Thursday, June 26, 2008

EPIC: Office Warming Reception

This week was a very special week for EPIC! We marked a new era for our organization with the highly anticipated Office Warming reception.

In celebration of our new quarters, we exhibited photos from the critically acclaimed “Faces of Iraq” photo exhibit. We also showed highlights from the Iraq Action Days Forum. The event was catered by Skewers, a local Mediterranean Café. The food, photos, and forum were received with great interest and enthusiasm by our guests.

We were only able to advertise and invite guests for a single week, but the turn out was impressive. We also decided to extend the invitation to our building neighbors.

It was truly wonderful to overhear and participate in conversations about our mission throughout the evening. Curiosity seemed to generate as the guests from neighboring offices investigated our newly transformed space. Those well acquainted with EPIC and those who are new to our organization alike created a great buzz and energy. All in all, the event was a warm and loving welcome for EPIC.

Thank you to those who participated; we appreciate your interaction and interest. There will be more to come in the future.

For those of you who were unaware of the move, do not fret. We are still accepting mail/donations at our 1101 Pennsylvania Ave SE. address, as that office will still be in operation as our office for administration and accounting needs.

Convention on Cluster Munitions

Since EPIC guest blogger Marla Bertagnolli of CIVIC posted her blog about the dangers of cluster bombs to innocent civilians, 111 nations have adopted a treaty that limits the production and use of these weapons. What countries were not part of the agreement you ask? Sadly, none of the major producers and users of cluster bombs. These nations include Russia, China, Israel, India, Pakistan, and you guessed it, the United States of America.

Never the less, the Washington Post reports that: "Advocates of the ban said they hope the agreement, which was supported by rich nations and poor from Scandinavia to Africa, will have the same effect as the 1997 ban on land mines, reducing use (of cluster bombs) even among non-signatory countries."

The treaty is set to be signed by the respective participant nations this

Photo Caption: Men walk by cluster bombs in Najaf, Iraq in 2003. Getty Images

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Meet the Summer Team

For the summer of 2008, EPIC has a new staff of three full-time interns who will be working with Erik Gustafson from the beginning of June until the middle of August. Joining EPIC for the summer are Jonathan Willemain, Sarah Shannon, and Michael Gaubinger.

Jonathan is twenty-two years old and is entering his senior year at Towson University. He is majoring in international relations. He became an intern at EPIC through the Washington Center internship program. He chose to work for EPIC because he values its nonpartisanship and dedication to helping the Iraqi people. He enjoys rock climbing and fishing.

Sarah joins us from the University of Wisconsin - Milwaukee. There, she studies Philosophy and English, and is entering the final semester of her senior year. Her on- campus interests include advocating for women's rights on behalf of Planned Parenthood [VOX], and working at the University Information Technology Services help desk. Off-campus, she enjoys cooking, reading, spending time with her friends, yoga, travel, biking, and exploring the outdoors, and her calico cat Ozzie.

My name is Michael Gaubinger and I reside in Northampton, Massachusetts. I am entering my junior year at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst and am majoring in Political Science with a focus on American foreign policy in the Middle East and Constitutional Law. I decided to volunteer at EPIC because I think the humanitarian crisis in Iraq is dangerously underreported and ignored by most Americans. I, like Jonathan and Sarah came to EPIC through The Washington Center internship program. I love watching sports, especially teams from Boston.

We are all very excited to be working at EPIC to improve the humanitarian conditions in Iraq and build a more peaceful world.

Photo Caption: EPIC's Summer team from left to right: Sarah, Michael, Jonathan

Friday, June 20, 2008

Silent Victims of the Iraq War

In honoring World Refugee Day today, we should comprehend the impact that conflict has on the most innocent and vulnerable members of society. Five years after the U.S. invaded Iraq, more than 800,000 children have been forced to flee their homes to escape the violence. According to a report released Tuesday, most are unable to go to school and 60% do not have access to clean drinking water. More than half of the displaced children suffer from malnutrition. The mortality rate of children under 5 years old is three times higher in Iraq than in Syria or Jordan. Radhika Coomaraswamy, the UN Secretary General’s Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflicts said that displaced children, “lack access to the most basic services and manifest a wide range of psychological symptoms from the violence in their everyday lives. Violence and conflict have defined the lives of an entire generation of Iraqi children.

What is being done to help displaced children?

