With improved tools and a mandate, investigators in the Kurdistan Region are able to document for the world the atrocities the Kurdistani people have endured under ISIS. Kurdistan, a historic cross roads of empires and countries, has continued to endure violence in the modern age. Kurds say “Never again.” But is the Kurdistan Region now at that point? This interview is part of a special series of reports to investigate to examine the path the survivors of ISIS have taken in their quest for justice.
Few people in Kurdistan have as much have first-hand experience investigating genocidal crimes as Dr. Mohammed Ihsan, who has participated in investigations in Kurdistan, Iraq, South Africa and Bosnia. Ihsan is the President of Erbil International University. He has investigated crimes in Iraq including Anfal, Barzan, the Feylis, and Halabja since the 1980s. Ihsan was an International Investigator for Genocide Crimes in Iraq from 2001 to 2005 and worked with foreign military lawyers in Baghdad after the 2003 invasion. He formerly served as Minister for Human Rights in the Kurdistan Region. Ihsan holds a PhD in International Law from the University of London.
Rudaw English: You have investigated atrocities in Kurdistan for more than three decades and seen the processes of documentation and justice. How is the ISIS process different?
Dr. Ihsan: When we were collecting documents and evidence about Anfal, Barzan, Feylis, Halabja ... first of all we were opposition. Second we had no access, third Iraq was totally blocked. Fourth the perpetrator himself was managing the system so closed that no one could come forward until 1991. If you look at the perpetrators today, no, they are documenting everything. When they kill people within a single minute you can find it on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter -- technology has been advanced. Information is more reliable and we don't have the opposition that we had before. But the process of documentation will always take time, and we have to be very patient with this process and never think that the job has been done.
Is documentation valuable or useful in prosecution?
I remember when I was working one of the cases in Baghdad, I was the only international expert for the court [who would rotate in and out of Baghdad] remembering many of the cases but in particular Anfal. They [the defendant's lawyers] were arguing OK, Anfal it's a crime, but they were during war. We had evidence that they were doing an order, but we also had evidence it [the alleged crime] was after the war. We were searching through all the documents to
Strengthen your position here, and then go out internationally.
prepare ourselves it normally took us about three weeks to find a document. They were saying to us 'Just show us a document.' They were doing it to delay. So, everything is important in documentation. Nothing is useless. It might be something you can collect today and use in the future. It might take time. And now the environment is much better than the time we were working. We have a lot documents now because we have them scanned at the correct time.
Who does documentation and collecting evidence benefit?
The documentation is important for future generations, current generations to strengthen your position, and to help the victims. Based on my experience if you keep the victims in an illusion, first they start to exaggerate. Second they become traumatized. Third the post-trauma stage is harder than the trauma itself. Fourth no matter they will see themselves as a victim. Fifth the victims need to know accept what happened even more so than the perpetrators. The
Politicians think politically, they don't think legally.
perpetrators will stick in the denial stage until you execute him or tell him he is forgiven or until he comes across a process of reconciliation which is really hard in this case. This is why the victims seeing the documentation is so valuable to the victims.
Can the tools being used in Kurdistan to document ISIS atrocities be applied previous forced displacement cases like Barzan, Anfal, and the Feylis?
It's going to remain in the psychological part of the society. It is. But I personally think that the process of investigation is not up to the proper level. Because you need a group of people who worship the job and take it as their life's mission. It's not [just] their job, it's a love. When you are investigating some cases, it stays with you 24 hours. I was working day and night. One time I spent six months in Baghdad under a metal military hall in the heat roughly about 48-50 Celsius. I was with two American lawyers, who were military lawyers but they loved to know — David and Sarah, they were husband and wife. We were working on classified documents for six months waiting, hungry for someone to bring a small pack of food for you. By then, we ended up collecting all I was searching for ... 12 pages only. That's all I was focused on. We need to do the same thing again. Establish our infrastructure well, do field work, collect as much as you can. Strengthen your position here, and then go out internationally.
Then how would you convince people in the Kurdistan Region to devote the required resources for such a large-scale investigation?
Look at how the process has evolved in this region from the evolution of the concept of genocide, to proposal, to public project, to national project, to selective project until ISIS came. Politicians think politically, they don't think legally. They are two different concepts. In politics, you can say anything you want. The other side can argue or debate with you. But in legal political things, anything that comes from your mouth, if you aren't going to show me a document, I'm not
Mainly with Kurds, without independence in Kurdistan it will be again
going to accept it. This is the difference between the two concepts. They don't understand this process. They think that, 'Oh, everyone knows we were victims of ISIS.' No, not everyone knows that we were victims of ISIS, and not everyone is obliged to know. You are obliged to go and campaign and show to everybody that this happened to you. If you get to that level as a government, then no one cannot accept what happened; otherwise, someone else can take advantage of our situation.
When did the international community start to notice the atrocities and was international acknowledgement beneficial to Kurdistan?
After 1991 uprising, the first international body to enter Iraq and collect documents was Human Rights Watch. And I think they were the key to bringing awareness to these cases. It was the key to opening the door to the international community. Everything started based on that report — they published two reports, one on Anfal and the other one the chemical attack in Halabja. They collected videos, photos, documents, testimonies, everything. After 1991 we collected a lot of stuff and they had access to it and passed it on. That is one of the reasons today Kurdistan is in this position based on that we got a safe haven, no-fly zone, security zone, elections ... That documentation process was very, very important.
