The Human Rights of the Sukan Al-ahwar (Marsh Arabs of Iraq)

October 30, 2004

Speech delivered at the Mesopotamian Marshes Conference, 10/30/04, Harvard University. Published with permission. 

In August 1988, an infamous WMD atrocity destroyed the lives of thousands of Iraqi citizens. This massacre of the innocents marked the first real impact of Saddam Hussein's brutality on Western consciousness. Halabja represented a particularly acute phase of the continuous destruction of the human rights of the Iraqi people in the post-revolutionary period. There were of course countless victims, tormented, betrayed and slaughtered, before 1988, both inside and outside of Iraq.

Saddam Hussein's obsession with violence, destruction and pan-Arab power can be gauged too from his financial prioritisation: during 18 of the 21 years in which he ruled Iraq free from sanctions, around 75% of the country's budget was spent on weapons. That meant $16 bn or $17 bn worth of new military equipment year on year was purchased by one of the world's most aggressive tyrants. In consequence, the invasion of Iran, which cost over 1 million lives, was succeeded by the invasion of Kuwait. But Halabja identified globally, through visual media, the monstrous crimes against humanity Saddam's regime was ready to carry out to maintain his grip on power at any cost to the Iraqi people.

At that time, in September 1988, I called immediately for the establishment of an International Criminal Tribunal to try Saddam and his key officials for genocide. A crime of similar magnitude, although more drawn-out and implemented during the sanctions era, between 1991 and 2003, was the genocide against the people of the Iraqi Marshes. This genocide formed a 'macrocosm' of the constant military and secret police assaults against the Shi'a majority of Iraq, which in turn was a ghastly part of the continued brutalities against almost every one of the diverse communities that have historically made up modern-day Iraq.

Even some members of Saddam's own tribe, the Al Doori, did not escape unscathed. By 1998, a decade after Halabja, the whole of Iraq, as I was told by one escapee who I met, had been turned into a modern concentration camp. Certainly the farming communities of the lower Mesopotamian marshlands, correctly identified as the Sukan Al-Ahwar, drank deep of the poison of Saddam's hatred, expressed against them through the purposeful destruction of their identity, their culture, livelihoods, families, villages, towns and cities and way of life.

In essence, genocide is the intent to destroy, in whole or part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, whether by killing, causing serious harm, or inflicting conditions calculated to bring about the physical destruction of the group.

The Marsh Arabs have lived in the Mesopotamian Marshlands for over five millennia, and have developed a unique water-based way of life. They comprise a number of different tribes, but all share a common culture, language, religion and set of customs. They are clearly identifiable as a distinct ethnical group.

In the early 1980s the regime of Saddam Hussein launched devastating military attacks against the Shi'a Muslims of southern Iraq killing tens of thousands of civilians. After the uprisings of 1991 assaults were intensified and indiscriminate mass executions were carried out, killing tens of thousands. The Marsh Arabs were targeted specifically: all of their cities, towns, villages, farms and individual dwellings were attacked by aircraft or artillery, and burned or demolished; weapons of mass destruction were also employed. The survivors were forcibly displaced at gunpoint, not once but many times.

Concurrently, the Iraqi regime implemented a massive programme of drainage and damming of the marshes in a deliberate attempt to wipe out the indigenous population. In twenty years the marshes were reduced by 90 percent, causing 'one of the world's greatest environmental disasters'. The Marsh Arabs have been deprived of their basic means of subsistence, and the consequences have been catastrophic—under such conditions they cannot survive.

Further, this situation was severely exacerbated by a government-imposed economic blockade of the Marshes, and the deprivation of even the most basic of medical care. Such action, combined with continuous and concerted military assaults, killed tens of thousands of people, and caused massive displacement: from a population of over 400,000 just 30 years ago, only 85,000 survived the onslaughts inside the marshes. Forced into settlements, they were placed into indentured labour while as many again escaped to the cities, becoming destitute, or fled to refugee camps and squatter areas in neighbouring Iran. It has brought the Marsh Arabs to the verge of extinction: indisputably this amounts to genocidal action under the Genocide Convention.

