19 Mar 2013

The “Halabja” Genocide and Historical Memory

On 16th March 1988, after two days of napalm and rocket bombardments, Saddam Hussein, along with Ali Hassan al-Majid, launched a chemical attack on the town of Halabja in southern Kurdistan. The five hour attack killed between 3,200 and 5,000 people, caused injury to between 7,000 and 10,000 others, most of whom were civilians. The attack marks the most severe and disastrous use chemical weapons in history, with many of the victims losing their lives to cancer or still suffering from its effects. While this incident can arguably be viewed as a continuation of Saddam’s “Anfal Campaign” (c. 1986-89), during which he targeted various minority communities in Iraq in order to “Arabize” the nation, it also marks a significant point in Iraqi and international memory and, most recently, their coming to terms with that history. This can be illuminated more specifically by asking: What are some recent ways by which the international community is receiving and communicating the Halabja attack as genocide, and how do Iraqi Kurds report on these events?


In December 2005, seventeen years after the genocide, a court in The Hague announced that: 1) “[it is] legally and convincingly proven that the Kurdish population meets requirement under Genocide Conventions as an ethnic group.” And 2) “[that] the court has no other conclusion than that these attacks were committed with the intent to destroy the Kurdish population of Iraq”. Subsequently, the Dutch court had begun to prepare a case against Saddam Hussein and Frans van Anraat, Saddam’s chemicals supplier, though Saddam was executed by an Iraqi tribunal in 2006 before any trial could be conducted against him. Van Anraat, however, became the first to be convicted and sentenced for his crimes against the Kurds in December 2005. Ali Al Majid was executed in January 2010 by the Iraqi government for his role in the Halbaja massacre and other crimes against humanity. It is worth noting that the Armenian genocide and the mass killing of Assyrians in Iraq in 1933, known as the Simele massacre, were the events on which the crime and classification “genocide” is based.


While The Hague officially recognized the atrocities as genocide, international recognition did not swiftly follow. In 2010, the Iraqi High Criminal Court recognized the massacre as an act of genocide, and almost twenty-five years after the attacks the United Kingdom and Sweden passed resolutions classifying the Halabja attacks as genocide. Kurdish born MP, Nadhim Zahawi, told the House of Commons "as the horrors of holocaust pass beyond living memory, there is a danger that we dropped our guard; that we believed such terrible events are safely sealed in the history books; that they could never happen again." However, most nations, including Canada which was the first nation to have officially labeled the Halabja attack as a crime against humanity, still have not recognized it as genocide. According to Rudaw, a private Kurdish media and news group, most actors participating in the Canada campaign are grassroots organizers from the Kurdish community and other groups, as opposed to the cases of Britain and Sweden in which there was official support from the KRG and an MP in the above case.


Nevertheless, these campaigns and methods of asserting memory have important effects as they progress and gain international traction. For example, by asserting the genocidal character of the Halabja massacre, the event is documented officially in international memory alongside atrocities such as the Armenian and Assyrian genocides, as well as the Holocaust, though it is unique because it is also taking on the role of promoting the non-proliferation of chemical weapons in general.


As memorials and resolutions are being erected and passed, which are forms of solidifying identity and nation building, this leads to the second important effect. The events in Halabja have certainly targeted the Kurds in particular, but as the years pass and the wounds heal this tragedy has brought them to identify more closely with their culture while allowing them to establish an independent and international voice. Indeed, what the regime of Saddam Hussein sought to achieve in eliminating the Kurdish nationality has only made the Kurdish population more aware of, and in-tune with, their cultural heritage. Whether in the form of autonomous governance, a federation with Baghdad, or in any other system, the Kurdish people are not only writing their own history, which they have always done, but also using a narrative of their choice.


The material and physical effects of the genocide, and the “Anfal” campaign in general, are still visible. Birth defects, cancers, and wounds, not to mention mental effects, still follow the victims and may continue for an unknown amount of time. Though Zahawi meant for his statement to serve first and foremost a political end, it can also serve as a warning to the international community to prevent such failures from ever occurring again.

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