Monday, May 04, 2009

Dispatch from Iraq: Meeting New Neighbors

I'd like to share with you a note from our Executive Director, Erik Gustafson. Erik is on sabbatical for a year while he works on the ground in Iraq. In conjunction with the International Human Rights Law Institute (IHRLI) of DePaul University's College of Law, he will be helping build the professional capacity of Iraqi NGOs active in the promotion and protection of human rights. Since he has been in Iraq, he has heard some compelling stories of survival and I wanted to share a few of those with you. Erik writes:

I have been traveling through the heart of Iraqi Kurdistan for the last week. It is spring in the countryside. Fields of green grass dotted with yellow and red flowers cover every hill and mountain for as far as the eye can see. Shepherds tend their flocks and villages destroyed during Saddam’s brutal Anfal Campaign are returning to life.

In major cities like Arbil and Sulaymaniyah, there is evidence of growing prosperity. Markets bustle and construction is everywhere, most visible in the building of a 28-storey five-star hotel in Sulaymaniyah by Iraqi telecom magnate Farouq Mustafa Rasool. New wealth and investment are also going toward health clinics, universities, and public works. Nevertheless, Iraqis are anxious to see a more effective and accountable government. They want to see improved public services, and sustainable human development that benefits all Iraqis.

At a barber in Sulaymaniyah, I met Omar*, a young man from Baghdad. In 2005, Omar fled his hometown after receiving death threats from Takfiris (extremists) who overheard him speaking English. He left Iraq for the United Arab Emirates (UAE), where he was able to stay without too many problems.

In 2006, everything changed. “Discrimination against Iraqis increased,” Omar said. “While other nationalities acquired visas for one year or longer with no problem, I had to leave the UAE every two months to renew my visa.” In 2007, his visa renewal was rejected. Uprooted again, Omar went first to Syria, then to the Kurdish Region of Iraq in search of work. Omar offered good-humored observations about his adopted city and Kurdish hosts and told me he is afraid to return to Baghdad. Then, he asked if I knew a way for him to come to the United States.

In Arbil, a colleague and I met with two female law students, Layla and Dahlia. They lamented the state of legal education in Iraq, where law schools and legal professionals have been marginalized for decades. The vast majority of professors use rote memorization to teach students, failing to engage in any meaningful study of the subject. We asked Layla and Dahlia what they’d like to see at their law school. Better teaching methods, books, and connections to other law schools like Cairo University, they said.

Read about DePaul’s International Human Rights Law Institute (IHRLI) work in Iraq.

As IHRLI’s historic report “Raising the Bar” found: “Saddam Hussein’s regime undermined Iraq’s legal system by disrespecting the rule of law, minimizing the role of legal professionals in society, and isolating academics from interactions with educational institutions in other parts of the world.” Unfortunately, the end of Saddam’s regime has not brought an end to the “rule of force” in Iraq. As reported last month by Amnesty International, even in the Kurdish Region of Iraq, which has enjoyed greater stability than the rest of Iraq since 2003, security and intelligence forces operate outside of the law and serious human rights violations continue to occur.

Read the full report by Amnesty International.

It will take many years for Iraq to make the full transition from a society ruled by force to a society governed by the rule of law. Already, many Iraqis are embarking on that road, especially the youth, but they need the help and support of fellow Iraqis and the international community.

- Erik Gustafson

Here at home, President Obama has promised to help vulnerable Iraqis and said it is America’s moral responsibility to do so. As the focus of military operations shifts away from Iraq, we must not let the President drift away from America’s moral responsibility to Iraq. To that end, EPIC and you, our members, will be more important than ever before. There is much to be done to enable a peaceful and secure Iraq. Your voices will be critical to make sure the stories of Omar, Layla, and Dahlia are heard at the high levels of government and not forgotten.


Jactive said...

It is great to hear of Erik's current whereabouts and activities! I hope there will be several more posts to this blog from him soon. We must continue to keep the pressure on our elected officials to support the reconstruction of Iraq.

Jeff said...

Great post. These personal stories really put things in context.

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