How Reconciliation in Iraq Could Stop Collective Punishment

Policymakers in Iraq, and in countries supporting its government, are debating what kind of reconciliation efforts are needed post-ISIS. Meanwhile, without fanfare, the town of al-Shura in northern Iraq, forty kilometers south of Mosul, is quietly carrying out its own reconciliation and reintegration efforts.

In early February I found myself in the home of Sheikh Jamhour of the Juburi tribe, one of the largest  in Iraq, as he described how his town is engaging in reconciliation between families who suffered the atrocities of ISIS and families of ISIS members. Elsewhere in Iraq, families with relatives suspected of being ISIS members are being rounded up at gunpoint and forced into de facto prison camps and kept there in a form of collective punishment, a practice prohibited under international law.

In contrast, he said that al-Shura has welcomed back women and children with relatives who joined ISIS, and Juburi elders there are assisting in the reintegration of ISIS-members children into local schools.

According to Sheikh Jamhour and two other Juburi leaders, at least one person from about half of the 2,200 families in al-Shura and its 68 connected villages joined ISIS when the group took control of the area. When the Iraqi government retook the area in November 2016, the residents fled to displacement camps and Mosul. Later that month, the Iraqi Federal Police allowed residents to return if they had no immediate relatives linked to ISIS, but did not let the other families do the same.

Jamhour said he approached the Federal Police asking them to allow families with immediate relatives who joined ISIS to return, making two promises: he and fellow residents who had returned would not harm the families, and they would take responsibility for the families’ peaceful reintegration into the community. “ISIS formed itself in US-run prisons like Camp Bucca, these camps now housing relatives of ISIS members will become the same if we are not careful,” he told me. “In the camps their children would get no decent education. We refused to abandon them. If we brought them back, I knew we could bring back their minds.” Security forces agreed to let the families return last June.

Before they returned, Jamhour said, he and other local leaders worked with residents who were victims of ISIS abuses. He said that ISIS fighters killed at least 250 people from local families. He and other local leaders held three group meetings with the families who lost loved ones to ISIS to explain the planned returns of the families and ensure that they would buy in. Initially, the families who had lost members to ISIS demanded blood money from the returning families, he said, but Jamhour put his foot down. “We told them it is up to the government to provide compensation, not these women [related to the ISIS members].”

Those responsible for ISIS’s horrific abuses should be held accountable in courts of law, in fair trials, but as Jamhour put it, these women and children who had no part in the killings bear no responsibility.

When it was time for the families to return, Jamhour that said he and other local leaders identified extended families in the community who could host relatives who had husbands or sons who were ISIS members. He coached them on the messages they should convey to returning family members to convince them that life was not better under ISIS. For example, he has been highlighting the importance of voting in Iraq’s upcoming elections in May to the re-franchised women. “I want to show them that if they are unsatisfied with the government, they can push for change from within the system,” he said.

He said he visits the local school almost daily to speak to the children about the perils of life under ISIS, and the imam in the local mosque uses religious language to combat ISIS ideology. The teachers are dealing with traumatized children without any specialized training, so he would like support to bring in experts to provide his community with the knowledge to help with reintegration and rehabilitation. Meanwhile, the local community is paying most of the teachers’ salaries because the government has been too slow in providing them.

The town of al-Shura is special in some ways. Nearly all residents are from the Juburi tribe, so the leaders’ decision appears to have been broadly accepted. The women with immediate relatives who were ISIS members all had extended family in al-Shura who are willing to take them in and vouch that they would not become a security risk. Almost half of the town’s population had an immediate relative who was an ISIS member, so welcoming them back was critical for the survival of the local population.

However, Sheikh Jamhour thought their experiment in al-Shura could be replicated elsewhere. “If tribes decide to forgive these families and take responsibility to reintegrate them into society, those rejecting the policy will fall silent for the greater good of the community. After all, ISIS was a transnational movement, not a tribe, and the tribal structure will always be stronger here.”

Iraqi authorities should of course ensure that any such agreements are used to protect rights, and not  to further disenfranchise women and others. Indeed, there are some local customs in parts of Iraq that fly in the face of basic human rights, including women’s rights in particular.

I left my meeting with Sheikh Jamhour feeling optimistic that national reconciliation efforts that will uphold Iraqis’ rights are possible, but only if the Iraqi central government makes it a priority, with the involvement of community leaders, victims, and families of ISIS suspects.

Photo by Martyn Aim/Getty Images 

About the Author(s)

Belkis Wille

Senior Middle East Researcher at Human Rights Watch Follow her on Twitter (@belkiswille).