Thursday, November 25, 2010

Rule of Corruption and an Eye for an Eye

"‘You are talking about the crimes of these monsters?’ he said. ‘They killed policemen and burned them, and you're talking about human rights? If it were up to me, I would execute all of them in the same place as their crimes. An eye for an eye.’”

- Busho Ibrahim, Deputy Defense Minister

This sentiment is to be expected, perhaps, from the defense ministry. Their core job is, after all, to find a defined enemy and kill them. The trouble is that the defense minister was talking about a police action. In response to a ruthless July attack in which a small team of gunmen murdered Iraqi soldiers manning a checkpoint using small arms fire and remotely detonated bombs, 300 suspects were rounded up in the Sunni neighborhood of Adamiyah in northwest Baghdad, held incommunicado, and abused during interrogations as reported in yesterday's Washington Post.

And therein lies the rub. There is no strong actor within the Iraqi government – or even a strong voice – focused on securing the rule of law, be it on the criminal or civil side. "Rule of Law" is a famously slippery concept to define, but at its root would be something like an impartial administration of justice that protects the rights of citizens from the arbitrary abuse of government power. (You can nerd out about it here, if you like.) There's nothing that sounds much like that being delivered by the two ill suited vehicles of justice in Iraq: the Defense Ministry and the impossibly corrupt courts.

The defense ministry simply does not view its role in the country as pursuing justice through law. Summary execution is hardly a central tenet of the rule of law. As reported by the post, Ibrahim is “exasperated” at questions regarding the rights of those detained, who are all “monsters” he would have executed. Guilty by residence in Sunni dominated Adhamiyah. Nevermind that a handful committed the barbarous act, while 300 were in detention. What’s more, the Defense Ministy is required by law to have turned over its detention centers to the Justice Ministy. Their very existence is a finger in the eye for separation of powers and Iraqi rule of law.

But perhaps the more cancerous issue is the failure of the court system. With a nominal mandate to seek justice, the courts are hamstrung by unconscionable corruption. The Post’s article rightly highlights the heart wrenching difficulties Iraqis face in even locating detained friends and family members, much less having them freed, via the courts. But perhaps the even greater rot is on the civil side, in the day to day corruption running rampant in the court system. I asked Iraqi colleagues if it were possible to get a state run civil service – a court case resolved, an ID card issued, a marriage license issued – without some sort of fixer or bribe. Their uniform answer: Basically no. Transparency International ranked Iraq 175 out of 178 countries on its Corruption Perception index, which tracks public sector corruption (including the courts).

The consequences seem to me to be at least two fold:

1) Sectarianism – First, the fact that as many as 80% of inmates in Iraq are Sunni, most of them untried and unlikely to be tried, causes a perception that we are living in a sectarian government. This is not at all helped by Nouri Al-Maliki, the Shiite prime minister creating extra-judicial, unregulated security forcesanswering directly to him. This risks further divisions along sectarian lines. Second, where the courts can’t be trusted as neutral arbiters of disputes – even in civil cases – people naturally turn to alternative sources of protection and assistance. In Iraq, those are sectarian militias.

2) Absence of rule of law threatens all other goals in Iraq – Iraq is straddling the border between an active conflict zone and post conflict development. But “[e]conomic growth, political modernization, the protection of human rights, and other worthy objectives are all believed to hinge, at least in part, on ‘the rule of law.’” For the transition to a post-conflict society to take hold, Iraq must prioritize rule of law. It’s a critical prerequisite to achieving other goals.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Expectations and an Iraqiya Opposition

"Sometimes societies are most prone to unrest not when conditions are the worst, but when the situation begins to improve and expectations rise."
- U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual

This is quoted in Iraq After Us, the recent This American Life program based on a month's worth of conversations with Iraqis in Baghdad and Diyala province back in August (thanks for sending). In the manual itself, this comment comes in the context of the end of major combat operations. But it seems equally relevant for this moment, after 8 months of tedious wrangling appear to have produced a fragile power sharing agreement that will retain Nouri Al-Malaki as prime minister while carving out a role for Ayad Allawi on the new and ill defined council overseeing security and foreign policy.

There is relief from the Obama administration, who pushed hard for the new council and a significant role for Ayad Allawi. And there is no doubt that an Iraqi government is long overdue. But it seems to me that this particular government risks being one of form over substance.

U.S. diplomats made the inclusion of Ayad Allawi in the governing coalition a key focal point of their negotiations. Better to have Allawi, the Iraqiya block, and by extension the Sunnis "inside the tent pissing out" -- to borrow President Johnson's turn of phrase -- then the other way around. But this seems to ignore the real differences of policy and ideology between Allawi and Malaki. There are already significant differences of vision for Iraq within Malaki's coalition, which includes both the Kurds and the Sadrists. The risk is of a government that is born into paralysis. A government in name only, no more able to deliver services than the void of the last 8 months has been.

This, it seems to me, creates a real risk. Expectations have been raised. There is now a government to account. But it doesn't look structured to make tough decisions or move Iraq in a single direction. And for an Iraqi population with no history of democratic decision making, this taste of representative government may not be so sweet.

Why not have Allawi and the Iraqiya block in opposition? As recently as a week ago, Allawi was publicly flirting with the idea, though it seemed to be a non-starter with western diplomats. There would be risks there, of course, with a descent into pure identity politics a real possibility. But that risk is not alleviated by a government that will likely be inclusive in name only. A more honest Iraqiya opposition would have the advantage of presenting a clear choice. Maliki and his block would be able to govern more freely, without a convenient scapegoat in their coalition, and with a vigilant opposition holding them to account. The government would have a much better chance delivering on basic services without internal posturing for credit and power. And in time, Iraqis would be able to decide if they liked the direction the State of Law Coalition and Maliki's Da'wa party were taking Iraq. That sounds like democracy. So why was this option anathema to the west?

Notes on Iraq Manifeso

This blog deserves an explanation of its reason for being. A manifesto, a public declaration of my intentions toward it, to remind me of the principles to which I gave life in committing nearly a full 27 seconds to signing up for and establishing this little corner of the internet while watching How I Met Your Mother.

The idea is this. I'm an American recently moved to Iraq without a significant background in middle eastern -- much less specifically Iraqi -- politics, history, or language. It is a blindingly bright new world here, and yet seductively easy to try and navigate without ever making much of an attempt to see. It is easy to be here day to day with no broader context and no examined sense of the politics. As an individual I find this unsatisfying. As a humanitarian aid worker I find it unnerving.

The purpose of this blog then is to learn through writing. It is not to expound on things I already know. I make no claim to expertise. It will be a layman's notes on Iraqi news and politics, broadly defined. It may be riddled with inaccuracies and errors, or offense given through ignorance. It may explain the obvious or gloss over the nuanced. Such is life. My hope is that it will provide me a focal point for reading and thinking about Iraq and, in doing so, make it a little easier to see.