18 March 2013
Patricia Lewis

Dr Patricia Lewis

Research Director, International Security, Chatham House


March 2013 holds incredible significance for Iraq and the international community. In addition to the tenth anniversary of the start of the Iraq war, the date marks twenty-five years since the poison gas attack by Iraqi forces on the Kurdish town of Halabja during the Iran-Iraq war; the largest chemical weapons attack directed against a civilian-populated area in history. With current fears high regarding the feared use of such weapons in Syria, the Halabja anniversary has all the more resonance. 

Lessons learnt

A quarter of a century later, the world is a different place. The political landscape has changed dramatically in the region. The Chemical Weapons Convention entered into force in 1997, and 188 countries have now ratified. Consequently most countries have either eliminated all their stocks of chemical weapons or are well on the way. 

It is estimated that around 5,000 people died in the attack on the Kurdish town on 16 March 1988. The attack, perpetrated by Iraqi forces, took place during the final months of the Iran-Iraq war. Some of those who died perished almost instantly. Richard Beeston, Foreign Editor of The Times, then a young reporter went to Halabja days after the attack. He reported seeing a family who had been sharing a meal, collapsed dead around a table, and another family, who while presumably trying to escape in their truck, succumbed to the gases, with the vehicle then veering off into a wall. It is believed that potent nerve agents were used in the attack, and although still today experts do not yet know the exact mix of chemicals used, the evidence points to the chemical agent Sarin.

As well as the approximate 5,000 deaths, reports estimate the injured of the Halabja attack to have been around 10,000. The majority of these showed injuries consistent with exposure to mustard gas. The singular attack on Halabja is recognized separately from the Anfal Campaign, a longer campaign of systematic attacks against the Kurds that also involved chemical weapons between1986-89 and headed by Ali Hassan al-Majid, otherwise known as ‘Chemical Ali’. The Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) estimates that there were in fact over 200 instances of chemical weapons being used against Kurds during the Anfal campaign.  In recent weeks, following a long campaign, the UK parliament has recognized the Kurdish killings as genocide.

Effects on health

There is well-established evidence of the long-term health consequences of the use of chemical weapons. The legacy of the use of mustard gas has been well documented since World War I as have the effects on Iranian victims of the Iran-Iraq war, some of whom continue to require treatment. And although evidence is yet to be published of the long term consequences on Kurdish victims of chemical weapons, there persists strong anecdotal evidence of high instances of highly unusual cancers, breast cancer, respiratory problems, blindness and children born with deformities in certain areas of Kurdistan. 

Whatever the full range of causes, the people of the region require medical assistance.  Iran has developed a strong specialism in the effects as a result of the use of chemical weapons by Iraq. Other countries - particularly those who developed chemical weapons during both world wars, the Cold War, and those who developed defence against their use - could supply the KRG with the long awaited expertise and medical resources they require. These long term effects also serve as a further concern for Syria. The effects of the use of these weapons could be felt years after their employment. 

Although the Geneva Protocol of 1925 prohibited the use of chemical and biological weapons, it was not until the negotiation of CWC in 1993 that production, acquisition and transfer of chemical weapons, as well as the agreement for an international organisation to carry out inspections, was put into place. The CWC's implementing body, the OPCW (Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons) ‘aims to eliminate an entire category of weapons of mass destruction by prohibiting the development, production, acquisition, stockpiling, retention, transfer or use of chemical weapons by States Parties'. The CWC has had a huge impact on international security. Several countries have verifiably destroyed their stocks of chemical weapons. Russia and the United States have destroyed the vast majority and are on track to completely dispose of their chemical weapon stockpiles within the next few years. Although there remain states that have not yet acceded to the convention, including Syria, the effectiveness of the CWC is encouraging for the long term. 

Syria's red line 

The alleged use of Agent 15, also known as BZ, an incapacitating agent, by Syrian forces in December 2012, raised alarm bells worldwide. Agent 15 and all other chemicals are covered under what is known as the General Purpose Criterion in the Chemical Weapons Convention. However, it is the mode of use of a chemical that decides whether the Convention applies and if that action is deemed illegal. If this agent, or any other chemical, was used in conflict, rather than as, for example, a crowd control measure, then the convention would apply and the act would be illegal. Whether this would be enough to get President Obama to the 'red line' leading to a direct intervention that he spoke of in August 2012 - 'That would change my calculus. That would change my equation,' he said - remains to be seen.

Niki Psarias contributed to writing this Expert Comment.

Event Video: Chemical Weapons: Lessons for the Future from Halabja