The Poisonous Legacy of Arms Manufacturers: Iraqi Birth Defects and Cancers

Yalda Hakim in Iraq (BBC)

Yalda Hakim in Iraq (BBC)

Bombs and bullets do not just kill and maim directly. They contain toxic metals such as lead, mercury and uranium which can contaminate the environment long after the guns have fallen silent. With sufficient contamination the miserable lives of the civilian population are cursed for generations to come with high levels of serious birth defects and cancer cases. This is what is happening in Iraq. Figures suggest that the rate of birth defects in the Iraqi city of Fallujah surpasses those of Hiroshima and Nagasaki after nuclear bombardment.

IWM’s commercial partner for the Annual Defence Dinner event, Chemring Group, is a producer of the detonating agent, lead azide – though it has only been an approved supplier to the US military since the end of 2012. According to their website, “Chemring Energetic Devices is now the only US based producer of this important primary explosive, which is used in a wide variety of US and NATO fuze and detonator assemblies.” The Joint Center of Excellence for Armaments and Munitions in the US says that lead azide is the most widely used high-explosive ingredient in US military munitions.

A lead azide safety data sheet produced by manufacturer DuPont warns,

“DuPont considers lead compounds to be potential developmental toxins and states that a woman of childbearing potential should be warned of the risks to an unborn child in operations involving exposure to lead and lead compounds.”

An unborn child may be at risk of permanent injury from a pregnant woman’s exposure to lead and lead compounds under conditions of exposure that would not be expected to cause adverse effects in the adult woman.”

“Epidemiology studies reported in the literature suggest an association of high blood lead levels with increased blood pressure, EKG abnormalities, increases in colon-rectal cancer and increased chronic renal disease. Although lead styphnate was not specifically indicated by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), this organization has classified lead and lead compounds as “Possibly Carcinogenic to Humans” on the basis of animal evidence.”

“No acceptable information is available to confidently predict the effects of excessive human exposure to Lead Azide. However, most azide compounds are moderately to highly toxic by interfering with cellular oxidative metabolism and by producing severe hypotension.”

Research in the Iraqi cities of Fallujah and Basrah, lead Dr Mozhgan Savabieasfahani, revealed “increasing numbers of congenital birth defects, especially neural tube defects and congenital heart defects. It also revealed public contamination with two major neurotoxic metals, lead and mercury. The Iraq birth defects epidemic is, however, surfacing in the context of many more public health problems in bombarded cities. Childhood leukemia, and other types of cancers are increasing in Iraq. Childhood leukemia rates in Basra more than doubled between 1993 and 2007. In 1993, the annual rate of childhood leukemia was 2.6 per 100,000 individuals and by 2006 it had reached 12.2 per 100,000.”

Al Jazeera reporter, Dahr Jamail, recently discussed the range of birth defects that doctors in Fallujah are facing: “It’s common now in Fallujah for newborns to come out with massive multiple systemic defects, immune problems, massive central nervous system problems, massive heart problems, skeletal disorders, babies being born with two heads, babies being born with half of their internal organs outside of their bodies, cyclops babies literally with one eye — really, really, really horrific nightmarish types of birth defects.” The images that accompany Jamail’s report on Democracy Now speak for themselves.

Iraqi child with congenital birth defect

The British Ministry of Defence responded to a BBC investigation into the Iraqi birth defect and cancer crisis by saying that it would be “premature to suggest a link to any cause without reliable evidence.” The BBC investigation claimed, however, that an Iraqi governmental report does seem to establish a correlation between war and the epidemic but is currently being withheld from publication.

The BBC report by Yalda Hakim reveals that certain suspected toxic sites are blacklisted by the Iraqi government from outside investigation. We know that, as well as lead and mercury explosives, the US and UK used depleted uranium in their attacks. 2,000 tonnes of depleted uranium, which is slightly radioactive, may have been fired in total in Iraq since 2003. The US also used the chemical weapon known as “white phosphorus” in their attack on Fallujah.

