on the world: a view on human rights
In a conflict-ridden world, yesterday’s carnage and massacre are quickly consigned to oblivion in the waste bin of history as the conveyor belt moves on. The fifteenth anniversary of the April 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq by the US and its allies thus passed the world by with little notice.
In spite of little media coverage over the past few years, with the exception of bloody massacres to liberate towns from ISIS, the occupation and the war in Iraq are very much alive. According to UN figures, at least “104 Iraqi civilians were killed and another 177 injured in acts of terrorism, violence and armed conflict in Iraq in March 2018”. At the end of 2017, there were around 9000 US soldiers in Iraq, in addition to almost daily air strikes by coalition forces, leading to hundreds of civilian deaths and the risk to civilians from popular mobilisation unit (PMU) militias
Around 3 million people are internally displaced, almost half of whom are children, often with no access to education or healthcare. Capitalising on media silence, European states and the US have started to reject asylum claims by Iraqi claimants and deport individuals at serious risk back to a combat zone many of them are actively engaged in.
Timely and relevant, in view of similar circumstances in other conflicts in the Middle East region, on Thursday 26 April 2018, Tadhamun, an Iraqi women’s organisation, launched “Iraq Solidarity Month” at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. The well attended event was sombre and reflective in tone rather than celebratory in view of the immense task ahead of the Iraqi community and its supporters. The aim is to provide “a reminder of the crimes committed in dismantling a state and culture so they are not repeated” and celebrate “Iraq’s history, resistance and aspiration for peace based on equality and justice”.
Introduced by Prof Wen-chin Ouyang from SOAS, she emphasised the loss to the academic world the war in Iraq has presented through the murder and targeting of academics as well as the destruction of heritage sites from both Iraq’s ancient and more recent history.
Sana Al-Khayyat, an Iraqi sociology and academic based in London, explained why Iraq Solidarity Month matters: calling the 2003 invasion “deliberate” and “planned”, following the destruction of the 1991 Gulf War, she stated that there can be “no peace without genuine justice”. Iraq Solidarity Month is about remembering the destruction of Iraq, but also its long history and heritage with justice for the Iraqi people at its heart.
Denis Halliday, United Nations Humanitarian Coordinator in Iraq in 1997-1998, provided important background on how the UN’s failure to protect the Iraqi people in 1991 paved the way for the 2003 occupation. He called the economic and social sanctions the UN imposed on Iraq in 1990, following the invasion of Kuwait, a crime against humanity leading to the “shock and awe” campaign in 2003.
Halliday, who resigned from the UN in protest, stated that the UN Security Council is corrupted by greed and vested interests in warfare, choosing warfare over diplomacy in 1991. The UN did nothing to condemn or stop the use of depleted uranium (DU) in Iraq in 1991, and instead unleashed its own violence through further sanctions, leading Iraq to accept the Oil-for-Food programme in 1995, funded entirely by oil revenues. The funds were inadequate and sanctions killed over half a million Iraqi children by 1995 due to a lack of healthcare and adequate nutrition. The use of DU, used again after 2003, led to a huge increase in different types of cancer.
Halliday hopes that Iraq Solidarity Month will offer an opportunity to hear Iraqi voices talk about the future and rebuilding of the country, as too much overseas advice and interference in the region has been “rapacious and catastrophic”.
Journalist Victoria Brittain then chaired a panel of speakers from organisations that have been working on Iraq for the past 15 years. Iraqi Novelist Haifa Zangana from the organisers Tadhamun spoke about the work the small British-Iraqi women’s organisation does. She stated that the women’s struggle in Iraq had been disrupted by war and that they work on two levels: to ensure equality for women in Iraq, in employment, education and the public sphere, as well as recognition of violence against women as an aspect of war. Over the past 12 years, largely through seminars and conferences, they have covered many aspects of the Iraqi conflict, such as the trauma of internally displaced persons, the fragmentation of Iraqi national and cultural identity, memory and identity, and the meaning of democracy. She stated that if a small group of women can do something so can everyone else.
Ayça Çubukçu, associate professor of human rights at the London School of Economics then spoke about the World Tribunal on Iraq which took place in Istanbul in June 2005. Modelled on Bertrand Russell’s Vietnam War Crimes Tribunal, activists at the World Social Forum decided to capitalise on the largest anti-war mobilisation since Vietnam to document war crimes so that they are not forgotten. Over two years, a network of global tribunals came together in Istanbul, led by Prof Richard Falk. It heard testimonies for 3 days and produced a declaration. Since then, the issue of what is to be done next remains. She hoped that Iraq Solidarity Month can help revive international solidarity with the Iraqi people.
Dirk Adriaensens spoke on behalf of the Brussels Tribunal, which held the first of the international tribunals on Iraq. In 2005, they started a campaign against the assassination of academics and death squads. They also supported the full spectrum of the Iraqi resistance, regardless of ideology. He stated that it is a moral and legal obligation for people in European and western countries to hold their governments responsible for their actions in Iraq. It is important to provide external support for initiatives in Iraq by Iraqis but that Iraqis must be allowed to determine their own future, without outside interference, whether western or regional.
Mike Phipps, editor of Iraq Occupation Focus, talked about the impact on political life beyond Iraq. He stated that the current phase is the result of US occupation: ISIS was created in US-run torture centres, such as Abu Ghraib and corruption within the Iraqi army made it easy for ISIS to take over areas and access US weapons left behind. More recently, an Amnesty International report has revealed that displaced women who are suspected of having family ties to ISIS are being sexually abused, more than 200 have been sentenced to death unfairly due to alleged links to ISIS, broadening the circle of injustice and violence.
As well as destabilising the wider region, it discredited Tony Blair and the New Labour government, undermining public trust in the government. Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on the Iraq War has been a key element of his appeal. He stated that there has been no compensation or reparations for Iraq as well as no prosecutions. He said it was regretful that no major anti-war movement had marked the 15th anniversary.
Lindsey German, convenor of the Stop The War Coalition, also spoke about the domestic impact of the war and the UK and the US’ responsibility. She stated that it is important to remember, because the UK government, which has been at the centre of such imperialistic attacks for decades, wants the public to forget.
Zainab Khan from Tadhamun then presented a clip from a new CD available from Tadhamun on the destruction of Fallujah. Using music, poetry and testimonies, “And peace be upon you o Fallujah” looks at the bloody consequences of the resistance of the people of Fallujah since 2004.
Nazli Tarzi, journalist and Tadhamun activist presented a letter and slides from Iraqi architect Ihsan Fethi on the destruction of Mosul and the opportunities presented by the reconstruction of the city.
Algerian activist from War on Want Hamza Hamouchene offered a positive view of his visit to Baghdad in September 2016 to attend the Iraqi Social Forum. He reported on the positive civil society outlook and action by grassroots groups and trade unions in the country in spite of the violence and difficulties faced on a daily basis.
Iraqi-British rapper and activist Lowkey spoke about some of the victories of Iraqi civil society over attempts to imposed unfair laws and opportunities for action for Iraqis to rebuild their country.
The event was played out on a positive note by oud player Ihsan Al-Imam. As stated by one of the Tadhamun contributors reconstruction and healing wounds takes time and requires patience. It also requires solidarity from others.