After one visit in September 1992 I reported that:

"Saddam has stepped up his onslaught in the marshes themselves.... I travelled through marshes smoking from ground-launched bombardments … reed-built villages have been razed, their small rice plots burned.... I reached the heart of the marshes, one mile from Saddam's front line. There I found people starving, desperate people, drinking filthy water and eating contaminated fish. They had fled villages under assault by Saddam's forces.... Many refugees like these have made the dash across the border into Iran. But to make the crossing, they must brave mined waters and a line of Saddam's soldiers."

Following another trip, I reported:

"This week I visited Iraq and Iran for the sixth or seventh time. Let me make a brief report on the situation in southern Iraq since the implementation of the no-fly zone. I have to tell the House that the situation is now critical. The skies above the marshes are clear; but on the ground, in revenge for our actions in trying to monitor the non-implementation of resolution 688, Saddam Hussein has now put half his entire military forces into the marshes. The dangers are considerably heightened. The results can be seen even just inside the Iraqi border. There are great black, smoking areas, stretching into the water where one or more missiles landed perhaps an hour earlier. The black zones are 300 metres long: if the missiles had landed in the town they would have demolished about 20,000 houses. They would have gone up in flames.

Food stocks have been removed and taken north of the 32nd parallel. That is the first thing that Saddam did when he invaded Kuwait: he took out all the food. The farms have been burnt, including the small rice farms in the marshes. The villagers are no longer self-sufficient in food, yet they are blockaded, so that they cannot get out to the towns to try to find food on the black market. The towns are filled with soldiers.

Tank divisions, each containing 45 tanks, are based in different towns in the marshes. I have the names of those towns. Missiles and missile launchers make nonsense of the claim that it is impossible to bomb the towns and villages from the ground. Assault boats carrying 30 to 40 armed men—the boats in which I travel carry a maximum of four or five people—assault the towns and villages each day. The troops are stationed 30 km outside the marshes. They have been beaten off a little, but they come back in every day and carry out their remorseless attacks—burning, shooting and killing defenceless people, and destroying whole villages and towns. I talked to a man with his hand blown off. He was a young [Marsh Arab] farmer, only 20 years old. In the towns and villages around his area lived 25,000 people; five days ago, the area was emptied by 20,000 armed men. That is what has happened since the introduction of the no-fly zone.

Sewage dumping has further contaminated the drinking water—containerised and brought in from cities around the marshes, such as Basra. I saw the evidence of the drainage of the marshes of which we have heard in recent weeks. The water level has been reduced; the roots of the papyri show.

I have already described the physical evidence of attacks. Clergy are at risk in the wake of the death of the Grand Ayatollah Al Khoei. There has been no medication in the marshes for many years. Medicine is not available and there are no doctors. There is a grave shortage in the supply of food and the water buffalo have almost disappeared through lack of water. The muddy fish, stinking water and malarial air are all that is left for people to live on. If that is not genocide, the word means nothing.

In my humanitarian work this time I have been able to obtain much new military data on the Saddam Hussein marsh attacks, drawn from the evidence that people have given to me. It is compelling ; it is difficult and dangerous to obtain, but it exists. I have brought back tapes, photographs and videos taken at great risk of life and limb by people deep inside the heart of the marshes. I have many written statements from personal interviews within and outside the marshes that desperate people—men, women and children—have given me. I shall give those reports to the Secretary of State for Defence and the Foreign Secretary.

Thousands of people have escaped. It becomes ever more difficult to do so as the front line of Saddam Hussein's army gets closer to the border of Iran. People become trapped as their villages are assaulted. They run towards the safe haven of Iran but cannot get through. Eight families died in mined waters near the border two days before I sailed there....

I call upon the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs to provide food from the air and to achieve, not full military intervention immediately, but perhaps a massing of troops on the border. For if we cannot push Saddam Hussein's troops north of the 32nd parallel soon there will be no marsh Arabs left. The Tigris and Euphrates great marshes of history will have gone, we shall have failed and Saddam Hussein will have won."

In view of the enormous scale and deliberate nature of this action, combined with documentary and video-tape evidence of the planning and ordering of assaults against the Marsh Arabs, there is an incontrovertible case that the Iraqi regime had genocidal intent. They had resolved to destroy the Marsh Arabs, and this has been largely achieved through the near-total extinction of this ancient people. Under the Genocide Convention states undertake to prevent or punish genocide. To fulfil this obligation, urgent action must be taken to bring the perpetrators to justice.

