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Seattle Times

Bert Sacks vs. the US: Why an Activist Still Fights for the Iraqi People

The case of activist Bert Sacks, who violated the economic sanctions on Saddam Hussein's Iraq by donating medicine to hospitals facing a humanitarian disaster.

Bruce Ramsey

For most Americans the sanctions imposed on Iraq during the George H.W. Bush years are an old story. Not for Seattle resident Bert Sacks. Sacks, 68, is scheduled to be in federal court in Seattle Sept. 19 because he publicly violated them.

In 1997, during the Clinton years, Sacks and three others carried satchels of medicine for donation to Iraqi hospitals. They did it in full view of the U.S. media, publicly arguing that the sanctions had created a humanitarian disaster in Iraq.

In 2002, the Bush administration went after Sacks, fining him $10,000 for trade with the enemy. The "trade" was not the medicines, but his travel expenses. They were making a federal case of his restaurant meals and taxi rides.

Sacks refused to pay. In 2004, he sued the government, arguing that the blockade of Iraq violated international treaties on human rights. The courts ruled the treaties were not binding.

Now comes the Obama administration, following in the same spirit as the Bush administration. The Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control is suing Sacks to collect its $10,000, plus late-payment penalties.

The government almost always wins cases like this. Sacks knows that; his main hope is to have a public forum to question the morality of sanctions. And he has a strong argument.

You can read his arguments at; for a book-length treatment, see Joy Gordon's "Invisible War: The United States and the Iraq Sanctions" (Harvard, 2010). The gist of it is this: Iraq is an oil state that imports almost all the equipment needed for public health. In the 1991 Gulf War, U.S. forces bombed Iraq's drinking-water-treatment, sewage-treatment and electricity-generating plants. Then came sanctions, which blocked the replacement parts. Wrecking the infrastructure of public health was done purposefully, to put pressure on Saddam Hussein - but the real pressure was on the people.

For 12 years, Iraqis had bacteria-infected water. The result was cholera, typhoid and gastroenteritis. Add malnutrition and a shortage of common medicines. The problem was known; in 1991, the New England Journal of Medicine raised the alarm about it. By the late 1990s, UNICEF estimated that an extra half a million Iraqi children had died because of war and sanctions.


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Three U.S. administrations, Republican and Democrat alike, "denied the severity of the situation and denied U.S. responsibility for any part of it," Gordon writes.

The political line was that any hardship in Iraq was Saddam Hussein's fault, because he wasn't obeying the United Nations and he had spent money on palaces. In other words, he was putting his political needs above the Iraqi people's.

But so was Bill Clinton. In the sanctions regime, which was effectively controlled by the U.S. government, Gordon writes, "any security concern, however slight or speculative, overrode any humanitarian concern, however extensive and certain."

None of the leaders put the Iraqi people first. All used state power for political ends and labeled their acts with words that conceal.

Economic sanctions. It sounds so ... administrative. But coupled with war, sanctions can be a matter of life and death.

Then again, it is 2011. The blockade of Iraq is over. Why fight about it now?

"Because if we don't understand it," Sacks says, "we'll do it again."


Bruce Ramsey's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is

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