Healing the victims of ISIS persecution

Ra'fat Al-Dajani

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Drew Christiansen

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The residents of Manbij rejoiced, women threw off their burqas and men shaved their beards as coalition forces, supported by the U.S., expelled the Islamic State fighters from the Syrian city. When the Syrian Democratic Forces combed the city for extremist holdouts, they freed some 2,000 hostages held by the terrorists.

Manbij was the latest in a series of cities, like Tikrit and Ramadi, liberated from the so-called Islamic State group. Two weeks before American officials declared that 50 percent of ISIS-occupied Iraq and 20 percent of occupied Syria had already been liberated.

As the cities have fallen, the international community has become aware of the size the challenge it faces in meeting the needs of the liberated populations. As it anticipates the capture of Mosul, Iraq's second largest city, their concern over the magnitude and complexity of the humanitarian needs they face after victory over ISIS has dawned on the war planners.

In Ramadi, where the coalition was unprepared for the outflow of civilians, the displaced and victimized numbered in the hundreds of thousands. In Mosul, a city whose pre-ISIS inhabitants numbered two and one-half million, they may number in the millions. To prepare for that eventuality, the international community (65 nations) has held a series of consultations and pledging conferences in Jordan, Greece, Austria, Morocco and France. To date, two billion dollars has been pledged for stabilization and reconstruction.

The latest was a conference on Threats to Religious and Ethnic Minorities under the Islamic State July 28 and 29, sponsored by the United States Department of State in conjunction with Georgetown University. The first day was a forum for civil society actors hosted by the Religious Freedom Project of Georgetown's Berkley Center for Religion, Ethics and World Affairs. The second day was a diplomatic consultation hosted by the State Department's Office of International Religious Freedom.

Both days had a wide range of representatives of minority groups: Yazidis, Assyrian Christians, Syrian Orthodox, Kurds, Ba'hai, Turkoman, Kakai and other minorities. Iraqi parliamentarians, representatives of the Kurdistan Regional Government and UN agencies like the Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees also participated.

The discussions covered an array of topics that have become standard in the study of transitions from war to peace: above all, return or resettlement of refugees and displaced people, and the balance between reconciliation and justice for perpetrators.

Return of refugees to their home areas is a preferred solution for the international community, because of the difficulty of finding hospitality in the West for the victims of Iraq's wars and the desire of the leaders of religious groups, like the Church of the East or the Catholic Chaldeans, to renew the presence of the churches in their historic homelands.

Recent history, however, makes many religious minorities wary of the much discussed plan of establishing a safe haven for minorities on the Nineveh plain outside Mosul. Almost universally they gave voice to their desire for autonomy and self-protection as their communal goals, that is, minority self-rule with self-protection forces backed by the international community and only then confederation with Iraq and or Kurdistan.

The hard lesson of experience, the ISIS victims feel, is that no group can be trusted with the government of another. International NGO representatives reminded the participants that there would be no peace without the inclusion of the larger ethnic groups, Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds too. Their mantra was "inclusivity."

Christine van den Toorn of the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani, warned, however, that the U.S.-backed experiment of an Iraq where people could live together had failed. Intergroup suspicions makes building an inclusive society very difficult. New strategies, she argued, need to be found. The only new thinking in evidence, however, stressed minority autonomy. How a larger federation or confederation could be arranged was never discussed.

It was no surprise, then, that participants disagreed on the key question of transitional justice: What comes first, justice for perpetrators or forgiveness and reconciliation? Speakers took both sides, and there was not time to talk it through.

At least one nation, France, has decided not to wait on challenging the impunity of perpetrators. Under the legal doctrine of international jurisdiction for crimes against humanity and genocide, judicial procedures have been initiated against more than fifty alleged perpetrators.

There were also frequent reminders about the narrowness of the conference's focus: Iraq, not Syria; and Daesh, not other perpetrators of genocide and mass atrocities. In the context of regional history, most agreed, Daesh is just one perpetrator of atrocities among others.

There is no hope, many felt, of bringing the cycle of violence to an end until there is an accounting for the internecine brutalities in the region: of Saddam against the Shiites and Kurds, and the Shiites against the Sunni, and on and on. Where does one begin? Where do you end?

The world can't turn the corner on genocide, several warned, until the endemic violence of the region is addressed. That is largely a cultural problem, they believed, enmeshed in tribal and religious tradition and susceptible only in minor ways to political fixes. A few believed, however, that the call in the Jordan Plan of Action for "full and equal citizenship" in combination with minority protection could provide a way out.

As enormous as are the humanitarian problems that the victorious forces in Iraq will face after the fall of Mosul, the challenges in healing the region and in creating united political communities there are much more profound. What is done in the next ten years could be decisive. But the healing, reconciliation and renewal of Iraqi society will take generations.

[Jesuit Fr. Drew Christiansen is Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Global Human Development at Georgetown University. Ra'fat Aldajani is a Palestinian-American businessman and political commentator.]

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