Marshland society was a very rare early example of an ecosystem which Man had so fine-tuned that the laws of supply and demand were successfully balanced—in such a way that serious economic outputs were constantly produced and sold in terms of fish, dairy products, furniture and other products from reed pulp; added to which a variety of other crops and wildlife was harvested by every family. Rather than being the famed Garden of Eden, where Adam and Eve frankly did nothing because they didn't need to (fruit dropped from the trees; all their needs were provided for by the Almighty), Marsh people were highly industrious, producing food with a wide variety of outputs, not just for themselves and their families but in the wider world within and beyond Iraq's borders. To do this, they successfully harnessed the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers to irrigate their grazing land and crops. Men, women and children both fished and farmed, with each family of around ten people owning 20-70 high milk-yield water buffalo, marketing dairy produce and two or three boatloads of fish at least each week, together with wild fowl and horticultural produce, palm tree products, and cane outputs with rice as a family staple. Adam and Eve's idleness in the Garden of Eden (in actuality a small reed oasis well away from the area) was unknown in the Lower Mesopotamian Marshlands, which were a hive of industry.

So famous were the Marshlands for the quality of their agricultural outputs, that the neighbouring Elamites from what is now south-west Iran regularly invaded Mesopotamia to gain agricultural land, water and produce, while the Mesopotamians, in turn, as regularly invaded the kingdom of the Elamites to gain its famous mountain range mineral wealth. So the Mesopotamian Marshlands have been famed for food production, food processing and food distribution since time immemorial.

Indeed, when I first met the Marsh people in 1991, their primary concern, as they were being forcibly displaced by the Republican Guard, was for the maintenance of their herds of water buffalo. Driven at gunpoint towards the Huweiza marshes, they talked with me about the water and grazing they urgently required so that the cattle could survive despite the traumatic situation they were in. No idlers these, but anxious and hardworking farmers whose lands and irrigation systems were being destroyed. I sought immediately to get the world to listen, and visited and revisited the Marshes to explain the story and tell the world this was happening.

Meanwhile, finding Iraqi doctors, teachers and engineers amongst all the other displaced refugees made it possible immediately to set up the AMAR International Charitable Foundation in September 1991. Books, pamphlets, reports, photographs, films and articles in the media followed.

Key publications included a book I wrote in 1992: Why Does the West Forget? and a groundbreaking report commissioned from Exeter University, financed by the ordinary people who supported AMAR, supplemented by funding I raised from the UK government and World Wildlife Fund for Nature—I visited Geneva to gain support from IUCN. As a member of the Court of Exeter University I turned to the vice-chancellor for scientific assistance in putting the case of the destruction of the Mesopotamian marshlands to the academic world—I had already gained the ear of UK Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd and Prime Minister John Major, and together we enlisted James Baker and Madeleine Albright with Martin Iven's help.

With the concurrence of the French foreign minister, the March overfly was put in place, so that since 1994 each detail of the marsh destruction has been visually monitored and recorded (the French withdrew after a short time). Dr Ed Maltby of Exeter University edited AMAR's scientific report which we launched in the House of Commons. I addressed a specially-convened meeting of the UN Security Council in New York around that time. My message was that the destruction was not land reclamation for agriculture as Saddam claimed, that it could and should be stopped and was reversible.

I took journalists to the area as often as possible. In consequence, we had films aired by the BBC, ITV and NBC, and private productions which we commissioned and financed, including 'Saddam's Killing Fields', a documentary shown by the Discovery Channel. AMAR held photographic exhibitions in the Kufa Gallery, London, the UN and other locations. AMAR has built up an extensive, consistent and detailed record of the continuous, systematic and successful assaults by Saddam's regime on the Marsh people, their livelihoods and on the wider Marsh environment from 1991 right up to and including April 2003, and subsequently. Most of this information was by one means or another successfully put into the public domain at the times when it was happening.

But telling the story wasn't enough. Since the assaults were not curtailed, the plight of the people worsened daily; the slaughter continued; towns, villages and farms were decimated or destroyed; sickness was rife, and the flood of refugees and displaced people did not abate.

