The Illusion of Justice: When Will Reparations be Served to Iraq’s Victims?

U.S. Marines pull down the statue of Saddam Hussein in the center of Baghdad, April 9, 2003. Credit: Mirrorpix/Getty Images
U.S. Marines pull down the statue of Saddam Hussein in the center of Baghdad, April 9, 2003. Credit: Mirrorpix/Getty Images

(IPS) – It is difficult to spend any time in Iraq without being struck by a sense of profound injustice. After successive decades of war and occupation, violence has become the rule rather than the exception in the country, with each phase of conflict outdoing the previous in terms of brutality and capacity to shock the conscience.

Since the fall of Mosul in June 2014, the conflict with ISIS has occupied minds, hearts and television screens, unleashed unspeakable horrors, and created countless new victims. Now, more than three years later, and in the wake of victories in Hawija and Raqqa, ISIS may be on the brink of annihilation – but military defeat without justice raises the specter of further violence.

The recent eruption of military confrontation between Iraqi and Kurdish forces in Kirkuk, which shattered a fragile status quo in place since the start of the conflict with ISIS, seems to confirm that peace is an elusive dream. When contemplating the prospects of reconciliation in Iraq, the idea of multiple layers of injustice, accumulated over time, always comes to mind.

How can a society recover when new wounds are being inflicted before old scars have healed? For every thousand civilians who have been victimized by the conflict with ISIS and are waiting for answers, there are a thousand more widows of the American invasion, and a thousand survivors of Saddam Hussein’s genocides, many of whom have not been served justice to this day.

In international human rights circles, planning for the post-ISIS phase is in full swing. Here, “accountability” is the word of the day, and many are spurred on by a September 2017 UN Security Council resolution that will see an international investigative team deployed to Iraq to support domestic prosecution of ISIS crimes.

However, the resolution’s most obvious flaw is that it is limited in mandate to acts committed by ISIS, despite the fact that other parties to the conflict, including Iraqi and Kurdish forces, government-allied militias, and the US-led coalition, are all responsible for their fair share of violations.

Moreover, while the emphasis on criminal accountability is justifiable given the severity of violations committed, it is questionable whether it is enough to prompt the type of reconciliation and healing desperately needed in Iraq.

It was these types of questions that led my colleagues and I to first start exploring the potential of individual reparations as a path forward towards justice for victims in Iraq. A growing body of international best practices, from Colombia to South Africa, points to the significant material and symbolic impact that reparations can have on individuals and societies recovering from atrocities.

Moreover, a lesser-known fact is that Iraq already has the domestic framework to support reparations – and has been quietly administering them for years. A visit to the Baghdad headquarters of the Central Compensation Committee, the government body responsible for administering compensation to victims of ‘military operations, military mistakes, and terrorist actions,’ was an unexpectedly humbling experience.

The Committee, which draws its mandate from a law passed in 2009, delivers compensation packages to victims harmed since the 2003 invasion that include one-time grants, monthly pensions, and plots of land. In the midst of stiff political opposition, a spiraling economic crisis, and ongoing conflict that has paralyzed their operations in parts of the country, the members of the Committee have diligently gone on with their work.

Between 2011 and 2016, they reached decisions on 183,940 cases, distributing more than $355 million in compensation to victims and their families. The compensation officials we met with seemed refreshingly principled as far as government officials go, and were keen to emphasize the sense of duty that guided their work with victims of violations.

Yet, they receive very little recognition for their work either inside or outside of Iraq. Countless politicians and foreign diplomats we met with in Baghdad were quick to criticize the compensation process as bureaucratic, slow or inconsequential. Many dismissed the idea of reparations entirely, viewing it as unrealistic or financially untenable given the need to invest in stabilization and reconstruction.

These arguments hardly stand up to scrutiny. Reparations cost money, yes, but not nearly as much as war. One of the findings released last year by the Chilcot Inquiry, mandated to investigate the UK’s role in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, was that the decision to invade was made almost entirely independently of any financial calculations of what such an undertaking would entail – it was war at any cost.

The UK eventually spent £9.24 billion on the invasion – a figure which pales in comparison to the trillions spent by the US. That the Iraqi government has shown itself able to run an entirely self-funded reparations process in the midst of ongoing conflict, while the worlds’ leading military powers claim to be incapable of accepting financial responsibility for the destruction they unleashed in the country, is as ridiculous as it is lamentable.

But while the US and the UK attempt to put their occupation-era blunders behind them, more recent military involvement in Iraq is setting dangerous new precedents. Since August 2014, airstrikes launched by the US-led military coalition have flattened neighborhoods and led to thousands of civilian casualties – 5,117 deaths as of August 2017, according to international monitoring group Airwars.

Yet, the coalition has proved reluctant to launch proper investigations into reports of civilian casualties and has reportedly only issued two condolence payments to victims’ families since the start of the campaign, in stark contrast to previous practice in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

If Iraq is to be extricated from the cycles of violence and resentment that have dominated its recent history, a truly inclusive transitional justice process is needed to acknowledge the harms committed by all parties to the conflict, past and present. For the Iraqi government, this means ensuring that all armed actors, including government-affiliated militias, are held accountable for their recent actions and engaged in truth-seeking and reparations processes.

For the international community, this means holding themselves to the same standards of justice to which they hold others, and redressing wrongdoing wherever it has occurred.

Miriam Puttick is Head of Middle East and North Africa Programs at the London-based Ceasefire Centre for Civilian Rights and co-author of the report Reparations for the victims of conflict in Iraq: Lessons learned from comparative practice, released on November 8, 2017.