Mr. Joost Hiltermann is the Middle East North Africa Program Director for The International Crisis Group, and was formerly its Chief Operating Officer. Mr. Hiltermann is an Iraq specialist. For five years he was based in Amman, Jordan, as deputy director for Middle East and North Africa where he managed a team of analysts to conduct research and write policy-focused reports on factors that increase the risk and drive armed conflict. He was based in Istanbul and Washington as project director for the Middle East. He served with Human Rights Watch from 1992 to 2002, serving as executive director for the arms division for eight years. He was director of the Iraq Documents Project. Mr. Hiltermann has written for The New York Review of Books, Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, The Financial Times, The National Interest, Middle East Report, and other publications. He is the author of two books: A Poisonous Affair: America, Iraq, and the Gassing of Halabja (Cambridge, 2007), and Behind the Intifada: Labor and Women’s Movements in the Occupied Territories (Princeton, 1991). Mr. Hiltermann received his Ph.D. in Sociology from UC Santa Cruz in 1988.
Title: Halabja and Khan Sheikhoun: A Tale of Two Fictions
In March 1988, the Iraqi regime killed thousands in a sarin attack on the Kurdish town of Halabja. The attack came on the heels of five years of escalating chemical weapons use in which Iraq acted with apparent impunity. Only after the war did the international community, including Iraq’s sponsor the U.S., make concerted efforts to restore the post-World War I norm against chemical weapons. That norm eroded again in the Syrian civil war, which has seen repeated use of gas by both the regime and the Islamic State. The most recent egregious example was the sarin attack on Khan Sheikhoun in April of this year, in which at least a hundred people died.
How to reinstate the norm? If the notion that truth is war’s first casualty is a truism, it appears to be no less true that the belief that collecting and exposing the facts of what transpires will help stop war crimes and/or the conflict by shaming the perpetrators is a fiction. In an age in which “fake news” can play a decisive role in shaping the rhetorical battlefield, the particular narratives crafted by the warring parties’ powerful sponsors to cover up their war crimes can suppress the voice of humanity by delaying or obstructing international condemnation. International responses to the crimes committed in Halabja and Khan Sheikhoun show this.
The Halabja example also shows, however, that independent fact-finding is imperative to post-war efforts to reestablish the norm against chemical weapons. Non-partisan organizations with the requisite technical expertise such as the OPCW, UN commissions, and some NGOs must continue the hard work of establishing the facts. It is this expertise, and the agencies’ reputation, that will enable efforts to deter future use of chemical weapons and reduce the risk of proliferation.