In Baghdad, under economic sanctions, landing a job in a hotel offered at least a steady pittance of earnings. Some men made ends meet by working two eight hour shifts in different hotels. A dignified, well educated fellow would don a restaurant worker’s uniform in one hotel to serve tables all day and then quickly change into the uniform of a maintenance crew worker at the hotel across the street so that he could spend the next eight hours sweeping up cigarette butts.
But over time, in spite of the glaring disparities between their material well being and ours, durable friendships developed between members of Voices in the Wilderness delegations and the workers at hotels where we stayed. When, on rare occasions, we’d visit their homes, we’d leave wishing we could alleviate the harsh circumstances in which they lived. Especially during rainy, cold or extremely hot seasons, their homes were inadequate shelters. And they would never be able to save any money to get ahead working at the hotels.
Most of the men I knew no longer work at the hotels. Now that Baghdad is the most dangerous city in the world, random groups fire mortars, bombs, and other explosives at hotels. Some men were willing to risk staying on the job but were laid off by managers who, with few guests, couldn’t meet payrolls.
We’ve lost contact with most of our old friends. We often worry about them. But, occasionally, an email will arrive. Here is an excerpt from a letter sent June 4, 2005, from Ali, a gardener, a man who treated plants and people with great tenderness. He also admired Gandhi and, after the Occupation began, spoke at length with us about how much hope he placed in the possibility that nonviolent movements could emerge in Iraq.
“What happened in US if any one from US army feels hungry? For sure you all now saying the US government will do all they can to do, even they will send in… many airplanes … bringing all the best types of good energy foods and best supplements to make them (the army) stronger to kill the life in poor people. BUT, what about if any one from Iraqi people feels hungry? Simply the answer is no one will care about us…
In every month when Iraqi families go to the shops to get the (oil for food rations) foods, we just get some of the things:
1. Tea. 2. Milk of adults. 3. Soap. 4. Oils. 5. Sugar (some months).
And other important types are not found:
1. Milk of babies. 2. Rice. 3. Flour. 4. beans.
So, why we are still suffering from hungry and may be some families rich or they have the ability of shopping but what about others sleeping without dinner and what about the crying of baby for milk and his mother dying to give it to him, crying … who give mercy to her and her baby? Where is Bush and his flag he carried to bring the democracy and freedom? Who is the hero in our government … and why all the world organizations still silent and where is the UN?”
Where is the UN?
It’s unthinkable, but an honest answer to Ali’s question about the UN would acknowledge that in two days time, the UN will very likely tighten the thumbscrews still further in afflicting pain on innocent Iraqis. June 28–30, 2005, the United Nations Compensation Commission (UNCC) will hold its final round of discussions before determining how much of an outstanding 65 billion in reparations Iraq should be required to pay for Saddam Hussein’s 1990-91 warmaking.
In the years between 1996–2003, the UNCC approved 52.1 billion in payment to individuals, companies and countries. As one of the most secretive of all UN organizational structures, the UNCC forbade the Iraqi negotiators to see many of the claims made against them, refused to allow Iraq to contest claims it did see, and forced the Iraqis to underwrite expenses for translation of all documents as it insisted that no discussions be held in Arabic.
The UNCC could have chosen to pay the individual claimants but then ask the countries and companies, many of them quite wealthy, to wait until Iraq was first able to meet the needs of starving and diseased children. It could still choose to give priority to alleviating suffering in Iraq.
Instead, after all of the decisions are recorded, after the lawyers, accountants, claims analysts, secretaries, translators, and negotiators sign off on their part in the procedures, Iraq will very likely face demands to continue using its desperately needed oil revenue to pay reparations to claimants whose complaints are deemed more worthy of attention than the pleas raised in Ali’s letter.
In the coming months, Ali may find that world bodies such as the IMF and the World Bank, when they step up to the plate to negotiate payment schedules that Iraq will be forced to meet, will insist that Iraq’s government impose austerity measures such as “monetizing subsidies.” In other words, the mothers whose lament Ali wants us to hear would be told that they must pay for their meager ration baskets.
Today is the 60th birthday of the United Nations. In only six decades, the UN mission to eliminate the scourge of warfare and uphold basic human rights has scored remarkable gains. In many disputes, worldwide, the UN is the only referee on the bench.
And yet, the warmakers, weapon manufacturers and rabid money makers have held on to and gained significant footholds within the UN. 85% of the world’s weapon sales are controlled by the five veto bearing members of the UN Security Council; in very recent history, The U.S. and the UK have used the UN to wage economic and military warfare against innocent people in Iraq. And the UNCC has been a black stain on UN history.
There are no adequate answers to Ali’s anguished letter. In a fair and just world governance, the US would be required to pay reparations to Iraq. Such justice seems utterly elusive right now, but those of us who live in countries where we ostensibly can influence our governments, bear responsibility to break silence and hold up a mirror to reveal the greatest scandals happening within the UN at the behest of the Security Council.
Perhaps future generations can one day celebrate the rebirth of a UN committed to paying recompense to those who are most in need, a UN unshackled from the demands of warmakers and money mongers.
KATHY KELLY is a co-coordinator of Voices in the Wilderness (www.vitw.org). Her book, Other Lands Have Dreams, was recently published by Counterpunch.Along with eight other internationals, Kelly is on day 11 of the Geneva Fast for Economic Justice for Iraq. They will end their fast on the final day of UNCC deliberations (June 30) which are occurring at the UN in Geneva. She can be reached at: Kathy@vitw.org