March 16 marked the 34th anniversary of one of the most heinous crimes against humanity on record: the murder by poison gas of Iraqi civilians by their own leader, Saddam Hussein.
In 1988, Saddam Hussein initiated the al-Anfal campaign and charged his cousin, Ali Hassan al-Majid, with executing it. Al-Anfal was a scorched earth policy designed to put down a rebellion in northern Iraq-- the local response to a 5-year crackdown on ethnic minorities.
On the evening of March 16, after a day of shelling that broke windows and doors across the Kurdish town of Halabja, Iraqi helicopters and planes began to pepper the city with canisters of chemical weapons. Heavier than air, the toxic chemicals sank to the ground and seeped into the damaged buildings, killing civilians sheltering in cellars.
Around 3,500 to 5,000 people died that day in Halabja. It was the first time in modern history that a government attacked its own people with chemical weapons.
In the course of one year, the al-Anfal campaign cost the lives of about 100,000 people, most of them civilians. Ali Hassan al-Majid, known from then on as Chemical Ali, went on to commit more atrocities, including a bloody suppression of a 1991 uprising of Shia Muslims.
When the regime of Saddam Hussein toppled, Chemical Ali was captured, tried and found guilty of committing genocide and crimes against humanity. For these crimes, Ali Hassan al-Majid was executed.
The war crimes trials held after the Second World War resulted in closer scrutiny of the conduct of warring parties and their leaders, particularly their treatment of civilians. Since then, once fighting is over, those who committed war crimes or crimes against humanity are identified, hunted down, brought to trial before an international court and sentenced to long prison terms. Such was the fate of war criminals from the dissolution of Yugoslavia, the Rwandan genocide, and the Cambodian genocide.