Skip to main content
On the Record

Humanitarian and Human Rights Issues in Iraq

Roberta Cohen

It’s quite clear that the slowness in bringing security to Iraq has been the major impediment to the restoration of political and economic normalcy. Debates have raged about whether coalition forces were unable or unwilling to provide security, and why there was insufficient post-conflict planning. But the fact remains that US and British forces basically stood by while the humanitarian infrastructure of the country was largely destroyed. They watched as hospitals, medical supplies, food warehouses, water pipelines and electric lines were looted and government ministries dealing with water, health, housing and education burned.

The impact is still felt today. Hospitals are still not fully functioning. Electricity remains in short supply as does clean water, and shop owners, business people and government workers find it hard to resume work with constant power outages, carjackings and criminal activity. Women in particular are afraid to leave their places of work or home after dark. Because of unsafe roads and overall insecurity, humanitarian and development agencies long delayed their entry into the country. For the World Food Program, which has just begun to bring in the more than 400,000 tons of food needed each month, security remains the main challenge. For the International Committee of the Red Cross, security inside medical facilities is a major concern.

To be sure, over the past weeks, coalition authorities have begun to take steps to try to restore order and basic services and restart the economy. Most importantly they are bringing in military police and additional troops. Indeed, Administration officials generally put forward the view that everything is basically going well in Iraq and that the problems that do exist are on their way to resolution. There is, however, a divergent view, based on the testimony of various humanitarian observers on the ground. They point out that the slowness in restoring basic services 1) helped fuel resentment of the US occupation, 2) undermined the confidence of many Iraqis in the US; 3) undermined the confidence of foreign investors; and 4) enabled conservative Shiite clerics to assert their authority in local communities by delivering the needed services. What’s important to watch is whether the gap between official rhetoric and reality on the ground narrows or widens further.

Hand in hand with strengthening security is the need to revamp the corrupt and politicized legal system in the country. Unless this can be done fairly quickly, people will continue to take justice into their own hands and the Islamic clerics and mosques will be encouraged to expand the enforcement of Islamic law in local communities. Moreover, the painful personal testimonies now being told to the media, with the finding of each mass grave, need to become part of the official record and part of a legal process to hold the Saddam Hussein regime accountable.

The US position on accountability is not yet clear. Administration officials seem to prefer a tribunal with Iraqi judges, while Congress has appropriated $10 million to support an international tribunal. An international tribunal or a combined Iraqi/ international process would undoubtedly be the more effective. A corollary to this would be the exclusion of people with a history of abuse from official roles. This was finally affirmed by the US, after disquieting earlier reports of the reinstatement of several Ba’athist judges and the holding of consultations about a new prison system with the former warden of Abu Ghraib, one of the most notorious prisons in Baghdad.

Since one of the justifications for the war was the human rights atrocities of the Saddam Hussein regime, it is surprising that so little attention has been paid to protecting documents and gravesites. Underscoring this, I even received an email from concerned US officials on the ground asking what to do with incriminating documents they had found. As the coalition faces increasing criticism for its inability to produce significant evidence about weapons of mass destruction, it might make a more serious effort to maintain the evidence of crimes against humanity, in particular gravesites, where up to 300,000 Iraqis may be buried.

A system of justice also will need to address the property claims of hundreds of thousands of persons who were forcibly displaced from their homes by state policies of expulsion and who now want to reclaim these homes. There is particular urgency to manage the problem in the Kirkuk area, where competing claims for land and property arising from Saddam Hussein’s Arabization policies have begun to erupt into violence among Kurds, Turkmen and Arabs. Already, thousands of Arabs have been forced from their homes by returning Kurds, while hundreds of Kurds are sitting in a sports stadium in Kirkuk without water or sanitation unable to get their homes back.

One flashpoint will be the ending of the school year when even larger numbers of Kurds will return to Kirkuk and try to reclaim their homes. Another is the summer harvest season, with arguments already beginning over ownership of crops. Although a Pentagon team has gone out to assess the situation, no US policy yet exists to deal with property issues, with the result that individual military commanders on the ground decide on an ad hoc basis who should remain and who should forfeit their homes. With decisions made differently in each area, and facts being established on the ground, it will be harder to enforce a policy, once decided upon.

Author

The United Nations could play a most constructive role in helping to develop a legal system in Iraq. The UN has long experience in organizing returns of displaced persons and in setting up claims commissions and courts to deal with property issues. It also has long experience in setting up international tribunals, as for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. Moreover, the UN has experience in promoting women’s rights. I would note, in this connection, that the inclusion of women, the majority of the country, in political and economic reconstruction plans has thus far been minimal despite their education and professional backgrounds. Only 5 of the 70 plus participants at a US organized conference in Baghdad in April were women. To his credit, Sergio Vieira de Mello, the new UN representative, has been making strong statements on this question.

To be sure, the UN role is a secondary one, but it does go beyond humanitarian relief, encompassing the reconstruction process. The UN official chosen to be in charge is highly capable, experienced and shrewd, which might point to a gradual expansion of UN influence. But the US will need to move beyond the current acronym rife among Americans in Iraq — ABUN — anything but the United Nations. This is important because the UN role can add credibility and an international dimension to the current American-led process, for which the welcome appears to be wearing thin. In the office of the Secretary-General there is an understandable fear that the UN will be used as a scapegoat if Iraq turns out to be mission impossible, but for the time being, there is a lot of collaborative energy being devoted to Iraq’s political and economic future. Let’s hope it works and that the staying power is there to make it work.

Get daily updates from Brookings