From a staff of a handful of Iraqi doctors in 1991, AMAR grew rapidly to try to meet some of the needs of these suffering people who joined the hordes of other Iraqi sufferers inside and outside Iraq. AMAR did her best to try to serve them all: working from 1991 until today inside Iran with the refugees, in southern Iraq from 1991-1996 when the drainage was near complete, and also in the North, supporting medical ventures in Suleimaniya and sustained emergency services high in the mountains of Iran and Iraq when Saddam's onslaughts forced thousands more Kurdish people to flee.

Today, AMAR has been back working in Iraq since April 2003 with 350 staff helping the Health Ministry fulfil Iraq's health masterplan through the provision of primary health to over 200,000 people, not only in the Marshes but now in Baghdad and Najaf.

But AMAR's work has never been solely health. We have provided clean water, education, food and clothing and many other services to the suffering people. We have been pleased and delighted to facilitate and guide international visitors to the marshes such as USAID, not once but many times. We have carried out extensive seed distribution for FAO, and are working out of—and have Memoranda of Understanding with—two Iraqi universities (Basra and Thi-Qar) in collaboration with whom we have carried out several scientific surveys of the marshes. Indeed, AMAR now has an ongoing scientific committee composed of scientists from both universities in which we're working.

AMAR also supplies internet services to students and regularly employs students and graduates to carry out agricultural fieldwork. AMAR initiated, supported and led the first-ever scientific survey of the marshes in summer 2003, when a large team of Iraqi scientists from Basra and Al Thi-Qar Universities and AMAR staff began the long process of examining the situation left by the fall of Saddam. Those results we published immediately and followed up with further ongoing surveys with our Iraqi Scientific Committee and their colleagues.

With its long history of carrying out work as partners with the Marsh people in their trauma, AMAR is indeed a part of the marshlands' civil society as well as an esteemed friend. AMAR works always under the authority of the local governorates and national ministries.

Marshlanders are strong adherents to democracy and the fundamental freedoms that they historically enjoyed—and that Saddam destroyed—working as a valued special part of the wider Iraq communities. Marsh people had a valuable role in food production, processing and distribution, rearing healthy families within a society notable for its holistic self-sustaining way of life. Under Saddam, such excellence could not be allowed to survive. Had the Marshes really been either the Garden of Eden—that idyll of idleness—or a distant, poor and sparsely populated subregion, it would not have attracted Saddam's attention.

But this was an independent, successful, hard-working farming community who stood up for their rights and for the rights of their part of Iraq. The case—as with Halabja—is genocide, that crime of crimes against humanity. The perpetrators will be held accountable before the Special Court, and already, meanwhile, thanks to actions by the Minister for Water Resources, the Marsh people themselves, the coalition forces and other friends, the Marshlands are partially reformed—large volumes of water have been replaced.

But there's much more to be done to get this historic community back to work: health, education and physical land restoration are all required. Access to health, education and property are of course fundamental human rights as laid out in the United Nations Charter of 10 December, 1948. 97 percent of the marsh people had no access to public health for over three decades; 87 percent of the marsh people have no access to education and are therefore illiterate and non-numerate. 100 percent of the marsh people were forcibly displaced—against their fundamental right—in some cases up to seventeen times, losing houses, land, water, livestock and livelihood.

Humans also have a right to safe drinking water and safe sewage disposal. Even today, 100 percent of the marsh people have no safe drinking water or waste water disposal. These fundamental rights can now be protected—and restored—in the case of the people of the Mesopotamian marshlands.

As the latest Arab Human Development Report demonstrates clearly, people of the Arabian Peninsula believe strongly in justice, democracy and the rule of law. The Iraqi people believe that their will—the will of the people—should be expressed through Parliament and the establishment of democratic institutions. The occupying powers came in to free the Iraqi people from terrible tyranny, and with our own deep commitment to helping the Iraqi people to establish democracy. Whether or not we believed that war was the necessary last resort to bring about the deserved destruction of this tyrannical regime (I did and do), we now all carry a burden of responsibility towards the Iraqi people that history will not forget. It is a burden that should force us not to compete, but to listen, and to facilitate the ongoing restoration and development of stable and effective democratic institutions.

It is in this context that we must think about the work in hand: bringing back health, education, and land restoration to the Marsh Arabs, just as we must support people elsewhere in Iraq. I as a Parliamentarian, and we in AMAR are proud to assist in this process.

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