Researcher / Policy Analyst | Lancaster University
Justice and the Rule of Law
Middle East

Storytelling: Restorative Approaches to Post-2003 Iraq Peacebuilding

Peace and Justice Strong Institutions

This research paper posits that integrating storytelling-based practices, such as restorative justice dialogue and restorative education, within Iraq’s legal and educations systems can promote an inclusive, cross-communal public discourse and facilitate bottom-up and inclusive peacebuilding practices to counter decades-long elitist, top-down, empty reconciliation efforts.

References

Journal article: Storytelling: Restorative Approaches to Post-2003 Iraq Peacebuilding (2022)
Peer Reviewed
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About:

This research used a qualitative approach.

I conducted this research independently by referring to the literature on storytelling, pedagogy, and transitional justice, as well as social constructionism.

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Funding:

This research was independently conducted and did not receive funding from outside of the university.

Additional reading:
  • Background: Desectarianization and the End of Sectarianism?[Access resource]
  • For legislators
  • For Legal & Justice
  • Iraq
  • pedagogy
  • storytelling
  • transitional justice

Key points

  • Humans are instinctively storytelling animals. Constructive storytelling that centres Iraqi voices is powerful for change. Listen to what Iraqis want, their subjective truths, and not devalue those truths for being subjective.

Top-down national reconciliation initiatives overlook the significance of, and connection between, story and culture in social conflict resolution. Such initiatives also prioritize reconciliation between political parties and not between the various pockets of a pluralistic society. Given the legacies of repression in Iraq, both pre and post 2003, storytelling as an instrument of transitional justice can promote national reconciliation by engaging with and emphasizing localized, restorative peacebuilding practices that centre individual and communal grievances.

Findings

  • Iraqi stories of voices have to be at the heart of the peacebuilding process, you cannot introduce policies that are based on western ideals and values, and impose them on people in Iraq.

    Instead, you need to engage with what the people to learn what they want.

  • For the Iraqi context, it would be best to develop a framework that includes both punitive and restorative justice.

    Some crimes committed in Iraq do deserve punitive measures, especially those with large-scale social damage. Dissolving the current justice system and rewriting the current understanding of justice will not work.

  • While justice has a universal meaning that transcends culture, its nuances are perceived differently across cultures and across various pockets of any given society.

    To understand it in a particular context, one would need to examine how locals define it and what they expect of a justice process. The Saddam Hussein trial took place in Iraq because a majority of Iraqis wanted the potential of the death penalty while other venues for the trial, like the Hague, would not have allowed that kind of sentence. Iraqis also could not perceive justice for them taking place beyond their soil where Saddam's crimes against them took place.

  • We cannot "copy and paste" legal frameworks from any particular country or context.

What it means

Storytelling approaches from the bottom-up are subjective, and that is the point. When engaging with transitional justice, there are facts based on documentation, numbers of people missing or killed for example – and that’s the empirical evidence. But then we have the subjective stories taught by different parties.

Iraq is a very pluralistic society. There are Arabs, Kurds, Mandaeans, Shabak, Assyrians and Yazidis for example. So it is ethnically diverse by way of indigeneity. And these indigenous groups have been pushed out of Iraq since 2003 due to genocide, because of pressure and violence from terrorist groups. And to rely on storytelling based approaches is to invite all these people to tell their stories and engage with the consequences of having these stories shared publicly.

But these stories are not always constructive and can be destructive. Since 2003, there has been a sectarianisation process, which has pushed discrimination through its stories against an ethnic identity. But this can be countered with constructive storytelling.

Constructive storytelling invites the listener and the teller to engage together in a dynamic that’s positive, as opposed to divisive and polarising. This process then brings many people together. And it could be done through many settings. It can be done through restorative education or restorative transitional justice.

Restorative education refers to changing the syllabi in school to encourage students to engage in storytelling and to encourage students to collect stories, oral histories, that their families, their communities and bring them and use that collected knowledge to challenge the status quo. We want to challenge the destructive stories that have been pushed from the top-down, that are pushing discrimination and sectarianism. In

And in restorative education, the educator and the student have to have a similar kind of dynamic between that of the storyteller and the listener – they have to engage together, they have to be accepting, they have to be respectful, of each other, and so on. This restorative education can take place in the classroom, but it can also take place outside the classroom, and festivals. During the protest movement, the Tishreen movement protesters went out and shared their stories in the form of chants, slogans, art, graffiti, music, etc. And those were an example of constructive stories – inviting positive change.

Constructing museums is another example of positive storytelling. As long as it is inclusive of diverse and real-lived histories.

Going back to restorative justice, one can rely on the court system, but it would be better if this court system was build in parallel to other restorative practices.

When the US was in Iraq, they built the Iraqi high tribunal. There was the Saddam Hussein trial, which didn’t last very long as they wanted to expedite the trial. This was okay, but if there was some sort of Truth and Reconciliation Commission running parallel to that tribunal, that would have been ideal. To just focus on punitive measures, as opposed to, rebuilding social bonds, rebuilding a social contract, where people came together and share how they were a victim to Saddam Hussein’s crimes.

We can learn from other countries practices, but do not need to copy and paste. We can use South Africa and Rwanda as examples. But build our own frameworks that is specific to the Iraqi context, that takes into account the current divisions and polarizations that have been in place since 2003 – if not before. And this would empower people to speak up and feel safe while sharing their stories. And while listening to those stories, also accept that one may have been complicit in the violence against others.

So constructive storytelling would invite everyone to listen to each other’s stories and engage in a reflective process that would make them question whether they were actually complicit in crimes against others and learn to do something about it.

Punitive measures invite guilt and shame, but restorative practices focus more on the act, as opposed to labelling them a criminal and inviting this person to rectify their acts through measures that are constructive.

So instead of focusing on shaming communities, and labelling them as terrorists or as violators, we can focus on the act that was committed, and try to either rectify it or find ways to offer reparations – for the Yazidi community, for example, which was subjected to genocide, not that it would undo the harm that was done to them, but it would at least help them rebuild their future.

How to use

  • We need a more flexible framework that includes both restorative and punitive measures, and one that is rooted in storytelling from the bottom-up
  • As a policymaker or practitioner, be aware of your own positionality, be mindful if you're not Iraqi, and be mindful of how your own bias influences your approach
  • Iraqis need to reform the Iraqi tribunal by amending problematic laws and improving the legal framework to enable the tribunal to effectively try ISIS fighters, particularly those of Iraqi origin
  • Establish truth and reconciliation commissions
  • Encourage community-based restorative justice councils
  • Separate punitive and restorative efforts
  • Engage and empower the youth
  • There needs to be a robust system to protect whistleblowers
  • Iraq's penal code has not evolved since 1969

Acknowledgements

Thank you to KPSRL

These insights were made available thanks to the support of KPSRL, who are committed to the dissemination of knowledge for all.

 

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Ali Al-Hassani, Ruba. 'Storytelling: Restorative Approaches to Post-2003 Iraq Peacebuilding'. Acume. https://www.acume.org/r/storytelling-restorative-approaches-to-post-2003-iraq-peacebuilding/