Tens of thousands of people went missing in Iraq during Saddam Hussein's decades in power and are presumed to have been executed or imprisoned. Now, with mass graves being discovered and excavated, the fate of those who disappeared may finally be learned. In the third of a four-part series on Iraq's missing, RFE/RL looks at how much help Iraqis can expect from the international community in seeking to identify their dead and putting the executioners on trial.
Prague, 7 July 2003 (RFE/RL) -- As Iraqis rush to learn the fate of the tens of thousands of people who vanished under Saddam Hussein, it remains uncertain how much the international community will help in the daunting task.
So far, excavations of mass graves have largely been in the hands of local communities, which have sought to unearth the bodies as quickly as possible. But in their haste, many opportunities to identify the dead and collect evidence are being lost.
In some cases, excavators have used backhoes to speed the digging but have inadvertently dug into many skeletons at once, confusing the remains. At the same time, the victims' Iraqi identity cards have been displaced and the bullets which prove their murders scattered.
Margaret Cox of the Inforce Foundation at Bournemouth University in Britain recently led a team of forensic scientists and surveyors to Iraq to study the mass graves at the request of the British government.
She says there is an urgent need for the international community to assist Iraqis with the kind of expertise and training needed to ensure that mass graves are excavated by qualified investigators.
But no international groups have yet been tasked to begin training local experts, and most mass grave sites remain unguarded by authorities. Cox says the efforts to keep the sites intact rely mainly on trying to persuade Iraqis to stay away from them until help can arrive.
"There are issues of how can you possibly secure all these sites when you know what they are and where they are because the resources to do that are not currently available," Cox says. "The only real way of achieving that security for sites is to persuade the Iraqi people that they shouldn't dig them up in such a hurry, that they should be patient and wait for assistance in order to make sure that they are investigated in a way that will procure evidence to go to court."
The Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) has said U.S. and British forces are stretched too thinly in Iraq to provide security for all of the sites. Some 17 of the 100 mass graves found so far are secured by U.S. troops. The CPA has called on Iraqis to leave the mass graves alone, but some people are reported to be continuing to dig because they fear the former regime might return and that the time for recovering the remains of their loved ones is limited.
The CPA has begun an effort to assess the extent of exhumation work required and to establish guidelines for the collection of evidence that meets normal standards for admission in court. But it is unclear who might pay for any large-scale effort.
Another group that hopes to play a key role in amassing war crimes evidence is the New York-based International Center for Transitional Justice. Its program director, Paul van Zyl, tells RFE/RL the organization has experts in Iraq who are trying to arrange a major survey of the abuses committed by the regime.
Van Zyl called for the appointment of an international commission of experts as soon as possible to provide advice on how to deal with the past, including prosecutions, truth commissions, and vetting programs for former members of the Ba'athist Party.
"I don't think that there is widespread official acknowledgement and a public knowledge of quite the extent of the human rights abuse that [Hussein] was responsible for. And I think it's very important to create that sort of official record of what it was that his regime did, how they did it, and in what way they did it," van Zyl says.
The UN -- which has collected evidence of crimes against humanity in Bosnia, Rwanda, and Kosovo -- has no mandate to do so in Iraq. The U.S. and Britain -- Iraq's governing powers -- have not said if they will compile evidence against Hussein's regime or whether any such trials would take place in Iraq or in some international venue, such as the UN war crimes tribunal in The Hague.
Late last month, the United Nations convened what it called Iraq's first national workshop on human rights, bringing together nongovernmental human rights activists with coalition experts and Iraqi jurists. The UN said in a press release that it would help carry out nationwide discussions "aimed at identifying further action required to address past violations."
Also last month, on the day he was named the top British representative for Iraq, UN Ambassador Jeremy Greenstock signaled he would push the process forward.
"The picture is gloomy and nasty, but we've got to investigate it, and I suggested to the [Security] Council this morning that, taking the lead from the people of Iraq, we should start discussing how what we call 'transitional justice' should be applied, how we can seek reconciliation in Iraq by bringing those responsible for crimes of genocide or crimes against humanity or war crimes to book [to be held accountable] in Iraq under a system that works under the control of the Iraqi people," Greenstock said.
Prior to the Iraq war, U.S. and British-led efforts to interest the UN in setting up a war crimes court for Hussein's regime foundered in the face of opposition from France, Russia, and China -- the other three permanent members of the UN Security Council.
Partly to build an argument for a UN court, Washington and London sponsored a nonprofit effort called Indict to collect evidence against Hussein and his top lieutenants. Indict, based in London and employing three full-time researchers, was funded by the U.S. Congress under the 1998 Iraq Liberation Act. Today, it is the only office publicly engaged in such work.
Now that Hussein has been toppled, however, the Iraq Liberation Act has run its course and future funding for Indict is uncertain. Ann Clwyd, a member of the British Parliament and the head of the Indict effort, described the funding problem.
"Indict was funded under the Iraq Liberation Act of the U.S. Congress," Clwyd says. "The Iraq Liberation Act has come to an end, so unless Indict receives funding in the next couple of months, then Indict cannot possibly continue. We also got 20 percent of our funding from Kuwait. I very much hope [Indict] can continue, but it really does depend on whether the people who were funding it in the past continue to fund it or whether other countries also chip in."
As uncertainty grows over the role the international community will play in excavating Iraq's mass graves, some observers say valuable opportunities are being lost to collect police and prison records in Iraq -- records that could help identify victims and killers.
Clwyd, who returned last month from a trip to Baghdad, says Indict researchers found prison floors still littered with police files rummaged through by looters. She says the former regime kept detailed records of who it imprisoned and executed but that such evidence is not being secured. Instead, Clwyd says, files are sometimes offered for sale in the Baghdad market, where Ba'ath Party members are reported to be buying evidence that incriminates them.
In the meantime, some former Iraqi political prisoners have launched their own modest efforts to collect testimony against former officials -- just as villagers have started their own grassroots efforts to recover their dead.
The group, called the Iraqi Free Prisoners Organization, has set up an office in central Baghdad and is trying to locate and preserve thousands of files about executions allegedly kept by the Iraqi secret services.
One of the group's directors, Najaf al-Arajee, told RFE/RL recently in Baghdad that the security services removed many files to secret hiding places during the Iraq war in the spring -- in hopes of keeping them from being damaged and in expectation of returning to work soon. The former prisoners are now trying to track those files down.
"Most of the files -- for example, the archive of the internal secret police service -- were hidden in the Al-Mansur shopping center. We received the information that the archives are located in this place, and we took them by force," al-Arajee said.
The recovered files now await the scrutiny of judges in what former political prisoners hope one day will be extensive trials of their tormentors.
But so far, the only announced new court in Baghdad is one being set up by the Coalition Authority to try Hussein loyalists who have committed crimes against U.S. and British forces.
U.S. civil administrator for Iraq, Paul Bremer, has said that he will set up a special court "to try people, in particular senior Ba'athists...who may have committed crimes against the coalition [and] who are trying to destabilize the situation here."
Bremer held out the prospect that the court could evolve into a tribunal to try people for crimes against humanity. But he said, "That is a decision that the Iraqi government should make."
Iraq's U.S.-appointed Governing Council, which began work in July, has
said it will form a commission to create laws which would allow it to put
suspected war criminals on trial. It has also said it is ready to try all 55
people on the U.S. most-wanted list of high-ranking Ba'ath party officials which
Washington is tracking down. The list includes Saddam Hussein, his sons, and
most of his top aides.