U.S. must meet its humanitarian obligations
Special to The Times
With last week's news of the sudden collapse of Baghdad and indelible images of jubilant Iraqi civilians, it is all too easy to overlook the stark realities now confronting the United States and the international community.
As our nation's leaders contemplate future postwar scenarios for Iraq in the weeks and months ahead, the challenges facing humanitarian aid organizations raise profoundly troubling questions for Americans.
A report issued earlier this year by the United Nations' Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, for example, stated that more than 1.26 million Iraqi children under the age of 5 stand at risk of dying from malnutrition as a result of the war in Iraq.
The U.N. memo further notes that "the collapse of essential services in Iraq could lead to a humanitarian emergency of proportions well beyond the capacity of U.N. agencies and other aid organizations."
It is becoming increasingly apparent that the war has caused enormous human suffering for the most vulnerable of Iraq's 24 million civilians, half of whom are children.
Since President John F. Kennedy established the Peace Corps in 1961, more than 165,000 Americans have served in 136 countries, including many that have been most affected by the war — Iran, Turkey, Oman, Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere in the region.
We know that America is respected, even loved, by many of the world's poorest people because they have welcomed us into their lives. We have worked abroad to help the world understand that Americans are a generous and caring people. This war sends a very different message and risks undoing much of the work to which the thousands of former Peace Corps volunteers have devoted years of their lives.
On Feb. 21 and March 14, nearly 2,000 returned Peace Corps volunteers signed two half-page ads in The New York Times to voice their concerns about the war and its likely humanitarian consequences. Although we do not necessarily speak for all returned volunteers, the ads mirror the sentiments of a broad cross-section of Americans from 37 states who served in 56 countries over the entire life span of the Peace Corps from 1961 to the present.
A great part of America's strength in the world is that we are admired for our values of openness, democracy and generosity of spirit. The current war has already undermined that strength in important ways. Waging the war without United Nations support and broad international backing will replace that admiration with simple fear. We believe America is strongest when its actions are consistent with its own values. This war does not reflect the best of America.
Moreover, we are concerned for the safety of our Peace Corps colleagues who are serving now in parts of the world where opposition to American military action is overwhelming. The war will make the world a dangerous and less hospitable place for them and for other Americans living and working abroad.
Much international good will and mutual respect, which have been built up for decades, will be eroded.
To uphold the highest standards of international conduct and safeguard the lives of civilians, we need to hold our elected officials accountable for the reasons they gave for launching the war, and its actual consequences. Not to do so would be inconsistent with our most deeply held values as Americans.
Moreover, we call upon the United States to alleviate civilian suffering by guaranteeing access, impartiality and adequate funding for emergency humanitarian assistance. As well, we urge our elected officials to ensure as soon as possible that humanitarian aid and reconstruction — nothing less than a new Marshall Plan — are administered by civilian authorities under the leadership of the United Nations rather than the U.S. military.
The future of the Peace Corps already has been affected by the actions of our administration and the course of events in the past several weeks. Its future viability now may be jeopardized by the increasingly bellicose tone of our government and how it is perceived abroad in the nations where volunteers now serve. Unfortunately, the termination of the Peace Corps program in Morocco in early April may be a harbinger of things to come.
As citizens, we are faced with an important choice between choosing the path of international cooperation toward true peace and democracy, which reflects the original spirit and vision of the Peace Corps, or the path that our current administration supports.
President Kennedy, in his June 10, 1963, speech at American University, said it best: "What kind of peace do we seek? Not a pax Americana enforced on the world by American weapons of war (but) ... the kind of peace that makes life on Earth worth living, the kind that enables men and nations to grow and to hope and to build a better life for their children — not merely peace for Americans but peace for all men and women."
Collin Tong served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Thailand from 1968 to 1969. He established Returned Peace Corps Volunteers for a Better World. For information on the organization's New York Times ads, go to www.epic-usa.org/rpcv. Tong is senior director of news and westside communications for Washington State University.