As toxins from US munitions and the burn pits the US military used to dispose of waste linger in Iraqi cities and villages, doctors and human rights advocates are reporting unprecedented and widespread medical problems in the population. In Fallujah, a doctor found that rising rates of birth defects were 14 times higher than the rates in Hiroshima and Nagasaki following the US nuclear bombings in 1945. Cancer rates in Iraq have doubled since 1995 and are 40 times what they were in 1991 before the first Gulf War.
“We sent women from my organization to [the Iraqi town of Haweeja]. We were surprised to see hundreds of children that had birth disabilities. We see things in Iraq that we’ve never seen in our lives,” Yanar Mohammed, president of the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq, told Democracy Now in March 2013. Yanar, whose organization works on a broad range of human rights issues in Iraq, has been documenting the sharp rise in serious birth defects and incidents of cancer in the aftermath of the Iraq War along with the Federation of Workers Councils and Unions in Iraq (FWCUI), the country’s second-largest labor network.
Meanwhile, US veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan also are suffering the effects of exposure to toxins used during the wars. A 2011 report in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine found that service members who served in Iraq and Afghanistan are at greater risk of developing new-onset respiratory symptoms than those stationed elsewhere, listing burn pits as a potential cause. In addition, service members face repeated obstacles navigating the military health care system to get access to proper treatment for injuries and medical conditions incurred during service. Mental health issues and cognitive impairments from experiences at war and at home, in particular post-traumatic stress, traumatic brain injury and military sexual trauma, regularly are dismissed by commanding officers, denied treatment, and neglected. Too often service members have been forced to redeploy. Mental health conditions among active service members have risen 65 percent during the past 12 years; veteran suicides have increased to an average of 22 every day.
US veterans and Iraqis are joining to demand concrete action from the US government to address the related health impacts the war has had on their communities. On March 19, 2013, the ten-year anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, Iraq Veterans against the War (IVAW), OWFI and FWCUI launched the Right to Heal Initiative with the Center for Constitutional Rights and other human rights and anti-war organizations. As part of the Initiative, the partnered organizations have requested a public hearing at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). This hearing request has garnered a wide range of support from around the world. Concerned individuals and organizations from throughout the United States, Latin America, Europe and the Middle East have signed onto a letter urging the IACHR to take the case. In Iraq, advocates have organized a door-to-door and street-level signature campaign in Baghdad, Samarra and Basra and reported collecting more than 1,000 signatures in the first three hours of the Baghdad effort.
Last week, the Right to Heal Initiative is delivering thousands of signatures to the IACHR as well as the list of civil society organizations from around the world that support the hearing request. If granted, the fall 2013 hearing will present an opportunity for veterans and Iraqis to give testimony in front of US officials and international human rights experts. The petitioning organizations are asking the IACHR to instruct the United States to provide accountability and reparations for the war, including remediation of toxic sites and funding for health clinics in Iraq. They also call for improved services and full, accessible care for veterans and service members without limitations imposed by commanding officials, military bureaucracy, and a toothless military justice system that provides no justice to survivors of military sexual trauma.
As veterans and Iraqis are saying, the war is not over for communities that are struggling to survive and heal in the war’s aftermath. They demand the right to heal, and we must stand with them.