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Confronting the Human Rights Crises Left in the Wake of the Iraq War

[Logo of the Center for Constitutional Rights. Image from ccrjustice.org] [Logo of the Center for Constitutional Rights. Image from ccrjustice.org]

[The following briefing was written by Jeena Shah and published by the Center for Consitutional Rights on 24 March 2014]

The Bush administration’s plan to invade Iraq spurred the largest outcry and anti-war protests in the history of the world. More than ten years and hundreds of thousands of lives later, U.S. veterans and Iraqi civil society groups have come together to demand accountability for the U.S.’s fateful and lawless decisions. As one of the region’s principle mechanisms for the promotion and protection of human rights, and given its location in Washington, D.C., the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) seemed the natural human rights body to begin to confront the human rights crises resulting from the war.

The Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq, Iraq Veterans Against the War, and the Federation of Workers Councils and Unions in Iraq, joined together last year on the 10th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq to launch the Right to Heal Initiative, which seeks acknowledgment of and accountability and reparations for the shared harms from the war. The initiative surfaces the joint suffering of Iraqis and U.S. veterans from the war’s long-lasting and inter-generational health and environmental damage, post-traumatic stress, and gender-based violence. While some of these demands have been raised in other forums – such as legislation introduced in the U.S. Senate to create civilian oversight of military sexual trauma cases – no forum has considered these harms holistically and how they have affected both Iraqis and U.S. service-member communities.  Nor is any court hospitable to such claims.  While victims of the war’s environmental harms and incidents of torture continue to (separately) seek accountability in U.S. courts, it has been an uphill battle, with courts dismissing their cases or adding significant hurdles to their prosecution on political question and extraterritoriality grounds.

The groups in the Right to Heal Initiative thus turned their attention to international human rights mechanisms like the IACHR and the United Nations Human Rights Committee, which recently reviewed the United States.  These bodies, they presumed, have a strong interest in protecting those most affected by the U.S.’s decade of war and deterring the U.S. from future war-making, which is always accompanied by serious and widespread human rights violations.  

The Right to Heal Initiative first sought a thematic hearing before the IACHR in 2013.  Though its request received support from 9,427 individuals from 76 different countries, including 2,135 individuals who hand-signed petitions in Baghdad, Basra and Samarra, Iraq, and by 125 human rights organizations across the Americas, it was denied.  The Initiative resubmitted its request for a hearing during the Commission’s current session. It was again denied.  

At the same time, the initiative submitted a report to the UN Human Rights Committee, but was disappointed once more when the committee – with the world’s attention on it – failed to question the U.S. on its war in Iraq (or Afghanistan) altogether.

Why these human rights bodies are ignoring the U.S.’s war crimes, along with the U.S.’s failure to redress the harmful consequences of its wars, is unclear. The U.S.’s war-making, particularly in Iraq, has serious implications for the Americas – the region the IACHR is charged with protecting – as it has been increasingly reported that the U.S. government is using tactics honed in the Iraq war in its ever-expanding “war on drugs” throughout Latin America.  For its part, the U.N. Human Rights Committee is the leading international body charged with protecting the fundamental right to life – a right most obviously violated on a widespread basis through the act of war.

These bodies face no procedural obstacles to questioning the U.S. on these issues. Indeed, they are fully competent to do so. Both the IACHR and the Human Rights Committee have interpreted a state’s obligations under their respective treaties to extend to human rights violations occurring outside its borders – either when the violations occur on territory within the effective control of that state’s forces or the state’s actions contributed to the rise of those violations.  Both have also recognized their jurisdiction over human rights violations resulting from war.  

For decades, international human rights practitioners have pushed for the creation of these and other international human rights monitoring bodies, encouraged marginalized communities to bring their concerns before them, and warned governments to abide by their recommendations. It is incumbent on us to push the same bodies to fulfill one of their most important functions: to provide spaces where a war’s victims on all sides can come together to provide a complete picture of its devastation.  Such a role is beyond the capacity of most national judicial mechanisms. And until there is accountability – real accountability – for the decisions to wage war like this, the state of ‘perpetual war’ as President Obama described, will continue to be the norm.

While human rights bodies may have ignored their plight, these groups most affected by the U.S.’s war on Iraq have not given up.  Having been denied a hearing on the impact of the war before the IACHR and effectively ignored by the Human Rights Committee, the Initiative is planning a People’s Hearing in D.C. on March 26th – during the IACHR’s period of sessions. These human rights defenders are determined to show the true costs of war. They are mobilizing communities to call on their elected officials to account for and repair the full extent of the harm they have caused and to prevent them from resorting to the next war.

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