Brendan O’Neill

Invasion of the lawyers

Brendan O’Neill says that America’s first gift to Iraq has been the compensation culture and a flood of personal injury claims

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Brendan O’Neill says that America’s first gift to Iraq has been the compensation culture and a flood of personal injury claims

Whatever you think about democracy and human rights, the Coalition successfully imported one thing from the West into post-Saddam Iraq — the compensation culture.

Iraq has become a hotbed of legal claims and counterclaims, of individual complaints and class action lawsuits, for everything from physical and mental injury to destruction of property. Iraqis demand compensation for damage caused to their gardens by American tanks, or for the scrapes and dents to their cars caused by run-ins with speeding Humvees. American soldiers have threatened to sue the US military for exposing them to death and injury by terrorist attack, while British soldiers want compensation for injuries sustained in friendly fire incidents. Ambulance-chasing (or perhaps Humvee-chasing) human rights lawyers are everywhere in Iraq, encouraging Iraqis to sue, sue, sue. Where Iraq — following the handover of sovereignty — was supposed to be a showcase for liberation, it has in fact become the latest outpost in the West’s decadent culture of blaming and claiming, where individuals seek to blame somebody or some authority for every misfortune, whether minor or major, that befalls them.

This week Elizabeth Wilmshurst, the government lawyer who resigned from the Foreign Office weeks after the first tanks rolled into Iraq last March, claimed that Coalition troops have been granted immunity from prosecution that is ‘without precedent’; she said that Iraqis who are injured or abused by the Coalition have little legal comeback and are often denied financial restitution. In fact, one reason why the departing Coalition has reportedly done a deal with the new interim government to limit future claims for compensation is precisely because of the burgeoning litigious climate in Iraq, where for the past 16 months demands for compensation, whether formal or informal, have become one of the few means through which Iraqis have been able to challenge the occupying powers.

Some see this as a positive development, as evidence that Iraqis have been ‘empowered’ to hold their invaders — the departing Coalition, who patently are responsible for so much Iraqi misfortune — to account. But litigation is a sorry substitute for liberation. Indeed, the contemporary culture of complaint and compensation, brought to Iraq courtesy of the West, is a whole world away from true democracy.

Some of the most infamous incidents of the past few months have ended in legal wrangling. Ahmed Chalabi, Washington’s former stooge who fell out of favour with the Americans after it was discovered that he had allegedly been passing sensitive info to the Iranians, is threatening to sue over the US military’s ‘humiliating’ dawn raid on his home in Baghdad in May. Chalabi wants ‘financial restitution’ for the raid, during which, according to his Boston-based lawyers Markham & Read, US forces and Iraqi police committed acts of vandalism, behaved in a marauding fashion, and ‘consumed food and beverages from Dr Chalabi’s refrigerator’.

Iraqis who have a little more to complain about than Chalabi are also gearing up to sue. Officials at the US Department of Defense say the Pentagon is braced for an ‘influx’ of compensation claims stemming from the charges of abuse at Abu Ghraib. Indeed the Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld seemed to pave the way for such claims when he announced in early May that he was ‘seeking a way to provide appropriate compensation to those detainees who suffered grievous and brutal abuse.... It’s the right thing to do.’ Iraqis quickly took up his offer. An Iraqi-born Swedish citizen, identified only as Mr Saleh, is suing the US military for $100,000 in a court in Michigan, where he is staying with relatives; he claims to be the hooded prisoner in the photograph with Lynndie England pointing at his genitals.

A class action lawsuit has been filed by the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights and a Philadelphia-based law firm, on behalf of other Iraqis who claim to have been abused in US custody, against two private American firms, Titan Corporation and CACI International. The firms are accused of conspiring with US officials to ‘humiliate, torture and abuse persons’ detained in Iraq. In May, at the High Court in London, a group of Birmingham-based human rights lawyers won the right to challenge the British government’s refusal to open independent inquiries into the alleged killing of 12 Iraqis by British soldiers in southern Iraq. As a report in the Scotsman noted, ‘The case could open the floodgates for compensation claims and lead to criminal proceedings against soldiers or the government.’ Other Iraqis are demanding compensation for injuries sustained in clashes with the Coalition while on anti-Coalition protests, and for damage caused to property by American bombs, tanks or the door-smashing antics of big-booted squaddies.

