Remembering the 28th Anniversary of the Halabja Chemical Attack (continued)

On March 16, 1988, Iraqi fighter jets attacked Halabja, a small town on Iraq’s northeastern border with Iran, with chemical bombs. The Halabja chemical attack was the largest chemical weapons attack on civilians in history; in this attack, 5000 people, mostly women and children, lost their lives and thousands were wounded.  This is part 2 of the article; read part 1.

To prevent re-emergence of chemical weapons, the OPCW monitors the chemical industry; it also provides assistance and protection against chemical threats to states that are party to the convention. Furthermore, it assists the member states to develop their peaceful chemical industry. The CWC prevents development, production, stockpiling, transfer, and use of chemical weapons. The CWC also bans any assistance and encouragement in any way of any one to engage in any activity prohibited by the treaty. This treaty does not ban using chemical materials to protect a state against chemical weapons if that state is party to the treaty. The CWC does not prohibit law enforcement from applying riot control agents in domestic riot control. Also the CWC does not prohibit application of chemical materials in industrial projects, or for  research, medical, agricultural and other peaceful purposes. The states that ratified the CWC have the obligation to eliminate their chemical stockpiles and production facilities that produce more than one ton of chemical weapons within ten years. In 2013, the OPCW received the Nobel Peace Prize for its efforts to eliminate chemical weapons.

There are several international instruments that were not specifically designed to ban chemical weapons, although they address the prohibition of chemical weapons. The four Geneva Conventions of 1949 and their Additional Protocols form the core of international humanitarian law,  regulating the behavior of armed conflicts to minimize the effects of war. The four Geneva Conventions and their Protocols define the employment of chemical weapons as a violation of international humanitarian law. All of the 196 UN member states ratified the four Geneva Conventions. 174, 168, and 72 states respectively ratified Additional Protocol I, Additional Protocol II, and Additional Protocol III. Iraq ratified the four Geneva Conventions in 1956 and the Additional Protocol I in 2010. Iran only ratified four Geneva Protocols in 1957.

The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC), established in 1998, criminalizes the use of chemical weapons and considers it as a war crime in both international and non-international armed conflict. The Rome Statute gives jurisdiction to the ICC over crimes committed after the entry into force of the Rome Statute. The ICC has jurisdiction over crimes committed against a state party to the Statute, or against a national of a state party to the Statute. Moreover, the UN Security Council can refer a case to the ICC even though the perpetrator is not a party to the Statute. Iraq is not a party to the Rome Statute; Iran signed the Statute, but has not ratified it.     

Final Thoughts

The eight year war between Iran and Iraq was one of the most horrific human tragedies of the century. During the war, Iraq frequently violated international laws when it employed widespread chemical warfare against Iranian troops and civilians as well as Iraqi Kurds. The supportive western countries gave to Saddam and the deficiency of the international legal instruments aiming to ban toxic warfare helped Saddam use chemical weapons against Iranian and Iraqi Kurds.

Prior to the recognition of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) in 1997, the legal international tools that prohibited chemical weapons were not designed on a multilateral framework to bring the whole category of weapons of mass destruction under the supervision of international laws.

During the war between Iran and Iraq (1980-1988), the only legal treaties banning chemical and biological weapons were the 1925 Geneva Protocol to The Hague Conventions and the 1975 Biological Weapons Convention. The Geneva Protocol only prohibits the first use of chemical weapons and does not ban retaliatory employment of poisonous weapons. Furthermore, the Geneva Protocol does not prohibit the states party to the agreement from researching, producing, developing, testing and stockpiling chemical weapons. It also does not create any obligation against using chemical weapons in non-international armed conflicts. Moreover, the Geneva Protocol does not require that violators be internationally identified. Although Iraq had acceded to the Geneva Protocol in 1931, this accession did not prevent Saddam from employing chemical weapons. When joining the Geneva Protocol, Iraq made a reservation that its government would not be bound by the prohibitions in the case of attacking any state whose armed forces did not respect the provisions of the Protocol.

The Biological Weapons Convention, on the other hand, only prohibited the possession of poisonous weapons and does not carry any obligation against using these weapons.

The initiation of the Chemical Weapon Convention in 1997 as an absolute ban to making full-scale obligation for state parties was the legal answer to eliminating warfare which is excessively injurious or has indiscriminate effects on soldiers and civilians. Unlike its predecessors, the CWC has the ability to prevent states from assisting and encouraging others from using chemical weapons against other countries in times of war or peace.

If, the Chemical Weapons Convention had been enforced during the Iran-Iraq war, there is a question whether it would have beenillegal for the United States and the United Kingdom to have assisted Iraq, when they knew it was illegally targeting Iranians as well as Iraqi Kurds with poisonous weapons.

 28 years after the end of the war and the chemical attack of Halabja, people are still dying because of their exposure to chemical agents during war.  Iran is known as the world’s largest laboratory for the study of the effects of chemical weapons. In 2000 the Iranian government launched a media campaign, asking those who were close to the exposure of chemical weapons to have a checkup to evaluate their health. Based on the 40 years’ latency period of chemical weapons in victims’ bodies, even now, 36 years after the war, the final toll of the Iranian and Iraqi Kurds casualties is still not known. Every day there are new cases and as a result, the final toll of Iranian victims of chemical weapons could ultimately rival the 90,000 who lost their lives from toxic weapons in World War I. The victims suffer from respiratory diseases, corneal disintegration, rotting teeth, and dementia. Abolfazl Afazali is an Iranian victim of chemical weapons. He is struggling for his life, and his only wish is to be able to take a deep breath.

Rashin Khosravibavandpouri is an Iranian-born journalist.  She recently received a M.S. in international relations from Suffolk University and is a member of Massachusetts Peace Action’s Middle East Working Group.