A doctor who travelled to Iraqi Kurdistan with a delegation investigating chemical weapons usage has said neither the Iraqi Kurdish authorities nor Baghdad will effectively investigate alleged Turkish chemical weapons usage, and called on European states to escalate the claims to the Organisation for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).
Indirect evidence of chemical weapons use by Turkish forces to target Kurdish fighters and civilians in northern Iraq has continued to mount. Recent weeks have seen fresh video footage of Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) fighters suffering the alleged aftereffects of a chemical weapons attack, while a delegation from the International Physicians for Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW) has traveled to the region and published a report compiling indirect evidence of the use of chlorine gas, tear gas and smoke against Kurdish fighters.
Due to a lack of action by international powers and local political actors, however, these claims remain unproven. Most recently, the IPPNW were blocked in their efforts to reach affected areas and gather evidence of chemical warfare by the Iraqi Kurdish authorities, seen as working closely with Turkey in their fight against the PKK.
Medya News spoke with IPPNW’s Dr. Beppe Savary-Borioli to understand the obstacles facing those trying to gather conclusive proof of chemical weapons usage, his opinion on the latest evidence of chemical weapons in northern Iraq, and what further steps can be effectively taken by Kurdish organisations to escalate these allegations to the Organisation for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).
The phrase ‘chemical weapons’ is used a lot, and is a very loaded term. In international law, what is and isn’t a chemical weapon?
When we speak about chemical weapons, we think of sarin, or even yperite [mustard] gas. This is a very old gas, used for the first time in the first world war, near Ypres in Belgium, hence the name. But there are other chemical weapons – you can simply burn a [tyre], or some old oil from a car, and this smoke is toxic, and so it’s a chemical weapon. For example, tear gas is a chemical weapon if used in a war scenario. But there is an exception in that it’s allowed for police interventions, under certain scenarios.
Why is chemical warfare seen as particularly terrible? Why is it legal in international law to use a machine gun or bomb, but not teargas, in warfare?
If we go back to the last and most important chemical weapons massacre, we have to go back to Halabja. It was the Anfal massacre, executed by Saddam Hussein and his cousin Ali, known as ‘Chemical Ali’. They used mostly [mustard gas] and there were more than 200,000 dead people [across the entire Anfal campaign via both chemical and conventional weapons], most of them children and women. It was terrorism, conducted by the Iraqi state of Saddam Hussein. Chemical weapons are terrible because they are so easy to use, and the effect is terrible. You can kill people, or you can leave people with [aftereffects].
Only states have the power to escalate chemical weapons allegations to the Organisation for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). How can the Kurds effectively reach the OPCW?
One of the tragedies of the Kurdish people is that the only Kurdish ‘state’ is the autonomous region of northern Iraq. There are two big parties: the KDP from the Barzani clan, and the PUK or Patriotic Union of Kurdistan… from the Talabani clan. The President is from this clan, and the foreign minister is from the other clan, KDP. They are both Kurdish, they are both representatives of the Iraqi state, but I doubt they will act against Turkey because they are in very good contact with Turkey. They will do nothing for their cousins from PKK.
The federal Iraqi authorities in Baghdad have said they will launch an investigation into the allegations in northern Iraq. Do you think this will be effective?
If they really want to do something, they have to go to the OPCW or to the General Secretary of the United Nations. I think an investigation by the Iraqi federal government has no value, and I think the result will be a kind of whitewashing.
What are the next steps IPPNW or other actors can take to effectively investigate these claims?
My hope is only my hope, but I had contact with our Minister for Foreign Affairs who is a friend of mine, a physician and a specialist in public health. I hope that he will do something, but I think to go against Turkey in Europe is very hard. Erdogan is very able to take everyone under his control, due to the Syrian refugees, and his big trade in arms. I think no state in Europe will go against Turkey.
Finally, IPPNW has gathered a dossier of indirect evidence of Turkish use of chemical weapons in northern Iraq. What is your opinion on the recent video footage of PKK fighters allegedly targeted by chemical weapons in Iraq?
I have the major suspicion that the substance could be – I repeat, could be – meta-chlorophenylpiperazine. In low doses, you have these effects, laughing… it was even used as a party drug. In higher doses, you have the convulsive crisis, the cramps… it’s terrible suffering, and a terrible death. I observed a case of this many years ago, and I would never have forgotten this clinical situation.
But we have no proof. I sent this video to our toxicology information centre in Zurich, and they sent it to an international laboratory for chemical weapons, but the answer was – we can say nothing watching this video. It was very kind, but the answer was ‘we can do nothing.’ And so we need to have access, we need to be there on site, before the half-life of this substance, to get blood samples from the soil, the environment, to have proof.
Matt Broomfield is a freelance journalist, poet and activist. He writes for VICE, Medya News, the New Statesman and the New Arab; his prose has been published by The Mays, Anti-Heroin Chic and Plenitude; and his poetry by the National Poetry Society, the Independent, and Bare Fiction. His work was displayed across London by Poetry on the Underground, and he is a Foyle Young Poet of the Year.
Beppe Savary-Borioli is the director of IPPNW Switzerland Section.