The United Nations Children’s Fund, better known as UNICEF, created a new emergency response mechanism called "IMPACT: Iraq" which will begin in July. It will deliver healthcare, clean water, sanitation, and emergency education resources to 360,000 children and their families. Sigrid Kaag, UNICEF’s Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa, said that IMACT: Iraq will, “ allow us to have better access…to address the needs of education, health water and sanitation.” The biggest hurdle to IMPACT: Iraq will be safe access for humanitarian workers to reach the families in need. There are many other obstacles, but Kaag remains optimistic. “We see a new momentum to meet the needs on the ground through stronger partnerships. Results…indicate we can deliver even under very difficult conditions.” Through efforts like this, the needs of millions of Iraqis can be addressed.

On this day reserved by the United Nations to remember refugees worldwide, please take the time to think about the lives of the millions of people who were forced to flee their homes because of violence.

Please take the first step in addressing the humanitarian crisis in Iraq by signing the EPIC Humanitarian Pledge. For more information about the Humanitarian Pledge, refugee crisis in Iraq, and World Refugee Day 2008, please read the entry below.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

World Refugee Day: June 20, 2008

As many of you know, tomorrow is the seventh annual World Refugee Day. The United Nations designated June 20 as World Refugee Day to recognize the contributions of refugees around the world and to remember their plight. The theme for the 2008 World Refugee Day is: "Protecting Refugees: Rebuilding Lives in Safety and Dignity." Right now, more than 5.2 million Iraqis have been driven from their homes. 2.5 million Iraqis fled from Iraq, seeking refuge in neighboring countries, particularly Jordan and Syria. Another 2.7 million are displaced within Iraq. Some estimate that 30% of the refugees are children. "Displacement leaves children at risk for disease, with lack of adequate healthcare and nutrition, and places many children at risk for abuse. Of the displaced children younger than five, almost half suffer from malnutrition."

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees, or UNHCR, is an agency of the United Nations mandated to lead and coordinate international action to protect refugees and resolve refugee problems worldwide. They also provide support to governments in the region that are struggling to cope with the huge influx of refugees from Iraq. So far, the UNHCR has registered more than 280,000 Iraqis in neighboring states, provided health care for 250,000 people and enabled 72,000 Iraqi refugee children to attend school. In January, UNHCR appealed for 261 million dollars to fund its operation aimed at helping some of the most vulnerable refugees. However, they only received 134 million, leaving them 127 million dollars short of the necessary funding to continue support in Iraq. António Guterres, the High Commissioner for Refugees for the UN stated, “Without this support, the humanitarian crisis we have faced over the past two years may grow even larger.”

A lot has been done to address the refugee crisis, but there are still many needs that are unmet.

What can you do to help on World Refugee Day?

To honor World Refugee Day, we urge you to sign the Humanitarian Pledge and send it to your peers. The pledge has 3 core components:
  • A belief that the people of Iraq and the United States are interconnected by events since the war began in 2003 and that more must be done to help the millions of displaced Iraqis.
  • A call for President Bush, his successor, and Congress to do more to strengthen assistance to the region; to support effective relief, peace-building, and community-based development; and to increase US admission to vulnerable Iraqis.
  • A commitment to help the millions of Iraqis in need of aid and to make a better, safer world.

Yesterday, Ken Bacon, president of Refugees International, wrote an interesting article about the refugee crisis in Iraq and the response by the US government. In the article, he stated:
“President Bush has never mentioned the plight of displaced Iraqis, and other White House officials act as though the problem doesn't exist.”

Please do not let the humanitarian crisis in Iraq continue to go unnoticed.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Brookings Institute: One Year Later

My name is Michael Gaubinger and I am working at the Education for Peace in Iraq Center for the summer of 2008. I will be entering my junior year at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in the fall and am studying political science.

