on the world: a view on human rights
20 March marks the twelfth anniversary of the start of the Iraq War in 2003 when US-led forces invaded and occupied the country on the pretext of regime change. Officially over by the end of 2011, the brutalities and excesses of this conflict continue to have repercussions today in Iraq and beyond. The breakdown in security and law and order brought about by the current government has led to a situation of almost all-out sectarian civil war, perpetuating the rampant abuses of human rights and creating huge casualties. In 2014, around 17000 civilians were killed, twice as many as in the previous year. Present for some time in Iraq, the emergence in the international mainstream media of ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) on 10 June 2014 swiftly led, within days, to a new US-led military intervention which is ongoing. To mark this anniversary, I spoke to prominent Iraqi activist and novelist, Haifa Zangana about the current situation in Iraq.
1 – What are the main factors contributing to the current breakdown of Iraq?
Firstly, there is the political process which has become a tool of sectarianism. At first, some people believed that this is the way forward, the way to build democracy, but as time has passed, it is proving to be an obstacle to building a stable Iraq. Sectarianism is eating the state from the inside and damaging the whole political process. The current government, political establishment and all public institutions are divided according to sectarian quotas rather than looking at Iraq as a country for all Iraqis. This is closely related to corruption, which is rampant by any standard, and exists at all levels, from the highest person in government to the lowest employee. Sadly, when there is no law, you can do anything you like.
Thirdly, there is the problem of lawlessness and the degradation of the law. There is no law. What law there is follows sectarian interpretations. There are also over 30 militias currently active on the ground and they spring to life on demand. There are times where some militias are more active than at others, or they disband and become involved in the political process presenting themselves as political parties and take part in elections. The last straw then is ISIS, the Islamic State, which has declared its existence, and is seen by most Iraqis as a product of the occupation, including some who are involved in the political process. Others claim it is a creation of the United States and the West to weaken Iraq. The obvious consequence of this is that human rights emerge as the main victim.
2 – What is the current situation for women?
There are two strands to this issue: the community and women’s organisations. There is no concept of civil society in Iraq yet but there is the community, which works fine for people – the neighbourhood, the extended family, the mosque – and is still quite strong. This is holding together and protecting women. There are over one million widows and five million orphans in Iraq and this provides welfare for them, in spite of the many stories of sex trafficking and prostitution.
If we look at women’s organisations, they are largely funded either by the government or various foreign organisations. Each funder has its own agenda. At one point, there were around 5000 NGOs, mainly women’s organisations, active in Iraq, especially in pre-election periods. They emerge and disappear after the elections. What they mainly do is run workshops on democracy and gender. Some of them run literacy courses.
I find it rather strange that at the moment the emphasis is on sewing. There are a lot of courses about sewing and suddenly all Iraqi women are becoming dressmakers. In a country where whole areas wear second-hand clothes and the market is flooded with very cheap clothes from Iran and Turkey, and previously from Syria, you have to wonder who are they teaching and why? This is an example of projects that are ultimately useless and confine women to their homes rather than to go out and work. It may be useful for a period of time but this is not really what it takes to play an active part in building the country or changing the current situation.
There are also political parties and their organisations: all the women there represent the political agenda of the party and in most cases, they stand against women. If women are raped in a certain area, women will stand in parliament and say they brought it on themselves for being with the terrorists, or something to that effect, and if there is an orphanage where children are being molested or abused, they will call it an exaggeration. There is a political agenda: women MPs and organisations are used as a propaganda tool rather than to the represent women as they claim to.
As for the legal situation, some laws are good on paper as are parts of the constitution, but no one cares to apply them. They are just there on paper to tell the outside world they exist. Women are resilient. They can manage but the burden is becoming too big. In extended families, you can look after an extra family but not an extra four or five families at the same time on the average income. The result is that children are leaving school early to help their mothers and work instead. We’re losing a generation’s education. The percentage of girls attending school is far lower than before because of fear of the security situation, of kidnappings, the cost, and early marriages are increasing rapidly to ease the financial burden. It’s illegal but no one is held accountable.
Last year I joined a delegation to meet the director of UNESCO to talk about the decline of education in Iraq. I talked about girls’ education and the simple things that prevent girls from going to school, such as the lack of toilets in schools and the distance from the school to home. We worry a lot about education. Education helps women everywhere. While women’s organisations talk about gender and democracy, most women are busy fighting for the basics, for survival. It doesn’t mean those things don’t matter and shouldn’t be considered in future but let people live with dignity first.
3 – You are of Kurdish origin. How would you describe the situation for ethnic and religious minorities?
