The Suffering of Innocents | Sojourners

The Suffering of Innocents

Letter to the Editors

We are deeply troubled by the implications of your editorial ("What to Do About Iraq?" by David Cortwright and George A. Lopez, March-April 1998) that sanctions against Iraq should remain in place if Iraq does not fully comply with U.N. Security Council resolutions and weapons inspections. By the United Nation’s own estimates, more than one million civilians have died as a direct result of sanctions, more than half of them children under the age of 5. What is the moral dilemma about enforced massive starvation and disease? How can we equivocate with the lives of innocents?

Voices in the Wilderness does not advocate the lifting of all sanctions against Iraq. We believe in the moral and political efficacy of weapons embargo, if evenly applied in the region and by our own government. We support the principle of weapons inspections, which have already eliminated the vast majority of Iraq’s weapons capacity, and hope that other countries in the region would submit to them as well.

However, we have consistently called for an immediate end to the U.S./U.N. sanctions against Iraq that prevent the country from selling enough oil to buy food, medicine, spare parts, pesticides, fertilizers, equipment, etc., which Iraq needs to repair its shattered infrastructure and feed and heal its people. Logically, any other stance assumes, as Madeleine Albright does, that there is an "acceptable" price to pay for containing Saddam, an "acceptable" number of innocent children dead of preventable disease, malnutrition, dysentery, and cholera.

Sojourners’ stance risks becoming morally indistinguishable from that of our own government—that "the suffering of innocents is always a moral issue, but so is the problem of evil." A weapons embargo and the inspections regime CAN and MUST be separated from the ability of the Iraqi government to sell enough oil to meet the basic needs of civilians. The lives of children are not just another factor to be added to the foreign policy equation.

The larger objective of the sanctions has not been to contain Iraq in the military sense (none of its neighbors really fears an attack), but to deny Iraq rapid re-entry into a world oil market facing an excess of supply and plummeting prices. Oil has been astonishingly absent from the discussion of the logic underlying our continued punishment of Iraq.

The 54 U.S. Catholic bishops who in January signed a letter to President Clinton condemning the sanctions against Iraq as a violation of the moral teachings of the church had it right. There is simply no justification for continuing to support policies that we know result in the deaths of thousands of innocent civilians every month. There never was.

At what point do we take moral responsibility for the consequences of what is being done in our name, insist on the development of humane alternatives (or develop them ourselves!), and resist by all the nonviolent means at our disposal the continued slaughter of an entire generation of Iraqi civilians? How would we explain the fine points of this "dilemma" to the mother of a child in Iraq who has just died while we wring our hands and plead, "What else can we do?"

Brad Simpson
Voices in the Wilderness: a Campaign to End the US/UN Economic Sanctions Against the People of Iraq
Chicago, Illinois

Jim Wallis responds:

No one was more outspoken against the Gulf war than Sojourners. In print, in organizing the churches’ opposition, in the streets, and in jail for civil disobedience: Our response was clear.

We were also clear, however, in our opposition to Saddam Hussein’s aggression and his brutal invasion of Kuwait. We believed that neither the West’s historic imperialism in the Middle East over oil nor the U.S. double standards in the region were adequate excuses for his behavior. Nevertheless, we believed that diplomatic solutions had not been fully tried and that it was morally wrong to "bomb the children of Baghdad to protect our oil."

After the war ended, we reported how 100,000 Iraqi lives had been lost through the bombing and that the deliberate destruction of Iraq’s infrastructure put its civilian population, especially the young, weak, and vulnerable, in grave jeopardy.

After the war, the international sanctions that had been placed on Iraq because of its invasion of Kuwait remained in place to pressure Saddam Hussein to dismantle his nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons capacities. These sanctions further devastated Iraq’s civilian population. Saddam Hussein’s lack of concern for his own people, spending money on his palaces instead of his country’s starving and sick children, further hurt the innocent.

