International weapons conventions in Iran, Iraq

A word on differing standards of accountability to international agreements.

In hundreds of articles over the past few weeks, our press has tirelessly reported on Iran’s uranium enrichment program, or rather—in characteristic shorthand—on “Iran’s efforts to develop the capability to make nuclear weapons” (Foreign Affairs, 11/24). Early on the morning of the November 29th, however, in “Iran Backs Away From a Demand on A-Bomb Fuel,” the New York Times announced that a settlement between Iran and Britain, France, and Germany (EU-3) had been reached: Iranians had agreed to suspend all research on uranium enrichment. One hopes that with this agreement, daily scrutiny of hypothetical Iranian weapons might also give way to some observations of actual American weapons being deployed nearby.

For by many accounts, the use of unconventional weapons has likely been a US pastime in “The War on Terror” during even its most recent episodes. Dahr Jamail of Inter Press News Service has recorded Fallujan experiences of poison gas and bombs that “exploded into large fires that burnt the skin even when water was thrown on the burns”—a trademark of napalm and phosphorus bombs. Though many Americans will no doubt say such claims are dubious, they have reason to: no outside medical personnel or observers have yet been allowed into Fallujah to even allow for further discussion of the matter. Less dubious is that continued use of depleted uranium munitions, which according to Vishnu Bhagwat, former Indian Chief of Naval Staff, amounted in 2003 alone to the equivalent of nearly 250,000 Nagasaki bombs. But depleted uranium is nothing new, having been used extensively in southern Iraq during the first Gulf War. The Department of Environmental Engineering at the University of Baghdad has accordingly measured radiation levels in and near the city of Basra to range from hundreds to thousands of times the normal levels. Dr. Jawad Kadhim Al-Ali, Director of the Oncology Center in Basra, has theorized depleted uranium as a reason that the death rate from cancers in Basra has now reached 19 times that of 1988. It was also in Basra that a previous study led by Dr. Alim Yacoup found the incidence of leukemia among children to have doubled between 1990 and 1999. Perhaps it is such reports that have led Dr. Asaf Durakovic, the nuclear-medicine expert of the United States Veterans’ Administration, to characterize DU as a “threat to humanity.” According to an oft cited August 2002 UN report, the use of DU munitions breaches the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the UN Charter, the Genocide Convention, the Convention against Torture, the four Geneva Conventions of 1949, the Conventional Weapons Convention of 1980, and the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907.

In relation to Iran, one is reminded of the saying that history is written by the victors: while the New York Times writes of Iran’s “long history of concealment” in its relation to international weapons conventions, there is little need for such concealment by United States Government for its violations of such conventions as they go almost entirely unreported. This double standard at work in the application of such conventions is emphasized by a closer look at the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the basis for the present attention on Iran. Article 4(1) says that “Nothing in this Treaty shall be interpreted as affecting the inalienable right of all the Parties to the Treaty to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes”; Article 4(2) says that “All the Parties to the Treaty undertake to facilitate, and have the right to participate in, the fullest possible exchange of equipment, materials and scientific and technological information for the peaceful uses of nuclear energy,” it goes on, “with due consideration for the needs of the developing areas of the world.” It would seem that the United States, rather than Iran, would be bound by the terms of the treaty, which obligate it—as a signer—to undertake to facilitate the fullest possible exchange of equipment, materials, and so forth to Iran, one such developing country of the world. According to the aforementioned New York Times article, like all other coverage of the standoff in this country, such an exchange was of course not a right, much less a possibility. A far lesser right—to develop nuclear energy for peaceful purposes—was instead Iran’s “demand,” one that last week “came in two letters to the International Atomic Energy Agency from Iran’s atomic energy agency, whose hard-liners oppose any concessions to outsiders.” But as these hard-liners, like other Iranians, have apparently conceded to their US and European watch dogs, the question arises with regard to Iraq, where any comparable watch dogs can be found to concede to. Principle two of the Nuremburg Tribunal tells us that “the fact that internal law does not impose a penalty for an act which constitutes a crime under international law does not relieve the person who committed the act from responsibility under international law.” A dying hope of Iraqis today would not be so ambitious as to imagine respite in the face of our longstanding war crimes, but only an interruption of the silence that sanctions them.