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The Legacy of Debt

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June 23, 2005

GENEVA–As I made my journey from Camden, New Jersey to Geneva I became overwhelmed with curiosity imagining what a country that stayed ambitiously neutral during World War II, and had produced such recognized documents as the Geneva Conventions would be like. Would Geneva be a haven of progressive politics and social radicalism? Or would the shroud of Calvinism and the “protestant work ethic” thwart my romantic sway? Upon arriving I found Geneva to be a beautiful city, confident, elegant and spotless! However, the immense “success” of the banking industry fills the poetic potency of the city with the sterile air of classicism. The revolutionary social writings of one of Switzerland’s most well known philosophers, Jean Jacques Rousseau, appear to have been written upon the banks of the Lake Geneva, and washed away by the ever strengthening tides of globalization. His legacy preoccupies my mind as I amble through avenues full of familiar names: McDonalds, Starbucks, H&M …

Still, I have not come to Geneva as a tourist. I have come, together with a small group of eight Americans, one Irish and one Iranian to fast and vigil at the entrance to the United Nations Geneva compound. We have gathered to challenge the legitimacy of the United Nations Compensation Committee meetings around economic restructuring and debt compensation in Iraq. As G-8 Conference members prepare to meet in Scotland over debt relief in Africa, the West’s most recent imperialist conquest, Iraq, faces its executioner once again on the ever perilous road towards self determination. In April 1991 the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 687, which established the legal foundation to impose war reparation claims against Iraq. In that same year the United Nations Compensation Commission (UNCC) was born and given the thorny task of overseeing debt repayments Iraq accumulated under the lavish military spending sprees of Saddam’s Baath Party during its invasion of Kuwait. An extensive list of individuals, multinational corporations, and governments has demanded repayment to the tune of $385 billion.

While a resolution to collect 30% of Iraq’s oil revenues was established by the UNCC in 1991, it wasn’t until 1996, the year the UN passed Resolution 986, (known as the oil-for-food programme) which significantly raised the cap on Iraqi oil revenues, that the Iraqi Regime agreed to begin repaying the debts. When UNICEF figures came out in August 1999 concluding that the UN’s economic sanctions policy had contributed to the deaths of a half million children under the age of five the world community demanded its own repayment: an explanation! It appears that as members of the Compensation Commission met in comfortable Geneva offices and continued throughout the 1990’s to write million dollar checks to rich countries like Kuwait, their fellow Baghdad colleagues stepped over corpses on their way to the bank. Our literature asks that the Compensation Commission recall the dreadful consequences following the Treaty of Versailles on Germany’s devastated economy that contributed to the dawning of the Second World War. Iraq is of course not Germany, and our message is not intended as a threat, but perhaps an unusual opportunity to recall the lessons from our complex and brutal history and not repeat our mistakes.

Our delegation celebrates its 9th day of the fast tomorrow; we are halfway to the end! We continue to believe that lessons of hospitality and generosity are also working in our history as many of us experience them on the shabby dirt roads of Jummeriyah or the broken streets of Camden, where I live.

As we gather each day we pray that members of the UNCC do not continue to step over more corpses on their way to fill the coiffeurs of the rich. As we fast we recall the prophetic words of Dr. King in his 1967 address at the Riverside Church in New York City where he challenges, “A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”