"Ecocide as Genocide" - Saddam's campaign against the Marsh Arabs (Joseph Dellapenna)
[Update 2/15/2005: See also "The environmental crime of the century" - Saddam's ecocide in the Mesopotamian marshes. --JW]
Actually, I'm uncertain myself whether I would characterize this particular atrocity (carried out after the end of the Gulf War, and--for what it's worth--in violation of several UN Security Council resolutions) as "genocide," except in a metaphorical sense. It did involve the deliberate destruction of an entire culture, the deportation or expulsion of most of its members, and the mass murder of (probably) about 10,000-20,000 civilians in the process. But it didn't actually involve an attempt at the physical extermination of the Marsh Arabs as a population. And I confess that I don't like the increasing tendency for the word "genocide" to be tossed around too casually.
Still, a number of commentaries that I've read during the past decade make plausible arguments that, under the Genocide Convention, this may fit the technical legal definition of "genocide." That's a matter for lawyers, I suppose.
But one way or another, ever since the early 1990s I have been angry and appalled that this enormous crime was carried out while the outside world did not lift a finger to stop it, and in fact barely made a peep of protest. (At the peak of this operation, it tended to be covered in small stories on the back pages of the NYTimes. I am not aware of any serious protests from Europe--or from the Arab world, though that hardly surprises me--but I may have missed them.)
From my perspective, (which is, perhaps, overly emotional) this also casts an interesting light on the frequent contention that the UN "containment" system in Iraq has been "working" since 1991.
January 31, 2003
The Iraqi Campaign Against the Marsh Arabs: Ecocide as Genocide
Professor Joseph W. Dellapenna
Villanova University School of Law
JURIST Guest Columnist
Readers might recall seeing the movie “Three Kings” a few years back. It was one of the few films made about the Gulf War. Basically a remake of the equally improbable World War II movie “Kelly’s Gold,” it is about a group of American soldiers who attempt to steal a stock of gold supposedly belonging to Saddam Hussein, but find themselves caught up in rescuing a large number of hapless Iraqis who had foolishly responded to President Bush’s call for Iraqis to rise up and overthrow Saddam. Most viewers of the film probably did ask themselves who were these Iraqis, for the movie did not tell us much about them. They really were only props for the American heroes. Given the location in the south of Iraq and their flight into Iran at the end of the movie, they probably were Marsh Arabs - even though no marshes at all were in sight on the screen.
Who Are the Marsh Arabs?
While Saddam’s persecution of political enemies is notorious, many people have not much attention to just who these enemies are. Persons who are particularly attentive to the situation in Iraq would have heard of Kurds in the north, or of Shiite Arabs generally. Others might have thought of “enemies” only as a generic term with no specific content. Neither group was likely to have heard of the “Marsh Arabs” of southern Iraq who have been one of Saddam’s main targets. The Marsh Arabs constitute a society of 500,000 or more people who have lived in and around an enormous freshwater wetland ecosystem for thousands of years. Since the Gulf War, the Marsh Arabs have suffered the total destruction of their economy, their culture, their habitat and their way of life.
Iraq includes within its borders the bulk of what historically was called Mesopotamia - the land between the rivers. The two rivers in question - the Tigris and the Euphrates - cross a largely arid land and give it life through massive irrigation works that first began 5,000 years ago in or near the marshlands. These works have been revitalized and extended in the last century. The two rivers come together about 120 miles north of their discharge into the Persian Gulf to form the Shatt-al-Arab. The marshes began 50 or so miles above the joining of the rivers and reached all the way to the Gulf. From time immemorial, this is a region in which a large community of people made their homes and derived their livelihood. As recently as 1990, these marshes covered about 12,000 square miles. The marshes then constituted healthy, ecologically rich wetlands, teeming with aquatic life, buffalo and other animals adapted to marshes, and migratory birds. Today, the former marshes are only barren, salt-encrusted land. The former inhabitants of the marshlands - the Marsh Arabs - live as refugees in Iran and Iraq. This devastation did not result from a direct assault on the people themselves, but on the deliberate destruction environment that was the foundation of their existence - the marshlands.
The Marsh Arabs’ economy and way of life was based on agriculture, animal husbandry, hunting, fishing, and the servicing of commercial boats that traversed the Tigris River between Basra and Baghdad. Not without reason, the inhabitants of the marshlands have always engendered distrust and suspicion among urban and northern Iraqis. The marshlands were a refuge for smugglers, political dissidents, and others who seek to escape the constraints of the larger society. Such a society was bound to rouse the suspicions of a rule like Saddam Hussein, and his wrath if they should openly oppose his rule.
The Destruction of the Marshes
The marshes were the scene of much of the fierce fighting in the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s - easily the longest and bloodiest war in modern Middle Eastern history. This fighting did not harm the marshes much, however, because the Iraqi government deliberately increased the flow of water into the marshes as a tactic for stopping Iranian advances. While plans had been developed for various engineering works in the marshes since the early twentieth century, the wholesale destruction of the marshlands did not begin in earnest until 1992 - after the Marsh Arabs rose in revolt during the Gulf War. An October 2002 paper by John Fawcett and Victor Tanner entitled “The Internally Displaced People of Iraq,” published by the Brookings Institution and the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, reports that Iraqi state-owned media preceded the assault on the Marsh Arabs with a series of articles deriding them as primitive “monkey-faced” people, who were not real Iraqis.