Kurds often say 'Never again' will there be a genocide. Is Kurdistan at that point now?
'Never again' is going to again and again in history. Mainly with Kurds, without independence in Kurdistan it will be again. If you look at the history of Kurds from 1921 until 1991, we never ever spent 10 years without a serious disaster. Attacks or wars or uprising or unsettlement or genocide or war crimes or crimes
It's too hard for them to say the truth, no matter if you tell themthey'll have amnesty
against humanity. From 1991 to 2003 for roughly 12 years, we had problems. We had civil war in Kurdistan, but that's normally in politics. Really it's normal because you have two lines and they are moving in the same direction. At some point they will definitely cross.
Has the process become partisan or politicized?
In the KRG, no. Some opposition parties might use this, which is normal. I understand it — as long as they don't cross red lines of respect, and not using victims for their own political purposes. We should deal with the victims as victims. And they were victims because they were Kurds, not because they were KDP, PUK or anyone else. It has been used, but largely no.
Are there efforts around Kirkuk, Hawija, Tuz Khurmatu to formally investigate or document alleged ISIS atrocities?
I'm not aware of it. Because we have two different crime sites. In Hawija, when ISIS came the majority of Hawija people were part of ISIS. Then by time they started to isolate themselves from ISIS. In the Sinjar area and around Mosul the story was different. From the day one the classification process was already there "us and them." In Hawija, totally different. I think if we were there in Hawija, we could collect more information because they were part of the group.
This is why I say 'Again and again' and not 'Never again.'
Based on my experience, the best evidence and the best tool used in a court against perpetrators in the cases of Anfal or Barzanis came from Arabs who were former [Baathist] regime members, not from the victims. Most of the victims would say, 'Oh he was talking to Arabs.' You could make a copy it was the same story, but when you talk to the perpetrators or people who worked with the perpetrators or bystanders who sympathized with the perpetrators, you can get more information.
Was there a point in previous investigations where the perpetrators realized it benefitted them to truthfully speak about what they had done? What made them come forward?
It was culturally issue, really. I worked Iraq, I worked in Bosnia, and I worked in South Africa, as well — three totally different worlds. Culture in this part of the world is so secretive and in denial, and so static and interested in themselves and others. It's too hard for them to say the truth, no matter if you tell them
We wanted the Iraqi Special Tribunal to be a trial for Saddamism in Iraq
they'll have amnesty because they don't trust amnesty. There's no trust. In South Africa, I found out that they are more relaxed and trusting of each other. They could tell each other what they did and say they were sorry ... kisses, hugs ... and after that they can eat together, drink together, dance together the next day as if nothing happened. It's totally different from Iraq.
In Bosnia, also the culture was different. The level of reconciliation was not like South Africa, and the level of denial was not like Iraq — especially among intellectuals and educators. I remember a case in Pristina [Bosnia] in 1996, the son of a general. He was a doctor. He came and said “This is what my dad did. I am not proud of having such a dad. I am not a part of that. And it was the old leader who sympathized with the Muslims.”
What about the boy whose father was a member of ISIS? How can he benefit from peace building?
This is why I say 'Again and again' and not 'Never again.' Because if you look at the root of ISIS, it goes back to the 18th century. It's not the first time and it's not going to be the last time by the way. We never ever have dealt with this issue in a proper way to rebuild a nation and to think about the past. We have never gotten to the level to really think about the past. Most of the Iraqis today are still proud of the Baathist time. Really, a lot. The size of the social memory is so limited and so small you cannot imagine. It's a couple of megabytes.
Something else I was against was victim compensation from the beginning in 1992. A lot of people will hate me for those reasons as well. I am totally against the concept of compensation. My father has been killed by Saddam, for example, and then I come and say OK, 'You should give me the best car, the best land, the best education, give me salary for all my life because my father has been killed. Which means I am not capable and you are destroying the society. Second you are making me bad and spoiled; I cannot be a productive citizen in the society. Third, my life is always going to depend on my legacy and my past. They aren't going to think about the future. Last, it's going to [mess] up the society as well. A lot of people will be in the state of mind that my dad was killed not because my dad just died, but because he was active in some organization.
Many victims see compensation as their right. What would you tell them?
If you’re statehood building trying to create an elephant out of a mouse, no you cannot do it that way. This money can be used for something else. This money can be spent on the psychological effect of society. This money can be spent on education. Most of the people in Kurdistan will say 'Oh they haven't paid us, we have no money.' This repetition shows that they just want to mooch off the society. They never ever had the vision to come out of this process. The father wasn't sacrificing to get rewarded, so in that way he actually understood the cause better than me. That's a mistake.
Why do you say it is different here in Iraq?
It's a different thing. This is why I don't expect someone [here] to come across and just tell you the truth. And the reason why is Iraqis have a deep history in that. We wanted the Iraqi Special Tribunal to be a trial for Saddamism in Iraq, but we had to fight this phenomenon. Not these people. If we are going to judge the people about the mistakes they made and forget the phenomenon, shortly we were going to end up with different Saddams in the country. Two different concepts: Are we judging Saddamism or Saddam Hussein?
This is Part VIII in a Rudaw English series of special reports on what is being done to document ISIS atrocities and achieve justice for survivors. The authors thank all at Rudaw who contributed including Zhelwan Zeyad and Salim Ibrahim for their editing and translations.