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Middle East

How Far Have We Come Since the Martyred Town of Halabja?

By Harvey Morris 16/3/2014
Children in Halabja hold a memorial to relatives killed in the 1988 gas attack. Photo: AP
Children in Halabja hold a memorial to relatives killed in the 1988 gas attack. Photo: AP

LONDON – In the year in which the Kurdish people marked a quarter-century since the slaughter at Halabja, the world’s chemical weapons’ watchdog was awarded the Nobel Prize for peace.

The Norwegian Nobel Committee’s choice of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) as its 2013 laureate was not only a recognition of the body’s work towards eradicating these indiscriminate agents of mass destruction, but also a reminder that its task is incomplete.

Five months after the 25th anniversary of Halabja and four months before December’s Nobel ceremony in Oslo, chemical attacks on the Damascus suburb of Ghouta killed up to 1,500 people, according to international estimates. A United Nations report determined that the Sarin nerve agent used was even more refined than that deployed by Saddam Hussein’s forces to attack the Kurdish town.

Despite the attempt of Bashar Assad’s regime to imitate Saddam’s tactics by blaming the victims for the assault, there was little doubt that Damascus was responsible. It was the most deadly use of the banned weapons since 5,000 Kurds died in the streets and homes of Halabja on March 16, 1988.

A dispiriting conclusion was that world leaders had failed to fulfill the pledge eventually made after Halabja: “Never again.”

There was an echo of that earlier pledge when Ahmet Uzumcu, head of the OPCW, declared in his Oslo acceptance speech: “We cannot allow the tragedy that befell the people of Ghouta to be repeated.”

He insisted that significant progress had been made in international efforts, put in motion after the Halabja massacre, to eliminate chemical weapons once and for all.

In the immediate aftermath of the 1988 slaughter there was a shamefully muted response from the outside world. Even at the level of the United Nations, diplomats were too concerned about implementing a ceasefire in the eight-year Iran-Iraq war to risk provoking Saddam. According to Crispin Tickell, Britain’s envoy to the UN at the time, the Security Council “didn’t want to upset the applecart” by criticizing Iraq ahead of peace talks.

The hands-off policy of the UN powers indirectly gave Iraq carte blanche to pursue the genocidal Anfal campaign in which up to 100,000 Kurds died in chemical and other attacks. Saddam was able to divert his forces to northern Iraq after using chemical weapons to smash a final Iranian offensive in the south, an operation in which the US Central Intelligence Agency obliged by providing details of Iranian troop deployments.

Once a ceasefire in the Iran-Iraq war was secured, France took the initiative at the end of 1988 by inviting world governments to attend an international conference on eliminating chemical weapons.

It was the first step in a lengthy process that led to the Chemical Weapons Convention that came into force almost a decade later in 1997. The arms control treaty outlaws the production, stockpiling and use of chemical weapons and their precursors.

The OPCW, which was established in the same year to act as the implementing body, has since overseen the destruction of more than 80 percent of the world’s declared stockpile of chemical agents.

That did not prevent the Syrian regime from resorting to using the banned weapons or using its best efforts to deny it had done so.

President Assad had clearly crossed a “red line,” previously set by President Barack Obama. But popular and political pressure in both the US and Britain prevented him from responding militarily.

Nevertheless, the crisis of mid-2013 did allow room for a US-Russian deal on eradicating Syria’s chemical stockpile, which included Damascus signing up to the Chemical Weapons Convention to which all but a handful of UN member states now belong. The OPCW already existed to oversee the process of transferring and destroying an estimated 1,300 tonnes of chemical agents, a process that is ongoing.

For six years during the 1980s, Saddam was able to obfuscate and lie about his regime’s possession and use of chemical weapons, despite deploying them against the Iranians as early as 1982.

A largely indifferent international community, which did little to try to halt the bloodshed in the Gulf, knew the truth but was happy to ignore the evidence. This included first-hand accounts of victims. Photographs of those who had been blistered and scarred in Iraqi chemical attacks reached the West as early as 1983.

However, the message coming from the UN was that both sides were probably using the banned agents, but that evidence was hard to come by and Iraq should not be singled out. The massacre at Halabja, however, was evidence that could not be ignored, even though some US officials still sought to muddy the waters by suggesting Iran might have been responsible.

Saddam Hussein committed his crimes at a time when poor communications, difficulty of access and a general international unwillingness to look too closely at the available facts, allowed him to operate unchecked.

These days, however, there are new weapons in the armory of those who seek to eliminate such weapons entirely.

The 1997 treaty obliges its 190 members not only to destroy their weapon stocks and production facilities but also empowers the OPCW to make spot checks to investigate alleged use of chemical weapons or suspicions of banned activities.

The agency’s experts also have new methods to detect and define illicit use of chemical weapons. The case against the Assad regime in Ghouta was assembled from witnesss accounts, missile debris and even film and photographs of victims at the time of the twin attacks on the suburb.

Conspiracy theories that the rebels attacked their own people have been put forward by Syria’s apologists and even by those in the West desperate to keep their governments out of another Middle East war. However, the evidence is overwhelmingly that Damascus was responsible and the evidence against the rebels is precisely zero.

The strides made in eliminating these weapons may not totally exclude them being used again, but have narrowed the prospect of a renegade regime getting away with it.

Progress came, belatedly, as a result of the suffering of Halabja. If and when chemical weapons are consigned to the dustbin of history, it will be a further memorial to the sacrifices inflicted on that martyred Kurdish town.

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