The evidence suggests a correlation between the deployment of toxic metal explosives by the invading forces, mainly US and British, and the tragedy of the rise in child cancers and birth defects in Iraq. Though, until fuller investigation is required. It is likely that toxic compounds such as lead azide were utilised and are contributing to the high levels of lead found in Iraqi children.

Chemring Group’s lead azide production was approved by the US Energetic Materials Qualification Board for US Department of Defense use in August 2012. This particular product of Chemring is unlikely, therefore, to have played, to date, a major role in the toxic poisoning of parts of Iraq and its people. However, according to this site, “Chemring Ordnance has been the sole source of US Government hand grenade fuzing for the last 35 years.” That is, the ignition mechanism that initiates the explosion. Moreover, the site explains, “Chemring Ordnance leads the way in the development of new 40mm ammunition and ordnance.”

To what extent munitions produced by BAE Systems or Boeing, two more of IWM’s partners, were used in the brutal onslaught of Iraq, we do not know.

To partner with arms manufacturers that supply invading forces, as well as authoritarian regimes, is to associate oneself with more than just war – but long-term devastation of environments and their people. Chemring’s lead azide will be put to use in future onslaughts; it will poison more mothers and devastate the health of children. The Imperial War Museum, like the rest of British society, should decide if it wants to be complicit in this.

Clip from Yalda Hakim’s BBC report:

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All we do is enable states to defend themselves

See Update 1 below

“We do believe countries have a right to defend themselves,” said British Prime Minister David Cameron whilst touring the Middle East. This means that it is “legitimate and right” that the British government licences the sale of weapons to authoritarian regimes. All the ‘defence industry’ does is enable countries to defend themselves – what could be wrong with that?

There are three major things factually wrong with this claim. Weapons are not sold to ‘countries’ but ‘rulers‘. These weapons are often put to aggressive use to pursue strategic goals rather than in legitimate self-defence. Not everyone has a right to self-defence – not repressed populations of client dictators, not official ‘enemy’ regimes, nor their people.

So if Camerson was to speak honestly, he’d say, “we do believe that all our strategic allies have the right to maintain and, even, expand their power, even it means continued oppression and aggression.”

The euphemism of “defence” seeks to hide the fact that British weapons and technology are sold to known human rights abusers. History shows that even elected regimes are more than capable of putting their military to aggressive use. The US-lead invasion of Iraq and subsequent occupation is a recent case in point. Saddam Hussein posed no credible imminent threat to the invaders and therefore, there was no self-defence justification. The same can be said of the current US drone campaign which targets people in a number of countries without any judicial oversight or accountability to assess the legimitacy of the assassination or the innocent civilian deaths that occur. By way of example, the US executive has so far failed to explain why it killed the 16 year old Abdulrahman Al-Awlaki and his 17 year old cousin in Yemen.

Naturally, authoritarian regimes will also use aggression to pursue strategic goals, the most basic of which is to maintain control of a repressed population. They are ‘defending’ themselves but without a shred of legitimacy. So, when Egyptian security forces were assaulting democracy protesters in Tahrir Square, in 2011, some of their tear gas was made by British plc, Chemring Group. Such sales have not been licenced by the government since 1998; Chemring say that the sale may have been made before then or entered Egypt via a third-party.

Authoritarian regimes have no legitimate right to self-defence against populations they are repressing. So when the British government approves the likes of Chemring Group, BAE Systems, Boeing UK and others to sell equipment to known dictators and/or abusers, such as Saudi Arabia, Syria or Yemen, they are knowingly supporting human rights abuse and, in the case of Israel or the US, war crimes. In April 2009, David Miliband, then Foreign Secretary, admitted in a ministerial statement that British components “almost certainly” aided Israel to kill over 1,000 Palestinians in Operation Cast Lead. Chemring Group’s Norwegian subsidiary, Chemring Nobel, meanwhile, supplies explosive ingredients to US Hellfire drones, weapons responsible for untold misery in various countries.

With defence spending constraints growing in the West, arms manufacturers are targetting the authoritarian states of the Middle East and North Africa, in particular, for sales. They recognise that these regimes are nervy about further threats to their control following the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011. The struggle for democracy goes on in, for example, in Egypt, where the military continue to wield the power, despite the ouster of Hosni Mubarak. In Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, brute force was able to quieten dissent for now.

