UN Denial of Billions in Gulf War Health Compensation Denounced

NEW YORK, New York, July 25, 2005 (ENS) - Denial of billions of dollars in compensation to Saudi Arabia for adverse health effects to its people of the 1990-1991 Gulf War means there is little to discourage future targeting of natural resources and the environment in future wars, warns a group of U.S. scientists who presented evidence to a UN commission in support of the Saudi government's claims.

The Saudi claims were denied by the United Nations Compensation Commission (UNCC), a subsidiary organ of the UN Security Council. Its mandate is to process claims and pay compensation for losses and damage suffered as a direct result of Iraq's unlawful invasion and occupation of Kuwait.

The UNCC Governing Council, under the Presidency of Ambassador Tassos Kriekoukis of Greece, wound up 12 years of work on June 30, with decisions on dozens of claims, including environmental and public health claims, by the governments of Iran, Jordan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Turkey.

Since the appointment of the first UNCC panels of commissioners in 1993, over 2.68 million claims, seeking about US$354 billion in compensation, have been resolved by the various panels.


Map of the Middle East showing the countries that claimed damages for Iraq's invasion and occupation of Kuwait. (Map courtesy CIA)
To date, US$19.2 billion has been made available to governments and international organizations for distribution to successful claimants in all categories of claims. In addition, the Governing Council has decided that up to US$200 million will be made available for distribution to successful claimants in July.

The Commission says that resolution of such a significant number of claims with such a large asserted value over a period as short as 12 years has no precedent in the history of international claims resolution.

But in the case of denial of Saudi Arabia's claim to US$19.8 billion for damage or risk of damage to public health resulting from Iraq’s invasion and occupation of Kuwait, U.S. scientists who conducted the public health assessment for the Saudi government said Friday that the commission made the wrong decision.

Saudi Arabia asserts that as a result of Iraq’s invasion and occupation of Kuwait, a large proportion of its population was exposed to contaminants from the oil well fires, oil spills, vehicle emissions and disturbance of the desert areas by military activities; and acts of violence and other traumatic events during the invasion and occupation.

"The danger, of course, is that the dismissal of the public health claims by the United Nations Claims Commission will be interpreted to mean that there were no health consequences to the War and the oil well fires," said Dr. Richard Lee, medical director for Ecology and Environment and professor of medicine and anthropology at the State University of New York at Buffalo, who led the assessment team. "Nothing could be further from the truth!"


In the first Gulf War in 1991, Iraqi soldiers set more than 600 Kuwaiti oil wells afire. Columns of black smoke billowed into the sky for weeks. (Photo courtesy U.S. Defense Department)
The public health assessment team commissioned by the government of Saudi Arabia team was composed of technical and medical staff from Ecology and Environment, Inc. (E&E), based in Buffalo, New York, and scientists from the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health based in Baltimore, Maryland.

They say that their assessment, known as the Exposure and Health Survey, was one of the largest public health surveys ever conducted in the Middle East.

After a human health risk assessment, an evaluation of historical hospital-based records, and analysis of air pollution data, and a survey of exposure to air pollution during the Gulf War and the current health status of 20,000 Saudi citizens, the team concluded that almost 1,400 premature deaths resulted from the exposure to increased particulate matter levels.

Trained interviewers surveyed approximately 15,000 people randomly selected from communities that had been exposed to high levels of air pollution from the Gulf War oil fires and from the exhaust emitted by the large number of military vehicles used in the conflict, as well as to war-related traumatic events. Data from these interviews were compared with a sample of approximately 5,000 people who lived in areas not heavily impacted by the Gulf War air pollution.

Analysis of the results from the Exposure and Health Survey (EHS) indicated that people living in areas that were exposed to high levels of air pollution were at two to three times increased risk of suffering from health problems including asthma, chronic bronchitis, and other respiratory conditions, as well as cardiovascular disease, when compared to people who had lived in areas not experiencing the Gulf War-related air pollution.

The Exposure and Health Survey also identified a substantial increase in the risk of the exposed population of experiencing symptoms associated with post-traumatic stress disorder, with the increase ranging from two to five-fold depending on the evaluation criteria selected.

Assessment team leader Dr. Jonathan Samet, chairman of the Department of Epidemiology and Co-Director of the Risk Sciences and Public Policy Institute at the Bloomberg School of Public Health, said, "The consistent findings of increased adverse health outcomes, both physical and mental, indicate that exposure to air pollutants, military activities, and other negative factors associated with the Gulf War compromised the health and well being of residents of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia."


Dr. Jonathan Samet is professor and chairman of the Department of Epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. His research interests include the health effects of air pollutants in the general environment and in the workplace. (Photo courtesy EPA)
"The impact of these events can be expected to result in increased health care costs and reduced quality of life for the Saudi population," said Dr. Samet.

But Iraq successfully argued that Saudi Arabia has not submitted actual data showing increases in morbidity and actual health expenditures, and claimed that Saudi Arabia overestimates the actual levels of air pollution caused by the oil well fires.

According to Iraq, publicly available sources show that the invasion and occupation did not have a serious impact on public health in Saudi Arabia. Consequently, there were no increases in public health expenditures as a result of the invasion and occupation.

In the view of Iraq, many of the ailments identified in the claim, such as diabetes, hypertension and kidney disease have no scientifically established causal link with air pollution.

