Interviewee: Isabel MacDonald, Coordinator of the Centro de Amigos Para la Paz
Interviewer: Martin Mowforth
Location: San José, Costa Rica
Date: 24th September 2009
Martin Mowforth (MM): Depleted Uranium Campaign….. Is there a problem of DU in Central America? Can you tell us a bit about that and its relevance to Central America?
Isabel MacDonald (IM): I joined the Peace Centre (PC) about 5/6 years ago because this coincided with the thread of occupying Iraq, and that happened about 6 years ago. I had heard of the PC and actually been there at 2 or 3 meeting coinciding with the forming of the PC around 1983, because I was living in Nicaragua at the time and heard there was a talk, and it was basically about contra attacks against the Nicaraguan civilian population. So I came to the PC and found like minded people. At the time I was working as a translator for…..name in Spanish….. in Nicaragua, translating for mostly Christian groups from the states and Europe who wanted to see the revolution first hand. So I came here and then years passed by and I really didn’t hear anything more from the PC. Then coinciding with the thread of invading Iraq, I called the PC and said what are you guys going to do about it….they said come over and meet the coordinator at the time. So I joined the PC and have been here since. About 4 or 5 years ago, a friend of ours …name….from New Mexico walked in and she spoke to us about Depleted Uranium, and we had heard about the use of this, and the victims and veterans of it coming back from the 1st Gulf war and how they were suffering with a disease called …… something war syndrome. We had seen many other victims, but we forget these things, but this man brought it back to us, and he gave us a documentary produced by a French Director….name…… called ‘The Invisible War’, which has testimonies of the men and women veterans who had been to the 1st Gulf War and who are very sick now, and also Testimonies from the US Military denying the use of DU. He told us that he had been involved in a campaign to ban the use of DU and one of their goals was to get a ban with the UN. He told us about their efforts. He brought some land and wanted to work on the campaign on a Latin American level. Seeing again his photographs, especially of the kids, and hearing his testimony and hearing about the work he’d been doing, we included the campaign to ban DU with our work plan at the PC. So basically I’d say we have been working on the National Level in Coast Rica, with civil organisations who are working on different issues of …. something human rights and a lot of them environmental. And on the international level we have been working more on denouncing the war on Iraq and on the campaign to ban DU weapons and come on the Palestinian issue. His father died, he believed, due to contamination of the weapons on the US military testing ground near to his home in New Mexico. His son came here every year and we would try to get information and documentation from him to show we support his cause. We decided because of him and his suggestion, that we would hold one of the big conferences of the coalition that he helped to form, which is the International Coalition to Ban Uranium Weapons. We took up the challenge because it is an issue that is very little known about in Costa Rica. We wondered how we were going to pull this off, and how many people were going to come, but actually people were very interested and we gathered a lot of support. So for 3 days in March, with the information we had, we held the conference and wonderful people came from Japan…name, a journalist, Belgians…..name, Gretel Monroe from Massachusetts, and Doug Weir from Manchester-the coordinator of the coalition at present. We had a wonderful conference. Basically what we want to do is as the Quaker PC, be part of this movement, IC, which has 100 members in 30 countries, but with very little Latin American attendance. So one of our goals is to get the issue out, starting with Central America, moving down to South America, then spread the integration of this Coalition, and get involved with the heart of the UN. So we showed the documentary- we produced our own documentary ‘Uranium 238’ by ‘Pablo Ortega’, who has done a lot of work denouncing free trade and on environmental issues. One of our goals was to get information out in Spanish, because most info is in English. So we translated the documents of the coalition into Spanish, which also has photographs of the victims, because all the info as you can see here is mostly in English. Another thing we were able to get were 20 original photos of (Naomi someone) to show the harm that DU is causing to the civilian population. We were almost able to bring Dr Ali from Basra. We had great support from the ministry of External Relations of Costa Rica, who tried their best to get him a Visa, and actually got a visa, so that Doctor Ali could travel from Basra to Jordan, but then the Spanish government would not give him his transit visa. We were very chagrined by this. We wanted to hear his testimony of how children have leukaemia and cancer, and the rates are going up 500% in his area. This is part of the work IC is doing. We are trying to get funding to do a lobby at the UN with a different country, but also to do an ecological study in Iraq. Right now they’re (UN) funding a researcher to see what is the movement of these arms and where are they being produced and being used. So basically our idea was how we can involve Latin America in this issue. Our goal is to see how, when we go to the UN, we can talk to ….name….the scientist from Japan, who has worked on this issue for many years, and Gretel Monroe also, is how we can meet the efforts from Latin America at the UN and talk to them about this issue, and also ask how Latin America as a region can stand up with a position for this issue. That’s basically our goal.
