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Extended Remarks of
Medea Benjamin, Founder of
2017 Mission St. #303
San Francisco, CA 94110
prepared for the ZENKO National Assembly,* Japan,
Thank you for the opportunity to address this wonderful gathering of Japanese peace activists. I look forward to learning lessons from the your efforts that we can use in our present struggle to build a stronger peace movement in the United States.
As you can well imagine, it has been very difficult in the United States to talk about peace in the post-9/11 atmosphere. The Bush administration, together with the backing of not only his party but the majority of the Democrats as well, has responded to the violent attack of 9/11 with the notion of perpetual war.
The US military has waged a war in Afghanistan that included dropping over 20,000 bombs, many of which missed their targets and led to the killing and maiming of thousands of civilians. As part of the war on terrorism, the US has sent troops to places as far-flung as Yemen, Georgia and the Philippines. Now the US government is preparing for a full-scale invasion of Iraq, a conflict that could have a devastating toll on civilians. While other nations are desperately trying to come to a deal with Iraq to resume weapons inspections, the US government opposes any moves that reduce its justification to wage war. Moreover, the Bush administration's most recent nuclear policy calls for new types of nuclear weapons and new roles for their use, including scenarios that could certainly include using nuclear weapons against Iraq.
On the economic front, the nearly $400 billion the US taxpayers are now spending on the military budget is robbing us of decent schools, health care, affordable housing and other basic services. On the legal front we are witnessing a precipitous erosion of basic civil liberties in the United States itself, and the US government's rejection of international institutions such as the International Criminal Court as appropriate venues for trying such crimes against humanity. Add to this the US refusal to deal with the root causes of resentment against the United States in the Arab world -- from our dependence on Middle Eastern oil to our biased policy towards Israel -- and the picture is a frightening one indeed
I would argue that the US government's single-minded focus on a military solution to the problem of terrorism has not made us any safer, but has actually put us at greater risk. The positive sentiment many Afghans had toward the United States for having routed the Taliban is turning into resentment at the high level of civilian casualties. Moreover, the US has refused to agree to an international peace-keeping force that would give the government of Hamid Karzai greater ability to control the warlords and provide the security necessary for the rebuilding process to move forward. And despite the pledges of significant aid for reconstruction promised during the Tokyo meeting in January 2002, so little money has actually reached Afghanistan that little has changed in the daily lives of the majority of poor Afghans. Frustration is growing over the broken promises.
The Afghan civilians whose homes were bombed, whose limbs were blown off by unexploded cluster bombs, or who lost the family breadwinner expect the US government to acknowledge its mistakes and provide financial assistance. The most recent attack on a wedding party on July 1, which left over 40 civilians dead, made Afghans so upset that some talked about waging a jihad, or holy war, against the United States.
The US media have portrayed the military campaign in Afghanistan as an "unqualified success", with only a handful of civilian casualties. But our small human rights organization, Global Exchange, hired a survey team in Afghanistan that documented over 800 civilian deaths and many more wounded.
To focus attention on this tragedy, Global Exchange organized a trip for US victim families to go to Afghanistan to meet with victims of the US bombing campaign. The most striking part of that trip was the huge discrepancy between the way the US and Afghan victims and their families were treated. The US families received a tremendous outpouring of compassion, kindness and financial support -- including an average of $1.5 million from the US government. The Afghans -- already among the poorest people in the world -- were left to fend for themselves. When out of desperation some of them humbly approached the US Embassy in Kabul for help, they were shooed away and told that the US was not responsible for their losses.
Our organization, Global Exchange, together with 9/11 family members, then launched a campaign to pressure the US government to create a fund for Afghan victims. We estimated that 2,000 Afghans would request help, and it would cost an average of $10,000 each to get medical care, rebuild their homes, restock their possessions, and compensate for the loss of a breadwinner or caretaker. The total, a mere $20 million, was less than the $30 million we spent during each day of bombing.
We commissioned a poll that concluded that 2/3 of the American people agree we should provide humanitarian assistance to the Afghans we hurt by mistake. But we found a lukewarm response to the idea in Congress, and downright hostility in the Bush Administration. On the one hand the Administration knows that the plight of the victims has become a "public relations nightmare." On the other hand it does not want to create a precedent for compensating civilians hurt during military operations. As one Defense Department official told us, "We are worried that taking responsibility for civilian casualties will significantly increase the cost of making war."
This is, in addition to helping poor Afghans, one of our goals. We must "increase the cost of making war" so that war is not a viable option for resolving conflicts. We must insist that governments stop taking innocent lives in the name of seeking justice for the loss of other innocent lives. Fifty years after dropping the bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we must demand that our governments protect the lives of all innocent people -- be they in the United States, Japan, Afghanistan or Iraq.
Our next challenge in the US peace movement is to stop the US government from proceeding with its plans for war with Iraq. Although Iraq played no role in the 9/11 attacks, the Bush Administration is using the climate of fear to pursue its long-held wish of getting rid of Saddam Hussein. While the US peace movement is no friend of Saddam Hussein, we know that many civilians would perish in another war with Iraq and even if successful, there is no guarantee that the new government would be any better than the present one. We are also determined to stop the US government from unilaterally dictating to other people -- be they Palestinian, Iraqi or Venezuelan -- who their leaders should be. This is for the people themselves to decide.
One of the bright spots in this dark period post-9/11 has been the rational discourse coming from other governments and people around the world who have said "No" to both terrorism and to a military response to terrorist attacks. These moderating voices are coming from Europe, Japan, and even from within the Arab/Muslim world itself. The American public is much less willing to support military interventions if US allies oppose such action. So you in the Japanese peace movement play an important role for all of us. By stopping YOUR government from following the US military path and by strengthening the ties within the global peace movement (just as we are doing today), we will be building the foundations of a safer, more just world -- a world free of war, nuclear weapons and violence; a world that rejects ethnic and religious divisions and celebrates diversity; a world that calls no nation "evil" but focuses on building a global community; a world that cherishes the environment; a world where the needs of humans and other living things take priority over profits. Another world is possible, and I look forward to working together to build it.
Thank you very much.
Domo arigato gozaimasu.
link above provides a rough English translation of the ZENKO site, done by computer.
To see the site in Japanese, CLICK HERE.
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