Human Rights Watch released a report today that extensively documents abuses of women in Iraq’s criminal justice system - illegal arrests, detention, extensive torture, and ill-treatment, including sexual abuse, during interrogations. We showed how Iraq’s hobbled judiciary frequently convicts women based on coerced confessions and secret informant testimony, and how women are often detained for months and even years without charge.
But, many people – activists, journalists, and above all, government officials – urged me not to release the report. Their fear: it might only inflame the sectarian violence that’s threatening to tear the country apart.
Violence in Iraq has reached levels not seen since the 2006-2007 civil war. Sectarian tensions are also extraordinarily high, fueled by ongoing fighting in Anbar province among Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham, other armed insurgents fighting both with and against the government, and Iraqi security forces, and by politicians’ jockeying for upcoming parliamentary elections. Iraqis fear that every attack and every report of abuse could trigger the next civil war.
Many of those who advised against releasing the report asked me whether I shouldn’t lower my voice for a time, at least until things “blow over” – especially when it comes to talking about abuses that frequently appear to be sectarian: “Aren’t you throwing fuel on the fire?”
It’s a legitimate question. But it also tells me the discussion around why Iraq is in such acute crisis has strayed too far from the roots of the problem. Clearly Iraq needs to protect its citizens from armed groups’ violent attacks, which can wreak general havoc and cause a humanitarian crisis, as in Anbar. But the government also takes advantage of fears of the terrorist threat to brutally suppress dissent. The violence in Anbar is just the most recent example of how the government’s use of violent measures in the name of counterterrorism has accelerated the country’s crisis: the Anbar fighting began thanks to the government’s attempt to suppress Sunnis’ legitimate protests against abuses. Security forces’ brutal methods are amply documented in today’s report on abuses of women, which frequently occurred during counterterrorism operations.
The best way to refocus attention on the fuller causes of the abuses in Anbar, and the violence that, daily, threatens Iraqis throughout the country, is to raise, not quiet, our voices, to recall a critical source of the problem, and to redirect attention to a real solution – that is, the urgent need for the government to end rights violations and make good on its promises of reform.