"This I believe to be the privilege and the burden of all of us who deem ourselves bound by allegiances and loyalties which are broader and deeper than nationalism and which go beyond our nation’s self-defined goals and positions. We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy, for no document from human hands can make these humans any less our brothers."
-Martin Luther King, Jr., April 4, 1967
The landscape has shifted and we are finally hearing significant bipartisan opposition to the war. Yet little of this opposition focuses on the plight of the Iraqi people. Even the peace movement, with its focus on supporting the troops by bringing them home, is largely silent on the question of Iraqi victims of the war.
Six years ago, I wrote an OpEd piece for the Davis (California) Enterprise opposing the US/UN sanctions against Iraq. At that time, a small handful of Davis activists were trying to raise awareness about the effects of the sanctions on the Iraqi people. Week after week we tabled at the Davis Farmers Market, and week after week I witnessed an outpouring of empathy and donations-not for the 500,000 Iraqi children who had died as a result of the sanctions, but for the neighboring booth, Labrador Retriever Rescue. I puzzled over the question of what it would take to rouse similar interest in the plight of Iraqis.
Nearly a decade, an occupation and over 654,965 Iraqi deaths later, I am still pondering the same question. Recently, an experience akin to the Labrador Retriever Rescue incident brought this question to the fore.
In January my friend, activist poet David Smith-Ferri, published a volume of poetry, Battlefield without Borders. The poems, written during David’s two visits to Iraq, speak to the steadfast humanity of the Iraqi people despite nearly two decades of economic and military attacks by the US. David is currently on a book tour to raise money for Iraqi war victims. I approached International House, Davis about hosting a book reading. International House is an independent, non-profit community organization whose purpose, according to its mission statement, is "to promote respect and appreciation for all peoples and cultures and to work for world peace." Despite the humanitarian focus of the event-and despite cosponsoring a similar fundraiser for Myanmar orphans in January- International House declined to sponsor David’s talk, arguing that "these issues are highly subjective and emotional."
Yet the escalating Iraqi death toll and refugee crisis are hardly subjective. According to a study by researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, 654,965 civilians-about 2.5 percent of Iraqi’s civilian population-have died as a consequence of the occupation. Over 90% of the deaths were caused by violence. Thirty-one percent of deaths were directly linked to coalition forces. To put this in context, if Davis, California were an Iraqi city, we would have buried over 1,508 of our family members, friends, and neighbors.
In addition, 2 million Iraqis- about 8 percent of the prewar population–have been forced by violence and persecution to flee their country (U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees). Another 1.7 million have been displaced inside Iraq.
As belligerent occupiers of Iraq, US conduct is governed by the Geneva Conventions and the Hague Regulations. International law generally requires that a state using force unlawfully should pay reparations for the damage caused. Iraq itself paid billions of dollars to Kuwait and others for its unlawful invasion in 1990. The same rule requires the US and other members of the coalition to pay for the damage they have caused in Iraq.
Yet of the numerous bills in Congress aimed at de-escalating the war, only one, H.R. 508 (Woolsey, [CA-6]), acknowledges responsibility and provides compensation for Iraqi victims of the US occupation.
Asked about the absence of reparations for Iraqi casualties in his bill, H.R. 787, Congressman Mike Thompson recently responded, "The number of innocent Iraqis killed by sectarian violence is a tragedy of incomprehensible magnitude. However, the war in Iraq has cost American taxpayers more than $400 billion, and the president just requested an additional $100 billion for this year and nearly $150 billion for 2008. With a national debt of nearly $9 trillion, our country simply does not have the funds to compensate wounded Iraqis." (personal communication, February 2007)
The Congressman likewise abdicated U.S. responsibility for the Iraqi refugee crisis, suggesting that "Iraq’s neighbors must play a role in helping these refugees." According to UNHCR, Jordan and Syria have taken in 1.2 million Iraqis and are unable to accommodate additional refugees; earlier this month the agency issued a plea to all nations to share the burden. The official quota for Iraqi refugees to be allowed into the US this year stands at 500 (there is talk of increasing this to 7,000).
The U.S. has a legal and moral obligation to very generously compensate the Iraqi people for the immeasurable harm we have done them and their country. But even if we are not moved by legal and moral obligations, we should heed the strategic imperative of providing such reparations. According to UNHCR’s Andrew Harper, "We cannot afford to neglect Iraq, because Iraq and its humanitarian consequences are going to be a problem for the international community for years to come." As are its political consequences in a world that is increasingly outraged by U.S. hegemony.
CINDY LITMAN writes a monthly column for the Davis (California) Enterprise. She can be reached at: email@example.com