We never felt that we were ethnic minorities under the previous regime. In spite of its shortcomings and brutalities, it protected ethnic minorities. With the Kurds, it was a different story with the fighting and the full-blown struggle, but if you’re talking about Christians and Yezidis, they were very well protected by the previous regime. Everything deteriorated after the occupation particularly with the militias. They attack everywhere and minorities stand out. However, it is the responsibility of the government and society to protect minorities. It is a complete failure of the government.
In some areas of Baghdad, to give an example, because there is no law whatsoever, if you want to take over an area, you threaten the people living there or you blow up their mosque or church. In the central Baghdad middle-class neighbourhood of Karrada, which is a mixed Muslim-Christian area with embassies, a very important church was blown up. Terrorists were accused of carrying out the attack but it is common knowledge that certain militias and political parties wanted control of the area. They offered the residents huge amounts of money but some people refused, some of whom were Christians, and the attack was the result. This tragedy took place because of the lack of accountability. No one is held responsible. You have a free hand to kill, kidnap, demand ransoms: it’s a business. You don’t have to do it yourself because you can hire people. It’s very profitable and logical: you can say terrorists or Islamists are attacking Christians, Yezidis and others to get what you want.
Then came ISIS with its clear attack on other religions because of the interpretation in their minds of Islam. Nonetheless, there is rampant corruption and some people even support ISIS because of its puritanical stance against corruption. Corruption makes everything possible. The Yezidis and Christians are as much victims as other Iraqis. The attack on villages and areas of northern Iraq we’ve seen, for example affecting the Yezidis, and sectarian clashes did not start in June 2014 and with ISIS; it has been continuous since the occupation and is a product of the occupation. It just wasn’t convenient to talk about it before.
4 – What’s the situation like for internally displaced people?
Each time a province is attacked by a certain group or militia, there is a new wave of the displaced and the number is increasing. In the recent attack on Tikrit, 30,000 people left the city seeking protection or what they consider a safe place. They’ve moved to Samarra, for example, but Samarra is not a safe place. The UN and international organisations can’t cope with these numbers. There are nearly 1.9 million people who are displaced. There is no budget for them and what budget there was has been cut off. Some of the difficulties are that they cannot reach these people to help them because of the lack of security. The Iraqi regime is not helping because of the bombardment, which is also carried out by the US-led alliance. There are many factors and it’s like a collective punishment in certain areas, like Anbar, because all the people living there are considered terrorists now. Genuine civilians are trapped in this second fabricated war of liberation. They’ve even stopped talking about the Yezidis. It was useful as propaganda for a while so the US and its alliance could go back to Iraq but they’ve stopped talking about them for the moment. Maybe it’s not relevant.
The reality is that thousands of children and students are deprived of an education, women and children suffer health problems, there are disabled people and the winter is cold. The UN cannot reach them and the Kurdistan region can only accept a certain number. An additional difficulty is that they are accepting people but checking them due to security fears. If you are coming from Anbar or Tikrit, it raises questions. Women and children are allowed in but adult men are not. It’s becoming like a country within a country within a country. I’m talking about the camps that are already there but there are hundreds of thousands of people who are in other places, living in ruins or empty schools and buildings, or wherever they can find.
5 – Does ISIS provide a distraction to prevent scrutiny and accountability of the Iraqi government?
It has provided the best protection. Everything that happened before ISIS has been bleached and washed away. No one talks about it. I was in Geneva attending a human rights session where there was a resolution to investigate the crimes in Iraq but the resolution only looks at crimes after 10 June 2014. We’re asking for everything to be investigated. If you are looking for reconciliation, for solutions and to end terrorism genuinely, to build democracy, you have to look at all crimes. You have to start with justice. Injustice is what has pushed people to extremism when they see there is no solution, there is no justice. It’s not madness, it’s despair. In Iraq, this feeling is very strong. People who’ve been arrested, tortured, raped have no access to justice within the system itself.
The government is not held responsible for anything. They are clean: they are an ally in the war on terror so no one talks about their human rights abuses. The double standards are very clear. Almost every single country in the world has been intimidated into joining. At the moment, accountability is at a standstill; everything is postponed while the world waits to get rid of terrorism through bombardments and sending in armies.
6 – What can people do to help the situation in Iraq?
I think the strong point is human rights. People need to remind the British government and British politicians of their responsibilities, of the destruction that took place and their human rights violations. This is it. This is the most important issue because when you focus on this you can see what kind of regime there is in Iraq and that democracy and the terrorist attacks are just an excuse.
Also put pressure on the British government through MPs about the displaced and the responsibility to protect them. The displaced cannot wait until the world gets rid of terrorism, especially as we are now told by the Americans that it might take another 10 years. We can’t leave those people. There must be two solutions: one that is immediate to help these people and the second to deal with longer-term issues and the regime the British government helped to impose and plant must be held responsible. The same human rights standards must apply to everyone.