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A CASE OF GENOCIDE: THE DECIMATION OF THE MARSH ARABS
  

END NOTE, By Baroness Emma Nicholson
IRAQ REPORT, Volume 7, Number 4
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, RFE/RL
Prague, Czech Republic, 30 January 2004

The Marsh Arabs of Iraq have lived in the Mesopotamian Marshlands for over 5,000 years, carving out a unique way of life. Since the mid-1980s, Saddam Hussein's Iraqi government has practiced a systematic and targeted destruction of the Marsh Arabs, through not only physical violence but also through the destruction of their marshland habitat.

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Those Marsh Arabs that have not succumbed to death from disease or violence have instead been forcibly displaced or have sought refuge in squatter and refugee camps in neighboring Iran. From a population of over 400,000 just 30 years ago, only approximately 80,000 remain today -- a number that continues to decrease, bringing Marsh Arabs to the verge of extinction.

According to the Geneva Genocide Convention of 1948, genocide is the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group, whether by killing, causing serious harm, or inflicting conditions calculated to bring about the physical destruction of the group.

Furthermore, as genocide is a crime against humanity, it is subject to universal jurisdiction. States have an obligation to take action once they become aware that genocide is being committed -- either through domestic action or by bringing a resolution forward within the United Nations.

Evidence collected and reported during the last 20 years clearly shows that the actions taken by the Iraqi government against the Marsh Arabs constitute genocide. The international community, the coalition, and/or the United Nations is therefore obligated to investigate and prosecute those responsible for this heinous crime.

From AMAR International Charitable Foundation Website

Now that Hussein has been captured, there is a unique opportunity to bring those who committed this genocide to account.

BACKGROUND

The Marsh Arabs are a unique ethnic group composed of a number of different Shi'a tribes that share a common culture, language, religion, and set of customs, and are dependent upon the marshlands for their survival.

Prior to their decline, they lived for millennia in villages or "mound settlements," supporting their unique water-based economy and culture through marshland cultivation, reed gathering, and water buffalo breeding.

The brutal oppression of the Marsh Arabs began during the early years of the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88). Saddam Hussein's Sunni-backed regime launched attacks in southern Iraq against Iraqi Shi'a Muslims, killing tens of thousands of civilians.

From AMAR International Charitable Foundation Website

After failed uprisings in 1991 in southern Iraq after the end of the U.S.-led Gulf War, the regime accelerated its campaign against the Marsh Arabs, carrying out brutal attacks against civilians and killing tens of thousands more. Military forces removed food stocks and destroyed farms and villages. Hussein's regime poisoned the marshes that were so vital to the Marsh Arab way of life. Weapons of mass destruction, including chemical weapons such as napalm and phosphorous, were used.

Survivors were forcibly displaced at gunpoint. The government instituted an economic blockade of the marshland and effectively blocked access to medicine and medical care.

The UN special rapporteur reported to the United Nations in 1994 that Iraqi government forces were conducting systematic military actions against the Marsh Arabs, attacking towns, killing or wounding civilians, then destroying their farms and houses (UN General Assembly, 1994,"Situation of Human Rights in Iraq," 8 November 1994, A/49/651, paragraph 39).

Those who were arrested were blindfolded and abducted. Some of those missing did survive, albeit after undergoing horrific acts of torture lasting weeks or months; however, many were never heard from again. Rape was common.

Bombardments, burnings and demolition of settlements, executions, and disappearances continued in the marshlands throughout the late 1990s. In 1999 the UN special rapporteur again reported on the systematic campaign of violence and repression against the Marsh Arabs, stating that "reports indicate that government forces have burned houses and fields while other houses have been demolished by bulldozers...some reports indicate villages...were entirely destroyed" (Max Van der Stoel, Special Rapporteur, "Report to the 55th Session of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights," 26 February 1999, paragraph 17).

From AMAR International Charitable Foundation Website

The Iraqi government also initiated in the 1990s marshland drainage and damming programs on such a scale that it they can only have been intended to destroy the natural environment and decimate indigenous populations. Over the last 20 years the marshlands have been reduced in size by over 85 percent (James Brasington, "Monitoring Marshland Degradation" in "The Iraqi Marshlands -- A Human and Environmental Study," E. Nicholson and P. Clark editors, 2002, page 167).

The UN Environment Program reported in 2001 that "around 90 percent of the Mesopotamian Marshlands, known since time immemorial as the Fertile Crescent, have been lost mainly as a result of drainage and damming" (UNEP press release, "The Fertile Crescent, One of the World's Most Important Wetlands, Devastated by Drainage," 18 May 2001).

Another UN report stated that "the sinking water level makes survival in the marshlands more and more difficult, almost impossible...." (United Nations General Assembly (1994), "Situation of Human Rights in Iraq," 8 November 1994, A/49/651, paragraph 37).

The consequences of these government-led damming and drainage programs have been catastrophic. The Marsh Arabs have been deprived of their sustainability and livelihoods, due to massive depletions in fundamental crops, livestock, and raw materials. From 1992 onwards, scores of Marsh Arabs have been forced from their homes as part of a government resettlement campaign. Even greater numbers have been forced to leave due to the appalling conditions.

THE CASE FOR GENOCIDE

When one hears the term "genocide," often events such as the World War II Holocaust, or the atrocities in Rwanda, spring to mind. However, the definition of genocide is not "limited" to targeted and systematic mass execution, even though it is clear this did happen in the marshlands.

One key component of the accepted definition of genocide is "deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part" (Part (c) of the definition of genocide in Article 2 of the Genocide Convention, 1948).

According to various reports, the population of the Marsh Arabs was approximately 400,000 in the 1950s. By the early 1990s, this number had fallen to approximately 250,000 (Minority Rights Group, "The Marsh Arabs of Iraq," London, 1993). Currently only approximately 40,000 remain in the Marshland. Tens of thousands have been killed by military action or died through starvation or disease.

At least 100,000 additional people have been displaced (The Brookings Institution and the SAIS Project on Internally Displaced People, John Fawcett and Victoria Tanner, "The Internally Displaced People of Iraq," October 2002, page 33). A recent report has concluded that of the 250,000 Marsh Arabs remaining in the early 1990s, "40,000 made it into Iran as refugees, and another estimated 20,000-40,000 remained in their homes. This leaves 170,000 to 190,000 who are either dead or displaced" (Ibid, page 33).

The evidence shows that the Iraqi regime under Saddam Hussein carried out concerted and planned actions that targeted and destroyed the Marsh Arabs as a group: military attacks that killed and injured large numbers of civilians, and exhaustive draining of the marshlands in order to create conditions in which the group could not survive. Consequently, the Marsh Arabs are on the verge of extinction, clearly victims of genocide.

In accordance with their obligations under international law, states must now ensure that the perpetrators of genocide against the Marsh Arabs, including Hussein, are brought to trial, and must give all assistance to the new authorities in Iraq for this to happen in a timely and appropriate manner.


Baroness Emma Nicholson is a British member of the European Parliament and founder of the AMAR International Charitable Foundation (http://www.amarappeal.com), which raises funds to support the Iraqi Marsh Arabs. LINK:  http://www.rferl.org


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