On Friday, June 13, the Brookings Institute hosted Senior Fellows Michael O'Hanlon and Kenneth Pollack for a discussion of their recent visit to Iraq. The discussion was called "Iraq: One Year Later." The fact-finding trip was sponsored by the Department of Defense and, while on the trip, they met with American and British soldiers, Iraqi government officials, and other Iraqis. They were unable to meet with very many Iraqi civilians, so their report is not an accurate gauge of the pulse on the street. The discussion began with a brief lecture by each individual about his impressions of the current situation in Iraq. Both men highlighted the improvement in security. O’Hanlon commented that, “This has been the spring of the beginning of the blossoming of the Iraq security forces.” Did the surge work? O’Hanlon says: “Since 2007, Iraq has seen an eighty percent reduction in violence against citizens as measured by the United States military, the Iraqi government, and even some independent sources.” He also stressed the increasing sense of control by the Iraqi government. Great challenges still exist, but the trend-line is positive. Pollack also noted that Iraqi security forces have emerged as a factor for the first time and are now contributing to the coalition effort. There are now 560,000 Iraqi Security Forces and that number is growing by 100,000 troops per year. The training system is working and as many as ten Iraqi brigades are combat ready now. The first wave of problems have been identified and confronted. Now, the United States faces the task of solving the old problems while shifting its focus to the second wave of problems. While the military and police are growing strong, Iraq’s civilian institutions remain weak. The progress of Iraqi regiments and security forces is a large contributor to the reduction in civilian violence in Iraq. For the nearly five-million Iraqi refugees and internally displaced persons, a sense of security and safety is a crucial step towards helping these individuals return home.

O’Hanlon and Pollack were asked about the potential for a decrease in American involvement in Iraq through the withdrawal of U.S. forces from the region. Both agreed that an immediate withdrawal would be dangerous and set back the progress that they described. Furthermore, any reduction in current troop levels must be based on progress and not set to a calendar. O’Hanlon stressed that improvements in the mind-set of the Iraqi government were, in part due to the pressure applied by the Democratic leadership which reinforced the notion that American presence in Iraq must not be taken for granted by the Iraqi government. To ensure continued support from the United States, the Iraqi government must match the effort of the United States. According to Pollack, the general election in Iraq in 2009 represents a key moment politically within Iraq which could either cement and solidify the improvements or reverse them. Therefore, America withdrawal of troops before the elections could have dire consequences.

Planting the seeds of sustainable economic development is one of the first steps in redressing the humanitarian needs of Iraq. O’Hanlon and Pollack were asked about the current state of the Iraqi economy, specifically at the individual level. Oil exports are the backbone of Iraq’s economy, accounting for 98% of its revenue. Although oil exports are high and profitable for Iraq, they painted a bleak picture of life for the average citizen. Healthcare is poor and infant mortality rates are rising. There is not enough potable water. Unemployment is high and, among Iraqi civilians, there are no optimistic expectations of improvement. Due to the poor state of the economy, the return of refugees and internally displaced persons is a greater concern. Pollack suggested that an Iraqi government initiated housing project would help the economy by providing jobs and creating houses for some of the millions of displaced citizens.

A core component of the security improvement is sectarian separation. So far, approximately one-half of the sectarian separation has occurred, but there are some important concerns about the long-term sustainability of the recent improvements, which are due to forced ethnic division. What will happen when the walls are taken down? They were also asked about the current debate over the status of forces agreement. I will discuss this further in an upcoming blog. The final question directly addressed the willingness of the United States to take in refugees from Iraq. In 2008, the United States government promised to take in 7,000 refugees from Iraq, while Sweden is expected to take in 20,000 displaced persons. Pollack credited the low number of Iraqi refugees in America to fears by the Department of Homeland Security that the United States would be letting potential terrorists into the country; fears he categorized as foolish and repugnant.

O’Hanlon and Pollack both agree that Iraq faces many great challenges and unforeseen obstacles, but that the nation shows signs of improvement. Iraqi security forces are standing up as we transition to a plan where Iraqi forces are in the lead with American support, rather than the United States playing the lead role.

Abu Aardvark on Iraqi Refugees

Mark Lynch, also known as Abu Aardvark, publishes a blog in which he writes extensively on a variety of issues concerning the Middle East and American policy in the region. Last week, he wrote about an interview he conducted with a visiting group of Iraqis at the United States Institute of Peace. One interviewee is Omar Abd al-Satter, a Sunni member of the Iraqi Parliament from the Islamist Iraqi Party. Aardvark asked Satter about the crisis concerning refugees and displaced persons."Satter", Aardvark writes, "strongly argued that the normalization of Iraq could never take place until the displaced returned to their original homes. He dismissed official statistics on the return of refugees and IDPs to this point as propaganda and lies. He dismissed arguments that sectarian separation was necessary for security - once the militias and al-Qaeda were driven out, he claimed, there would be no problems between Sunni and Shia." Through his blog, Aardvark does a commendable job bringing attention to the millions of displaced Iraqis through the Middle East.
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