Iraq's future lies in secrets of its skeletons

by Daniel Philpott

Scenes of slain U.S. and British soldiers, of failed searches for weapons of mass destruction, of looting and rioting, ambushes and anarchy all augur ill for stable liberal democracy in Iraq.p. Less auspicious still is the image of skulls. Recently exhumed have been the skeletons of Saddam Hussein’s political enemies. An estimated 10,000 lay in one mass grave. Uprooted with them are memories—of a parent, a sibling, a friend, seized, arrested or simply discovered missing—that now lodge in the hearts of the living and are sure to break out in vendettas and retaliation, begetting reprisals and counter-revenge, inhibited hardly at all by a foreign authority whose legitimacy and longevity are uncertain. Exhumed with the skulls, then, is an obstacle to liberal democracy that most U.S. officials seem not yet to have identified: the past.p. Culling a soiled past exposes varied victims, diverse killers and few clean hands. Hussein’s hands are the dirtiest. His having sent an estimated quarter of a million political opponents to his gulags and a million Iraqis to their deaths in a war against Iran, his quelling of Shiite and Kurdish demands for voice and autonomy, even with chemical weapons, leaves legions asking for an accounting. A Shiite majority resents long Sunni dominance and remains sore over America’s encouragement, then abandonment, of its 1991 uprising against Hussein. Kurds are returning to Northern Iraq to find the Arabs who helped to expel them now occupying their houses. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis suffered malnourishment, disease and death wrought by more than a decade of UN sanctions.p. Constructors of a new regime cannot bulldoze away this pile of soiled, unresolved legacies. Moving them out of sight will not move them out of mind and memory. The more a faction finds its history obscured, suppressed, unaddressed and denied, the more it will seek vengeance, the less it will acknowledge the political legitimacy of its former oppressors, and the less it will confer loyalty upon a new regime.p. Is there a way forward? The Governing Council in Iraq now envisions a court to try Hussein’s top officials. But trials alone will not bring Iraqis to terms with their collective past. Structured to deliver verdict and punishment, trials encourage the selective and strategic marshalling of information, not the unhindered recounting of the past by a wide array of sufferers. Instead, Iraqis will need a more innovative solution, one which democratizing states like South Africa, Chile, Argentina, Guatemala, El Salvador and East Timor have successfully embraced over the past couple of decades: a truth commission.p. Truth commissions are legally empowered to investigate and reveal a society’s past injustices. One of their greatest fruits is the acknowledgment of suffering and evil. In recent truth commissions, a surprising number of victims have indeed reported that telling their story publicly has helped them to achieve closure, sometimes even satisfying their desire for redress. In some cases, the telling of the truth has led to apology and forgiveness. Most crucially, truth commissions help establish the popular legitimacy of a new regime by stripping it of its lies, secrets and skeletons.p. Critics charge that truth commissions too easily exonerate evil. But accountability is one of their cardinal virtues. True, some commissions have elicited the testimony of offenders by offering them blanket amnesty, but this is a sign of weakness, not an essential feature. Truth commissions may even be alloyed with criminal trials of the sort that the Iraqi Governing Council now plans; today, East Timor is forging just such an approach.p. A truth commission that Iraqis find legitimate will be one that Iraqis themselves conduct. It ought to be mandated in their new constitution. Is such a prospect likely? It may seem naively ambitious in a time when authorities in Iraq are preoccupied with securing themselves against ambush and attack so that they can design a regime and spur economic growth. But preoccupation with the present carries its own naivete, for unless Iraqis come to speak truthfully about the skeletons of their past, then the spirits of the dead will haunt and destroy their future.p. Daniel Philpott is a political scientist and a faculty fellow at the Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame. p. July 27,2003

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