Human Rights – Iraq’s first post withdrawal test

September 25, 2010

As fallout of America’s withdrawal from Iraq begins to take shape, it looks as if it will be some time before the “new Iraq” can truly stand on its own.
One scathing example of Iraq’s political immaturity was brought to light last week by an Amnesty International report on the state of the country’s prison system.
The disappointing and confusing reactions to the report from Iraq’s government, security apparatus and civil society have made it clear that human rights in Iraq is still an abstract concept. This needs to change.
The Amnesty report “New Order, Same Abuses: Unlawful Detentions and Torture in Iraq” claimed that an estimated 30,000 detainees are being held without trial in Iraqi prisons. It also found that “Some detainees have been held in secret detention facilities and tortured.”
Many prisoners face violence, psychological abuse as well as other forms of gross mistreatment, according to the study which was compiled from interviews with detainees, prison directors, refugees and activists.
The scope of prisoner abuse listed in the report underscores the need for a better understanding of human rights by correctional institutions and personnel, as well Iraqi politicians and the public. But that’s not all.
The findings serve as a direct contradiction to the repeated statements of government officials who have stressed a commitment to uphold the human rights of Iraqi citizens. In fact, Iraqi officials were quick to dismiss either the sources or numbers mentioned in the report.
Although the judiciary, ministry of justice, security officials, politicians and rights groups all reacted with different shades of denial, one point became clear: no official mechanism exists in Iraq to monitor and report human rights violations.
As it stands, there is no state-run watchdog that assures the accurate flow of information on rights abuses to the public, the government and international community.
An organization such as this would institutionalise the concept of human rights into the security culture, and could be a move towards adopting international humanitarian standards.
A key issue in the debate over the report was the number of detainees. This should never have happened. The Iraqi government should have a record of everyone in custody and make this list available to the likes of Amnesty and Human Rights Watch. After all, transparency is a key guarantor of good practice, good governance and accountability.
Ambiguity, stark denials and lack of access can have damaging effects, especially with reputable international organizations. Iraqis should not forget that it was these same organisations that helped expose the former regime and his crimes against the people of Iraq.
The United States can play an effective role in preventing Iraq from reverting to its awful past. Although many in Iraq argue that the human rights situation was worse when the US forces were in Iraq, at least they were seen as monitors and enforcers of due process and procedure.
US military spokesman in Baghdad, Lieutenant Colonel Bob Owen, said after the release of the Amnesty report that the Iraqi detention facilities were “inspected frequently and abide by the rule of law and international standards for detainee care and management.”
US State Department spokesman Philip Crowley’s remarks on the report were welcomed by many Iraqis who fear that the human rights situation could deteriorate further. Crowley said that respect for human rights is an important issue in relations between Washington and Baghdad. “Human rights are a critical component” of US work “to build up institutions of the Iraqi government,” he added.
One of the things that we in the new Iraq take pride in is that we are striving to uphold the values of the free world. America can help us reach this goal. Washington can help the Iraqi government – and at times put pressure on it – to uphold the values that both American and Iraqi blood was shed for.
But this cannot be done by simply dismissing and denying unpleasant reports. This is achieved through engaging seriously with rights organizations, responding positively to their recommendations, and demonstrating solid steps to prevent further abuse.
The US should encourage the Iraqi government to study the Amnesty prison report carefully. The allegations of this study, and previous reports, must to be taken very seriously to make sure that the next report is not as damning as this one.

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