The United States is knowingly violating Article 54 of the Geneva Convention which prohibits any country from undermining “objects indispensable to the survival of (another country’s) civilian population,” including drinking water installations and supplies, says Thomas Nagy, a business professor at George Washington University.
Writing in the September 2001 issue of The Progressive, Nagy cites recently declassified documents that show the United States was aware of the civilian health consequences of destroying Iraq’s drinking water and sanitation systems in the Gulf War, and knew that sanctions would prevent the Iraqi government from repairing the degraded facilities.
During the Gulf War, coalition forces bombed Iraq’s eight multi-purpose dams, destroying flood control systems, irrigation, municipal and industrial water storage, and hydroelectric power. Major pumping stations were targeted, and municipal water and sewage facilities were destroyed.
Article 54 of the Geneva Convention prohibits attacks on “drinking water installations and supplies and irrigation works.”
Nagy says that not only did the United States deliberately destroy drinking water and sanitation facilities, it knew sanctions would prevent Iraq from rebuilding, and that epidemics would ensue.
One document, written soon after the bombing, warned that sanctions would prevent Iraq from importing “water treatment replacement parts and some essential chemicals” leading to “increased incidences, if not epidemics, of disease.”
Another document lists the most likely diseases: “diarrheal diseases (particularly children); acute respiratory illnesses (colds and influenza); typhoid; hepatitis A (particularly children); measles, diphtheria, and pertussis (particularly children); meningitis, including meningococcal (particularly children); cholera (possible, but less likely.)”
Then U.S. Navy Secretary John Lehman estimated that 200,000 Iraqis died in the Gulf War, but many more have died since. UNICEF estimates that well over a million Iraqis have died as a result of the U.S-led sanctions regime, in place for the last decade. Some 500,000 children have died, and an estimated 4,000 die from various preventable, sanctions-related diseases, every month, says the U.N. agency.
Despite the massive human toll, the United States continues to support the sanctions regime, arguing that sanctions won’t be lifted until U.N. inspectors are free to return to Iraq to verify that the country has rid itself of weapons of mass destruction.
American Scott Ritter, a former U.N. arms inspector, claims that Iraq is effectively disarmed, and has been for some time.
And deaths from sanctions exceed those from weapons of mass destruction. Political scientists John and Karl Mueller say that sanctions have “contributed to more deaths during the post Cold War era than all the weapons of mass destruction throughout history,” including deaths at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
At one point, former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said that despite the civilian deaths the sanctions were “worth it.”
Meanwhile, Israel, a U.S. ally in the region, is widely believed to have an arsenal of 200 nuclear weapons. While in violation of countless U.N. Resolutions ordering its withdrawal from the Occupied Territories, Israel faces no sanctions and no order to disarm. Amnesty International, which has warned that Israel’s crackdown on the latest Palestinian uprising, or Intifada, borders on war crimes, recently condemned Tel Aviv for its “utter disregard for human life in the Occupied Territories” and for its violations of international law. And yet even calls for intervention as mild as placing international observers in the Occupied Territories have been rebuffed.
The Gulf War erupted after Iraq invaded neighboring Kuwait. After the war, the United Nations imposed sanctions, ordering Iraq to disarm. Iraq’s violation of international law in invading its neighbor was cited for the harsh treatment. But critics of the policy say that punishment for violations of international law are being meted out unevenly and hypocritically. Israel’s innumerable transgressions go unpunished, while governments that have fallen out with Washington, often over investment or debt repayment issues, are treated severely.
Moreover, say critics, the United States itself has a long track record of violating international law. Washington’s undermining of Iraq’s water treatment and sanitation facilities in violation of the Geneva Convention is just one of many recent transgressions, including the bombing of Yugoslavia, Sudan, Afghanistan, and the continued bombing of Iraq.
U.S.-led NATO forces also targeted civilian infrastructure in Yugoslavia. At one point, U.S. Air Force General Michael Short explained that NATO’s bombing campaign was aimed at causing misery in the civilian population. “If you wake up in the morning,” said Short, “and you have no power to your house and no gas to your stove and the bridge you take to work is down and will be lying in the Danube for the next 20 years, I think you begin to ask, ‘Hey, Slobo, what’s this all about? How much more of this do we have to withstand?'”
NATO forces used depleted uranium munitions in Yugoslavia, as did coalition forces in Iraq. Depleted uranium may be toxic, and may be responsible for an epidemic of cancers and birth defects that have arisen in Iraq over the last decade. Some have charged that Gulf War syndrome, a cluster of mysterious and debilitating illnesses suffered by U.S. and allied soldiers, is related to depleted uranium. Others point to the contamination of soil, water and air by carcinogenic effluent from destroyed industrial facilities and chemical plants as being responsible.
Nagy says that what is most disturbing about the documents is that they reveal a U.S. government concerned more with the potential negative publicity of the deaths, than with the deaths themselves. Dealing with the public relations downside of massive killing is a common theme in U.S. foreign policy. During the Gulf War a bomb that hit a marketplace and killed civilians led CBS News correspondent Dan Rather to remark: “We can be sure that Saddam Hussein will make propaganda of these casualties.” Frequent reference is made in the documents Nagy has uncovered to the potential for Iraq to use epidemics for propaganda purposes.
When Nagy sent the documents to the media last fall, only two reporters wrote lengthy articles. One was Felicity Arbuthnot, who wrote in Scotland’s The Sunday Herald that the “US-led allied forces deliberately destroyed Iraq’s water supply during the Gulf War é flagrantly breaking the Geneva Convention and causing thousand of civilian deaths.” Despite the seriousness of the allegations, and their being backed up by official documents, the story quickly fizzled.
Mr. Steve Gowans is a writer and political activist who lives in Ottawa, Canada.