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News ::
Legal Expert Describes Iraqi Treatment of Marsh Arabs as Genocide (english)
20 Mar 2003
A legal expert says there is a good chance Saddam Hussein could be convicted of genocide for the near total destruction of the vast marshlands of southern Iraq that has devastated the indigenous people who have populated the area for 5,000 years
Joseph Dellapenna, a professor at Villanova University Law School and an expert on international water rights, spoke at a briefing November 14 sponsored by the United States Institute of Peace, an independent federal institution created to promote the peaceful resolution of international conflict. He was joined by several other speakers, all contributors to a new book entitled "The Iraqi Marshlands: A Human and Environmental Study."

"We know that Saddam Hussein has been accused of a wide variety of human rights violations and war crimes over the years," Dellapenna said. "I am going to suggest that, among other things, it is very likely that he is also guilty of genocide against the Marsh Arabs."

Dellapenna explained that the Ma'dan people, or the Marsh Arabs as they have come to be known, have spent the last 5,000 years subsisting through farming, fishing and hunting in the vast marshlands lying between the lower reaches of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in southern Iraq.

After the Gulf War ended in 1991, the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein began an ambitious civil engineering project aimed at deliberately draining the marshes to permit military access and greater political control of the Marsh Arabs. Recent commercial satellite imagery shows that less than 10 percent of Iraq's marshland holds water today, and what remains is a massive network of man-made canals and parched, salty earth.

According to a report released by the AMAR International Charitable Foundation - a non-governmental organization set up in 1991 in response to the plight of the Marsh Arabs - the draining of the marshes has led to the destruction of the Marsh Arabs' self-sufficient economy, the near-complete atrophy of the entire ecosystem, and the flight of tens of thousands of refugees.

Dellapenna said the systematic draining of the land followed a 1991 uprising by Shiite Muslims in southern Iraq that was immediately crushed by Iraqi forces.

"What happened in 1991 that prompted the draining of the marshlands?" Dellapenna asked. "The answer is very obvious. It is that the Marsh Arabs in the South, as well as the Kurds in the North, rose in revolt against Saddam Hussein at the end of the Gulf War. The Allied Coalition took steps to protect the Kurds - they did not take steps to protect the Marsh Arabs.

"And it seems very likely that the motivation for draining, at least the central marsh . . . was motivated by a desire to destroy the Marsh Arabs as a people, rather than by any desire to develop the country, or the various other explanations - in my view excuses - that would be offered in that direction. And if so, this itself is genocide," Dellapenna said.

Dellapenna also discussed legal questions regarding the Marsh Arabs' right to water. He said that while existing law found in treaties and other legal documents on transboundary water management deals only with the rights of states, there is an emerging body of law under so-called customary international law that recognizes the rights of people - particularly the rights of indigenous people seeking to preserve a traditional lifestyle. He said international law recognizes people as having collective rights if they are bound by a common language, culture, religion or some combination of these.

"I think it's pretty clear that the Marsh Arabs qualify as a people in this sense - they did share and they do share a common identity," Dellapenna said. "It's true that they speak a dialect of Arabic, so you can say they don't have a separate language, but they certainly have a distinctive culture going back thousands of years.

"And that culture has been destroyed, and I would argue deliberately and purposely destroyed precisely because they were a people hard to control and a people who had risen in revolt," he said.

Dellapenna added that while customary international law does not recognize a general right to water, "it seems fairly clear, if you turn to the law of human rights and the rights of an indigenous people to maintain their traditional lifestyle, that at the very least governments are under an obligation not to deprive people of the water they need to maintain that lifestyle. And this clearly has been violated by Iraq."

Dellapenna said that there are also claims about the right to development by governments and states. He said this raises a question as to what extent the right to development conflicts with the right of a people to maintain a traditional lifestyle.

"If, as I have argued, the changes in the marshes are motivated by an intent to commit genocide, rather than by an intent to develop Iraq, there is in fact no conflict in this situation," he said.

AMAR Executive Director Peter Clark told the audience attending the Institute of Peace briefing that there have been schemes for draining the marshlands throughout the 20th century. However, while drainage plans drawn up by British companies in the 1940s and 1970s were linked to irrigation and cultivation projects, the massive water diversion efforts undertaken by the Iraqi regime over the last decade were aimed at destroying the environment of the marsh dwellers.

According to reports from various international organizations, the Iraqi government by 1993 was able to prevent water from reaching two-thirds of the marshlands; the flow of the Euphrates River had been almost entirely diverted to the two-kilometer-wide Third River Canal, bypassing most of the marshes; and the flow of the Tigris River had been channeled into tributary rivers, their artificially high banks prohibiting water from seeping into the marshlands.

By 1999, the drainage of the marshes was largely complete, according to an October 2002 Brookings Institution report, entitled "The Internally Displaced People of Iraq." The only remaining marsh of any size was the al-Hawizeh marsh that straddles the Iraq-Iran border. According to the Iranians, the Iraqi side of the marsh is now under assault. In September 2002, it was alleged that the Iraqis were burning the reeds in a possible attempt to prepare a military assault on the remaining villages.
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