Remembering the 28th Anniversary of the Halabja Chemical Attack: Let me Breathe

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.  

Saddam Hussein, the former ruler of Iraq, was brought to trial and was convicted for crimes against humanity by the Iraqi Special Tribunal (IST). He was sentenced to death by hanging for murdering 148 men and young boys from Dujail, a small town 35 miles north of Baghdad. He was also sentenced to 10 years in prison for the crime of torture and another 10 years for his involvement in forcible deportation. Although Saddam’s conviction was not based on his role in using chemical weapons, seeing him being convicted was a great relief for those who were affected by exposure to his chemical attacks. In the 1980s, during the eight years of the Iran-Iraq war, Saddam deliberately used chemical weapons against Iranian military forces and civilians as well as Iraqi Kurds.

Iran-Iraq war and Iraq’s Use of Chemical Weapons

The Islamic Revolution of 1979 in Iran and the overthrow of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, the main ally of the West, and specifically the United States, in the Middle East, altered the friendly relations between Iran and the West. After the Revolution, Iran was presented to the international world as a threat which had an agenda to export its Revolution to other Muslim countries.

With an ambition of a full-scale invasion of Iran, on September 22th 1980, Iraq attacked Iran. In this preemptive war, Saddam hoped he would achieve a lightning victory; in his mind, defeating Iran was not a complicated task since Iran did not have any international supporters. Despite Saddam’s initial successes, by 1982 Iranians pushed Iraqi soldiers out of their country. In the Iran-Iraq war, Iranians relied on their strong patriotic sentiment against those who  invaded their country, as well as on the greater population of Iran compared with Iraq.The Iraqis on the other side received significant military and intelligence support from their supporters, mostly western countries. In 1982, when Saddam was about to lose the war, he ordered the first chemical attacks against Iran, in breach of international law. Subsequently, the UN Security Council condemned the chemical attacks; however, it never specified Iraq as the perpetrator of the chemical attacks.

 During the war, Iran suffered from what Nasser Hadian, a University of Tehran political scientist, called “strategic loneliness”. According to Hadian, in the war, Iran, as the victim of illegal weapons which were banned by international law, felt a sense of isolation. Hadian adds that in the war, Iran’s neighbors helped Saddam, and most of the European countries along with the U.S. and Russia sold him illegal arms.

Based on declassified CIA documents and several interviews with former intelligence officials, during the war between Iran and Iraq, the United States definitely knew about Saddam’s use of chemical weapons against Iran. Despite this knowledge, in 1986 the United States Defense Department proposed an intelligence-sharing program with Iraq. During the war, American intelligence officials conveyed the location of the Iranian forces and their deployments and movements to Iraq while they were fully informed that Saddam’s military would attack them with chemical weapons. Aiding Iraq was a part of President Reagan’s policy to make sure that Iraq would win the war, whatever the cost., The United States had in 1975 ratified the Geneva Protocol of 1925, which prohibits use of poisonous gases in war. According to the Geneva Protocol, the states which are party to this Protocol have to exert every effort to induce other States to accede to the agreement. Iraq had also acceeded to the Geneva Protocol at the time of war with Iran.

“Chemical Weapon Manufacture in Iraq” was published  by the BritishForeign Office in 1983. Based on this document, British diplomats were informed of Iraq’s covert chemical weapons program even before Iraq used those weapons against Iran. According to “Chemical Weapon Manufacture in Iraq”, the involvement of British firms in trade with Iraq’s chemical weapons industry prevented Britain from taking any action to prevent Saddam from obtaining chemical weapons. This secret document shows that based on the interest of their country, British officials did not come to a consensus to prevent Iraq from acquiring chemical weapons. “Chemical Weapon Manufacture in Iraq” was released by the National Archives at Kew in West London in the summer of 2015.

In 1986 a statement by the United Nations Security Council condemned Iraq’s use of chemical weapons in the war, although, after this condemnation, Saddam continued to use chemical weapons against Iran and Iraqi Kurds, while the western countries were still defending him.

