On September 13, I traveled to the front-line border with ISIS, at the outskirts of Himreen mountain which is next to Hawija. I met tens of women who had just crossed the separating mountain on foot, escaping ISIS violence and starvation. Khmaisa was very grateful that her children reached alive, while hugging her 4 year old son who finally stopped his hysteric crying. Khmaisa and hundreds of other mothers were able to make it alive, but Oum Sahir and more than 600 mothers could not say the same. Their disabled children were too big to carry throughout the many nights walk on Himreen mountain.
“The town of Hawija and the surrounding villages were one of the hot spots for ammunition training and chemical dump pits when the US army was in Iraq. At a visit with the Hawija hospital staff in 2009, we found out that more than 600 children had a similar kind of disability, which left them paralyzed and mentally underdeveloped, crawling on the ground and sometimes with spasms all day long.
“With crises of contamination, disability, and later followed by occupation related politics of ISIS, the children of Iraq do not have a chance, even at the lowest standards of a humane future.”
-Yanar Mohammed, President of Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq (OWFI)
In her work to provide shelter to women, children, and other marginalized groups escaping violence, Yanar Mohammed often finds herself confronting not only the dangers of family violence, but also the violence of the Islamic State (also known as ISIS). She and her colleague Jannat Alghezzi have both recently been recognized with awards – including the Norwegian Rafto Foundation’s Rafto Prize and the War Resisters League’s Peace Award – for their work to promote the rights of women and minorities in Iraq, most recently challenging the Iraqi government’s policies around the management by NGOs of shelters for survivors of gender-based violence.
Despite OWFI’s groundbreaking work, Yanar notes that the legacy of toxicity, possibly caused by the decade-plus of U.S. militarism in Iraq, has a tangible impact on access to safety for the women and children of Iraq. Doctors and journalists have noted a rise in birth defects and other medical issues in Iraq since the U.S. invasion. Because of the lack of available data on the use of munitions and other toxic materials in Iraq, as well as the difficulty of pinpointing a particular origin of congenital birth defects and childhood cancers, we don’t know enough information about what causes these illnesses. However, we do know that if the cause is of military origin, it’s possible that the contamination has not been fully cleaned up; the U.S.’s continued failure to provide transparency around the use of munitions has impeded clearance efforts by international agencies, demining organizations, and the Iraqi government.
In a recent report, the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and hazardous substances and wastes expressed concern over the human rights implications of this increased toxicity and called on governments to:
“Work with relevant national and international organizations on monitoring and identification systems for hazardous remnants of armed conflict. Governments must provide an effective remedy for hazardous remnants of conflict and other military activities, including funding for full remediation, comprehensive medical treatment and compensation for individuals experiencing the effects of exposure to these materials.”
In response to a submission by CCR and PAX in advance of the report, the Special Rapporteur acknowledged the harms of military toxins and the need for improved healthcare provision for those exposed: “Toxic remnants of war inflict pain and suffering on communities long after the conflicts have concluded. In Iraq, independent studies suggest that birth defects have increased dramatically among children in conflict areas, who in many cases do not have access to medical care and treatment.”
Because of the lack of transparency around U.S. munitions usage, information is only just coming to light about its scope. Experts from PAX and the International Coalition to Ban Uranium Weapons (ICBUW) recently released a report compiling information released under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to the George Washington University on U.S. use of depleted uranium (DU) in Iraq. The documents reveal that there are over 1000 DU-contaminated sites in Iraq, which is three times the number previously known. They also show that the U.S. used DU in densely populated areas and against soft targets, such as troops, light vehicles, and buildings – despite the fact that U.S. military public materials and legal analysis designate DU for use against armored targets, recommending its use against other targets be prohibited unless no alternate weapons are available. While CCR is awaiting records in response to its 2014 FOIA requests seeking documents related to use of DU in Iraq by the U.S. military, this information already highlights the need for a committed effort by the U.S. to conduct full remediation of contaminated sites and provide necessary long-term care to communities that have been exposed, as well as to fully and immediately disclose all available data regarding the location and extent of potential contamination from toxic munitions. Increased transparency around the use of these materials, including the public release of all records regarding their use, is necessary to determine potential further effects on civilians and to assist organizations in their ongoing clean-up efforts.
ICBUW and PAX have brought this information to the UN, where CCR and OWFI signed onto their statement to the First Committee urging member states to formalize obligations around use and clean-up of DU during and after conflicts and calling for a ban on its use. Clear guidelines around the use of these and other toxic materials, if not an altogether ban, are immediately necessary, as the U.S. recently confirmed that it used DU against the Islamic State in Syria. Indeed, as the U.S. continues to engage in military attacks in the Middle East, transparency around the use of munitions and timely data analysis are more necessary than ever.
The crisis in Iraq did not develop in a vacuum, as Yanar reminds us – rather, U.S. policies implemented during the invasion and occupation of Iraq enabled the emergence of the Islamic State. Despite the uncertainty of the future, Yanar and Jannat’s work with OWFI proves that Iraqi civil society is already doing the necessary work to overcome the challenges of the ongoing violence in Iraq. However, OWFI’s human rights work will continue to face obstacles as long as the U.S. refuses to acknowledge its role in exacerbating the “crises of contamination” and “occupation-related politics of ISIS” that Yanar speaks of and that OWFI encounters every day – and continues to deny its responsibility to provide reparations for its actions.