Healing Environmental War Wounds: A talk with Alexander Likhotal

When the Soviet Union dissolved, Mikhail Gorbachev created a foundation and also Green Cross International, an international NGO to address problems of environment and warfare. He served as the founding president and continues today as chairman of the board. His former press secretary, Alexander Likhotal, is now the president and CEO of Green Cross International in Geneva. This conversation took place in Bologna, Italy in late September at one of the organization's conferences on the global water crisis.

By Metta Spencer | 2004-01-01 12:00:00

METTA SPENCER: The last time we met, you were still at the Gorbachev Foundation.

ALEXANDER LIKHOTAL: Really - it was that long ago? I've been with Green Cross seven years.

SPENCER: I don't think many people in Canada know much about Green Cross, so why don't you tell us what you're doing?

LIKHOTAL: Actually, we are still a young organization because we recently celebrated our tenth anniversary. It started mainly in Europe, growing gradually. We now have an American affiliate but, due to brand name rights, "Green Cross" was already taken in North America, so we are called "Global Green" in the United States. In Canada we still do not have our national organization. That's regrettable because we have 29 national organizations around the world and we'd love to have a Canadian one, given the experience of Canada in sustainable development activities. And it's quite advanced, I would say, in its legislative base in terms of environmental regulation. So of course we could benefit a lot and we could also provide some advantageous points as well. But we never impose the process. Usually we respond to applications that come from nations, from civil society, saying that they would like to establish a national organization of the Green Cross. Based on previous experience, I am confident that the artificial acceleration of this process usually does not deliver any benefit. Civil society is a very competitive sphere and if you start building something against the will of the local civil society, usually you create more problems than you resolve. I learned from my previous experience when I worked with Gorbachev in the office of the president that sometimes it's better to live with a problem rather than try to solve it. So for us, the absence of a Canadian Green Cross is a problem that we're living with.

SPENCER: It's true that there can be competition among groups. Resources are scarce. I don't know whether Green Cross does something special that other organizations are not doing.

LIKHOTAL: I can answer yes to that question. The niche that Green Cross occupies in international civil society is extremely specific and is reflected in its title. Just as Red Cross focuses on the humanitarian consequences of wars and conflicts, we do the same for the environmental values. That's one of our key activities - the environmental consequences of wars and conflicts. Projects in that sphere were the initial activities of the Green Cross and now we have expanded. We worked in Kuwait on the examination of the post-conflict environmental degradation. We worked in the Balkans, providing the necessary support for evaluating the environmental degradation and recommending how to heal the wounds of the war.

SPENCER: You sent teams there to do that?

LIKHOTAL: Absolutely. And I am quite proud that now, when they talk about some international environmental entity in this field, our name comes to mind first. We were invited by the UN to a mission in the Balkans. We are invited now by UNEP as well to participate in the work in Iraq. We are considering that. We were very active in addressing the post-Cold War consequences. We have been working for eight years now on a project that is called the "legacy of the Cold War," which deals with the stockpiles of chemical weapons and their destruction, the provision of assistance to the people who were affected by living in the vicinity of those stockpiles.

SPENCER: Wonderful! I hadn't heard anything about any of those projects.

LIKHOTAL: Oh, Green Cross is very practical, very down to earth. We were speaking a few minutes ago about the necessity of value change, changing people's minds and so on. But we believe in the strategy of small steps and that's what we are doing.

SPENCER: In Kuwait, what were you doing exactly?

LIKHOTAL: Several years after the war, the Kuwaiti government was claiming in the United Nations certain rights to receive compensation from the Iraqi government for the aggression. So they commissioned Green Cross, as an unbiased and independent organization, to provide an assessment of the degradation. We made an agreement with the government of Kuwait, stipulating that, whatever the results, whether they like them or not, we were not going to change our principled position. That is what we did, though some points were not much to the liking of the Kuwaiti government. For instance, the sea has digested practically all the consequences of the war. This undermined, to a certain extent, their claims for retribution. But on the other hand, we learned that the soil was badly contaminated and we learned one major principle from it -- that after the war you should simultaneously address humanitarian and environmental matters. Otherwise, environmental consequences tend to accumulate and if you do not do it immediately you will have to spend ten times more to relieve the situation. That's what happened with the watersheds in Kuwait that were contaminated by oil. If the necessary steps had been taken immediately after the war, it would have cost much less than it is necessary to spend now. The report of Green Cross was accepted by the UN Indemnity Commission as an official document.

