Iraq’s Abandoned CW’sPosted: October 15, 2014
There’s a lot of buzz in the Twitterverse about this new article in the NYT on the subject of the caches of pre-1991 chemical weapon munitions that have been found in Iraq since the 2003 invasion, and the injuries that they have caused, particularly to U.S. soldiers serving in Iraq.
The piece is very important and paints a terrible picture of the wounds received by U.S. soldiers who inadvertently came into contact with these discarded and most often buried munitions. It is a damning portrayal of how the U.S. military mishandled both the facts concerning the existence of these caches, as well as the care for the injured soldiers.
The piece also provides further information on the number and extent of these caches than I’ve seen before. It says that in all 4500 such non-militarily-usable, yet still extremely dangerous, munitions have been discovered. It further observes, disturbingly, that at least some of this stockpile is now in the hands of ISIL; a topic also addressed recently by Joe Cirincione and Paul Walker here.
There has been some misinterpretation among some of the less sophisticated denizens of the Twitterverse, that this report constitutes evidence supporting the U.S. narrative justifying the 2003 invasion. However, the article itself points out several times, correctly, that the fact of the existence of these caches is not a revelation. It’s been known since the 2004 Duelfer Report. These munitions are old, discarded and non-militarily-usable. They are not the droids the empire was looking for. So no, this article does not provide any support to the (still) erroneous U.S. justification for the 2003 Iraq war.
What it does do is several things. First and foremost, as I mentioned above, it is a shameful narrative about how the U.S. government and military treated U.S. soldiers who were injured by these discarded CW munitions. Second, it does provide greater understanding of the scope of Iraq’s existing caches of still very dangerous chemical weapons, including information about where many of their components came from (hint – the West).
There are a couple of arms control law points that stuck out to me in this article. One is the question of whether the chronicled failures of the U.S. military to properly report and dispose of the CW munitions they found in Iraq constitute a violation by the U.S. of the Chemical Weapons Convention. I honestly haven’t had time to give this a lot of thought yet (I’m teaching three courses this semester), but I would be interested in the views of CWC experts like Jean-Pascal Zanders on this question. My first impression would be that, since these were not CW on U.S. soil, or in any way owned by the U.S., therefore U.S. responsibility would not be triggered. I suppose the only thing that is holding me back from that tentative conclusion is the fact that, as an occupying power, the U.S. was legally responsible at least to some extent for what went on in their occupied territory during the period of occupation. Would this responsibility extend to reporting and disposal of old CW munitions they found in Iraq? I honestly don’t know.
One point that is driven home forcefully to me by this article is the clarity it provides concerning the moral and legal responsibility that Western nations have for supplying Iraq with chemical weapons-related-materials during the 1980’s with (as we now know) full knowledge that they would be used against Iran’s military, and a reasonable foreseeability that they would also be used against civilians (which they were). Readers will recall that I posted a paper written by one of my students on this subject last year, and I continue to recommend it. This is a truly shameful chapter of history for Western countries, including the United States. To have knowingly supplied chemical weapons-related-materials to Saddam Hussein, knowing good and well that he would use them. I find that unconscionable, and I have never heard anyone offer any kind of reasonable explanation or justification for it. Nor, I think, could there be one.