During the past two decades, the range and power of chemical and biological weapons have expanded inexorably. In response to those threats, the United States and other major nations spend billions of dollars on defense agencies and domestic preparedness. Yet the world's most intense attacks, with thousands of tons of chemical and biological weapons used against the defenseless civilian population of Northern Iraq in 1988, remain virtually undocumented.

These attacks and their consequences have the potential to inform us about defense strategies and domestic preparedness far better than any of the theoretical scenarios being enacted. Yet we appear to have learned no lessons from this incident and have little knowledge of the weapons used or the immediate and long-term effects on the victims. Even worse, the victims have received no humanitarian aid for themselves or their stricken environment.

Is this because we feel this situation has no relevance or that these weapons do not pose further threats? This cannot be the case. The victims were the people of Halabja and Iraqi Kurdistan, attacked by aircraft dropping shells bearing thousands of tons of chemical and biological weapons. The attacks were instigated by Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi government to punish the Kurds for sympathizing with Iran during the Iran-Iraq war.

The plight of these people today is still of catastrophic proportions, so why are no efforts being made to provide help? One of the major obstacles is that the international community possesses no mechanisms to deal with chemical or biological weapons attacks inflicted by a sovereign government on its own people. These attacks constitute one of the worst human rights violations in recent history. Yet when we have asked representatives of governments, the United Nations and other international agencies about assistance to Northern Iraq, we have been repeatedly told this must be agreed to by Baghdad. Such a condition effectively dooms constructive endeavors and borders on complicity in perpetuation of the trauma caused in these genocidal attacks.

During the series of attacks in 1988, victims were exposed to the highest doses of the most potent cocktails of chemical and biological nerve and mustard agents ever used against civilians. These included mustard gas (which burns, mutates DNA and causes malformations and cancer) and the nerve gases sarin and tabun, which kill, paralyze and cause immediate and lasting neuropsychiatric damage.

In 1997-1998 the Iraqi government also was developing, producing and stockpiling even more terrible weapons, including the potent nerve agent VX -- as well as the biological weapons anthrax and the viciously toxic mycotoxins. It is highly likely that these too were used in the attacks. Mycotoxins, including trichothecenes, are among the most dangerous biological agents ever devised because they are capable of producing the effects we fear most -- being driven mad by designer psychoses, killing babies in utero, and children and adults from rapidly growing untreatable cancers.

Thousands died immediately and many of the more than 250,000 survivors suffer long-term effects. They need urgent help. Many thousands survived the initial attack only to die later from conditions including cancers, heart failure and congenital malformations. Some deaths would have been preventable, and much suffering could have been alleviated had aid been available. But many of these disorders are untreatable at present, and so innovative programs of medical research are needed to develop effective therapies for long-term effects.

Eleven years after the attacks, we should not have to ask what agents were used. Some defense agencies have the capability to detect these agents, but none of them has yet been invited to do so by the Iraqi government. We should not still be ignorant about whether soil and water remain contaminated. It is impossible to comprehend why the international community has failed to help the people of Halabja, especially when assistance so clearly serves self-interest.

In the midst of the relentless progress of her own cancer, the late Meg Greenfield expressed concern for these people and her despair about the lack of efforts to aid them. She shared our determination to try to mobilize and provide effective help. In her introduction to my piece written to mark the 10th anniversary of Halabja [op-ed, March 11, 1998], she wrote that the phrase " `weapons of mass destruction' has lost much of its immediacy and meaning. It has become, like `nuclear devastation' and `chemical and biological warfare,' an abstract term of governmental memos, punditry and political debate. For many it calls forth neither visual imagery nor visceral revulsion. . . .

"People around the world have seen the evidence of deformity and mutation following from the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It shaped their attitude toward the use of atomic weapons. Maybe if more evidence of the unimaginable real-life effects of chemical and biological warfare becomes available, a comparable attitude to those weapons will develop."

The reasons for the lack of medical and scientific evidence are explained by the geopolitical isolation and the vulnerability of the people exposed. Previous chemical and biological exposures -- from those of phosgene and mustard gas in World War I to those of the Iran-Iraq war -- involved young, fit, male military recruits. But Saddam Hussein attacked an exceedingly vulnerable population that included women, children and the elderly. These people remain isolated, inaccessible and targets for Saddam's experiments, yet prisoners of Iraqi sovereignty. We have failed these people until now.

Last week, just outside Geneva, we convened a meeting supported by the U.S. State Department, the Washington Kurdish Institute and the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs to concentrate and focus efforts toward a cohesive and implementable aid program. Groups previously separated by political or geographic divides came together and pledged help. Difficulties arose only in the attempts to find ways to secure funding for the project.

The mayor of Halabja contributed eloquent poetry about people suffering the effects of the attack; doctors from the region discussed the major medical problems and those of medical supplies and equipment; nongovernmental organizations described caring programs as well as their experiences of problems and dangers; political parties moved through lively discussions to consensus and support; government representatives were thoughtful and provided insight. The United Nations high commissioner for human rights, Mary Robinson, sent one of her most senior advisers and committed to finding ways to help in the U.N. system.

Long-term treatment and research can be done only in partnership with the people. The people of Halabja are rightly wary of surveys that yield little tangible assistance. They need reassurance that a carefully planned and ethically conducted program for their health and welfare will have an adequate budget to start addressing their needs. And as leading toxicologists and defense scientists explained, complex environmental sampling is necessary to determine residual effects of weapons and their risks to the people.

As a result of many months of work, culminating in the Geneva meeting, the Halabja Post-Graduate Medical Institute has been founded with the support of all the political parties and their health ministers. Its purpose is to establish an academic structure through which ethical foundations for both humanitarian and medical responses can be laid to benefit all the victims of chemical and biological weapons in the region. It also will be the unifying focal point for the stringent scientific processes needed to determine the long-term effects of such weapons and to provide a mechanism for the delivery of international assistance.

We are grateful for the U.S. State Department's support for this crucial initial stage but, unfortunately, almost no funding exists to build on the rudimentary structure and to operationalize treatment and research programs. It is imperative that governments and agencies worldwide join this effort in order that we can learn the lessons of Halabja.

U.N. sanctions against Iraq were supposed to quash the Iraqi government's ability to manufacture and use weapons of mass destruction, not to cause privation and suffering among those on whom Saddam had already experimented. A group of senators and congressmen, dismayed that nothing constrains Saddam's continuing programs to develop and acquire weapons of mass destruction, wrote to President Clinton on Aug. 11 asking why nothing was being done to help the people in Northern Iraq and questioning current interpretations that have lead to failures to provide help under the United Nation's Security Council Resolution 986. Their strong letter stated: "The delivery of non-lethal forms of assistance inside Iraq, especially humanitarian support, should not violate sanctions."

Dr. Christine Gosden is professor of medical genetics at the University of Liverpool at Liverpool Women's Hospital, the United Kingdom. Mike Amitay is executive director of the Washington Kurdish Institute.