Votes have been taken at the UN, so in Nov 2008 with about 144 countries. Because of this lobby, because of the alliances with the non-aligned movement, Cuba and Indonesia particularly, a vote was passed where 144 countries have to come up with health and environmental reform on the effects of the use of DU. 5 countries abstained, and 5 voted against this (producers of these weapons). About 32 countries have stayed. So my goal is to work full time on this issue, and so I’m leaving my current position as coordinator, but not the PC.
After our conference in March, I asked the ‘steering committee’ I said how about I’m your Latin American person, so they invited me to be a member of their committee, and I sent them a proposal to work on the whole Latin American, South American and Caribbean region. So hopefully I’ll get some funding to do this and work in the programme……something in Spanish……to work on DU.
So Why is Central American important…not because we’re using these weapons, and not because we’re mining Uranium, although we are following up some information that came out in December about a mine in Talamanca where we believe they are mining Uranium- but we haven’t followed this up yet, but because of our interest thanks to our lobby and the warmth of legislators in our human rights congress here, to pass a ban locally. Even though Costa Rica is not producing or using these weapons, Costa Rica would be the second country in the world after Belgium, to ban the transport or use of these Uranium weapons- and that would be big. It would be an example of a country without and army and with a democracy taking the lead. It will be step by step. As soon as I finish here, I need to get the reports from Honduras, Guatemala, from their ministries of foreign affairs- coordinating the local NGO’s.
We heard about a conference in …somewhere in Honduras, where a lot of organisations from Central and South America are interested in issues of …‘something in Spanish ’. After a five year break from a meeting in …..somewhere…..We want to get them to help us, get their reports and get other countries in the Latin American region to make a ‘….something in spanish’, and it works when you dedicate time to this, because after our conference in March, the master was invited by the ….something….. President of the …human rights group, and he actually went from Costa Rica to Argentina where he joined a meeting of …….. something Spanish……, where he presented a proposal to this group in March, and now in May, June, July or August, 5 months later there’s already a resolution to this group ‘something spanish’ of their commission on Human Rights in ‘pan americano……. It’s very interesting because they’re talking about how these arms are being used in wars, and how they’re radioactive and toxic. They’re also asking for every state of the Latin American parliament to make a promotion…, to ask for a moratorium, and to be careful because many Latin Americans are, right now, in Iraq and Afghanistan. There’s no word about what’s happening in Afghanistan on this issue. So there is a connection on a moral and solidarity level.
MM: I was going to ask about that, it’s not just a case of getting solidarity between the Latin American Nations which have nothing to do with DU, because they all have something to do with it. For instance the first soldier in the last war in Iraq to be killed was a Guatemalan.
IM: And the first conscientious objector to the war this was in Iraq was Nicaraguan- there’s a great documentary on that.
MM: So it does affect people directly.
IM: And they’re even talking about a follow up on this, they’re talking about asking the state member s of the Latin American Parliaments, for future operations, to avoid the use of arms with DU in operations with police, security and defence. And to avoid sending military personnel and civilians to those regions where there’s no guarantee that DU hasn’t been used. So this is big, and obviously at the UN-a week from now, I will meet all theses representatives and let them know about this and get information out. (I’ll be at the UN for just a week). Doug in Manchester is setting up all these meetings for us. Hopefully we will be accompanied by a …….something from somewhere…….her name is ‘Jean Von Herald’, who is working not only to ban Uranium weapons in the ……something…. but also they’re also having a new initiative of a law, which has to do with toxic materials and fissionable materials. Someone…. has met with them and they’re planning to form a scientific body to monitor this, and some of these people are from the University of Costa Rica.
