Storytelling: Restorative Approaches to Post-2003 Iraq Peacebuilding



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Research Consultant

Department of Politics, Philosophy and Religion

Lancaster University

Ruba is an Interdisciplinary Sociologist and a Postdoctoral Research Associate. Her work focuses on the study of state-society relations to centre and amplify voices on the ground in public discourse, analysis, and policy.


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.

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.

Key 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.

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. Other Iraqi researchers need to help refine this framework into something more specific.
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. Centre Iraqi voices and stories and everything they do.
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: These commissions can be set up in each governorate, creating safe spaces for victims to share their stories, for perpetrators to listen, and to explore opportunities for rectification and rebuilding.
Encourage community-based restorative justice councils: Learning from other legal models, these councils can be created by each community, with peers participating in the process. They can be trained to be part of these commissions and focus on restorative efforts rather than punitive justice. But punitive justice should not be done via these methods.
Separate punitive and restorative efforts: Not all crimes are equal, some require a tribunal, but others can be rectified through other acts. Keep punitive justice in the hands of a reformed, non-corrupt legal system, while restorative efforts can be managed by grassroots-based and horizontal approaches, such as the proposed community-based councils.
Engage and empower the youth: With more than half of Iraq's population under the age of 25, it is essential to harness their energy and hope for change in the pursuit of justice and healing.
There needs to be a robust system to protect whistleblowers. People will not speak up without protection.
Iraq's penal code has not evolved since 1969. Laws must be fluid and reflect a changing society. There are antiquated laws that do not apply (arguably never did) such as the law that rapists can marry their victims and has never been ok. There's always been a want for punishment for rapists, but a political system rooted in corruption is preventing new bills from being passed.

The full paper is not available open access

Ruba Ali Al-Hassani, (2022). ‘Storytelling: Restorative Approaches to Post-2003 Iraq Peacebuilding’. Journal of Intervention and Statebuilding, 15(4), pp.510-527.

About this research

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

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    About this research

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

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      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, due to pressure and violence from terrorist groups. To rely on storytelling based approaches is to invite all these people to tell their stories, engage with the consequences of having these stories shared publicly, and assume responsibility for their role in oppressing others.

      Storytelling can be constructive or 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 brings people together. It could be done in the classroom or legal system. 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 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 they aim to challenge the status quo. This restorative education can take place in the classroom, but it can also take place outside the classroom. During the protest movement, the Tishreen movement protesters went out and shared their stories in the form of chants, slogans, art, graffiti, music, etc. 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 built in parallel to other restorative practices.

      When the US was in Iraq, it established the Iraqi high tribunal to prosecute Saddam Hussein, which later evolved to take a form which Iraqis wanted – run by Iraqi judges and enforcing Iraqi law. A Truth and Reconciliation Commission running parallel to that tribunal would have been ideal. While the trial focused on punitive justice, a truth and reconciliation commission would have helped rebuild social bonds and 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’ experiences without blindly adapting their methods. South Africa and Rwanda provide good example of successful truth and reconciliation efforts. With insight from these experiences, a new transitional justice framework can be developed for the Iraqi context that takes into account the country’s historical, social, and political contexts. Such a framework would empower people to speak up and feel safe while sharing their stories as well as accept that one may have been complicit in the violence against others.

      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 make an effort to rectify the situation where possible.

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


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


      A process which institutions (social, political, legal etc) condition people to view things from a divisive lens rooted in sectarian identity, normalizing discrimination. Sectarianisation takes places through the manipulation of sectarian tensions as a weapon in the arsenal of those in power.

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