Published on Monday, June 17, 2002 in the Seattle Post Intelligencer
The U.S. vs. Bert Sacks' Principles on Iraq
Seattle Man Won't Pay Fine for Taking Medicines There
by Charles Pope
WASHINGTON -- Bert Sacks looks like he could be anybody's favorite grandfather.
Wafer-thin with unruly white hair, a gentle manner and soft spoken, the 60-year-old Seattle resident professes a love of children and a steely desire to live by principle.
Today is the deadline for Sacks to pay a $10,000 fine for violating economic sanctions against Iraq. The violation is connected to a 1997 trip Sacks took to Iraq in which he has acknowledged taking $40,000 worth of medicine.
While the government is pursuing him on that single event, Sacks has made eight trips to Iraq over the last six years, taking medicine, including antibiotics and vitamins, each time in an attempt to ease what he believes is untenable suffering for Iraqi children and to draw attention to what he claims are illegal sanctions.
Mild mannered as he is, Sacks is steadfast in his opposition to the sanctions that have been in place for 12 years. He refuses to pay the fine and is willing to face the consequences.
"We should speak in clear English," he says. "It's killing 5,000 children a month. It's not honest; it's not accurate to say it penalizes the Iraqi people. It kills them. I've been to Auschwitz, I'm Jewish. Nobody would say Auschwitz created hardships for the Jewish people. We need to be honest."
So Sacks and a rapidly growing number of supporters and other groups across the country continue to go to Iraq. And he has come to Washington with other activists in an attempt to persuade the government to rethink its position.
"It is very clear that U.S. policy of bombing civilian infrastructure and 11 years of sanctions is knowingly causing suffering and death, deliberately causing suffering and death of Iraqi civilians in order to coerce the government of Iraq. And that's wrong.
"If you're doing something very wrong ... you need to stop doing what's wrong. So we need to stop the economic sanctions and let the country rebuild," Sacks says.
A spokesman for the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control, which is responsible for enforcing the economic provisions, refused to comment about Sacks' case. But he reiterated the U.S. government's determination to maintain the sanctions.
Sacks' mission is one that few in America have noticed. Polls show a combination of indifference for foreign affairs and support for toppling Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. The desire to depose Saddam has grown strong since the Sept. 11 attacks.
Sacks, however, presses on, sustained by the belief that if American people understood what the sanctions were doing in Iraq there would be strong public pressure to change the policy.
"If that truth gets out, then there's a chance for change," he says.
And along with trying to educate the public, Sacks goes to Iraq to help -- in a small way -- relieve the suffering of children.
The sanctions, combined with destruction of Iraq's water systems, electrical grid and other infrastructure during the Gulf War, causes more than 5,000 children to die each month, Sacks says in explaining why he is risking jail.
"I go to Iraq; I've been warned, and I keep doing it because kids keep dying. We can't figure out what better to do. There's no better course," he said.
"We've put into place a policy that we know is deadly. We're doing it to coerce, and that's a crime even on our books."
Sacks doesn't object to all sanctions. He says he supports a military embargo of Iraq and even economic sanctions if they are carefully crafted. But the current sanctions, he says, are not achieving the goal of destabilizing Saddam or stopping the development of weapons of mass destruction.
"People who put the policies in place say we're being tough on Saddam. It's not true. We're killing children," he says. "They are keeping medicine out of the hands of people and if I were to go request permission from a law that I view is immoral and illegal, then I'm complicit in the crime. And this is a crime."
Despite Sacks' persistence, the sanctions aren't likely to end soon.
The United States remains firmly committed to the blockade, believing that sanctions are the best way to force political change in Iraq. That position has held strong through three presidents.
The United Nations imposed the economic sanctions on Iraq on Aug. 6, 1990, in response to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait.
The United States government also has imposed sanctions on Iraq. Under those sanctions, it is illegal to take any aid into Iraq without government approval, a violation punishable by stiff fines and jail time.
The U.S. government says the sanctions must remain in place until Iraq has proven that it has given up its weapons of mass destruction. Other countries, including France, Russia and China, oppose the sanctions.
U.S. officials say Iraq's refusal to comply is to blame for the country's economic collapse, which has degraded health and education in Iraq and left many of its citizens dependent on U.N. food rations.
However, U.S. officials agree that some changes are needed to help relieve suffering of Iraqi citizens. Last month, for example, the U.S. agreed to a proposal by the U.N. Security Council to loosen the embargo to allow Iraq to trade oil for food and medicine.
The resolution adopted by the council extended the U.N. oil-for-food program for 180 days -- until Nov. 25. The resolution allows the free flow of most civilian goods into Iraq while simultaneously using a 332-page checklist to address concerns by the United States and other council members that Iraq diverts civilian goods to military use.
Critics say that the sanctions have crippled Iraq's people while doing nothing to weaken Saddam's power. They cite a 1999 report by the United Nations Children's Fund that the sanctions caused the deaths of as many as 500,000 Iraqi children under age 5 from 1991 to 1998.
They also cite a study by the Harvard University School of Public Health: Two months after the war, representatives from the school found that the destruction of the country's power plants had halted its entire system of water purification and distribution, leading to epidemics of cholera and typhoid fever, among other diseases.
Sacks admits he isn't sure what will happen with his case, though he is certain that the American government will one day realize the sanctions must be changed.
"There is some part of me that has fear; that I can find myself in this situation by continuing to challenge my government," he said. "I can get thrown in jail for 12 years.
"There's another part of me that feels very good, that I'm finally walking a certain walk."
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