March 04, 2004

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Reconciliation in Iraq a difficult task

Unlike individual reconciliation, national reconciliation must involve the coming together of people related through group connections.

The reconstruction and democratization of post-war Iraq is a popular topic these days. Some brave souls even talk of national reconciliation in this context. When you think about it, that makes sense. Reconstruction and democratization would require at least some degree of reconciliation. Otherwise violence, vengeance, and animosity would destroy whatever was built up.

Even the briefest attention to daily news reports suggests that the very notion of national reconciliation in Iraq is wildly unrealistic. Nevertheless, some people - and some well-placed ones - do reflect on the possibilities.

Writing in the International Herald Tribune last April 21, Alex Boraine, former deputy chairman of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation commission, discussed the possibility of a truth commission in Iraq. Such a commission could “explore ways of promoting reconciliation and harmony between different ethnic and religious groups.” Boraine suggested that such a commission should investigate both human rights abuse under Saddam Hussein and the role that foreign countries had played in supporting and sustaining his rule.

With the capture of Saddam Hussein last December, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan was quoted on the BBC News as saying that Saddam Hussein had cast a long shadow over developments, a shadow that could be removed by the capture.

Ayan Alawi, an Iraqi and a member of the governing council, wrote in the Washington Post on Jan. 3, that de-Baathification - removing Saddam supporters from the police, army, and civil service - was a necessary element of national reconciliation. But Alawi argued that the process should have been based on proper legal process, not the wholesale dismissals that led to anarchy after the U.S. victory.

Kanan Makiya, a prominent Iraqi exile and author of the well-regarded 1989 book, Republic of Fear, has established an Iraq memory foundation and understands reconciliation as grounded on the acknowledgement of the terrible crimes committed under the Saddam Hussein regime.

His group envisages a museum, memorial, and documentation center to catalogue Ba'athist records of gross human rights violations. Makiya favours a combination of trials and a truth commission to explore collaboration and other issues. However, as an exile who predicted that invading U.S. forces would be met by grateful Iraqis carrying flowers and candy, his credibility now seems in question.

Talk of national reconciliation is often unclear. The phrase may have a whitewash tendency that hides the true awfulness of underlying problems. Unlike individual reconciliation, national reconciliation must involve the coming together of people related through group connections. The groups are typically alienated by problematic histories of wrongdoing and hatred. Obviously they won't be hugging and kissing each other. What reconciliation at the national level requires is some level of social trust. Without it, people cannot function cooperatively to build and run institutions like parliaments, civil administration, media, the army, police, courts, schools, universities and hospitals.

If we accept the idea that reconstruction requires cooperative activities, which presuppose some degree of social trust, we can begin to understand the importance of national reconciliation in the aftermath of political violence.

Without sufficient confidence in the motivation and competence of others, people can't run a country together. So without at least some degree of reconciliation, any talk of reconstruction and democratization is downright misleading. The topics of trust and reconciliation are often unmentioned, but even establishment analysts implicitly acknowledge their importance when they speak of such things as need for legitimacy and the undermining effects of hatred, resentment and suspicion.

Social trust is a kind of web of generalized confident expectations, built on a basis of experienced reliability and decency. Sociologists have called it the glue of society, since it's indispensable in holding society together. Another metaphor is that of clean air: when we're lucky enough to enjoy it, we tend not to notice that fact. Social trust is essential for a decently functioning society. To make practical sense, the phrase national reconciliation should be understood to recognize that fact.

Effective ceasefires are an essential prerequisite, and constitutions and parliaments have to be established. But more is needed: the people involved have to be able to cooperate in crucial ways. As the philosopher John Hardwig once said, “There are no people-proof institutions.”

Admittedly, the idea that trust needs to be built so that cooperation will be possible raises as many questions as it answers. How could the means suggested possibly be adequate, given the vastness of the problem? How could trials, or a memory foundation, or even a truth commission result in the building of social trust in Iraq? Well, reconciliation is a process, not an end-state, one might say. Clearly we cannot expect a quick result after such a history. Pose the question again. How could such measures even begin the rebuilding of social trust?

To think further about national reconciliation in Iraq, we need to ask ourselves who would need to be reconciling with whom. Presumably the primary focus would be the tens of thousands of victims and Ba'athist perpetrators of human rights violations under Saddam Hussein. But there are other troubled relationships: hostility, violence, and rage characterize many relationships in Iraq. Sunnis and Shi-ites. Kurds and the other Iraqis. The U.S. government and the Iraqi people. Persons working with the current U.S. administration and agents in the guerrilla insurgency. And - if we ever reach the stage of aftermath - victims of the insurgency versus militant agents in attacks. The resentments go deep and the temptations of vengeance may be considerable.

Several years ago, Janet Keeping, a lawyer and friend who works frequently in Russia, was asked to write an article about national reconciliation in that country. After lots of hard thinking, she reluctantly concluded that she couldn't make sense of the topic. There were so many issues and animosities that everyone in Russia seemed to have a deep sense of grievance. Who would be in a position to acknowledge, apologize, or offer compensation? She could find no answer. When Keeping wrote the piece in 1999, her comments struck me as too pessimistic, but I can't help recalling them when I contemplate the problem of national reconciliation in Iraq.

It would be easy to conclude that national reconciliation in Iraq is impossible. But it would be too easy and too despairing to be a guide to practical action. Real people live in Iraq and will go on doing so. We cannot, on the basis of some policy analysis, simply disregard the prospects of some 40 million people for health, education, quality of life, opportunities, and physical security. And to turn away would be grossly irresponsible, given the roles that foreign powers and the international community (through United Nations sanctions between 1991 and 2003) have played in contributing to the appalling situation of these people. Reconstruction and democratization have to be attempted, and their feasibility requires some degree of social trust and national reconciliation. Utopian though it might seem, national reconciliation in Iraq is a problem that cannot be avoided.

A Muslim cleric, Ayatollah Eddin al-Wady, undertook his own reconciliation process in his mosque in the Kazimah district of Baghdad, according to an article by Deborah Pasmantier. In an effort to limit acts of vengeance undertaken in his community, Ayatollah al-Wady urged people who had committed wrongs under Saddam Hussein's regime to come to the mosque, confess, and seek forgiveness. Some did. One man forgave a denouncer whose actions had led him to serve 12 years in terrible conditions in prison. He said, “I forgave without demanding anything. One must be generous. I am a tribal chief.” This moving story indicates that there are traditions within Iraq relevant to the quest for national reconciliation. Overall, al-Wady acknowledged that “the community is not yet ready to forgive. The wounds have not yet closed.” That's to be expected. But in this story lies hope.

Trudy Govier, a philosopher who lives and works in Calgry, will speak on this topic at SFU on March 15 and will also speak about Dialogue, Trust and Acknowledgement for the Dialogue Institute on March 16. She is the author of Social Trust and Human Communities and Forgiveness and Revenge.

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