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why iraq needs a court of truth and reconciliation now

Faris Harram
The opportunity to establish some sort of institution for restorative justice after Saddam Hussein was lost years ago. But Iraqi poet Faris Harram argues that Iraqi society still needs one, if Iraqis ever want to…
23.05.2012  |  Najaf

Recently I read the arrest warrant that was issued against [Iraqi Vice President] Tariq al-Hashimi on Interpol’s website. It’s difficult to know whether the man is innocent or guilty and we will all have to wait until Iraqi courts issue a verdict. But reading the warrant made me think about the golden opportunity that Iraq after 2003, when the nation had the chance to really redress the cultural imbalances created during the rule of [former Iraqi leader] Saddam Hussein.

When Hussein was caught and arrested very few Iraqis spoke out to suggest a reconciliation process. Such a process would have opened the door for Iraq’s elite - intellectuals, academics, sociologists, psychologists, economists and even clerics - to initiate a unique debate.

Even though it would have taken only one decision by Parliament to set this up, it didn’t happen and we lost a golden opportunity to purge Iraqi souls and answer our society’s desires for retribution and revenge, desires that still exist today – even six years after Hussein’s execution.

Even if it wasn’t possible – for whatever reason - to put Hussein himself in front of some kind of institute of restorative justice, we must ask ourselves why we never trialled other criminals after 2003, criminals whose crimes may have been even graver than Hussein’s.

For example, the theft of public money in “new Iraq” alone deserves open debate. The people who have done these things should be questioned by ordinary Iraqis – and especially because we know that many of them have become powerful simply by manipulating others’ religious feelings, proclaiming themselves prophets. Imagine a scene where an ordinary Iraqi family dares to ask a cleric or a minister about how they’ve stolen Iraq’s resources?

South Africa came up with a scheme like this to deal with its own bloody history of apartheid and violent repression. Under the auspices of what was called the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, hearings allowed those guilty of human rights abuses to testify and, in turn, be questioned by their victims. It was a sort of restorative justice, that despite its many critics, is widely believed to have had a positive effect.

In post-2003 Iraq, something similar would be one of the best things we could do to create a truly healthy Iraqi culture, free from violence, from financial and administrative corruption, the desire to murder and various socially exclusionary movements.

While the media and populace were busy watching the acrobatic performances of Hussein and his former colleagues, in my opinion, it would have been better to make these oppressors accountable for the damage they did to Iraqi culture. To our noble values, our positive and wonderful traditions of love, peace, humility, integrity and patriotism. All of these were sabotaged by the former regime’s war mongering and by its gangs, who spread a culture of hatred and revenge and a kind of social racism, whereby everyone was placed in two categories: people the regime could trust and people it couldn’t.

During the years that Hussein led Iraq, it is fair to say that a kind of cultural brainwashing took place. This changed the way the Iraqi people saw themselves, and the way they saw the rest of the world. It turned Iraqis into people who feared one another and who were scared that whatever they said might be used against them. It created two or three generations of individuals who didn’t know a “normal” life, individuals who are warped.

During the 1990s, there were actually systematic attempts to influence Iraq’s young people, to change their values through institutions like Youth TV, a channel rife with regime propaganda. And the number of Iraqis who speak classical Arabic has also decreased while a new class of academics emerged – academics, only in name, who got their qualifications because of who they knew, not what they knew.

Iraq, after 2003, should have tried to put an end to this kind of cultural vandalism. Because it has had an ongoing effect. Look closely at the reasons behind the tidal wave of sectarian violence that swept the country after 2003 and we find much of these revolve around unresolved issues such as: “the oppressors didn’t ever do penance”. The victims didn’t ever get justice or even an opportunity to air their feelings publicly, so they longed for revenge and became part of the war games.

Today [Vice President] al-Hashimi stands accused of a number of crimes. If he is convicted, the Iraqi people fear they will never get the chance to question him properly because of the prevailing atmosphere of hatred, corruption and fear and because of the social chasms that divide the Iraqi people themselves. And if it turns out that al-Hashimi was the victim, then there are concerns that those who made him into the victim will simply get away with it.

Whatever the case, there’s no doubt that we could really use a court of truth and reconciliation today. Until that happens though, one can only mourn the fact that, as yet, the Iraqi government doesn’t seem to have considered such an institution a valuable option – which it would be, especially in this era characterized by cultural and academic illiteracy and ignorance.