Saturday,17 November, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1337, (23 - 29 March 2017)
Saturday,17 November, 2018
Issue 1337, (23 - 29 March 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Iraq needs international justice

Iraq has been desperate for help in the fight against the Islamic State, but its leaders are dismissing calls for an international inquiry into its atrocities

Displaced Iraqis flee their homes as Iraqi forces battle with Islamic State militants, in western Mosul (photo: Reuters)
Displaced Iraqis flee their homes as Iraqi forces battle with Islamic State militants, in western Mosul (photo: Reuters)

Iraqi government officials have been crying out for help from the international community in getting rid of the Islamic State (IS) group and for humanitarian and financial assistance for rebuilding the country after the war against the terror group ends.

Yet, the Iraqi government has been lending a deaf ear to increasing demands that an international inquiry be launched into the group’s activities, including possible war crimes and genocide.

Human rights abuses committed by the group have been a subject of concern for Iraqi and international rights groups, lawyers and activists, who have been lobbying for international investigations into the violations.

Rights groups also argue that international justice is an essential element in building an effective global front to confront worldwide terrorism and bring those responsible to justice before the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Under the Rome Treaty that established the ICC, the tribunal does not have jurisdiction to investigate IS leaders in Iraq without a referral from the UN Security Council. It may do so if Iraq is also a member of the court and a signatory to the relevant convention.

The latest call for Iraq to cooperate with the ICC came this month from UK human rights lawyer Amal Clooney, who has urged Iraq to agree to a UN investigation of atrocities committed by IS.

Clooney, who represents Yazidi women who escaped from IS enslavement in Iraq, made her appeal to UN member states, urging action to prosecute IS militants.

“Why is it that nothing has been done,” Clooney asked. “Mass graves lie unprotected and unexhumed. Witnesses are fleeing, and not one IS militant has faced trial for crimes anywhere in the world,” she said.

Clooney called on Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar Al-Abadi to write to the UN Security Council requesting an investigation into IS crimes. “Don’t let IS get away with genocide,” she urged.

Iraq’s government has repeatedly turned down calls for the ICC to be involved in prosecuting such cases, however. Iraq’s ambassador to the United Nations, Mohamed Al-Hakim, dismissed Clooney’s suggestions as unnecessary.

“We don’t want people to tell us what we need. We will tell them what we need, and that’s really the bottom line,” Al-Hakim said in response to Clooney’s remarks.

He categorically rejected the need to ask the Security Council to refer IS perpetrators to the ICC, reiterating his government’s commitment to “ensuring justice” through Iraqi courts.

The issue has not been debated by the United Nations or any of its agencies. The UN Human Rights Council in Geneva has condemned IS atrocities, but it has failed to press for an international inquiry.

The controversy over the Iraqi government and the world community’s indecision, has also cast shadows over the commitment to bring the IS leaders responsible for these heinous crimes to account.

It has long been argued that Iraq lacks a credible political approach and a legal system that could deal efficiently with human rights violations committed by different perpetrators and ensure justice for the victims.

Voices that believe an ICC role is warranted argue that the tribunal is the best venue for bringing IS leaders and terrorists in Iraq and Syria to justice.

At the heart of the problem, however, is the absence of strict and well-defined security and judicial mechanisms in Iraq to address human rights violations. Critics also say that Iraq’s law-and-order system is flawed and highly politicised.

Iraq ranks highly on the NGO Transparency International’s index of failed states, and like other state institutions in the country the judiciary and the security forces are said to be notoriously corrupt.

There is a growing debate in Iraq about the failure of the government to institutionalise transitional justice to deal with the unfinished business of reckoning with crimes committed under the regime of former dictator Saddam Hussein.

Critics also argue that there is a great deal of work needed to address issues of guilt and responsibility and to end the impunity that has often been granted to those who perpetrated crimes under the US occupation of the country and the post-Saddam regime.

Hundreds of thousands of people have died in violence and others have been subjected to human-rights abuses by all sides in the country’s 14-year civil conflict. Most of these victims have been forgotten, and few of the perpetrators have been prosecuted.

A controversial general amnesty law that the Iraqi parliament passed last year has highlighted the shortcomings of the proposed judicial process, indicating that it is unlikely to be effective enough to withstand the daunting challenges of healing the nation’s wounds and ensuring peace and justice.

Since its ratification, the law has been used to give partial or total amnesty to thousands of prisoners in prison without proper judicial procedures. Most of these inmates are believed to be Sunnis in prison on charges of terrorism, but Shia political groups claim that many of them were collaborating with IS.

Some Iraqi Shia leaders, including Al-Abadi, have protested that the law will lead to the release of IS terrorists under the pretext of confessions obtained from them by torture or under duress.

But atrocities by IS such as mass murder, beheadings, rape, slavery and ethnic cleansing remain so appalling even by Iraqi civil war standards that they need to be dealt with by an international forum of justice.

Some of the crimes that have taken place in the country, such as rape, mass killings, kidnappings and inhuman treatment, already come under international human rights law.

However, there are fears that any investigations into crimes and IS abuses may expand to include serious allegations of violations by pro-government militias formed largely to combat IS. The United States and other countries providing military assistance to Iraq also fear indictments.

Nevertheless, the Iraqi government and the international community’s failure to lead the push for accountability for the crimes of IS has raised serious questions about their cooperation in ensuring that those responsible for human rights abuses in Iraq are brought to justice.

Though Clooney said a British-drafted resolution setting up the investigation was ready to be submitted to the UN Security Council pending Iraq’s approval for the measure, it is doubtful that London will in fact take such a step.

Even after a British inquiry delivered a damning verdict on the decision by former UK prime minister Tony Blair to commit British troops to the US-led invasion of Iraq, the government still refused to prosecute the former prime minister.

But international lawyers believe that advocates of ICC involvement in investigating IS crimes in Iraq can find other ways to make their case heard, including by gathering evidence of the group’s atrocities without the approval of the Iraqi government.

If they succeed, the 193-member UN General Assembly could then organise a team dedicated to preserving the evidence and preparing cases.

Proponents of the ICC becoming involved in probing IS crimes in Iraq hope that pressure from the international criminal justice system will ensure accountability for the perpetrators and reparation for the victims of their crimes and will lead to prosecutions for past atrocities and help to bring peace to the country as a whole.

They fear that a system that was incapable of stopping IS, human rights violations and rampant graft will now also find itself incapable of confronting violence, crimes and corruption in post-IS Iraq.

Moreover, without effective investigations and a prosecution system to bring IS terrorists to justice, the entire international campaign to fight terrorism could be undermined and rendered useless.

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