Almost exactly 25 years ago, the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein launched the last major chemical weapons offensive that the world has seen, against the Iraqi Kurds. The Anfal campaign of 1987-88 followed the use of chemical weapons by Iraq against Iranian soldiers during the Iraq-Iran war, which was much ignored by the international community.
Today’s awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) is well-deserved – and comes at the end of a very long road.
It took a long time for the truth to be established about what had happened in Halabja and other parts of Iraqi Kurdistan, but following the 1991 uprising there, much of the northern security archives of the Iraqi government fell into the hands of the Iraqi Kurds. Working with Physicians for Human Rights and other partners, Human Rights Watch sent a research mission that collected testimonies and exhumed some of the mass graves. Human Rights Watch also convinced the Iraqi Kurdish leadership to allow the transfer of 14 tons of captured documents to the United States for analysis.
We then spent the next two years analyzing the documents. That work finally resulted in the most thorough account of the Anfal campaign and its use of chemical weapons, in a book called Iraq’s Crime of Genocide: The Anfal Campaign Against the Kurds.
The use of chemical weapons against the Iraqi Kurds, particularly the Halabja massacre which killed between 3,200 and 5,000 civilians, provided significant impetus for the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention, from which the Hague-based Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons was born – to support the convention and work on its behalf. The awarding of the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize to the OPCW not only gives further backing to its work to help rid the world of chemical weapons. It also underscores the need for full universalization and effective implementation of the convention.
There is still work to do. With Syria's accession to the treaty last month there are now 190 state parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention. Israel and Burma have signed, but not yet ratified, while Angola, Egypt, North Korea, and South Sudan have not yet signed. These last holdouts need to get on board and the Nobel Committee’s decision today will hopefully convince them of the need to join without delay.
Just how far the world has come since the horrific Anfal campaign is perhaps best illustrated by a speech given in 1987 by Ali Hassan al-Majid, aka “Chemical Ali,” to the northern Bureau of the Baath Party. His words, which were caught on tape, are chilling:
Jalal Talabani asked me to open a special channel of communication with him. That evening I went to Suleimaniyeh and hit him with the special ammunition (referring to April 87 CW attack on PUK HQ in Jafati Valley). That was my answer. We continued the deportations. I told the mustashars that they might say that they like their villages and that they won't leave. I said I cannot let your village stay, because I will attack it one day with chemical weapons. Then you and your family will die. You must leave right now. Because I cannot tell you the same day I am going to attack with chemical weapons. I will kill them all with chemical weapons! Who is going to say anything? The international community? Fuck them! The international community, and those who listen to them!
Just last month, I had that Anfal report very much in mind when we began investigating what had happened in Ghouta, in the Damascus suburbs. We weren’t able to access Ghouta directly, but using technology, Skype interviews, and the tremendous expertise of our Arms division, we were able to identify the Syrian government as being responsible for the attack.
Our effort may look rather puny compared to the years of Anfal work, but it provided the international community with the information they needed about the attack, and provided them with that information when they needed it, so they could move on to the more important discussion of what to do about it. The rise of social media, and new technology, have enabled us to conduct highly reliable research even into areas where we are kept out of by abusive governments.
And I’m very happy that, in Oslo today, the international community has finally responded loud and clear to Ali Hassan al-Majid’s abusive message.