Doing hard labor in Iraq

A version of this article is available in Kurdish here.

Making a country that includes everyone is hard work.  Transforming a structure that serves the powerful and the privileged cannot be done by the timid and the shy.  Raising a voice that declares that discrimination based upon class and position is an unjust abuse of power comes with a high price.

Take for example the experience of courageous persons in Iraqi Kurdistan who peacefully gathered in Sulaimani last year.  They came to express their concerns about discriminatory policies that violate the human rights of a large sector of the community.  Powerful leaders in the ruling parties contrive to deny privileges for those not associated with their established and defended position.  The consequences for persons participating in these public protests have proven to be dangerous, even tragic.

We witness and have heard from the Kurdish people that the prevailing pattern of governing by discrimination reflects clan-based perspectives that have served all societies since ancient time.  This association provides people an identity and a place to belong—a community in which individuals can participate and contribute.  However, clan-based perspectives can restrict concerns for well being to those inside the distinguished group. Often people outside this identified collective are viewed with suspicion and recognized as a potential threat.  Therefore defending the clan from encroachments on home territory is a serious and important concern.  The clan must be, at all times, under all circumstances, ready and prepared to defend itself from these outsiders.

Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) takes note of all behaviors that punish those who advocate for the human rights of persons oppressed and treated as inferior members of the community, regardless of the characteristic that causes the discriminatory treatment.  Following the protests that continued daily in Azadi Square until forcefully dispersed by riot-gear-equipped security forces Apr 19, 2011, CPT has learned of many examples of the high cost of working to make a country that includes everyone.     

In addition to instances when persons have had to leave their homes because of threats on their lives, instances when persons have been apprehended and beaten because of their presence in these public gatherings, instances when persons have been arrested for speaking or taking photos at these gatherings, there is another concern that lingers both to haunt the community and to repress further actions to promote policy reforms.

CPT has been informed on several occasions that some persons in power have composed a list of up to 200 names.  This list identifies persons who have been or will be assaulted in the future.  Presumably the first name on the list is that of an attorney who was subsequently shot in a parking garage.  All of the individuals named on this unpublished list were directly involved in sustaining the protests last spring.  CPT is told that they may not all be shot or beaten, however they all will be caused to suffer as a consequence of their decisions to speak out against discrimination in government.  Their names may be slandered, their reputations disgraced, their voices censored, or some other socially and economically impairing accusation may be circulated about them.

The reality that these kinds of retaliatory measures are not investigated makes the situation even more dangerous.  When authorities are questioned about how they are responding to these assaults, they say they are searching for information and if anyone has anything to offer they will receive it.  Or they describe the attack as the work of unknown “terrorists” operating in the region.  Or they explain that the incident is an honor-oriented event that resulted from the necessity for family members to revenge an injury to their own.

Many persons who in the past have acted to defend people in Iraqi Kurdistan whose human rights are being abused have contacted CPT.  They all fear for their safety.  They are afraid every time they go out in public.  They fear something will happen to their families. It is at the behest of those persons who feel so silenced by fear that CPT writes this article today.

The response by authorities to fail to protect citizens calling for reform is not limited to the presence of protesters.  It has occurred with journalists who have published embarrassing and challenging articles.  It has happened to persons working to provide political alternatives to discriminatory practices that deny equal services and support for everyone living in this prosperous region.  And after 15 months, it continues to affect persons who in peaceful gatherings raised their voices against abuses of power.

Clan based structures have a universal and significant history.  They have served to protect and defend cherished ways of life.  Yet clan based structures do not always honor the lives of persons living outside the clan.  However, whether inside or outside the “clan,” every person within the political borders of Iraq is a resident of this diverse, vibrant nation — a human being deserving of full human rights.

Living under generations of harsh treatment by foreign powers and dictators, experiencing first-hand the pain and suffering caused by these oppressions, one would hope this would cause political leaders to appreciate a structure that holds everyone equally accountable under the law.  One would hope that persons who came into power would be compassionate, supportive, sympathetic of all people.  But it takes more power to do this than leaders in Iraqi Kurdistan have so far managed to cultivate.   Yet some of the other citizens have.

Working to transform the exclusive method of managing community that currently dominates in Iraqi Kurdistan is not for the timid and the shy.  Making a country that includes everyone is hard work.  And those who persist to do it are teaching the rest us what true courage looks like.