During the war between Iran and Iraq (1980-1988), Saddam used chemical weapons not only against Iranian troops but also against Iranian civilians as well as Iraqi Kurds. Saddam extensively employed two major chemical agents: organophosphate neurotoxins (Tabun, Sarin and VX), known as nerve agent and mustard gas or sulfur mustard. Due to Iran’s requests in 1984, 1985, 1986, 1987, and 1988 the United Nations sent specialized teams to Iran. The observations of these teams, which were accomplished based on field inspections, clinical examinations of victims, and laboratory analysis of samples, confirmed that Iraq used mustard gas as well as nerve agents against Iran. These reports were submitted to the U.N. Security Council. Following these reports, the Security Council issued its Resolutions 582, 588, 612, and 620 condemning the use of chemical weapons. However, none of these Resolutions secured the cessation of chemical weapons attacks by Saddam, who continued to violate international law with impunity.

 According to official reports, there were more than 30 chemical attacks against Iranian civilians and Iraqi Kurds. The civilian chemical attacks which were committed against Iran and Iraqi Kurds were as follows: the June 28th 1987 chemical attack on Sardasht, Iran; the March 1988 attack on Marivan, Iran; the March 16th 1988 attack on Halabja, Iraq with the massacre of more than 5,000 civilians; and the May and June 1988 attacks on the cities of Sarpol-e Zahab, Gilan-e gharb, and Oshnavieh, Iran.

During the Iran-Iraq War, almost one million Iranians, both military and civilians were exposed to chemical weapons agents. Among them, because of the direct exposure to mustard or nerve agents, 7,500 people lost their lives immediately. There are 75,000 registered and 40,000 unregistered Iranians who suffer from chronic injuries caused by chemical weapons used by Saddam during the war. Additionally, in Saddam’s widespread chemical attacks against Iraqi Kurds, thousands of civilians were killed or sustained moderate to severe chemical injuries.    

Chemical Weapons International Regimes

The Strasbourg agreement between France and Germany in 1675 was the first international treaty that specifically banned the use of poison bullets in war. Then the Brussels Convention of 1874, and the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1915, designed to prohibit poison weapons and arms which cause unnecessary suffering, were signed. The expanded use of chemical weapons during World War I proved the ineffectiveness of the international instruments.

By the end of World War I, the need for  a substantive instrument in order to keep the world safe encouraged the international community to construct an international treaty: the Geneva Protocol of 1925, which entered into force in 1928.

The 1925 Geneva Protocol to the Hague Conventions, known as “the Protocol for the Prohibition of the Use in War of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or Other Gases, and of Bacteriological Methods of Warfare”, banned the employment of chemical and biological weapons during international armed conflicts. This treaty does not prevent parties from researching, producing, developing, testing and stockpiling chemical weapons.

The reservations that some of the countries made to this Protocol allow them to apply chemical weapons in case of retaliation; use chemical and biological weapons against countries that are not members of the Protocol; and employ chemical weapons against their own people as happened in Iraq. 138 states are parties to the Geneva Protocol, and 36 additional states are signatories of it. In 1931 Iraq with unwithdrawn reservations became a party to the Geneva Protocol. Without any reservation, Iran became party to the Protocol in November 1929.

In 1975, with the aim of abandoning the possession of all kinds of biological weapons, the international community initiated the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC). The BWC was opened for signature in1972. This Convention prohibited the development, stockpiling, purchasing, reservation, and production of biological agents and toxins for hostile purposes. The BWC does not prohibit the employment of biological materials for defensive and preventive purposes. Some states have reservations claiming the right to retaliatory use of poisonous weapons. The Biological Weapons Convention has assisted member states in improving their peaceful biological capacities. 155 states have ratified or acceded to this treaty. There are 16 additional signatories who have yet to ratify the Convention. Iran ratified the BWC in 1973, and Iraq ratified it in 1991.

In 1997, under the supervision of customary international law, an absolute ban to prohibit chemical weapons, the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), entered into force. The CWC is a complex 200-page document with a preamble, 24 articles, and three annexes. Unlike the previous chemical disarmament treaties, the CWC was designed based on a multilateral framework to put the entire category of weapons of mass destruction under the supervision of international law.

During the planning stages of the CWC a preparatory commission was initiated in The Hague, Netherlands,. This implementing body of CWC is the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). The ultimate goal of the OPCW is to eliminate chemical weapons and to keep the world secure. The OPCW has 190 member states. The CWC has 188 state parties. In 2009, Iraq accessed the Chemical Weapons Convention. Iran ratified the CWC in 1997. In 1997 and 1996 the United States and the United Kingdom respectively ratified the Chemical Weapons Conventions. The general provisions of the Chemical Weapons Convention were designed to eliminate existing chemical weapons under international verification by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.

to be continued