SPENCER: Wasn't there also a problem with cluster bombs in Kuwait?

LIKHOTAL: Not cluster bombs. It was depleted uranium.

SPENCER: What's your position on that? I have heard contradictory opinions about the health effects of depleted uranium and the argument that the soldiers who experienced "Gulf War syndrome" got it from DU.

LIKHOTAL: I am an academic by background, so I have to remain within the terrain that is calculable and can be checked. I know there are no safe limits for exposure to radiation, whatever anyone says. It is accumulated in a person's body, so obviously there is a certain effect. As to whether particular illnesses, such as thyroid cancer, are connected directly to contact with depleted uranium, there are still too few facts to prove either way. It's a gray zone where one could "cook" the evidence according to one's tastes, though there is more and more evidence now about the dangers of DU.

SPENCER: Well, the report on Kuwait contamination did mention depleted uranium.

LIKHOTAL: Absolutely.

SPENCER: What could be done about it? I suppose if it's in powder form, nothing could be done later.

LIKHOTAL: Depleted uranium, which was used for the penetration of hardened shelters, presents immediate danger for the people involved when people breathe the dust just after the attack. DU never disappears and it has a long period of radioactivity, but the major danger is immediate.

SPENCER: I see. Now you say you are considering doing something in Iraq?

LIKHOTAL: Yes. We are invited by UNEP to preliminary activities -- discussions, brainstorming -- because obviously the international community should be prepared sooner or later, and I would prefer sooner, for otherwise the relief will cost much more. But in Iraq, unfortunately, the United States is watching a Hollywood movie in reverse order. At first comes the happy ending, then comes the movie, which includes all the complications and complexities. Aside from the humanitarian consequences, which can be seen on television, there are environmental consequences, which we have to deal with. Unfortunately, our activity can come only after the international community takes up certain responsibilities in Iraq, and that will depend on United Nations negotiations at the top level. So in the meantime we are trying not to sit on our hands. We will be ready when it becomes necessary.

SPENCER: Right now it is obviously dangerous. I don't know whether anybody wants to undergo that danger, but when they blow up the UN headquarters in Iraq, they are not limiting their aggression to the United States. I wonder who they think their friends and enemies are. It wouldn't be fun to be there now.

LIKHOTAL: Absolutely. It's not fun anywhere. Our people were in Kuwait with all those booby traps. The officers were saying that you could not just step aside in certain places. It was not pleasant, but somebody has to do the job.

SPENCER: How many teams have you deployed?

LIKHOTAL: In Kuwait there were three expeditions, each with about 20 people working for three weeks. In the Balkans, we were not solely Green Cross. We were part of a UNEP environmental team there and were also part of the focus mission of the five states that invited Green Cross, knowing about its experience working in these conditions. We had a number of expeditions to the chemical sites in Russia and the United States, and our people worked there, but those were not expeditions at the same level as in Kuwait or the Balkans. We are not inspectors. We simply examined the situation and measured the contamination levels and the impact on the people -- even the social impact of what was going on.

SPENCER: What kind of health effects have you found around chemical weapons sites?

LIKHOTAL: Leukemia. Children's leukemia rates are increased. (I don't know the figures at the moment, but if you are interested you can find it in our report, which is on the Internet.) And mainly thyroid cancer. This is calculable. This is clearly from living in the vicinity of the chemical weapons stockpiles.

We are now considering starting another project -- in Vietnam. Agent Orange (dioxin) has entered into the food chain. Every year thousands of children are born crippled, and there are traceable amounts of Agent Orange in the food, which is collected from the fields. Some areas need to be decontaminated. We believe the dioxin is the cause -- but again, we are a nonpolitical environmental organization, so we do not blame anybody. We are dealing with the direct consequences. If there is a war, we don't say, "You are wrong." We just say that there is damage to the environment and we must do something to relieve that situation. We also try to show that war has long-term environmental consequences that destroy the life of future generations for a long time afterward.

SPENCER: Historians have already reached a consensus about Vietnam, so you don't have to say it.

LIKHOTAL: Historically, yes. But we should also take into account people's feelings. Lots of Americans were sent there, just as Russians were sent to Afghanistan later. They are not to be blamed for it and we don't want to hurt their families by pointing fingers.

SPENCER: Thank you for this!

For further information, check the web site of Green Cross International: www.greencrossinternational.net/index1.html.

Peace Magazine Jan-Mar 2004

Peace Magazine Jan-Mar 2004, page 6. Some rights reserved.

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