Latest US policy in Iraq can lead to human rights abuses says Hebrew University researcher

December 12, 2007

Jerusalem, Dec. 12, 2007 - U.S. policy in Iraq courting tribal leaders may be yielding positive results in combating al-Qaida and stabilizing the country, but may also be repeating British policy of the previous century which led to severe human rights abuses, particularly against women, says a researcher at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

In an article being released in conjunction with Human Rights Week, now being marked around the world, Dr. Noga Efrati, head of the Iraq research group at the Hebrew University's Harry S. Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace, reviews British tribal policy in Iraq from 1914-1932, during which Britain first occupied the country and then (from 1920) ruled it under mandate authority. Her article on the subject appears in a new book, Britain and the Middle East, to be published later this month

The British, who came to Iraq during the First World War in order to defend their interests in the region, sought to revive a disintegrating tribal system in order to control the vast rural areas of the country. To accomplish this, they appointed sheikhs as tribal leaders, granting them wide discretionary powers, including the settling of disputes via "tribal law." This had an adverse effect particularly on women.

"Under the British mandate, rural women - the majority of women in Iraq - were not constructed as citizens of a modern state whose rights and liberties should be protected, but as tribal possessions, abandoned and left outside state jurisdiction," Dr. Efrati writes in her article. Among other things, this meant that women could be offered in marriage to settle disputes or be forced to marry within their family. Even more serious was that the state had essentially legitimized "honor" murders.

The British maintained a "blind eye" toward these customs even though they were incompatible with both Islamic and Iraqi criminal law. "Tribal justice" could not be undermined lest it weaken the powers of the sheikhs who were serving British interests. Only in 1958, with the overthrow of the "old regime," was the tribal justice system annulled. Even so, these practices did not disappear entirely and even achieved renewed recognition under Saddam Hussein, notes Dr. Efrati.

Like the British of yesterday, the Americans today are increasingly depending on local leaders to restore order. However, in its effort to break the Sunni insurgency, stabilize the country and bring about political progress, the Bush Administration should learn from the mistakes of its predecessors, says Dr. Efrati, and be aware of the severe consequences that will arise by leaving the administration of "tribal" affairs in the hands of local leaders. If women are again to become "tribal property" this will be yet another strike against their human rights; the very rights the U.S. set out to defend when it went to war.

The Hebrew University of Jerusalem

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