Halabja Day 2016: End the impunity

halabja 2016

On the anniversary of the 1988 poison gas attack on the Iraqi Kurdish town of Halabja: A report documenting 161 poison gas attacks in Syria since the war began five years ago has been published. More than two thirds of the attacks have taken place after the adoption of UN Security Council Resolution 2118 v. in September 2013.

On 16 March 1988, the Iraqi army shelled the Kurdish town of Halabja with a cocktail of various chemical agents. 5,000 people were killed by the attacks, while another 5000-10000 suffered immensely and died of the painful effects sometime later.

To date, the effects of this attack are still visible. Not only in Halabja, but in other Iraqi Kurdish towns as well, where people continue to suffer from the consequences of these attacks.

On this anniversary of the Halabja attacks, the renowned Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS) has presented an extensive study on the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian state apparatus. The report details that despite the adoption of UN Security Council Resolution 2118 – and the subsequent (alleged) disarmament of the Syrian chemical weapons arsenal in September 2013 – that the use of chemical weapons against the civilian population in the territories held by the opposition continued. The report documents 161 cases of chemical weapon attacks by Syrian government troops –  with more than two thirds of the attacks occurring after the adoption of UN Security Council Resolution.

Thus, the report documents the complete failure of international policy towards Syria – and a shocking ignorance of the horrors of chemical warfare in the Middle East.

It is not only the Syrian regime that has systematically used poison gas. There is multiple evidence that the Islamist militia ‘Islamic State’ possess chemical warfare agents and is using them.

For decades the various dictatorships in the Middle East have sought after the possession of chemical weapons. Chemical weapons are considered the “atomic bomb of the poor” because they are relatively easy and inexpensive to manufacture, but also because they constitute an ultimate threat to civilian populations of minority or other disliked groups. In practice however, they have been used against one’s own people.  Specifically there are more than 60 proven cases in the 1980s of Saddam Hussein’s regime using chemical weapons against Kurdish cities and villages. The biggest and most devastating of these attacks took place in the Iraqi Kurdish town of Halabja on 16 March 1988.

The case of Iraq shows two things:

First, it turns out that the “atom bomb of the poor” is an ideal weapon to terrorize a civilian population. Chemical warfare agents do not only have dire physical consequences for those affected but devastating psychological effects as well. They are easy to deploy, and because they have a temporary effect that leaves the infrastructure essentially intact, their use is relatively difficult to prove (after the fact) in war zones.

Second, it has become more and more apparent that the use of chemical weapons against one’s own population is unlikely to be punished in any way by international legal action.  On the contrary: even when it was clear that chemical warfare agents were being produced by the Iraqi state’s ‘pesticide factories’ the trade in raw materials and production equipment carried on unhindered. When doubts were expressed, the argument of ‘dual use goods’ was presented.
The German Federal Ministry of Economics used the ‘dual use goods’ argument in its September 2013 justification for the supply of 137 tons of raw chemical materials to Syria between 2002 to 2006.

The Syrian government continues to remain unpunished for its use of chemical weapons against its own people. President Barak Obama declared in 2013, that the use of chemical weapons was a ‘red line’ that should not be crossed. Yet, when the Assad regime did exactly that by using Sarin gas against the eastern Damascus suburbs the international community barely reacted. Only the controlled disarmament of chemical weapons has been agreed to. An agreement made with the Syrian government, and executed on the basis of their (voluntary) information. Five years after the beginning of the Syrian ‘civil war’ and twenty eight years after the Halabja attack, the world has done little to punish suppliers or perpetrators of chemical weapon agents.

To date, the German Federal Government has yet to officially apologize for supporting the Iraqi chemical weapons programs. Even after years of the people of Halabja demanding a formal apology.

As long as the perpetrators go unpunished and the use, or, production of chemical weapons goes unpunished; Halabja can happen again at any time.

Over the last 25 years the German-Iraqi aid agency Wadi e. V. supports various projects in Halabja and other places in Iraqi Kurdistan, which were bombarded with poison gas. Wadi also works closely with initiatives from the Syrian Ghouta on various long-term projects.

Thomas Uwer

Press contact: 0049-69-57002440