As the country has been debating military intervention in Syria, the airwaves and blogosphere, conversations on the street and phone calls to Congress have rightly been filled with talk of the catastrophe caused by the Iraq War. A decade after the invasion, Iraqis and U.S. veterans are still suffering from the impacts of the war, including widespread trauma and skyrocketing rates of birth defects and cancer from the U.S.’s own use of internationally condemned weapons, such as white phosphorous, napalm-class weapons and weapons containing depleted uranium. This week, a coalition of veterans, Iraqis and human rights groups are appealing to the United Nations Human Rights Council and the Organization of American States to urge concrete U.S. action for the devastation it has imposed. The efforts request, among other measures, mechanisms for accountability and reparations in the form of health care, clean-up of toxic sites, and repairing critical infrastructure.  Acknowledgement of the painful and far-reaching human toll of war has never been more urgently needed as the U.S. weighs its next steps in Syria.

Accounting for the Iraq War Catastrophe

On Al-Mutanabbi Street in Baghdad a couple of  months ago, Iraqi human rights activists set up a table to gather signatures beneath a banner bearing the image of Hani, a young child from the town of Hawija who lost his parents to shootings by the U.S. army. Hani is also severely disabled, one of hundreds of children in Hawija born with birth defects believed to be caused by contamination from Forward Operating Base Fort McHenry, which the U.S. operated nearby  during the war.

Underneath Hani’s image, the Organization for Women’s Freedom in Iraq (OWFI) was collecting signatures to support a request for a hearing on the human rights impacts of the Iraq War before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) as part of the Right to Heal Initiative. The Initiative launched on the tenth anniversary of the invasion and involves OWFI, the Federation of Workers Unions and Councils in Iraq, Iraq Veterans Against the War, the Center for Constitutional Rights, Civilian-Soldier Alliance and other anti-war and human rights partners in the U.S.  These groups were alarmed that the Iraq War is fading into the past in the U.S. while ongoing crises –  such as 22 U.S. veterans committing suicide a day and babies being born in Iraq’s delivery rooms with debilitating conditions that don’t even have medical terms because they’ve never been seen before – need serious, systemic attention.

Signatures being collected in Iraq in support of the Right to Heal Initiative

The signature collection in support of the IACHR hearing request drew great support on Al-Mutanabbi Street. A lawyers’ league offered their fact-finding reports and to collect signatures in their own communities to support the initiative. Artists volunteered to hold exhibitions on the sufferings of the population at large due to the war and occupation. An individual came up to the signature stand and told OWFI how he lost all the members of his family during a U.S. raid, all in the same day, and wanted to provide testimony. OWFI also set up signature stands and went door-to-door in Samarra and Basra and, in total, collected 2,135 signatures by hand. In addition, nearly 7,292 signatures were collected online from 76 different countries, and today the initiative delivered the final list to the IACHR. We will know their decision next week.

The Right to Heal Initiative also submitted a shadow report today to the United Nations Human Rights Committee in anticipation of its review of the United States’ human rights record pursuant to U.S. treaty obligations as a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).  The report details the violations to civil and political rights that took place due to the war and continue to take place as a result of the United States’ war-making and occupation.

President Obama has said that we must look forward not back, but how do you tell that to the boy Hani or to the man who had lost every member of his family in a raid, or to other Iraqi civilians? Or to U.S. veterans who are still struggling with an incomprehensible level of trauma in the shadows of a country that has not only swept the atrocities of Iraq under its rug but now proposes further engagement in yet another country in the Middle East?  The very concept of justice is rooted in looking back, acknowledging what took place, and coming up with ways to move forward that give hope to a future of healing, reconciling, and peace. The international community must support the beginning of this process between U.S. and Iraqi citizens, led by those most impacted by the war, and we are urging the international human rights system to begin to take steps to make this possible.

Download the Right to Heal poster.

Laura Raymond is Advocacy Program Manager at the Center for Constitutional Rights. @laurajraymond