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Published on Thursday, August 31, 2000 in the Austin American-Statesman
Another Voice Calling For An End To Sanctions In Iraq
by Mary Alice Davis
 
When you leave the land of the lucky and enter geopolitical purgatory, a few props help bridge the conversational gaps.

"I always take balloons," says Austin lawyer D'Ann Johnson, explaining her reliable street strategy for playfully connecting with children as a traveling human-rights advocate.

On recent travels in ravaged Iraq, she took an extra ice-breaker -- a sweetly evocative black-and-white photo of herself and her 9-year-old daughter. Without fail, the parents and children she met kissed the photo. The gesture moved her, communicating without words a universal benediction: "Blessed be this child."

Iraq's children have not been blessed. International aid agencies estimate that about 500,000 of them have died from assorted horrors during a decade of economic sanctions: starvation, ruined schools, lack of medicine, undrinkable water, ruined sewers, land mine explosions, birth defects. The toll runs around 5,000 children a month. At 22 million, the nation's population is just ahead that of Texas.

Of the myriad wretchedness caused by the lingering trade embargo, one thing in particular makes Johnson's voice waiver as she describes it: No longer can Iraqis obtain enough wood for coffins. She said an old man wept as he described how the bodies must be placed directly into the ground.

Also disheartening was evidence of the deteriorating status of women in a nation in which they had once marked progress. Girls are now infrequently educated, she said. Mothers have sold their jewelry and furniture to buy their children food. "After 10 years of sanctions, they have nothing left to sell," she said.

The trade embargo was imposed by the United Nations and the United States in August 1990 after Iraq under Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and began the Gulf War. The sanctions were justified as a way to make Saddam's military disarm. Their actual effect has been quite different.

As the world marked the 10-year anniversary of the sanctions, Johnson toured Iraq with a group that works to end them, Voices in the Wilderness. For about a week, she left her job as executive director of the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association and assumed the role of reporter and representative of the Religious Society of Friends, or Quakers. The society supports efforts in Congress to end the sanctions.

Also on the tour was her partner, the Austin-based documentary photographer Alan Pogue. It was Pogue who had taken the picture, titled Mother Love, that Johnson used to introduce herself to people she met while touring hospitals, women's sewing co-ops and other sites.

At one hospital, she delivered to physicians a gift from the Austin Quakers, a basic book on pediatric medicine. She also peered into empty hospital supply shelves and wept to see doomed infants with birth defects or leukemia from weapons radiation.

Unemployment in Iraq is running above 50 percent, she said, and estimates of per capita income have plummeted by half or more. The United Nations says deaths among children have doubled under the trade embargo.

Before the embargo, Iraq imported about 70 percent of its food. The United Nations "food for oil" program that lets Iraq sell some oil in exchange for life-giving goods is capriciously implemented and meets only a fraction of the need, Johnson said.

Are the sanctions helping achieve U.S. foreign-policy goals? Few think so. An unlikely alliance of human-rights activists and export-conscious business interests are attacking the sanctions as not only cruel but politically pointless. Human-rights advocates stress the cruelty, noting that more people have died as a result of the sanctions in Iraq than died in the atomic bomb destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Business interests point to the loss of exports. The sanctions cost the United States as much as $19 billion a year in lost exports, according to a study by the Institute for International Economics. The same study found that since 1970 economic sanctions have achieved policy goals only about 13 percent of the time.

A U.N. subcommittee on human rights this month released a report also concluding that the sanctions in Iraq have been ineffective. That report augments mounting cries for change -- in Congress, in board rooms, among international aid agencies and in the news media.

Johnson adds one voice to the chorus, asking that the children be remembered. And be blessed.

For information about the sanctions on Iraq, one good place to start is the special report of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer last year. "Life and Death in Iraq," based on staff research in Iraq, is posted on the Web at www.seattlep-i.com/iraq. Reprints also are available from the Seattle newspaper.

Some data in this column was taken from the series.

Davis is an American-Statesman editorial writer.

Copyright 2000 The Austin American-Statesman

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