So, the rulers of Saudi Arabia and co. need to defend themselves against their people. They have, apparently, a right to self-defence and ought to receive guns, tanks, bombs, surveillance equipment and so and so forth. British goverment approved arms makers like BAE and Chemring Group were out in force at the recent IDEX 2013 arms fair in UAE, flaunting their latest equipment to international buyers.

The arms trade, as it exists, is an amoral and inhumane international business, shielded by governments. It recognises no real distinction between legitimate self-defence and brutal aggression. The defining factor for the industry, rather, is political strategy and money. Any organisation that partners with the trade is complicit in grave human rights abuse and immorality. Currently, any number of British universities and national museums accept money and business with arms traders.

Update 1

A crucial point that I missed in this article is that Britain is a prominent and proven human rights abuser having participated in the invasions and occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan contrary to the legal requirements of genuine self-defence or UN security council resolution. Britain also supported the US in the George Bush Administration torture and rendition network, at least, providing the US with intelligence on suspects to be captured and tortured.

We should not just be asking why Britain sells weapons to known human rights abusers but, also, why Britain commits egregious human rights violations.

Chemring Group and IWM

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Chemring Group was the sponsor of the Annual Defence Dinner 2012, a major annual networking event for the arms trade held at the Imperial War Museum, Lambeth Road, on Wednesday 23rd May 2012. Chemring has sponsored this annual event at IWM in previous years – at least since 2010.

In the literature promoting the Annual Defence Dinner 2012, Chemring, depicts itself as a provider of products “predominantly (to) protect military people and platforms, providing insurance against a constantly changing threat.”

However, over half of Chemring’s revenues derive from munitions and pyrotechnics. Explosive material and technology, ammunition, grenades, tear gas and small arms are easily put to offensive use, both in aggressive application and threat, when sold and used without basic humane judgement or controls.

Chemring’s weapons continue to be marketed and sold to clients who carry out human rights abuses. Chemring attended the LAVEX 2009 arms fair in Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya. The corporations website identifies the Middle East as a destination for a number of its munition and weapon products. The Saudi Arabian regime is a significant market and Chemring is officially associated with Saudi Eraad Defense Systems, a Saudi Arabian company that provides “professional and discreet services as in-country support/marketing company.”

As reported by the Independent newspaper in December 2011, Chemring’s tear gas cannisters were put to use against Tahrir Square protesters by the Egyptian security forces in 2011. The effects on protesters, exacerbated, it has been suggested, by toxicity brought on by the age of the gas (some cannisters dated from 1995), inflicted convulsions, burning and asphyxiation on protesters.

Chemring, as well as the British government which licences such sales, cannot not be aware of the misery and abuse that their actions are enabling. For example, Saudi Arabia’s repression of its population is very well documented. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s own human rights report cites Saudi Arabia as a country “of concern” due to its human rights and civil liberties abuses. The FCO says that the number of executions are “alarming”. Women cannot vote or play sport. All public demonstrations are banned; those who have defied this with peaceful protest have found themselves charged, imprisoned and sometimes tortured.

The repression endured by the Saudi population is exemplified by the case of Mohammed Salama. Human Rights Watch report that he has been detained without charge or trial since April 2012 having been arrested for posting personal Twitter comments critical of certain interpretations of Islamic text. He remains in indefinite detention with other peaceful protesters and activists.

For Chemring to provide such regimes with weapons and technology is to implicate itself in the heinous daily crimes, ensuring that people live in a constant nightmare. The Imperial War Museum, as a public museum dedicated to recording the true effects of warfare, must take a humane stance and not itself become complicit by taking money or associating with such activity.

Yet, Chemring’s dealings with the Middle East are not its only stain. The company provides technology and explosives for United States UAVS or drones. Their Norwegian subsidiary, Chemring Nobel, provides explosive substances for Hellfire rockets fired from US drones.

The US’ covert drone attack campaign in Pakistan, Yemen, Afghanistan and Somalia has claimed the lives of many innocent civilians. Whilst defenders assert drone attacks as being precise, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism report hundreds of civilian deaths, including scores of children. The UN has condemned the lack of monitoring by the US and launched an investigation into this “collateral damage”.

