NEW YORK, NY - The enduring tragedies of the 1988 chemical weapons attack against the Iraqi Kurdish city of Halabja were commemorated for the first time at the United Nations. Ambassadors, members of the Iraqi parliament, the human rights community and massacre survivors decried the world's silence at the time and urged steps taken to ensure no similar genocide again occurs. Iraq's Ambassador to the United Nations, H.E. Dr. Hamid Al-Bayati, said holding the commemoration at the U.N. on the 21st anniversary of the genocide was an important milestone for the world to acknowledge the terror inflicted and the lack of action to protect the innocent and bring to justice those responsible.
"We come into the United Nations after we have told our story in the streets of New York, Washington and London," Al-Bayati said. "This is history." The Ambassador called on the United Nations to set March 16 as an annual commemoration "with the hope that atrocities like this will not occur again."
At least 5,000 people died as an immediate result of the chemical attack on March 16, 1988, and again on March 18. A further 7,000 people were injured or suffered long term illness and birth defects after being exposed to the nerve agents Tabun, Sarin, and VX, as well as mustard gas. The attack against Halabja remains the largest-scale, single chemical weapons assault directed against a civilian-populated area in history. No one who directly was responsible for the chemical attack on Halabja has stood trial.
"Halabja, once a vibrant center of Kurdish culture, was, in a day, turned into a symbol of Kurdish tragedy," Qubad Talabani, the U.S. representative for the Kurdistan Regional Government, said. "It is our ground zero."
Discussing steps world leaders must take to prevent future genocide were Ambassador Peter Galbraith and Liebe Geft, director of the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles. Galbraith recalled his discovery of Saddam's campaign of atrocities in 1987 and how world governments and officials must not dilute the horror for the sake of short-term expediencies with a rogue nation. Geft said the commemoration "embodies our hopes and our dreams for a more tolerant future."
Reading statements of solidarity were representatives of the Turkish and Iranian U.N. missions.
During the commemoration Human Rights Watch was recognized by the KRG for its work to expose and document the genocide of the Kurds by Saddam Hussein. Kenneth Roth, executive director, said the world must never again accept geopolitical excuses as the reasons for inaction against genocide such as that against the Kurds. "It is wrong to close one's eyes to atrocities," Roth said. "Once a measure of impunity is set, all kinds of dictators around the world are all too eager to listen and to act."
A photography exhibit documenting the Halabja genocide was unveiled and will remain on display in the United Nations before traveling to various locations across the United States. The exhibit will them become part of the permanent work at The Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles. The Kurdistan Regional Government Liaison Office - U.S.A. is registered as an agent of the Kurdistan Regional Government under 22 U.S.C.