After seven years of the sanctions, UNICEF and other international observers report that hundreds of thousands of people have died, many of them children. Several religious leaders who have visited Iraq, like Sojourners’ old friend Bishop Tom Gumbleton, have raised a powerful voice of moral outrage against continuing sanctions.

Sojourners affirms the positive use of sanctions in some situations as an appropriate political tool and a potentially nonviolent alternative to war. We have supported sanctions against South Africa and in other circumstances, even though sanctions always hurt civilian populations. But our March-April editorial by David Cortright and George A. Lopez commented, "[Sanctions] should never be used to starve an opponent into submission." In Iraq’s case, we’ve affirmed the critical goal of conducting international weapons inspections to dismantle Saddam Hussein’s nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons capability. But my May-June commentary said, "...the current economic embargo and sanctions against Iraq are causing morally unacceptable suffering and death among the Iraqi people, and must now be substantially modified and refocused to relieve humanitarian concerns and target arms and weapons technology."

In short, we believe the economic sanctions that mostly affect civilians should be lifted, but that sanctions on weapons and military technology against Iraq should be maintained and even tightened if possible, until Saddam Hussein fully complies with U.N. resolutions regarding weapons inspections and dismantling. We would agree with the intent of a letter now being circulated for signatures in Congress (addressed to President Clinton), which says, "The time has come to re-examine the intended goals and the actual effects of these sanctions. The first step should be to de-link the economic sanctions, which have been a complete failure, from the military sanctions, which have had a measured success....We are simply asking you to look squarely at the economic sanctions, which have outlasted their political utility. They now serve only to extend the human suffering of the population."

When another U.S. war against Iraq was threatened this winter, Sojourners again opposed military action and again tried to mobilize the churches. But we believe that those opposed to military action or devastating economic sanctions must have some response to the real threat that Saddam Hussein still poses. It is simply not enough to oppose military action, call for the lifting of all sanctions, and have no other answer to Saddam Hussein. That opinion is based on several convictions.

1. We believe that Saddam Hussein does pose a genuine threat, which must be resisted and contained by the international community. He is not just demonized by the United States, but has demonized himself. U.S. complicity in the construction of Saddam Hussein’s weapons programs doesn’t change the fact that he has used chemical weapons against both the Iranians and the Kurds in his own country, and there is no reason to believe he wouldn’t again use any weapons he had against others, including civilians.

2. It may reek of hypocrisy for the U.S. government to accuse Iraq of having weapons of mass destruction and violating U.N. resolutions. But it is not inappropriate for the American religious community to support international initiatives against Iraq, especially if we have been consistent in opposing U.S. weapons and our own government’s double standards in the Middle East and elsewhere.

It is true that the United States has the largest stockpile of weapons of mass destruction; has used them (nuclear weapons against Japan, chemical/biological weapons against Vietnam); and has invaded neighboring countries (Dominican Republic, Grenada, Panama). Sojourners has consistently opposed those weapons and those invasions, and will continue to do so. It is also true that Saddam Hussein has or would like to acquire such weapons, has used the ones he’s had, and has shown that he will invade neighboring countries.

It is a false choice to say that because of the history of the United States, we cannot condemn Saddam Hussein (as some of the letters suggested). We can condemn both. In fact, it is a political and moral mistake to refuse to criticize other government’s evils because of our own government’s transgressions. That, in itself, is a dangerous double standard.

3. Those who oppose military action must take responsibility for suggesting alternative courses of action. Nonviolence must try to offer more effective and creative solutions to conflict than violence provides. That will not be done by underestimating or ignoring the problems that violence proposes to solve. We must not only be against war, but undertake peacemaking initiatives. In this case, those who oppose both military action against Iraq and call for lifting sanctions would strengthen their position if they could propose alternative courses of action that take the threat of Saddam Hussein seriously.

These are important and complicated questions, and we thank our readers for their letters.

Sojourners Magazine July-August 1998
This appears in the July-August 1998 issue of Sojourners