The destruction of the marshlands served no other purpose than to destroy the cultural and social cohesion of the Marsh Arabs. Dams and massive drainage canals were built without any even apparent agricultural or developmental purpose. Today only a few thousand Marsh Arabs remain in the region of the former marshes, and it is far from clear whether the others would return if the marshes could be restored. It had become impossible to survive where they were when the water disappeared and the land dried up. Some 40,000 of the Marsh Arabs still live in refugee camps in Iran. The remainder of the Marsh Arabs dispersed throughout Iraq simply because they had no choice but to seek new places to live and work.
Ecocide as Genocide
High quality satellite imaging of southern Iraq exists for about the last 30 years. That imaging clearly shows that while some damage had been inflicted on the marshes there before 1992, the marshes were largely intact as of that date. The satellite images show that the marshes to all intents and purposes no longer exist. The only part of the marshes that remains intact straddles the Iran-Iraq border and is fed entirely by stream flows from Iran, which Iraq cannot control. That segment represents about 10 percent of the original marsh area. The removal of a wetland affects the regional climate. The resulting reduction of evaporation is likely to increase summer temperatures, making the area even more inhospitable and also causing a decline in rainfall. Further complicating the situation are the 32 dams on the Tigris and Euphrates upstream from the marshlands. These dams have the capacity to hold and store the entire capacity of the two rivers. The spring floods disappeared because of regulation of the rivers. That by itself caused damage to the marshlands, but not their wholesale destruction.
An inevitable consequence of such massive destruction is the extinction of species of animals and plants that were endemic to the marshes and are found nowhere else. Because these were the largest wetlands in western Asia and one of the largest in the world, the destruction of these marshes has effects far beyond the region itself. The marshes were a crucial stopover for migratory birds flying between Africa and the north of Asia and Europe. While some of these birds can find substitute stopovers, there is no wetland of similar size anywhere near the historic paths these birds used. Similar effects are likely for fish that formerly bred in the marshes even if they lived most of the lives in the rivers or the Gulf. Thus, while neither the number or extent of species extinction or of negative impacts on migratory birds or fish that spend most of their life elsewhere can now be documented, clearly these effects have been massive.
The scale of the destruction and of the effects of the destruction are such that the actions of the Iraqi government can fairly be described as a leading example of “ecocide” - the destruction of an entire ecosystem. There are numerous other examples of ecocide that one can identify in the twentieth century or earlier. What is unique about this instance of ecocide, and what sets it apart from other instances of ecocide, is that the destruction was for the purpose of destruction and not for some, arguably beneficial purpose such as economic development. Here ecocide was adopted as a deliberate mechanism for bringing about genocide.
The Genocide Convention, approved by the United Nations in 1948, defines “genocide” as, among other things, “deliberately inflicting on [a] group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part” with the intent “to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group, as such.” The Marsh Arabs are a distinct subset of humanity, and as such are subject to the protection of the Convention, which in turn reflects the broader rule of the prohibition of genocide in customary international law. As a result of the massive engineering works constructed in the area after 1992, the Marsh Arabs have seen their economic base and their way of life destroyed, been forced into out-migration, and generally have been pauperized. While it is not clear how many individual Marsh Arabs died as a result of these actions, clearly the group as a whole is in the process of being destroyed.
What Can Be Done?
The Marsh Arabs have found that they were largely nobody’s friends. Because they were Shiite, there was not a great deal of interest on the part of the rest of the Arab world. Because they were Arab, there was no great interest on the part of Iran. And the rest of the world, cut off from obtaining current information from the region by the Iraqi government and without the sort of vivid sound and video bites that would focus attention on this world, simply remained unaware of the problem.
The marshlands are a region where people had sustained what they found to be an acceptable way of life for thousands of years. Nor is the region without economic resources. A great deal of potential wealth exists there in the form of oil. Some estimate that as much as 80 percent of Iraq's potential oil wealth is in the marshlands. Certainly the oil wealth needs to be used to meet the needs of all Iraqis and not just of the Marsh Arabs. But some of this money must be used to do what can be done to restore as much of the marshlands as might be restored, or at least to ameliorate the plight of the Marsh Arabs. They need education, jobs, healthcare, and so much more.
Looking beyond what can and should be done within Iraq, a new regime should welcome international efforts to resolve the future water management problems in the region. The United Nations Economic Programme can provide useful capacity building and other initiatives for the benefit of the marshlands. International funds - such as from the Global Environment Fund and other international agencies - could also play a role. Even more important will be the development of a regional international regime for managing the waters of the two rivers and their tributaries. While there are a few bilateral treaties governing the use of water from the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, there is no comprehensive regional treaty. If the marshlands can be restored, such a treaty is imperative. Unfortunately, none of this will materialize while Saddam Hussein is in power.
Joseph W. Dellapenna is a professor of law at the Villanova University School of Law. He is Rapporteur for the Water Resources Committee of the International Law Association responsible for revising the Helsinki Rules - the generally recognized restatement of the customary international law of transboundary waters. He also served as legal consultant to the Amar Foundation in the preparation of The Iraqi Marshlands: A Human and Environmental Study (Emma Nicholson & Peter Clark eds., Politico's Publishing, London, 2002).