The Coalition is in a panic over this compensation craze. US forces revealed in May that close to 16,000 claims for compensation have been made by Iraqis since the end of the war, for ‘personal injury, deaths of family members or for property damage caused by US military action in “non-combat” situations’. American officials say that some $3 million has been paid to 5,000 claimants (not including the much higher claims for compensation now being made over abuse at Abu Ghraib), and that 8,000 claims have been rejected and a further 3,000 are pending. In March the US military opened a claims centre in an attempt to settle claims for compensation more quickly and less controversially. According to chief warrant officer Ron Angel, a legal administrative officer in the US military, the centre handles cases involving everything from ‘destruction of personal property to loss of limbs’, but about 90 per cent of the claims relate to vehicle damage — ‘from cars that have been run over and crushed by one of our vehicles to minor paint damage or a fender-bender type situation,’ says Angel.

The US military has taken to providing its soldiers in post-handover Iraq with wads of cash when they go out on patrol, so that they can hand some of it to Iraqis following a skirmish or incident — a kind of on-the-spot, cash-in-hand form of financial restitution — as a means of stemming the flood of compensation claims. According to the New York Times, ‘Military leaders in the field [are] frequently given cash and wide latitude to distribute it among Iraqis injured in military operations.’ So worried are Coalition officials that they have apparently struck a deal with the new interim government which will limit the Iraqi public’s ability to make claims for compensation against America in the new Iraq.

Yet on the subject of blaming and claiming the Coalition has no one but itself to thank for the rise of the compensation culture in Iraq. Demands for compensation are not an Iraqi phenomenon; until recently, courtrooms in Iraq were places where you nodded obediently to your interrogators before being rumbled off to jail or the gallows. Rather, this alien culture has been imported by the West. It is Western human rights lawyers, from Boston, New York, Philadelphia, London and Birmingham, who are taking Iraqis’ cases to court. Indeed, many of these cases are being heard in plush courtrooms in America and Britain, thousands of miles from where the alleged incidents occurred.

If Iraqis are taking their cue from anyone, it is surely from the Coalition itself. Demands for compensation over unfortunate events in Iraq were first made by Coalition soldiers against Coalition leaders, rather than by Iraqis against their invaders. The Coalition was suing itself long before Iraqis started suing it. Four British soldiers last yea r threatened to sue the Ministry of Defence for ailments such as depression, eczema and breathing problems, which they claim were caused by vaccines that they received before the start of the war. According to recent reports, the families of six British soldiers killed by rioting Iraqis in southern Iraq in June last year are set to sue the Ministry of Defence, accusing it of failing in its ‘duty of care’ to their sons. The family of another British soldier, who was badly injured in a ‘friendly fire’ incident when his tank was fired on by a British Challenger II, is campaigning for a change in the law, to allow soldiers to sue the military over friendly fire. In America, lawyers are looking into the possibility of suing the Department of Defense for causing some US troops to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, presumably by sending them to fight in Iraq.

These are no doubt tragic incidents. But in the past they would have been seen as ugly facts of war, as risks that soldiers take when they go out on to the battlefield. Today it seems that the compensation culture is so deeply ingrained, the notion that someone else is always responsible for our misfortunes so widely accepted, that even armies can be sued by their own soldiers for making them do unacceptably risky things or causing them to suffer from stress. It is this Western culture that has arrived in Iraq, where hard-up Iraqis are understandably looking for some of that financial restitution that seems to follow every attack, accident and stressful incident that occurs these days.

Only the most heartless in the pro-war lobby would begrudge Iraqis getting a few quid from the Coalition for the terrible destruction and hardship they have endured over the past 16 months. But there is little to celebrate in the transformation of Iraq from a malignant dictatorship into a legal minefield. It certainly is not the liberation that Iraqis were promised. Where democracy involves individuals making conscious choices about the future direction of their society, the compensation culture is premised on the idea that we are all pathetic victims tossed around by fortune. Where true liberation is won by people behaving as subjects, actively shaping the world around them, the culture of complaint makes us into mere objects who are shaped by the world around us. Where liberation makes us both free and responsible, in the compensation culture someone else is always to blame; we become isolated, atomised individuals always pointing the finger at others.

How could America and Britain bring democracy and liberation to Iraq when they seem to have so little faith in such institutions at home? Instead, the one thing they have successfully projected on to Iraq is contemporary Western decadence — our widespread sense of victimhood and injury, where we are given to weeping and complaining in the face of misfortune. This is not a good foundation on which to build a new, free nation.

Brendan O’Neill is assistant editor of spiked-online.

Written byBrendan O’Neill

Brendan O’Neill is the editor of Spiked and a columnist for The Australian and The Big Issue.

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