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International human rights
scholar Daniel Rothenberg

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Documenting Violations Key to Justice in Iraq

Prashanth Parameswaran

Documenting and analyzing human rights violations in Iraq is a necessary step toward achieving transitional justice in the country, an international human rights scholar and activist told Law School students in March.

“It is striking how little is known about the experience of Iraqis in the country, particularly in terms of political violence. The project’s goal is to address this,” said

Daniel Rothenberg, managing director of international projects at the International Human Rights Law Institute of DePaul University College of Law and head of the Iraq History Project (IHP).

Over the past three years, IHP has collected more than 8,000 testimonies representing 55,000 pages of personal narratives on human rights violations. These first-hand accounts tell stories of political violence under Saddam Hussein’s regime, as well as after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.

“It’s one of the largest data collection projects of its kind in the world and the largest in Iraq,” Rothenberg said.

He also thanked Law School students who had assisted in this ambitious project as part of the Human Rights Clinic last semester. “My experience working with students has just been fantastic. You guys do really good work,” Rothenberg said.

IHP’s commitment to documenting the truth about political violence is an integral part of transitional justice, which grapples with legal issues that arise in the wake of atrocities that produce widespread human rights violations, he said.

Though this is usually done more formally through truth commissions, as in South Africa, Guatemala, or Peru, the IHP has sought to begin this process more informally in Iraq. “This is a prime example of transitional justice,” he said.

Despite the growing institutionalization of transitional justice and the proliferation of nongovernmental organizations and human rights professionals, Rothenberg said it was interesting that calls for transitional justice in Iraq have not been as loud as they have been in Darfur and other cases. “You have not heard a lot about this regarding Iraq, have you?” he asked.

This, Rothenberg added, is despite the fact that Iraq is one of the world’s most serious humanitarian crises and one of the best places for the United States and the international community to make a difference. An estimated 5.2 million Iraqis have either fled Iraq or are internally displaced in the country, while studies estimate that between 100,000 and 1 million have been killed since the 2003 invasion. Congress has approved more than $600 billion for the war so far and Washington has deployed more than 140,000 troops at any given time in Iraq.

“Yet somehow, in this country, Americans tend not to refer to Iraq as a human rights crisis,” he said.

To gather this extensive data, IHP sent out trained interviewees from its all-Iraqi staff to talk to people about their experiences. Rothenberg initially had doubts about the project’s success since most human rights groups had determined it was too dangerous to collect such data. He was also skeptical about Iraqis speaking openly about their traumatic past.

“When we started the project, we didn’t know if it was going to work. We didn’t even know if people would talk to us,” he added.

Rothenberg said he hopes this will stimulate more data-gathering projects about specific atrocities and perhaps stir Iraqis to demand redress for their oppression through options like reparations.

“I don’t think Iraqis have yet engaged the severity of victimization and internalized the range of policy options for addressing that,” he said.

However, he stopped short of suggesting that IHP may play a central role in Iraqi reconciliation. Since the International Human Rights Law Institute is an NGO rather than a truth commission, Rothenberg said it is not conferred any authority by the state like a commission is. This limits its capacity to enable many policy reforms.

“At the end of the day, I really don’t think we have the power to engage in reconciliation,” he added.

Rothenberg said he hopes that human rights groups and other actors will try to internalize the lessons of Iraq. IHP, he added, was a first step toward this important process.

“It really is a case for enormous reflection, and I have always thought that this should start with the experiences of the Iraqi people,” .  Rothenberg said.