Iraq argued that the methodology set out in the EHS for measuring health effects of the invasion and occupation is weak because self-reporting of health outcomes is not a reliable method either for determining actual prevalence of disease or for demonstrating a causal link between diseases and the invasion and occupation.

The UNCC panel agreed with Iraq, saying the EHS relied on over-sampling in highly exposed areas and patient diagnosis profiles from a single hospital in Jeddah for inpatient hospital visits.

The panel also notes that the patient diagnosis profile in Saudi Arabia for in-patient visits is obtained from a highly urbanized section of the control area.


The Saudi Arabian city of Jeddah (Photo courtesy National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations)
In addition, the panel notes "that Saudi Arabia does not provide any justification for the extrapolation of health care data from the United States to Saudi Arabia, given the differences in age and gender distributions between the populations of the two countries."

But Dr. Lee defended the team's work, saying, "There are two carefully done studies, one by the Kuwait-Harvard University team, and the other by the Saudi E&E-Johns Hopkins team, that clearly document the increased adverse health effects of the War and its aftermath on the citizens of those countries. Given the scientifically rigorous analytical methods used and the results of the E&E team's analysis, it is difficult to understand that the evidence presented by the government of Saudi Arabia was labeled insufficient to support the claim for damages to public health."

"Further, the UNCC dismissal on economic and strictly legal grounds is not supported by the scientific evidence."

"Perhaps the most dangerous impact of the UNCC decision is the notion that injuries to the health of residents in war situations because of environmental degradation and destruction are not important," said Dr. Lee.

Overall, four environmental and public health claims were submitted to the UNCC by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Of Saudi Arabia's natural resource damage claims for US$5.36 billion for damage to intertidal shoreline habitats, only $46.1 million was awarded.

Saudi Arabia sought compensation to establish 10 separate marine and coastal preserves, covering a total area of 183 square kilometers, five of them to have visitor centers for educational purposes.

Saudi Arabia also sought compensation to construct 42.1 square kilometers of new salt marshes and mangrove areas within these preserves.

Saudi Arabia's claims for damages to terrestrial, marine, fisheries, and wildlife resources were denied.


A Saudi man looks upon oiled beaches and water during the First Gulf War, 1991. (Photo courtesy NOAA Office of Response and Restoration, National Ocean Service)
Saudi Arabia had proposed to establish 10 terrestrial preserves with a total area of 4,654 square kilometers as compensatory restoration for the damage as a result of the oil well fires in Kuwait and military activities during Iraq’s invasion and occupation of Kuwait.

Compensation was denied for livestock and crop damage and reduced crop yields, although $2.4 million was claimed.

"With no liability assigned to the perpetrators, the UNCC has failed to establish an international precedent for damages to public health that are the consequences of armed conflict," said Dr. Lee. "Effectively, there is little to discourage future targeting of natural resources and the environment for vandalism and for purposeful harm to large numbers of noncombatant civilians."

In other awards - Kuwait was awarded a total of US$16.2 million, $7.9 million for loss of natural resources, and $8.2 million for damage to public health.

Jordan was awarded a total of $161.9 million of the $4.3 billion claimed for damage to groundwater and terrestrial resources.

Jordan's claims for damage to agricultural, wetland and marine resources were denied.

Iran claimed damages as a result of pollution from the oil well fires in Kuwait, the oil spills into the Persian Gulf; and the influx of refugees who departed from Iraq or Kuwait as a result of Iraq’s invasion and occupation of Kuwait.

According to Iran, its analysis of satellite images and meteorological data clearly reveal that soot over the southern and southwestern provinces of Iran resulted in “black rain,” samples of which show “increased concentrations of anions, cations, and heavy metals” in the rain.

Iran was awarded a total of US$27.7 million of the $11 billion claimed - $24 million for damage to agricultural resources, $3.3 million for damage to public health, $332,300 for cancer monitoring.

But Iran's claim for damage to fisheries was denied as Iraq argued the decrease in catches was due to overfishing rather than the result of oil contamination of the Gulf.

Iran was also awarded $3.3 million of the $5.6 million claimed for medical treatment and public health facilities for refugees, but the Iranian claim of $72 million for respiratory effects of the Kuwait oil well fires on children was denied.

To establish a causal link, study, Iranian researchers interviewed 15,162 individuals between the ages of 10 and 24 in 43 cities and in rural areas within seven provinces.

In total, Iran claims that 3,263 additional cases of respiratory diseases were a direct result of pollutants from the oil well fires.

But Iraq successfully argued that of the more than 15,000 children assessed in Iran’s monitoring and assessment study, only 74 were diagnosed with pulmonary disease.

Syria claimed $2.1 billion for damages to cultural resources, livestock and public health, but all Syria's claims were denied by the Commission.

Turkey claimed $5.4 million for damages to for natural resource damage to its forests from refugees from Iraq or Kuwait who cut down many trees in its oak forests for firewood. Turkey stated that the refugees first cut standing trees and subsequently uprooted stumps, causing deterioration of forest root systems.

The UNCC panel denied Turkey's claim, saying the country failed to provide dates on which the refugees arrived in Turkey, the countries from which they departed, the duration of their stay in Turkey or the details of the damage that they were alleged to have caused.