treasury Department to get comment, but they did not return our calls. We’re talking to Kathy Kelly, founder of Voices in the Wilderness. Her organization has been fined $20,000 for violating sanctions against Iraq. She has written the book, Other Lands Have Dreams.