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.

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