Moreover, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism reports that drone attacks have targeted rescuers and funeral goers. The claim of precise attack is undermined by such follow-up attacks when people gather to deal with the aftermath of an initial attack. Additionally, the US carry out what are known as “signature strikes”; whereby victims are identified for assassination not by specific intelligence about their identity but merely on the basis of their behaviour and activities.

The US administration has refused to release the precise legal justification for their actions. Until recently, they refused to confirm or deny the existence of the campaign. Now, they defend more generally on the basis that they are involved in a worldwide conflict against terrorists – there is not time for judicial involvement in this precise strategy. However, many independent legal experts refute this. The US is not at war with Yemen or Pakistan, it does not face imminent threat and therefore is violating international law by carrying out extra-judicial assassinations.

Beyond the legal arguments, the devastation on innocent people is far-reaching. The threat of drones hangs over these people on a constant basis, interfering with their daily lives; making them afraid to meet or travel. A joint study by the law schools of Stanford University and New York University, named, Living Under Drones, found high levels of trauma, including insomnia, nervous breakdown and severe anxiety amongst populations living under the threat. The study found that people avoid attending the funerals of victims or even providing assistance in the aftermath of an attack in fear of a follow-up strike.

Conclusion

There is a legitimate argument for a regulated and controlled arms trade. However, the status quo is a far cry from this. British weapons and technology are actively sold to some of the most brutal regimes and enable devastating human rights abuses, including by our own government and allies.

The global arms trade and its profiteers are, at least, amoral and wilfully blind about the misery being enabled. The Imperial War Museum must not be so callous. The Museum should not associate with arms manufacturers or traders and should cease to accept event hire contracts, such as the Annual Defence Dinner, sponsored and attended by such corporations as Chemring Group.

The Museum also receives donations from corporations whose human rights records are even worse than that of Chemring Group, such as BAE Systems. I urge the Trustees to be humane and cease to accept such blood money.

If basic morality is not sufficient reason to disassociate, the conflict of interests created by taking money from war profiteers must be. IWM cannot be intellectually free in its duty of recording the human consequences of war if it is financially reliant on war profiteers.

The Imperial War Museum and Arms Dealers

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A poster made by a museum visitor during Peter Kennard’s workshop, 2016

The Imperial War Museum’s grant from the government is being cut. By 2014, it will be down by 21.4%, in real terms, according to IWM’s 2011-12 Annual Report. But does this mean that it should “sell out” to industries that would like access to the two million plus visitors that visit the various IWM branches annually?

Sadly, a certain amount of selling out by IWM has already occured. This year, the Museum accepted and publicly listed in their annual report (page 17), donations of £10,000 or more from BAE Systems and Boeing UK; both of these companies are profiting greatly by manufacturing and selling weapons and other military equipment across the world, with the active support of the British government. The government says that it will not licence arms exports where it might facilitate repression or regional conflicts. However, licences are approved to the most repressive regimes across the globe, including Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Algeria and many others.

Moreover, I recently discovered that the Imperial War Museum hires out its historic building to a major networking dinner event for arms dealers and military buyers. The Annual Defence Dinner has been held at the Lambeth Road building since 2008. In 2012, the event was protested against by activists from the Campaign Against Arms Trade – but, otherwise, the event went unnoticed.

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I only learnt about the Annual Defence Dinner at the end of 2012, when I chanced across the CAAT blog. My initial reaction was outrage; IWM is a public museum, funded in part by the tax-payer, and it claims to be dedicated to recording and educating about the effects of war. A conflict of interests is created when a war museum partners with arms dealers. The Museum cannot be frank about the effects of war when it regularly takes money from people who directly profit from war.

Indignant, I wrote a letter to IWM’s Director-General, Diane Lees, complaining that the commercial deal was a violation of the Museum’s public duty and completely immoral. Lees defended the decision on the following grounds:

– The Annual Defence Dinner is a private hire event and not “hosted” by IWM.
– Private events provide necessary income for the Museum.
– The decision was made by following a criteria similar to that used when accepting sponsors.
– The event hire was approved because it involved the “broad defence sector”.

