Originally posted July 2008

In the aftermath of the February 2006 bombing of the Al-Askari shrine in Samarra, the ethnic violence and displacement that engulfed Iraq drew heavy media attention and triggered a heated debate in US policy circles over whether the country should be partitioned among its fractious ethnic and confessional groups. For observers in the US, partition was most often seen as a way of ending the bloodshed in Iraq in a sustainable manner. As a result, the debate over partition largely subsided along with the levels of violence over the course of 2007.

However, for the Iraqis, questions of partition have probably never been as relevant as now. The Government has signaled its opposition to sectarian partition by initiating policies to achieve the return of those displaced by the violence. However, levels of actual return have remained low due to a number of obstacles, including ongoing security concerns and the need to provide restitution of the homes and lands left behind by those who fled, many of which are now damaged, destroyed or occupied by others. These challenges to reversing the demographic un-mixing of the country will be further exacerbated by a series of upcoming political debates that will distract political attention and resources further from return, give rise to tension and insecurity, and which may well result in the consolidation of an Iraq consisting of powerful ethnic and sectarian regions.

Under these circumstances, there are grounds for concern that the humanitarian consequences of displacement and the rights of the displaced may simply fail to register. The recent violence in Iraq gave rise to the largest displacement crisis in the Middle East since the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict. However, although those uprooted since 2003 in Iraq should benefit from rights to return and restitution that were less self-evident in 1948, they nevertheless remain at risk of being treated as pawns in a larger game of control over political constituencies and natural resources. If this turns out to be the case, their unresolved claims and grievances risk destabilizing Iraq and the region for decades to come.

A crucial ambiguity in the US partition debate related to its definition. Partition most clearly refers to the division of a country into separate political units, with “hard” partition resulting in new states and “soft” partition resulting in greater autonomy for federal regions within an enduring state. However, a second element common to many partitions is demographic separation, with the respective parties to partition agreeing or acquiescing to permanent exchanges of population that ensure that the new political boundaries are aligned with new ethnic or sectarian lines. Partition advocates in Iraq and other settings often emphasize this latter factor — ethnic separation — as a means of securing durable peace by moving vulnerable minorities out of harm’s way.

However, there are grounds to question the efficacy of ethnic separation as a method of conflict resolution. Some of the most prominent past examples are marked by ongoing confrontation. For instance, the exchange of two million people between Greece and Turkey in the early 1920s was followed by decades of open hostility culminating in the 1974 Turkish invasion of northern Cyprus. Ironically, the ongoing de facto partition of Cyprus remains the most serious obstacle to Turkey’s current efforts at achieving regional stability through the new model of European integration. Meanwhile, the 1948 partition of India and Pakistan yielded one of the world’s most perennially dangerous borders, with the parties having engaged in the first serious nuclear standoff since the Cold War just a few years ago.

Equally important, changes to international law since the end of World War II mean that states no longer have the discretion to uproot people as simply as they might redraw administrative borders. The development of human rights law means that all people enjoy rights to properties and homes and freedoms to choose where they want to live that were not previously recognized. In displacement settings where these rights have been violated, the victims should in principle enjoy the right to freely return to their homes or to choose to live elsewhere, as well as the right to restitution of the property they left behind.

This new dynamic has been recognized in recent peace agreements such as those in Bosnia, where minority demands for collective security have been addressed through soft partition-style political measures such as decentralization and regional autonomy, while individuals have been accorded rights to claim and return to their homes regardless of who controls the area where they are located. In the wake of the recent violence, Iraq is taking similar steps as well. Iraq’s Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, has declared that the country is now safe enough for all refugees to return to their homes and his Government recently launched a National Policy for addressing the plight of those displaced within Iraq, setting out clear rights to return and restitution. On paper, at least, the principle has been established that any demographic separation of Iraqis will take place on their own volition and without stripping them of the homes and assets they left behind.

However, the challenges to realizing the rights of displaced Iraqis are daunting. The scale of displacement alone is a serious challenge, with up to two million refugees outside Iraq, and nearly three million displaced within the country. Many of the displaced are increasingly vulnerable and impoverished as a result of their prolonged ordeal, and yet remain unable to return to insecure neighborhoods and destroyed or occupied homes. In many cases, their homes have become part of the patronage system of local politicians and sectarian militias, giving them a new economic and political significance to these groups that greatly complicates the prospect for their restitution.

Perhaps most demanding, Iraq now faces a series of fundamental political challenges that are likely to overshadow efforts to address displacement. The Iraqi Parliament is currently considering a law that would pave the way for provincial elections. While these elections themselves are likely to cause considerable tensions in Iraq’s highly unresolved political landscape, the resulting provincial councils will have a constitutional mandate to initiate the process of forming powerful regions uniting areas controlled by Iraq’s respective ethnic and sectarian groups. The demarcation of such regions would be highly contentious, placing these groups in direct conflict over disputed areas controlling access to large oil reserves. At best, these processes will distract significant political attention and resources from concrete measures to support restitution and return. At worst, they may result in renewed displacement and even consolidation of quasi-permanent ethnic enclaves. Impoverished, aggrieved and dispossessed of their homes and homelands, these uprooted populations could destabilize the region for decades.

The international community has every reason to support Iraq’s incipient efforts to bring about restitution and end displacement. Doing so would foster long-term stability in Iraq and underscore the fact that the post-2001 emphasis on fighting terrorism need not imply the complete renunciation of the human rights gains seen in post-displacement settings like Bosnia since the end of the Cold War. However, as a UN human rights official recently put it, few have realized that the success of the political agenda in Iraq depends not only on the immediate-term space created by military gains but also on the long-term sustainability created by attention to the humanitarian needs and human rights of victims of the conflict. The Iraqi authorities have formally renounced sectarian partition as a political option. They not only deserve the support of the international community in transforming these words into deeds, but will need it dearly in the months ahead.