Aida Dabbas is program officer for the Jordanian-American Binational Fulbright Commission in Amman. She has been an active opponent of the sanctions against Iraq and of the US arms buildup in the region. Jillian Schwedler, an editor of this magazine, spoke with her by telephone in June.
You recently visited Iraq for the first time.
I went to Baghdad at the beginning of April to attend the Conference for Popular Movements, an annual gathering of opposition parties, women’s groups and other civil society organizations. Discussion focused on the sanctions against Iraq and the situation in Palestine. The impact of the sanctions on the Iraqi people has clearly been devastating. I made an unescorted visit to Saddam’s Children’s Hospital, and the emergency room contained about 40 beds, with four children in each bed. About 90 percent of them were dying of malnutrition and because of the lack of medicine. Many of the Iraqi citizens I spoke to during my long walks through dilapidated Baghdad were almost wishing for another military strike. They said that in their current state they were all dying slowly, and at least a strike might force some movement toward lifting the sanctions. I was never approached for money; instead, people asked for basic medicines for arthritis, heart conditions and asthma. People are dying from manageable diseases because medicines are either not available or are too expensive.
What did Iraq hope to accomplish through the conference?
Iraqi speakers, such as Tariq Aziz, stressed that Iraq does not need more humanitarian aid, it needs the sanctions to be lifted. They also emphasized that Iraq felt more hurt by the sanctions imposed by Arab countries. In many cases, Arab sanctions were more restrictive than the sanctions of Western governments, exceeding UN requirements. Speakers asked participants to take an active role in pressuring the UN and their own governments to lift the sanctions immediately.
Was Jordan well represented at the meeting?
All of Jordan’s opposition parties, plus a number of civil society groups, were represented among the 800 participants from all over the Middle East and North Africa. I attended as an independent since I am not affiliated with any political party.
Jordanians have mounted a range of efforts to protest the sanctions and show support for the Iraqi people, but I understand that the government has banned many of these efforts.
That’s right. In January, before the last crisis, the opposition parties decided to hold a peaceful march to voice their opposition to US and British aggression against Iraq, especially the buildup of US troops in the region. The Ministry of the Interior immediately issued instructions that public gatherings of any kind were prohibited. This was unconstitutional, as a minister does not have the authority to take such a move unless the king has declared a state of emergency or the country is operating under martial law. Nevertheless, people gathered for a peaceful march in downtown Amman near the Husseini mosque. What was supposed to be a peaceful expression of opposition to the pending military strike against Iraq became a violent attack against unarmed citizens. I was present as an independent human rights observer, and witnessed the police bullying people before the march had even begun. I was one of dozens who were beaten with billy clubs, shoved into vans and taken to the police station, but I was released without being charged. In Ma‘an [in southern Jordan], another would-be peaceful march was also violently broken up, resulting in one civilian death. Many of the citizens of Ma‘an were arrested, and the city was put under curfew for six days, with the electricity and water cut off. Things calmed down after that, partly because the crisis [with Iraq] was defused. However, people are still very angry about the presence of foreign troops in the area and about the sanctions against the Iraqi people. They feel that the sanctions are too extreme and that the United States and the UN have no credibility, particularly in discussions over weapons of mass destruction, since everyone knows Israel has them. Everyone recognizes Washington’s double standard in its foreign policy, so they doubt the sincerity of representatives of the US government, such as Madeleine Albright and others, who have been shuttling around the region.
With the ban on demonstrations still in effect, have Jordanians found other means of expressing their views?
Absolutely. Quite a number of people have placed signs denouncing the aggression against Iraq and the UN sanctions in their car windows. These are not signs printed and distributed by a few groups, but signs that people have taken the initiative to make themselves. There has also been a black flag campaign, where people fly the flags from their homes and shops as a sign of protest against the aggression and the sanctions. It provides a legal way for people to express their frustrations in spite of limits on free speech.
Has the government tried to stop these activities?
