Ten years after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, law students and members of the local community came together to hear from representatives of Right to Heal Initiative, a collaboration of Iraqis and U.S. military veterans seeking redress for the victims of the Iraq and Afghan wars. The HLS Human Rights Program hosted the event, which was held in Wasserstein and entitled “For Us, The Wars Aren’t Over.”
There were three speakers. Yanar Mohammed, President of the Organisation of Women’s Freedom in Iraq (OWFI), explained how Iraqis still suffer from the war’s consequences. Matt Howard, a former Marine and member of Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW), described the hardships that U.S. soldiers endured in Iraq and after returning home. Pamela Spees, an attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), the legal representative of the Right to Heal initiative, detailed efforts to compensate victims and prosecute those responsible for human rights violations.
The audience, many of whom were middle-aged members of local anti-war organizations, responded to the speakers with enthusiastic applause and active questions. A few veterans were in attendance, and some wore t-shirts with anti-war quotations such as “I hate war as only a soldier who has lived it can.”
The event was a reminder of the human toll of a conflict that has become increasingly abstract for most Americans. In her opening remarks, event moderator Deborah Popowski, a lecturer and clinical instructor at the law school, said that it is “important that a discussion about U.S. policy and its consequences give prominence to people who are living the consequences of that policy.” Ms. Mohammed, who founded OWFI in 2003, echoed that sentiment: “When your neighbor has their son or daughter pass away…you feel sad for months, and yet half a million Iraqi lives don’t make much difference.”
She explained how environmental contamination from the war is creating new victims. In the town of Haweeja, OWFI received reports that chemicals from ammunition fired at a U.S. army base have polluted the water and air. Ms. Mohammed said this was the likely reason that over 800 local children suffer from birth defects and nerve paralysis, which leaves them unable to walk and, in some cases, even to speak. She described reports of environmental contamination from U.S. weapons causing birth defects in other parts of Iraq. For example, Fallujah, where the U.S. military used white phosphorous to kill insurgents, has seen increased rates of stillbirths and birth defects.
Apart from damaging the environment, the war has also given rise to civil disorder and religious extremism, leading to great victimization of women. Ms. Mohammend said that many women and girls were trafficked abroad during the war’s first years and that growing numbers are now being been sold to “entertainment houses” frequented by government officials in Iraq. A large portion of victims are orphans of the war, and 65 percent are 17 years old or younger, she said.
The “honor killing” of women suspected of “immoral” conduct has also increased. OWFI estimates that at least 1,000 Iraqi women die annually in the “honor killings,” which are often committed by family members. In 2010 an employee of the Baghdad morgue told OWFI that it receives 300 to 500 women each year whose bodies have the “signature” marks of an honor killing, “which could be like a hand chopped off.”
Section 409 of the criminal code, written after the U.S. invasion, sets a three-year sentencing cap for a man who “surprises his wife or one of his female dependents…in a state of adultery…and kills her.” According to Ms. Mohammed, the Iraqi government rarely enforces even this punishment. Iraq’s Constitution, finalized in 2005, has expanded the role of Sharia Law, which allows polygamy and arranged marriages for minors, among other things. Ms. Mohammend claimed that the previous legal system involved a “more humane” combination of secular and religious law, while Iraq’s new Constitution “feels like it was written in the Middle Ages.”
Ms. Mohammed argued that U.S. authorities are partly responsible, since they have supported religious zealots in order to lend an Islamic façade to neo-liberal economic reforms. “Policies against the working class, the new labor code that’s being written, the suppression that’s going on against the labor demonstrations…it all goes hand in hand, it’s not just the women.”
Religious extremists outside of government have persecuted gay teenagers, murdering dozens in Baghdad alone. According to Ms. Mohammed, U.S. authorities, in conjunction with the Iraqi government, have chosen to obscure the true nature of the problem by referring to gay killings as “emo killings.” The “emo” culture is generally associated with teen alienation, fashion and punk music. “You ask any Iraqi what’s the meaning of emo, nobody knows.”
Former Marine Matt Howard, who served two tours of duty in Iraq, described pervasive dehumanization of Iraqis within the U.S. military. Many soldiers mockingly called all Iraqis “Hajji,” which is an honorific title for Muslims. “That’s no different from terms that American soldiers used for Vietnamese, words like ‘gook,’” Mr. Howard said. He came to oppose the war gradually, rather than in “one crystallizing moment,” but described as “defining” his realization of Iraqis’ common humanity. While talking with local laborers on a U.S. army base, he learned that they wanted the same things everyone wants: water, electricity and safety.