The only plausible argument is the one about income. Other museums, including the Natural History Museum, have defended their right to host arms dealers for money. Like the IWM, they say that they can’t really turn down good money – even though, as public insitutions, they owe a public duty.

This lack of institutional ethics is all the more inexcusable for IWM. Putting aside the extreme immorality, simply for a war museum to accept any money from arms dealers creates a conflict of interests situation. IWM exists to record and educate the public on British involvement in war since WW1 and the impact war and conflict has on people’s lives. Part of this remit must necessarily involve informing the public about the role of arms traders in war. Yet, IWM will find it nigh on impossible to do this without upsetting its sponsors from that industry. Therefore, the Museum is silenced on this most important aspects of warfare.

It is true that dependency on government grants also creates an inherent conflict of interests because the government deploys the military to war and, therefore, has an interest in minimising analysis of their decisions. Yet, taking money from arms traders is avoidable (currently, the Museum cannot function without government grant) and it exacerbates the lack of intellectual independence of the Museum from those carrying out war. The IWM grant from the government, at least, comes from the Department of Culture, rather than direct from the MOD.

There may be some justification if the dealings with arms dealers were limited and, perhaps, one off. However, the Annual Defence Dinner has been held at the Museum for five years, since 2008. Moreover, IWM has been accepting £10,000 or more donations from BAE Systems for a number of years. It may be taking money from other immoral/compromising sources – donations are not listed in the Annual Report if the donor requests anonymity or the donation is below £10,000.

Despite the budget cuts, this cannot be justified in IWM’s case. The Museum is not so financially desperate that they need sacrifice their public duty, reputation and ethics for arms trader money.

Though incomes were clearly down this financial year, IWM still received £21.96 million in grant from the government (£23.91 million last year). They considered it suitable to use their income to make “external grants” amounting to £3.36 million. They were able to pay their Director-General, Diane Lees, a salary of £125-130,000 per annum or £135-140,000 (there seems to be a discrepancy in the annual report). They were still also able to provide the unpaid Trustees with an annual total of £9,375 (£10,697 in 2010-11) for “travel and subsistence”. This amount was claimed by eight Trustees. It is not clear from the Annual Report which of the twenty-two Trustees they were – nor is it clear how the Board of Trustees, which meets only four times a year, with some Trustees in other committees, could reasonably charge the Museum this sum.

What is clear is that IWM, despite definite income cuts, is not desperate – and, is even demonstrating largesse, it seems, when it comes to Trustees and the Director-General. Moreover, it has the safety net of a fund balance of £184 million.

Clearly, generating commercial income is a necessary aspect of IWM but there is no justification for selling out to the arms trade. IWM should not be accepting donations or commercial deals from such harmful corporations. The first step that is required of the Museum is a rigorous Code of Ethics to apply to all significant decision-making processes. At the moment, there is no specific criteria for all the Museum’s commercial dealings. The criteria for accepting donations is vague, weak and in the hands of a Board of Trustees that is made up of a very narrow range of individuals with a predominance of military and corporate backgrounds.

Edit 1:

I have been assured in writing by Diane Lees, Director-General of IWM, that the Museum abides by the Museum Association’s Code of Ethics. Unfortunately, this Code barely mentions the ethics of funding. On contacting the Museum Association, they said… “(t)he MA is clear that the key thing is for museums to have a clear decision making mechanism for accepting money from any source. I have no doubt the museums you mentioned have considered all the issues involved and then resolved to accept the support. Ultimately, it is for them to decide what is right and appriopriate for their institution…”

Effectively, the Museum Association which aims to enhance the value of museums to society by, amongst other things, providing leadership, has nothing to say about the ethics of museum funding and commerce, except that there should be some transparency.

Further info:

Activists from CAAT report their attempts to disrupt and shame IWM and the attendees of the Annual Defence Dinner 2012: http://blog.caat.org.uk/2012/05/24/making-arms-dealers-tread-over-dead-bodies-at-the-imperial-war-museum/