MM: Do you know which 5 countries objected to the UN lobby vote?
IM: of course….UK, USA, Israel, France, and …. Don’t know. Not Australia (although they produce Uranium). I have all this information. We have a lot of press on this issue, which is not even a Costa Rican issue. …………….Some Spanish………………………. It was a wonderful article by…………, she interviewed with Dr Ali over the phone. This is a lot of information because it’s not only the Ban, but the people who know, they talk about 6 years for this to pass, so you never know. People are fighting the US government like….name……who was a soldier who came here to Casa Ridgeway with a respirator, so he has got a law suit going on. Then there are the environmental aspects- how you can decontaminate the water and the soil. Then there’s the whole issue of bringing the people who have committed these crimes to justice. So its huge.
MM: you mentioned……. Can’t hear……
IM: For the process at the UN, it’s a long case scenario.
MM: When you come back from the UN you’ll be based here then. Will you have a list of correspondents to whom you send updates?
IM: We have a Canadian friend ‘Brad something’. We have funds from the Peace Development Fund that haven’t arrived yet. He’s the one who puts up things on the web right now on the Centro De Amigos Para La Paz site, where theres information on the conference. He wants to help the PC on this. The best site is bandepleteduranium.org out of Manchester, for updated info.
After talking to some people in Nicaragua, I met with a man, when we were looking for info there was nothing in Spanish, but we found the name of ‘Antonio Hakim’ he is from medicines without borders from Nicaragua. And we met with him about 2 weeks ago. He is part of the group that has…….. something world crisis….. and they’re connected to a Dutch man here called …crazy Dutch name…. and he does a lot of talks on environmental issues and globalization- He is part of this group of 6 people. Antonio was very interested, he was saying that with everything that’s happened now with Honduras, Columbia etc…how to tie it all in to this package……I’ve got to think about that.
MM: Is there a chance I could have a copy of the video you made about DU?
IM: Sure, it’s a very good documentary. The people from the network said it would be good for our work because it’s in English and it’s not in Spanish, and it’s not like the Invisible war, it’s much shorter and more recent.
MM: My local peace group in England will be interested in this. And I’ll tell them about your work. You know you mentioned this possible mining in Talamanca a year ago….have you got any contacts?
IM: The person who got us off the list of the Coalition of the willing that went into Iraq was a young man called ‘Roberto Tamora’, he would be a good person for you to contact. He‘s the one who organizes the protests and marches in Costa Rica. And he’s the one who went to the court buildings here…..something in Spanish…….despite the fact that Costa Rica is part of the coalition of the …………something in Spanish…..of course all our laws say you have to get off this list. It was very hard to get off this list. So he did that and is now working to do the same against the Central American Free trade agreement. One of the concerns in the CAFTA is annex 3.3 where Costa Rica, unlike other Central American countries, left in the annex, possibilities of movement among borders, the possibility of importing tanks and importing missiles, and having DU in the country. So he is working on this right now. That would be important. And he put a …..spanish…. to prohibit mining of Uranium in Costa Rica, and I have that document for you. He would be a good person for you. I can also give you the number of an anthropologist who teaches at the University of Costa Rica, ‘Nicole Sole’, who works a lot with people from the …..communial something…..and she also wants follow up on this issue of mining Uranium.
MM: I’m doing a lot on mining, its nearly all gold though, and nearly all Canadian companies conducting themselves in a really gangsterish way. The destruction is incredible and they leave only about 1% of the profits, alongside a lot of pollution and contamination.
One other thing, broadening out from the EU but still on the Peace issue….
Costa Rica has a great reputation for not having an army, but during the 80s it was quite heavily militarized by the US and police forces and for instance, training in the use of heavy artillery and that kind of thing. So am I right in thinking that actually its reputation is a little overblown as far as it’s peaceful intensions are concerned?