Mr. Howard also turned against the war because he felt that U.S. soldiers, like Iraqis, were being “treated as equipment.” The military has leaned heavily on soldiers through repeated redeployments. According to Mr. Howard, anywhere from 20 to 50 percent suffer from Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and up to 40 percent have suffered concussive trauma. He said that veterans receive inadequate care for these needs and that the military has expelled soldiers by labeling mental conditions “pre-existing,” when in fact they were caused by war. “The military would rather kick someone out and not have to pay for their trauma over an extended period of time than actually admit that it caused the trauma.”
According to Mr. Howard, one-third of female Iraq War veterans have reported experiences of sexual trauma, including a friend named Joyce who fought alongside him. It was only after coming home that Joyce felt able to tell friends she had been raped by a fellow solider. Eventually she worked up the courage to tell a representative of the Veterans Administration. Mr. Howard quoted from her account: “After sharing the most personal and painful details of my life, I heard nothing from the VA for over a year. It took over two years before I received a letter stating that my claim was denied because, amongst other things, I had invited my rapist into my tent.”
Mr. Howard said the media, like the military, had betrayed victims of the war by ignoring Iraqi civilian casualties and the ill-treatment of veterans. Although mainstream media outlets employ the “support the troops” slogan, they have largely disregarded the anti-war movement among U.S. veterans. In particular, Mr. Howard said, there had been a “virtual media blackout in terms of mainstream press coverage” of Winter Soldier, a 2008 event in which 200 veterans of the Iraq and Afgan wars described their experiences and the war crimes they witnessed. He also cited an article by Mark Lynch, a writer for Foreign Policy, which analyzed recent reporting on the tenth anniversary of the Iraq War. Out of 59 retrospective pieces published in Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, The New Republic and The New York Times, only one was written by an Iraqi.
Pamela Spees, of the Center for Constitutional Rights, expressed similar frustration with the apathy of the legal system as well as the media. Ms. Spees said that U.S. courts have abdicated their responsibilities, even as they have acknowledged that torture, Guantanamo, extraordinary rendition, and even aspects of the war itself were illegal. “When you have exhausted all of your possible remedies in the legal system…what do you do?” Despite this lack of success with the U.S. legal system, she encouraged activists to keep faith. “There will never be accountability if nobody’s demanding it.”
On March 19, CCR filed a request for a “thematic hearing” on U.S. accountability for war crimes with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). A thematic hearing would give Iraqis and American soldiers the opportunity to testify about war crimes. IACHR is part of the Organization of American States (OAS), of which the U.S. is a member state, Ms. Spees described appeals to international law as part of a multi-pronged strategy, which IVAW and OWFI advance by lobbying the U.S. and Iraqi goverments. She also emphasized that political pressure can discourage unilateral action in the near future.
All the speakers called for criminal prosecutions of those who “started the war on false pretenses,” as well as of those who approved torture and crimes against Iraqi civilians. However, they agreed their first priority was to compensate victims. “Someone must pay,” Ms. Mohammed said. Mr. Howard added, “Solidarity is an important piece of what we do…we understand that the folks in Iraq and Afghanistan are the most impacted.” IVAW advocates reparations for the people of Iraq and Afghanistan as well as full benefits for service members.
In discussing lessons learned after ten years of war, it was hard for participants not to look back on how it got started. During questioning, several audience members noted that they had participated in anti-war demonstrations in 2002 and 2003. Ms. Mohammed argued that the war had negatively affected the people of Iraq, even as it was supposed to liberate them: “Just imagine you’re in your house and you’re being bombed and all the killing happens against you. It’s not something to celebrate.” She also suggested that some version of the Arab Spring would likely have spread to Iraq without U.S. intervention: “We wanted to get rid of Saddam Hussein, but not this way.” Mr. Howard, who became a Marine at age 17, said that September 11th had given him a reason to fight but that, in retrospect, his upbringing also predisposed him to war. “A culture that really holds militarism and violence and warmaking up on a pedestal…made my decision a whole lot easier.”
Even as they reflected on the past, the speakers remained focused on healing wounds and preventing another war. Ms. Mohammed sees the Right to Heal Initiative as “an opportunity for those of us in Iraq who did not want this war to happen and, more than that, wouldn’t want it to happen anywhere else in the world in the future.” In advocating compensation for victims, it intends to raise awareness of war’s inevitable human cost. As part of that effort, the HLS International Human Rights Clinic is working with the Civilian Soldier Alliance to combine the testimonies of U.S. soldiers and Iraqi civilians. Many audience members asked about how people could support the campaign. Among other suggestions, the panelists asked attendants to sign a letter to the Inter-American Commission in support of a thematic hearing. They also said that anyone interested in learning more should visit the Right to Heal Initiative website.
At its core, the group seeks to transcend the divisions that have contributed to the Iraq and Afghan wars. “We know you are not the enemy,” Ms. Mohammed said, before adding that any law students interested in visiting Haweeja would have a home waiting for them there. “We put our hands in each other’s hands…to help the destiny of people around the world.”