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December 07, 2005

The capture of the Christian Peacemaker Team members in Iraq

In regions of conflict, such as Iraq, we cannot depend only on the US media for accurate information. Very often, they are either pursuing their own agenda and/or are easily manipulated and intimidated by the US government. Some of the best sources of news are from the world media and humanitarian groups like the ICRC, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Doctors Without Borders, Voices in the Wilderness, plus some groups that are religiously based. Although the people in these groups are disadvantaged by not being trained reporters, they have a huge advantage in that often they are in the very thick of things, have first hand knowledge of events, and most importantly, are not dependent of developing a cozy relationship with the US military and government which, as recent developments in the Valerie Plame case involving Judith Miller and Bob Woodward have shown, has corrupted journalism to an immense degree. (More about this in a future posting.)

But members of these autonomous groups are always at risk because they lack official protection and even more so because the message they send out may be inconvenient to the US government, which means that they cannot count on the support and assistance of the US authorities. (Last week saw the emergence of even more damaging allegations in the British press that President Bush was contemplating actually bombing the Al-Jazeera news station. I will write about this and the Plame developments later.)

So these peacemaking and humanitarian groups run enormous risks. They may be perceived by the Iraqi insurgents as just more foreign interlopers or even as spies, and by the US authorities and their Iraq counterparts as, at best, inconvenient pests.

This week in Iraq saw the disturbing news about the capture of the four members of the Christian Peacemaking Teams in Iraq and the threat to kill them tomorrow (Thursday) if the US and Iraqi authorities do not release all the prisoners they are holding. Since there is no chance that that demand is going to be met, all that we can hope is that appeals to the kidnappers to not harm the hostages, which are coming on from all over the world and from members of all religions, will persuade the hostage takers that they have more to gain than lose by killing them. I have signed a petition that can be found here, along with a list of other signatories. Signing petitions seems like such a puny and futile action sometimes, but in doing so one is also expressing solidarity with all the other signers. I am a firm believer that people have to learn to act together, even if it is only at the level of signing petitions, in order to achieve peace.

The danger with the kind of anarchy that is currently the state in Iraq is that many actions like the hostage taking are done by small fringe insurgent groups that may not be thinking strategically. When major organizations (say like Al-Quaeda) are involved, they know they have to also think in terms of how actions are perceived globally. So it is possible to hope for rational actions from, and even fruitful negotiation with, such groups even though one may totally disagree with their goals and methods. But when one has a breakdown of civil order and small armed groups start acting on their own without a centralized command structure, then ordinary people are at the whim of local power bosses who may not care what the larger ramifications of their actions are. What I have read is that hostages are passed along like commodities to other insurgent groups, which makes it hard to keep track of whom to negotiate with.

I had not heard of the Christian Peacemaker Teams before this but they are a Canada-based peace group that seeks to achieve peace by acting as witnesses to it. The radio program Democracy Now had a news item that dealt with the group and investigative journalist Seymour Hersh wrote about them last year in the New Yorker magazine, pointing out that this non-missionary group had been monitoring the situation in Iraq and pointing out human rights abuses. So this group was doing valuable work.

On a personal note to illustrate the dangers of doing human rights work in war zones, a good friend of mine, who was also a member of the medical school faculty, was an active campaigner for human rights right in the middle of the civil war zone during the height of the troubles in Sri Lanka. She was gunned down in front of her home in 1989. She was just 35 years old, the mother of small children. Her murder was never solved, leaving us never to know whether it was by the militant Tamil groups or the Indian "peacekeeping" troops that had been sent to Sri Lanka at the invitation of the Sri Lankan government. She had exposed human rights abuses by all groups and they all had motives for wanting her silenced. Like the members of the Christian Peacemakers, Rajini Rajasingham-Tiranagama was motivated to work for peace and justice by her Christian faith. Her religious beliefs enabled her to transcend narrow divisions of ethnicity, language, and religion and see that justice, human rights, and respect for others, are the foundations of a civilized society and what we should strive for.

Private groups that monitor human rights in trouble torn areas have good reason to fear attacks from all sides because such people are a threat to power structures that are based on oppression and which thrive on secrecy. Neither the occupation forces nor the rebel groups like to have their actions exposed to public view. The courage shown by these groups of people is truly inspiring.

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Comments

Minor quibble: Humanitarian groups have an agenda, too -- they need to get donations to stay active in the world and keep their staff. It's not quite like the profit motive -- it's a little more idealistic -- but it's still something to keep in mind, because idealism can sometimes drive people to exaggerate threats for the purpose of getting people to pay attention.

On the other hand, these groups' publications can certainly serve as a useful complement to the mainstream media. But when the sources conflict, you still have to make the decision of who to believe -- something I've not yet found an easy way to do.

Posted by Erin on December 7, 2005 09:14 AM

Erin,

Your point is well taken. For example, Amnesty International gave a lot of play to the false story about Iraqi troops removing Kuwaiti babies from incubators just prior to the Gulf War in 1991, and this error was perceived as being driven by fund-raising motives.

But the reason I take them seriously is that they are not as skilled at lying on the grand scale as governments are and they do tend to produce first-hand reports from actual eye-witnesses whom they cannot intimidate or easily afford to bribe, which makes their reports more credible in my eyes.

Posted by Mano Singham on December 8, 2005 08:36 AM