Voices in the Wilderness
December 30, 1998
R. Richard Newcomb, Director
Office of Foreign Assets Control
U.S. Department of the Treasury
1500 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20220
Dear Mr. Newcomb:
This letter is in response to your prepenalty notice of December 3, 1998. The notice proposes a fine of $120,000 to Voices in the Wilderness (VitW) for engaging in prohibited transactions "relating to the embargo against Iraq", specifically, the "exportation of donated goods, including medical supplies and toys." In addition, four members of our campaign, Messrs. Handelman, Mullins, Sacks and Zito, face proposed fines of $43,000 for engaging in "currency travel-related transactions to/from/within Iraq."
On January 15, 1996, we notified U S. Attorney General Janet Reno of our intentions to publicly challenge the morality and legality of the economic embargo against the civilian population of Iraq and asked Ms. Reno to join us. To this end, VitW has led nineteen delegations to Iraq, including our most recent delegation, which arrived in Baghdad on December 19, 1998, at the height of the U.S. led bombing campaign.
On January 22, 1996, David H. Harmon, of the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), warned members of our campaign to "refrain from engaging in any unauthorized transactions related to the exportation of medical supplies and travel to Iraq." Mr. Harmon warned that "criminal penalties for violating the Regulations range up to 12 years in prison and $1 million in fines" and "civil penalties of up to $250,000 per violation..." VitW informed Mr. Harmon in February, 1996, of our intentions to "continue our effort to feed and care for the children and families of Iraq....by collecting medical relief supplies and then, openly and publicly, transporting these supplies into Iraq..." We further stated that "we are not governed by rules that license people...but rather by compassion" and invited Mr. Harmon to join us.
With respect to the enforcement of this embargo, we are conscientious objectors. We will not allow a government to dictate to our conscience. We will not allow the U.S. government, in the name of democracy or national security, to order us to cooperate with a strategy designed to starve the people of Iraq, to deprive them of medicine and medical supplies, spare parts for infrastructure, pencils for school children, chlorine for water and sewage treatment, toys, employment, or any of the essentials necessary to sustain daily life.
We object to the licensing regulations which your office upholds and we, in good conscience, will not participate. We believe it is our civic responsibility to speak out against injustice and our moral and religious responsibility to act on conscience: to do justice; to feed the hungry and care for the sick. The licensing process is an obstruction of our right to exercise these civic, moral and religious duties. We will not participate in the enforcement of an embargo which uses food and medicine as a weapon, which has led to the deaths of over one million Iraqis and is a Crime Against Humanity.
Since March, 1996, delegation members have delivered symbolic amounts of medicine, medical supplies and (in some cases) toys, directly to public hospitals and, in some instances, to the Iraqi Red Crescent Society for distribution. Our members have witnessed the devastating conditions of civilian life resulting from the 1991 Gulf War and the ensuing eight and one half years of the most comprehensive embargo in the history of the United Nations. The embargo has prevented Iraq from restoring its infrastructure, including the public health care system and water, sewage and sanitation treatment facilities.
While in Iraq, our delegations have met with U.N. officials, NGO's, religious leaders and children and families. We have visited internal refugee camps, clinics and hospitals. Members have held dying children in their arms. We have talked to their parents who tell us they cannot provide sufficient food nor clean water for their children. We have talked with doctors who have the skills to save lives, but lack the facilities and medical supplies.
Our experience has taught us that comprehensive sanctions, such as those imposed on Iraq, are an insidious form of warfare that target the poorest, weakest and most vulnerable populations. UNICEF reported on April 30, 1998 that "Economic sanctions on Iraq over the past seven years have had a devastating effect on the majority of the Iraqi people, particularly children...Over half of the children are dying from malnutrition, never a problem before sanctions." UNICEF cites the following statistics on death: a child dies every 12 minutes; 250 people die a day; 90,000 a year because of sanctions.
No military or political objectives can justify a form of economic warfare that exacts such a civilian toll. International law and the U.N. charter prohibit acts of warfare that target civilian populations. The embargo as applied amounts to the commission of a Crime Against Humanity as specified in the Nuremberg Judgment. Our own Declaration of Independence declares that all people are created equal and endowed with inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Surely this applies to innocent children and powerless civilians in Iraq.
Upon returning from Iraq, our members have felt compelled to speak to the media, schools, universities, civic organizations, churches, synagogues and mosques about what they witnessed. This education has become a critical counterpoint to stated U.S. foreign policy objectives. It should be noted that over the past eight years, to our knowledge, no Member of Congress or official of the Administration has visited Iraq to witness the effects of the embargo on its civilian population. For a democracy to function, information must be available. Since Iraq is a major foreign policy focus, and billions of U.S. taxpayer dollars have been allocated to maintain this policy, our members have taken it upon themselves to bring back vital information.
On December 3, 1997, U.S. Customs agents confiscated goods from returning delegation members, including photographic film, video and audio tapes, notebooks, pictures, "a wooden drum" and other goods. When asked by Messrs. Handelman, Mullins, Sacks, and Zito why these items were being confiscated, agents replied that they were "evidence of crime." We sincerely hope you have reviewed the video, pictures and notes, for we believe this material represents compelling evidence of a Crime Against Humanity. We request you return this property to its rightful owners at your earliest convenience.
While acknowledging that we have violated the embargo regulations and will continue to do so, we believe that the proposed fines should be dismissed for the cited reasons. In any case, we will not consent to pay any fine; to do otherwise would betray the very foundations of our democracy as written in the First Amendment to the Constitution: freedom of conscience and worship, freedom of association and expression for both religious and political purposes, freedom of speech and freedom of the press. Further, our funds have been contributed by citizens across this country for the expressed purpose of purchasing medicine and continuing the work of ending the embargo. In conscience, we cannot deviate from our stated mission.
In the spirit of Martin Luther King Jr., we believe that those who have violated the embargo were taking reasonable, nonviolent steps to mitigate violations of international law and to provide humanitarian assistance to victims in Iraq of Crimes Against Humanity.
If your office or any official charged with enforcing the regulations seeks to test our commitment or the correctness of our conduct, we would welcome that opportunity as yet another forum for public debate on the morality and legality of the embargo against Iraq.
We ask what kind of nation have we become, when the government of the most powerful country on Earth prosecutes its citizens for the simple act of providing humanitarian aid to our brothers and sisters in Iraq. We simply reject the government's contention that we cannot carry medicine to the sick, and assert that it is a greater evil to let the children die.
We ask you to join in our effort to end the scourge of the embargo on the children and families of Iraq.
for Voices in the Wilderness
att: International Law Argument -- Prof. Richard Falk
Historical Argument -- Prof. Howard Zinn
Moral Argument -- Fr. Simon Harak, S.J.
Statements: Messrs. Handelman, Mullins, Sacks and Zito
Photographs -- taken in Iraq
cc: Mr. Daniel Alex Handelman
Rev. Norman Randall Mullins
Mr. Bertram Sacks
Mr. Joseph Zito
Voices in the Wilderness Delegation Members
Mr. Don Zainea, Fines, Penalties & Forfeitures Office, U.S. Customs Service
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