by Michael Brooks and Jay Cassano
In early October, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the principal human rights body of the Organization of American States, refused to hear a case on the subject of reparations for Iraqi civilians still suffering the aftereffects of the U.S.-led invasion and occupation of their country in 2003.
The request was filed by a New York-based legal advocacy organization, the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), on behalf of a coalition of human rights groups in both Iraq and the U.S. The complaint called for a "hearing to identify and acknowledge the devastating and long-lasting health effects suffered by Iraqis and U.S. service members." Despite the commission's rejection – ostensibly because its docket was full – the petition itself has practical applications for U.S.-Iraqi relations and other pressing areas of U.S. domestic policy. CCR plans to resubmit the request for the court's next cycle, according to Laura Raymond, the organization's advocacy program manager.
The Right to Heal initiative was formed in early 2012 as a coalition between Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW), the Organization of Women's Freedom in Iraq and the Federation of Workers Councils and Unions in Iraq. Its goal is to join Iraqi citizens and American veterans of the Iraq invasion in campaigning for reparations for Iraqis and expanded benefits for veterans.
During the course of the war and occupation, Iraq suffered roughly 450,000 civilian casualties, more than 2 million displaced individuals and widespread damage to its infrastructure and cultural heritage. Today Iraqi civilians are still suffering from the war's legacy. The crippled infrastructure; malnutrition; the extended use of munitions with long-term environmental and public health consequences that are not being adequately studied — all have contributed to a continuing humanitarian catastrophe.
Back home, U.S. veterans of the war have faced their own challenges. According to CCR’s report to the commission, veterans struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), traumatic brain injury, unprecedented suicide rates and the scars of sexual violence while serving – not to mention the more visible physical maiming from serving in a war zone. Right to Heal views the war holistically, seeking reparations both for Iraqi society and for the U.S. veteran community as part of the same political and humanitarian project.
"Veterans of these wars realize that our struggle to heal is intertwined with our ability to accept our role in this conflict," says IVAW's organizing director, Maggie Martin, who was deployed to Iraq in 2003 and again in 2005. "We know that the trauma we suffered through deployments is only compounded for those who have lived over a decade in a battlefield."
Iraq's needs are obvious and significant. Emergencies in public health and infrastructure demand systemic and sustained solutions. Right to Heal sees itself not as the provider of specific technical fixes but as the catalyst to long-overdue responses to Iraq's needs. The right to reparations has a well-established basis in international law and can mean remedies as diverse as financial compensation, public apology and the direct delivery of social services such as medical care.
Iraqi cities such as Fallujah and Hawijah that saw fierce fighting or extended military encampment have since reported inordinate increases in the rates of cancer and birth defects. The World Health Organization is undertaking a study of birth defects in Iraq, but it specifically will not be evaluating the war's role as a contributing factor. In the absence of conclusive scientific studies, claims about the effects of controversial munitions such as depleted uranium and white phosphorus cannot be established.
However, there are alarming indications that investigations into such claims have been politicized to the extent that even members of Congress cannot get straight answers from the Pentagon. Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Wash., a veteran himself, has accused the Pentagon of not studying the health consequences of depleted uranium with sufficient care. The lack of U.S. government cooperation highlights the necessity of pressure from civil-society groups. To that effect, Right to Heal has recently submitted a lengthy report to the U.N. Human Rights Committee, urging it to consider U.S. responsibilities for Iraq during its periodic review of America's human rights record.
The first priority must be objective and sustained research into the alleged health problems. "We started to ask why it is that all these children have birth defects," Yanar Mohammed, of the Organization of Women's Freedom in Iraq, said. "And we found out that they live next to a U.S. military base where there used to be ammunition training (with depleted uranium) in the field next to them for several years. When we started to look at it, it turned out that a high percentage of children born in the last 10 years in Hawijah all had the same kind of birth defect."
Even putting aside the concern with depleted uranium and other munitions, the monumental loss of life, the mass suffering and damage to Iraqi society and infrastructure that the United States inflicted after overthrowing Iraqi President Saddam Hussein make the moral case for reparations clear. In 2006, the U.N. General Assembly passed a resolution establishing principles and guidelines for reparations owed to victims of violations of international human rights law. This resolution affirms victims' right to "effective access to justice" and "adequate, effective, and prompt reparation for harm suffered."
The U.S. government has an additional responsibility to address the suffering of its military. U.S. veterans are committing suicide at the rate of at least 22 per day, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. That is double the civilian suicide rate. Data is not readily available on how many of those veterans served in Iraq, but in 2012 nearly one active-duty soldier per day committed suicide across the four branches of the military. In the Army, the number of soldiers who died by their own hands surpassed combat deaths in 2012.
Amid this public health crisis, a scandal broke last year when it was revealed that the commanding officer of Madigan Army Medical Center in Washington state discouraged psychiatrists from giving diagnoses of PTSD in order to save money on mental health expenses. A 2013 Harvard study estimates that the total cost of care for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans through 2053 will be just shy of $1 trillion. Directives like the cost-cutting measures on PTSD at Madigan are a symptom of the huge expense of veterans' care being improperly budgeted for and declared at the outset of the conflicts. The U.S. government started wars without being prepared to pay the enduring expenses for its own soldiers, not to mention for the damage it caused abroad.
To be sure, there are many costly crises gripping America right now, from ongoing economic stagnation and long-term unemployment to political showdowns over the debt ceiling. But it would be immoral and irresponsible to ignore our collective responsibility to Iraqis and to U.S. veterans. What Right to Heal has done in its fight for reparations is to provide an important example of citizen-to-citizen engagement between Iraqis and Americans to address the toxic legacy of the invasion.
Taking reparations seriously as a policy option would not only acknowledge the victims of our Iraq policy but would also boost America's image abroad. A serious redress of one of our country's greatest blunders would serve its reputation better than countless rebranding or digital-diplomacy attempts at shaping global public opinion. Reparations need not stop with Iraq. The U.S. and its NATO allies in Afghanistan already have an established policy of paying victims of errant strikes, although they admit no culpability for their actions.
Right to Heal and its advocacy can address other critical problems. It could influence U.S. policy in Afghanistan and address qualms about the Obama administration's drone program. While it is not the full-scale disaster that Iraq was, the drone program has caused civilian casualties and disrupted local institutions that are equally worthy of redress, as recent testimony before Congress by victims of drone warfare in Yemen and Pakistan can attest. A serious debate over reparations might also rebalance the way America understands its military interventions, so that their costs become a critical part of policy debates.
On Nov. 1, President Barack Obama will meet with his Iraqi counterpart, Nouri al-Maliki, at the White House. No doubt both leaders will affirm strong commitments to Iraq's security and democratic future, even as violence and social instability continue to plague that country. Right to Heal's call for reparations would serve not only as a form of redress but also as a new way of approaching future U.S.-Iraq bilateral relations.
Opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Al Jazeera America.