by Güley Bor
In an event held in Erbil on 6 November 2019, 25 civil society organisations (CSOs) based in Iraq and the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) announced the establishment of the Coalition for Just Reparations (C4JR), a joint effort to advocate for reparations for victims of serious violations of international law that took place during the Islamic State (IS) conflict.
The Coalition was spearheaded by the Jiyan Foundation for Human Rights, and joined by 24 other organisations. Membership remains open for likeminded local CSOs who agree to abide by the founding documents, while the Coalition welcomes financial and technical support from international organisations and CSOs.
The Coalition’s founding documents, the Position Paper and Statute, took months of intense negotiations to finalise. The end product reflects a compromise found between different CSOs representing the diverse populations of Iraq and the KRI, as well as their commitment to advocate for reparations for victims of the IS conflict. Highlights from the Position Paper include the demand for reparations for victims of violations committed by all parties to the IS conflict, the importance of symbolic and/or collective reparations in addition to material and/or individual reparations, and the emphasis on guarantees of non-repetition. In terms of financing reparations, the Coalition demands Iraq bear the primary responsibility. However, given the involvement of high numbers of foreign IS fighters in the crimes committed against the peoples of Iraq, the Position Paper also encourages countries of which these fighters are citizens to assume moral responsibility.
The Position Paper also highlights involvement of CSOs and particularly victims’ and women’s groups representing affected communities in articulating, designing and implementing reparation schemes. Indeed, the Coalition will undoubtedly play a significant role in legislating Iraq’s draft Yazidi Female Survivors’ Law introduced in April 2019, the first bill aimed at specifically addressing harms arising from the IS conflict. One of the criticisms brought to the bill was the lack of survivor and civil society consultations in the drafting phase. In July 2019, the International Organization for Migration-Iraq held a workshop where survivors of the IS conflict met with Iraqi policy makers to voice their demands from the bill. The Coalition’s work will hopefully further the efforts to help remedy the lack of survivor consultations before the bill is voted upon in Parliament.
The highlight of the launch event was the panel in which Christian, Kaka’i, Shabak, Turkmen and Yazidi survivors voiced their needs, wishes and demands from prospective reparation programmes as well as the Coalition. The survivors mentioned the disproportionate impact of the IS conflict on minorities and how the delay in providing reparations is worsening the conditions survivors are forced to endure. Nearly all of the survivors were displaced and had lost breadwinners, which often meant more than one family was now financially dependent on the same person. Even then, livelihood opportunities are scarce and working conditions often unbearable. Compensation in the form of monthly payments, particularly for families of victims, arose as a mutual demand, as well as measures aimed at economically empowering survivors such as livelihood programmes and vocational trainings.
Many survivors emphasised the need for further medical and psychosocial support. One mentioned that government employees laughed at him when he applied to have his physical injuries and mental harm recognised for the purposes of receiving care, which highlights the importance of capacity building for service providers to ensure all are trained in trauma-sensitive approaches and treat survivors with the respect for their dignity they deserve.
Survivors also highlighted that thousands are missing, with their fates still unknown. They demanded search and rescue operations for those still in captivity. Six Yazidis, five women and one child, were rescued from al-Hol camp in Hasakah in July 2019, and more are thought to be in Syria and other neighbouring countries. Survivors also demanded the acceleration and expansion of efforts to exhume mass graves, identify and return remains, and hold dignified burials. Memorialisation to honour the victims was among the demands.
Survivors commended the draft reparation bill, but demanded that men and children be included in its scope, rather than just women. Importantly, they emphasised the necessity of including all survivors in the bill’s scope, not just Yazidis as its current form would suggest. They also asked that efforts be accelerated to enact the bill, and voiced their expectations that the Coalition ensure survivors’ demands are conveyed to policymakers and there is push to enact it as soon as possible.
The Coalition is well placed to undertake this mission on behalf of survivors. In fact, CSOs often play a key role in reparation programs, be it during initial debates to conceptualise reparations, supporting policy making, or through implementation and oversight. They are often the bridge between survivors/beneficiaries and policymakers, making their involvement crucial for ensuring meaningful and effective victim participation in the process from start to finish. In Argentina, CSOs successfully lobbied for a special legal category for the forcibly disappeared to allow families to seek reparations without having to declare their loved ones dead, and were also influential in enacting a law providing reparations for families of the disappeared. In Cambodia, CSOs created a project addressing forced marriages under the Khmer Rouge regime through classical dance based on testimonies of survivors, which was later endorsed by the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia as a reparation measure. In Colombia, CSOs successfully challenged a provision in the law on reparations for sexual violence before the Constitutional Court that made the implementation of the health protocol optional, which had caused discriminatory practices and hindered many survivors’ access to reparation measures.
The Coalition is already planning to undertake similar activities such as research on survivors’ needs and expectations, domestic and international advocacy and lobbying, creating platforms for dialogue, and monitoring implementation of existing reparation laws. Members already possess a wealth of experience in supporting survivors of serious violations of international law. Through this Coalition, they will combine their expertise, presenting a stronger, unified front to advocate for the survivors’ right to reparation.
‘We don’t have any hope that the government will do anything for us,’ said one of the survivors. This sentiment isn’t surprising given the inaction of the past five years, nor is it unique to direct and indirect victims of the IS conflict. Recent protests in Iraq, which have turned out to be one of the most popular mass movements in the country’s recent history, point to the need for urgent structural reform. The government’s response to the protests has been brutal, with at least 105 dead and 5,655 injured on 25 October – 4 November alone, according to the Iraqi High Commission for Human Rights.
It appears this new wave of violence, this time perpetrated directly by state actors, will cause further grievances that Iraq will have to come to terms with eventually. Perhaps the country will also implement transitional justice mechanisms, similar to elsewhere in the region following the Arab Spring. Reparations, as one of the most concrete mechanisms to support survivors, should be a priority then as well. Hopefully, the Coalition’s work will influence the broader human rights agenda in Iraq to incorporate a constant demand for reparations in addition to criminal justice, truth-seeking and institutional reform.
Note: The Coalition’s website is currently under construction. To reach the Coalition in the meantime, please contact Bojan Gavrilovic, Legal Advisor at Jiyan Foundation for Human Rights, at firstname.lastname@example.org
This blogpost is part of the LSE research project Reforming Legal Responses to Conflict-Related Sexual Violence in Iraq and the Kurdistan Region by Güley Bor, examining how laws in Iraq could be reformed to provide better response to female survivors of conflict-related sexual violence. This project forms part of the Conflict Research Small Grants Programme, funded by the UK Department for International Development to provide research and policy advice on how the risk and impact of violent conflict might be more effectively reduced through development and governance interventions.