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Chemical Weapons

Witness in Chemical Weapons Hearing

Witness Omar Hassan, wearing a traditional Kurdish headscarf, testifies on October 17 during the trial of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad. Hussein and six co-defendants were on trial for the 1987-1988 Anfal campaign of bombings and gas attacks on Kurdish villages. PHR's report, Winds of Death, provided evidence that Iraq had used mustard gas, and possibly a lethal nerve agent, against Kurdish civilians.

Chemical weapons cause widespread death and permanent injury. Once released, these difficult-to-control poisons kill indiscriminately, recognizing neither uniform nor flag. Infants, the elderly, and the chronically ill are particularly vulnerable.

In the wake of WWI, after toxic gases claimed more than a million military and civilian casualties, the Geneva Protocol of 1925 banned chemical warfare. Yet nearly 100 years later, countries continue to deploy poisonous weapons of mass destruction in battle — and against civilians — killing thousands and terrorizing entire populations.

While outlawed for use in war, governments routinely and legally use various tear gases to control their own populations. After the South Korean government used more than 350,000 canisters of tear gas against demonstrators in 1987, PHR organized an investigative mission that concluded Seoul's indiscriminate use of massive amounts of tear gas was clearly excessive use of force, effectively changing the perception of tear gas as a harmless crowd-control tactic.

In 1988, a PHR team traveled to the Turkey-Iraq border to investigate claims that the government of Saddam Hussein had devastated Kurdish villages with poisonous gas. The PHR report that followed, Winds of Death, provided evidence that Iraq had used mustard gas and, most likely, a lethal nerve agent, in attacks on civilians in dozens of Kurdish villages. The revelation led to front-page coverage on the New York Times and prompted US Senate hearings about chemical weapons.

In May 1989, a team of PHR physicians led a fact-finding investigation in Tbilisi, Soviet Georgia, on the possibility that toxic gas or gases had been used by troops from the Soviet Ministries of Defense on April 9, 1989. The findings were compiled in PHR's report, Bloody Sunday.

In December 1991, Middle East Watch and PHR sent a delegation to northern Iraq to observe and assist in the exhumation, identification, and determination of probable cause and manner of death of individuals interred in mass and single, unmarked graves. PHR's report, Unquiet Graves, found that the government of Saddam Hussein and his Ba'ath party were responsible not only for gassing, deporting, and massacring Kurds, but also for destroying some 4,000 Kurdish villages.

PHR's vigorous advocacy for an updated chemical arms control agreement helped the passage of the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention which outlawed the production, stockpiling, and use of chemical weapons, and moved the world closer to eliminating this grave violation of human rights.