07/10/2014 04:08 pm ET Updated Sep 09, 2014

Breaking Iraq's Cycle of Destruction

By Russell Raymond
Program Officer, Rights & Justice Initiatives

After several years of comparative stability, Iraq's slide back into open conflict reached a new low last month as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) swiftly seized control of Mosul and several other northwestern towns. Taking advantage of ongoing sectarian divisions, the government's failure to deliver basic services, and endemic corruption, the militant group was able to easily overpower poorly led and locally despised police and army units.

The sad truth of the present situation is that the current Iraqi leadership effectively paved the way for ISIL's deadly ascent through policies that actively aggravated sectarian rifts and undermined the resilience of security forces. Notably, the government neglected to pursue projects that might have fostered national reconciliation, most critically a program of genuine transitional justice.

In recent decades, the field of transitional justice has come to the forefront as a pathway for countries to emerge from periods of dictatorship, violence, and social schism, and to develop new political and civic cultures of human rights, democratic inclusion, and trust. Having been implemented in countries such as South Africa, Rwanda, and Chile, transitional justice is a holistic process comprising not just criminal justice--including trials for the worst offenders--but restorative justice--including truth commissions and reparations aimed at long-term social healing.

Transitional justice is a long and often difficult process, but it has been shown to be a critical prerequisite for lasting political reconciliation and stability. Furthermore, by directly addressing simmering grievances, transitional justice can reduce the likelihood of future conflicts.

During the relative security brought by the U.S. military's troop surge following the Iraq civil war of 2006-07, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, had an opportunity to embrace political reconciliation and include Sunni and Kurdish leaders in his cabinet in genuine positions of power. He could have instituted much needed transitional justice processes to confront the crimes of the past and demonstrate a commitment to redressing injustices against all groups. As part of such an effort, the deeply flawed "de-Baathification" purge of Sunnis from government positions could have been reformed into a principled vetting process based on evidence and individual culpability, rather than mass guilt by association.

Instead, al-Maliki used the rhetoric of sectarian division to shore up his own political support, accused his Sunni vice president of terrorism, pursued abusive "antiterrorism" security policies that disproportionately targeted Sunni communities, centralized control of security forces into his own hands, and further enmeshed his administration in a culture of corruption, among other failings.

In late 2012, an initially peaceful Sunni protest movement against al-Maliki emerged. Small clashes began between protesters and security forces in early 2013, and these quickly became marked by the disproportionate and lethal use of force by the police and military--most notably the killing of 38 people in Hawija in April 2013, which led to a mass outbreak of sectarian violence across the country. Although al-Maliki made some minor attempts to placate the protest movement, his dismissive rhetoric toward legitimate Sunni grievances, often grounded in the purported presence of violent extremists in protest camps, served only to cement his image as a purely sectarian leader and engender additional Sunni support for the protests.

In this atmosphere of division and anger, ISIL asserted itself, capturing Fallujah in January, sweeping through Mosul in June, and declaring a new caliphate last week. While few Iraqi Sunnis support ISIL, with its savage practices and anachronistic aims, they also feel little love for the government in Baghdad. Even if the current militant occupation were successfully removed tomorrow, this basic antipathy toward the government would create openings for similar groups in the future. To truly reunite the country, Iraq needs not just reconciliation among political leaders in the short-term, but a deeper, long-term process of transitional justice.

Transitional justice may not have stopped ISIL from emerging in Iraq, and centuries of conflict between Shia and Sunni would not have been neatly and suddenly resolved, but they don't need to be for a transition to begin. Substantive attempts to address specific crimes committed against Iraqis on all sides during their recent history could have demonstrated the government's commitment to righting past wrongs, eliminating impunity, and building a new state based on just and inclusive governance. If some of the grievances fueling anger and resentment had been stripped away over the past seven years, bringing all sects and ethnic groups toward a shared civic polity, extremist factions like ISIL would have found themselves socially marginalized, with much less antigovernment sympathy and faced with more unified and respected Iraqi security forces, possibly preventing a great deal of bloodshed.

Only through a genuine effort to deal with the past, address ongoing grievances, and promote political and social reconciliation can the government of Iraq begin to break free from cycles of violence and construct a stable, peaceful Iraqi nation.

This post originally appeared on Freedom House's blog.