I’ve heard of a few people being asked to remove signs from their car windows, but not many. I have had a sign in my window for months and have never been asked to remove it.
Since the crackdown in January, have the political parties or trade unions sought to organize other activities?
The opposition parties and trade unions began a national campaign to collect food and medicine to airlift to the Iraqi people. This effort was not continued because the Iraqi government asked those wishing to help to focus on the immediate lifting of the sanctions instead of collecting symbolic amounts of food and medicine that will never be able to meet the basic needs of 20 million Iraqi citizens. A rally was also scheduled to take place in the Labor Unions Complex [in Amman] as a show of support for the Iraqi people and opposition to the sanctions, but it was prohibited by the government from taking place. The only successful efforts that I know of are the teams of Jordanian doctors and nurses who have been traveling to Iraq to provide free medical services and medicine.
So there have been no demonstrations, no public gatherings, since the crackdown in January?
No, and I believe that if a peaceful public gathering opposing sanctions was to be called tomorrow, the government would not allow it to take place.
Are demonstrations now illegal?
No, it is an administrative decision, and one that is not constitutional. Article 15 of the Jordanian Constitution guarantees citizens freedom of expression, including peaceful assembly. Although the public meetings law requests that groups inform the government of planned gatherings, groups are not legally required to obtain permission to hold such gatherings. So legally we still have the right to gather and peacefully demonstrate, but in practice it is not permitted.
In the past year, the government has increased restrictions on the press, although the restrictive temporary press and publications law issued in May 1997 was found by the country’s high court to be unconstitutional. Has the press regained a margin of freedom?
A new draft press and publications law was recently submitted to Parliament, and it is creating a huge wave of anger among newspapers and opposition parties. Even though the government promised to provide a more flexible law with a higher ceiling of freedom, the new draft law is much more restrictive. And the general public is just as angry and frustrated about the government’s efforts to restrict freedom of expression as are journalists. Newspapers are able to write critically of the sanctions against Iraq, but this is not surprising because the government’s position has always been to lift the sanctions. What they cannot do is criticize “friendly” governments, which include the United States and Israel.
So the government has been very restrictive of the ways in which people can voice that view against the sanctions. Because it fears that public demonstrations will be anti-US?
They do not want to alienate the United States right now, and the United States certainly does not want the Jordanian people demonstrating against them in the streets, which is what would happen.
How would you characterize Jordan’s political climate, particularly in terms of freedom of expression, compared with recent years?
The situation has been up and down, but it is certainly more down these days, not just in terms of the restrictions on the press but in terms of the general level of freedom of expression, particularly since this signing of the Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty [in 1994] and the stalling of the Palestinian-Israeli talks. People are frustrated, and the government does not allow them to express certain views publicly, especially because of the extent of support Jordan receives from the United States. It isn’t very convenient for the government to have the people saying one thing while leaders say something else, so it is the people who are silenced. However, the government has allowed one forum to go virtually unrestricted. E-mail subscribers in Jordan have so far been free to discuss issues of national and international concern, including the sanctions against Iraq. Much of this debate, in which government officials participate, takes place in online discussion groups organized by a local Internet provider. I believe that the reason behind the government allowing such a high ceiling for freedom of expression in this forum is because it is restricted to a very small segment of the Jordanian population, those who can either afford to subscribe or who are able to converse in English.
I understand that you were fired from your position with the Fulbright Commission because your public opposition to the sanctions was considered to be against “US interests.” An article in the Jordan Times quoted a memo from the Commission’s executive director that made special reference to the sign in your car window and your participation in online discussions.
This is true. One month after that decision was taken, however, the situation was amicably resolved and I was officially reinstated as an employee of the Fulbright Commission.
Any last thoughts?
The sanctions imposed on Iraq are a crime against humanity and must be immediately lifted. To date, official UN statistics indicate that 1 million children have died as a result of the sanctions. Would the West allow this to happen to its children? It seems that the governments that talk most about human rights believe that the application of universal rights is a selective process that depends on the political agenda of the day.