Following the UK’s recognition last year of Saddam’s attacks on the Kurds as genocide, the KRG hopes the US Congress would similarly debate the issue later this year, Rahman said. Photo by Sharmila Devi
LONDON - Parallels between the chemical bombing of Halabja in 1988 and in Syria last August were drawn by a panel of experts and lawyers speaking at a seminar held in the UK parliament on Monday.
The “Justice for Halabja” seminar was held to mark the 26th anniversary of the March 16, 1988 poison gas attack on Halabja, and was part of ongoing efforts by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) to seek formal recognition of the crimes committed against the Kurdish people in Iraq as acts of genocide, in accordance with the 1948 United Nations Genocide Convention.
Speakers compared the long struggle to get the international community to take notice of Halabja and the current challenges of helping the Syrian people, who suffered the “most significant confirmed use of chemical weapons against civilians since Saddam Hussein used them,” according to a UN report.
Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman, the KRG high representative to the UK, led the seminar with a powerful call to lobby governments around the world to act on Syria with the same speed that they were currently responding to in Ukraine.
“Why not Syria? Are they not human beings?” she asked. “The people of Halabja continue to suffer and we should remember there are people around the world under threat of chemical weapons.”
Following the UK’s recognition last year of Saddam’s attacks on the Kurds as genocide, the KRG hopes the US Congress would similarly debate the issue later this year, Rahman said.
Efforts are also underway in several European capitals and the European Parliament. So far, only parliaments in Britain, Sweden and Norway have recognized Saddam’s so-called "Anfal Campaign” against the Kurds as genocide.
“We all need to lobby MPs, MEPs, Congress, the media to do something about it,” said Rahman.
Hamish De Bretton-Gordon, a former British soldier and chemical and biological counter-terrorism expert who has been advising civilians in Syria on behalf of non-governmental organizations, outlined the similarities between the attacks in Halabja and in Ghouta, Syria.
These included the fact that the attacks were well-planned and carried out in perfect climatic conditions. There were subsequent and deliberate efforts to hide the evidence, and “international inertia” about what to do, he said.
Halabja’s death toll of some 5,000 could eventually total 12,000, while the initial death toll of 1,400 in Ghouta could rise to 4,000, he added, calling the two attacks “state-sponsored genocide.”
“I’m hopeful the perpetrators for this dreadful atrocity (in Syria) will be brought to book,” he said. “The thought of these chemical weapons ending up in the hands of terror groups is unthinkable.”
Along with political efforts around the Halabja issue, civilian cases on behalf of victims are winding their way through courts in France and Germany, said Gavriel Mairone, founder and managing partner of MM-Law, an international human rights law firm.
Legal restraints prevented him from naming the companies that supplied the chemical materials and factories to Saddam and from whom the plaintiffs are seeking compensation.
He was hopeful a criminal investigation would be opened in France, but the legal team was considering a “name and shame” campaign in Germany, where the legal and technical requirements to bring a case are much more onerous.
“This is maybe a better way to try and induce them (the companies) to do what’s right, like building a hospital, training doctors and sponsor scientists to do research into the effects on the environment (in Halabja),” he said.
He was also hopeful his legal team would be able to question former members of Saddam’s regime, now living in Europe, who would be able to provide valuable witness testimony about chemical companies’ alleged knowledge and complicity in Iraq’s chemical weapons program.
“We want to hold companies accountable. They assisted Saddam Hussein’s regime to build the largest chemical weapons program when Saddam Hussein was deploying them,” he said.
Alistair Hay, professor of environmental toxicology at the University of Leeds who has worked on this issue for some 30 years including in Iraq, described seeing Halabja victims and their injuries soon after the attack. “There’s been no long-term follow-up and I don’t understand why,” he said.
However, he said the attacks did force the international community to speed up efforts to negotiate a Chemical Weapons Convention, which has now been signed by some 190 countries.
He explained how victims could only receive help if their government requested assistance from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the implementing body of the convention which won last year’s Nobel Peace Prize.
Syria’s government has failed to make any request, while Iranians and Iraqis had received only “modest assistance,” he said.
“We need the OPCW and events like tonight to pressure and campaign for changes because only argument and complaint will do it,” he said. “I will continue as long as I can and I hope for assistance to the Kurds and Syrians.”