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CCSDD | In Search of the Disappeared in Iraq
In Search of the Disappeared in Iraq

Allegra Wirmer, is a first-year master student in International Relations at Alma Mater Studiorum – Università di Bologna.

In Search of the Disappeared in Iraq
Allegra Wirmer
September 22, 2023

Half a Century of Disappearances

Since 1968, hundreds of thousands of people have disappeared in Iraq without a trace. While the exact number is impossible to confirm with certainty, the most recent estimates speculate that the amount of mafqudin (missing) lies between 250,000 and one million. These numbers make Iraq one of the countries with the highest number of missing people in the world. In April 2023, the UN Committee on Enforced Disappearances released a report on Iraq, which identified five waves of disappearances over the past 55 years, each distinguishable by its political climate and subsequent targeting of certain sectors of the population. The first is during the rule of the Ba'th Party. For thirty-five years, the Ba'th, led by Saddam Hussein, made efforts to eliminate any threat to its power coming from the opposition, especially the Kurdish minority and Shiite population. The second period is that of the invasion and occupation of the country by the U.S.-led coalition (2003-11), in which arbitrary detentions and violence perpetrated by the invaders together with the emergence of armed militias hostile to Western intervention caused the disappearance of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis. Those very Sunni militias would contribute to the gradual emergence of ISIS, which, in 2014, captured the city of Mosul and began a bloody war against the Iraqi government. This is the third period outlined in the report, which includes disappearances at the hands of Da'esh, the government, the Shiite and Kurdish militias. Then there are the enforced disappearances which occurred during the protests held between 2018 and 2020 against citizens of various ethnic affiliations, and, finally, the arbitrary detentions and disappearances of various kinds that continue to occur in the country to this day.

The Inadequacy of the State

In the UN report, the Iraqi government is positively acknowledged for not ignoring the issue of disappearances, and some initiatives launched by Baghdad in this regard are mentioned. This includes the fact that they agreed to host the country visit of the Commission on Enforced Disappearances in the first place, which enabled the drafting of the document. However, the report highlights the lack of a legal definition of the concept of enforced disappearances, and of a legislative framework to properly investigate this type of crime. The legal gaps are compounded by the absence of a centralized institutional set-up with a clear mandate on the subject, capable of coordinating state actions. Currently, responsibilities related to disappearances are divided among seventeen agencies and various levels of the executive, with little communication between institutions (especially between the central government and the government of Iraqi Kurdistan). A central registry for disappearances also continues to be lacking, and a slow and disorganized bureaucracy makes it difficult even for citizens to report disappearances.

The Role of International Organizations

The vacuum left by inadequate state action has, over the years, been filled in part by international organizations present on Iraqi soil, such as the International Committee of the Red Cross, which addresses both the government and the families of the missing in its activities. Another example is the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP), active in Iraq since 2003, which has been working with Iraqi institutions on capacity-building initiatives and technical training courses, for example in identifying human remains contained in mass graves scattered around the country. These organizations also support civil society, striving to build a bridge between the Institutions and citizens who have lost all traces of their loved ones for many years. Indeed, in addition to the pain caused by the disappearances themselves, over the years, the situation has increased popular distrust in the state, as Iraqis have increasingly lost hope in the state's ability to solve their problems. The mafqudin are a wound that, instead of healing, is expanding and contributing to Iraq's social instability and fragmentation.

This article originally appeared on Il Caffè Geopolitico.

The Author

Allegra Wirmer is an affiliated researcher at the Center for Constitutional Studies and Democratic Development. She is an MA graduate in International Relations from the University of Bologna. Her research interests include Middle Eastern politics, human rights, and gender policy.

Article Banner Photo by أخٌ‌في‌الله on Unsplash.


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