IM: There is a really good group of women from the US, including Nicole, who can talk a lot on this issue….and it is one of our campaigns ….I don’t know when the Honduran mission from Costa Rica met up with the people from the school of Americas Watch, who are in Honduras also. We had the honor of meeting with ‘Father Roy Boyshua’?….. about 2/3 years ago, and that was precisely the question of this wonderful women who lives here called ‘Rita Calver’ who is a great admirer of Father Roy. She said why would you come and want to be with a …?…. training with arms, when we are a disarmed country. It turned out that then something was born ……..missing……….. and I think it was in the 50s, and they were kicked out by the president of Panama, against their policies of intensions and goals, and is now in planning, 2700 police of Costa Rica, as compared to 1500 militaries from Mexico have trained up for….. So we met with ….Spanish names…..about 2 years ago and we said ‘Oscar we can’t do this!’, these people who are also reading at the school in Honduras now, are being trained at this school. They got classified information that was hard to get, but they got it concerning Rita and her friends, and he went with them. They met with Father Roy and……someone….to read these papers, and he promised to father Roy and Lisa Sullivan from the school of the Americas, but didn’t keep his promise, that the 4 Police that were training at this moment would b the last. Soon after, ….name in Spanish……who used to be …..job title in Spanish…., before he quit to run for presidency, was very edgy at this moment. We could tell he wasn’t happy with this, and sure enough a couple of weeks later, and we have paper clippings if you’re interested, he said no, we need to have the training to combat narco-terrorism and trafficking, so we’re going to continue. That’s why the lobby was done and met with Vice minister of public security…a woman who’s name I forget, and we met with the head of the police academy, very nice people all of them, and we gave them information and books on the situation, but the situation right now is on standby, and that is part of the work we need to do on this issue. And then again CAFTA-why was this not taken out. Thank goodness for people like…name I can’t hear… who are picking up the …?…in our free trade agreements.
MM: The current one that’s being negotiated is of course with the EU, and I suppose you have to keep your eyes on that and other amendments.
IM: Right now we are not participating in the discussion, so it would be important maybe through other NGOs to stay on top of that.
MM: Is there anything that the Centro de Amigos Para la Paz, can do apart from hosting certain people like….., about exerting pressure over the Honduran coup, within the Costa Rican government?
IM: This will be decided later at the meeting….I can ask …Sanfrisco/name….who is heading this group right now, to put your name on the email list so you can stay in touch. There were specific needs for following up with specific violations of people who are beat up, in jail, especially women who have been abused, and to record these, and get help from lawyers, and to get this information out to International Human rights courts and organizations. We met with people from international peace brigades, and people are interested in helping out and playing an important role right now……… But with little resources we need to decide what the most important thing to do right now is, is it just a presence?
MM: I remember when the coup first took place…………..chat about coup, false document etc….what a liar etc.
IM: The day of the coup, I knew it was going to be so difficult for them to back up their lies………. Now they’re blocking electricity and water etc, they don’t care. It’s amazing.
MM: Anyway, Were you the director of FECON?
IM: Yes I was the director of FECON, that was in Sabanilla. The great thing about working here at the PC and having the hostel Casa Ridgway, is that more and more organizations who have coordinated efforts in the past, are using the PC’s installations here. People from Indigenous communities, people like…. Bel Christiano who was one of the reasons …name of org ….was founded, especially to help…..people fighting HEP, people fighting illegal logging etc . We’re strengthening a network to help leadership of human rights in communities. We’re still in touch with these peoples, like friends of the Earth, the…something…. people fighting for water rights in Guanacaste, and seeing how we can be of help is more the nice of the PC. Right now members of the PC are working closely with the communidad…something Spanish, who are fighting right now the issues of big hotels and desorollo on the coast, and people who have lived in these areas, especially the fishermen who are being affected. There’s a law right now in the ….Spanish …..so we’ll be in touch and trying to support them.
MM: Did the ‘No’ campaign of/for CAFTA, bring a lot of NGO groups together who haven’t previously worked together?
IM: Definitely, for ‘FECON’, that was an important moment, through the …Spanish……..and through the resistance again CAFTA, they were very active in getting a lot information out. Bringing new people, who probably didn’t become members, but a lot of the NGOs managed to work collectively, apart from the ………Spanish name……,which are a lot of committees around the country who worked against CAFTA in communities on different concerns.
MM: I have a lot of material there, thank you…………