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Halabja in Perspective

Kurdish paramilitary guard the mass graves of the civilian victims of the 1988 poison gas attack on the town of Halabja. (Behrouz Mehri/AFP/Getty Images)
Kurdish paramilitary guard the mass graves of the civilian victims of the 1988 poison gas attack on the town of Halabja. (Behrouz Mehri/AFP/Getty Images)
The chemical weapons attack on Halabja in 1988 remains one of the worst crimes committed against a civilian population in recent history. Today, twenty-six years later, Iraqi Kurds are still lobbying the international community to have the massacre recognized as genocide. Advances are slow, but their efforts have recently seen governments around the world begin to accept the definition.

On March 16, 1988, Iraqi government planes under the command of Saddam Hussein dropped poison gas on the Kurdish town in northern Iraq, killing approximately 5,000 civilians. Halabja’s tragedy came at the same time as a wider military campaign against Iraq’s Kurdish civilians known as Anfal, which included mass summary executions, disappearances and widespread use of chemical weapons. Figures suggest that up to 182,000 Iraqi Kurds were killed between 1987 and 1989.

Research has shown that those who survived the Anfal continue to suffer from mustard gas and nerve agent contamination in the water, soil and in their genes. An abnormal number of children have been born with deformities, and many in Kurdistan continue to suffer from the mental and physical illnesses resulting from the atrocities.

The world turned a blind eye to the Kurds’ plight at the time, but in 1993 the US-based Human Rights Watch launched an extensive investigation into the Anfal campaign and concluded that it was genocide. The findings were published in a comprehensive report entitled Genocide in Iraq: The Anfal Campaign Against the Kurds.

The report stated: “Middle East Watch urges the international community to recognize that genocide occurred in the mountainous region of northern Iraq during 1988. The legal obligations to act on the basis of this information, to punish its perpetrators and prevent its recurrence, are undeniable.”

Since then the watching world has been hesitant to formally recognize the event as genocide due to the heavy weight such a crime bears. Behind this reluctance is also the fact that the international community is hardly blameless in allowing Saddam Hussein to act unchecked after carrying out mass murder of Kurdish males in the early 1980s.

For years, the Kurdish diaspora in Europe and elsewhere has been tireless in raising awareness of the Kurdish experience under Saddam Hussein and in encouraging countries to recognize the Halabja massacre and the Anfal as genocide. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and legislators of Kurdish origin have been instrumental in the recent successes in bringing the Kurdish voice to parliaments in Europe.

In the United Kingdom, the KRG office works closely with the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on the Kurdistan Region in Iraq, which, among its many other activities, promotes and supports the international recognition of the Kurdish genocide and raises awareness of the issue among British parliamentarians and interest groups. Members of the APPG secured a debate on the Kurdish genocide, which resulted in the UK parliament formally recognizing the mass murder of Kurdish people in Iraq as an act of genocide in February 2013.

In November 2012, the Norwegian government recognized the judgment of the Iraqi High Tribunal that the Anfal campaign and the chemical attack on Halabja were genocide. A month later, a proposal to recognize the genocide in the Swedish parliament won unanimous support.

Last summer the South Korean parliament also recognized the genocide and on November 19, 2013, members of the US Congress, Chris Van Hollen and Marsha Blackburn, tabled a resolution calling for the House of Representatives and the government to consider and recognize the Kurdish genocide.

In Iraq itself, the Iraqi High Tribunal has recognized four crimes committed against the Kurdish people as acts of genocide: the Halabja chemical weapons attack of March 16, 1988, the peak of the Anfal campaign between February and September 1988, the deportations of Faylee Kurds during the 1980s, and the Barzani disappearances of 1983. The Tribunal found Sultan Hashim Ahmad, Hussein Rashid Al-Tikriti and Ali Hassan Al-Majid (known as Chemical Ali) guilty of genocide in 2007. And in March 2010, the Iraqi Supreme Court ruled that the 1988 attacks on the Kurdish population were indeed genocide.

Iraq’s Kurds hope that recognition of the genocide will help to provide care and rehabilitation for the victims of the Anfal campaign. The Ministry of Martyrs and Anfal Affairs was established in 2006 as part of the fifth cabinet of the KRG with a directive to serve survivors and their families, including working to achieve material and financial compensation for the victims. Steps have also been taken to provide healthcare, education and social services to the victims, their families, and the thousands of widows of genocide. Limited resources, funding and expertise mean needs are still far from being met.

Kurds also hope that recognition will lead to the punishment of the remaining perpetrators as well as act as a deterrent in the future. Politicians have warned that a failure to recognize the Anfal as genocide will allow history to repeat itself. Struan Stevenson, a member of the European Parliament, has even warned of a new genocide under current Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki. Some believe that remnants of the Ba’ath Party and other groups with similar sectarian beliefs are actively attempting to bring back the old dictatorial regime and may have plans for future mass crimes against the Kurds, the Shi’a or other members of the population.

Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman, the Kurdistan Regional Government High Representative to the UK, continues to call for more work to be done in Britain and internationally to raise awareness and gain recognition of the genocide that the Kurds suffered over two decades in Iraq.

Abdul Rahman told The Majalla: “The recent recognition by the British, Swedish, Norwegian and South Korean parliaments is a significant milestone. Now we are appealing to politicians across Europe and other continents to help bring justice to the Kurdish people by taking a strong moral and political stance and to show the world that these kinds of crimes will not be allowed to happen again.”

It may be twenty-six years since the Halabja poison attack, but for many Kurds the day is more than a haunting memory, it is something that they live every day. In her opening speech at a seminar to commemorate Halabja in London last week, Abdul Rahman stressed the importance of keeping the struggle alive: “These are real people, people who are still living with the trauma. This is not just a closed page in our history books, this is real and we need to keep remembering that and keep doing something about it.”

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Dilan Raphiann
Dilan Raphiann is a freelance journalist and Middle East analyst specializing in Iran and Iraq. Graduating with a degree in Journalism from City University, she also has a master's degree in Middle East and Mediterranean Studies from King's College London.

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