Minerva Research Initiative Violates International Law and Iraqi Sovereignty

The time has come for academic professional associations, funding agencies, and universities to oppose the violation of international law and Iraqi sovereignty by the Pentagon’s Minerva Research Initiative. Both on this blog (here and here), and The Chronicle of Higher Education, we explored the ethical violations represented by the call to applicants for Pentagon social science funding in studying documents that had been looted by U.S. forces and illegally removed from Iraq, and the fact that Iraq wants those documents back. We asked, given the concern of the American Anthropological Association for research ethics, how it could go ahead and declare that it was pleased with the Minerva Initiative only because the National Science Foundation agreed to offer part of the peer review for a small part of the money. In addition, the question was raised: is the Minerva Research Initiative asking foreign, notably American scholars to write Iraq’s history for Iraq? Why are Iraqis not being permitted to research and write their own history? Why do so many of us, with analytical tools sharpened by our study of political economy, history, Orientalism, postcolonialism, etc., let this grand colonial act pass without much in the way of public objection?

Fortunately (and thanks to a reader for alerting me to this), the list of essays on The Minerva Controversy continues to grow on the site of the Social Science Research Council, with at least a dozen more articles to come in the near future. The most recent is by Saad Eskander, the Director General of the Iraq National Library and Archives, titled “Minerva Research Initiative: Searching for the Truth or Denying the Iraqis the Rights to Know the Truth?”. Finally, an Iraqi perspective on this debate, one that gives us some signs of the kinds of debates occurring in Iraq about the U.S. occupation and, I am obviously proud to say, much along the same lines as what has been argued on this blog.

The important point to be made is that any scholar who participates in this program will be violating international law, violating professional ethics, and perpetuating an act of cultural aggression against Iraq. Fortunately, the Pentagon will be releasing the names of all successful applicants, so we will all know exactly who they are. In the interests of truth and transparency, all of those names will also be published on this blog, as well as their institutional affiliations and the titles of their projects.

Select quotes from the article follow:

What has prompted me to write this paper is the continuing refusal of the U.S. to pay serious attention to Iraqi calls for the repatriation of the Iraqi records illegally seized by its military and intelligence agencies….

This latest Pentagon initiative is not only a continuation of its previous negative attitudes, but it also constitutes an escalation in its violation of international conventions on the safeguarding of cultural heritage of occupied territories, and goes against the principles of rule of law, self-determination, and human rights that are supposed to govern the so-called Free World….

Records are fundamental for the construction of any nation’s collective historical memory. This is why the protection of documentary heritage has been enshrined in international legislation, notably the 1954 Hague Convention….

Those who closely follow news about Iraq will be aware that the ‘New Iraq’ needs urgently to put an immediate end to the current abuses of the seized records for political and financial gains. Without recovering the missing and the seized records, this noble goal can not be attained….

US civilian and military officials in Washington and in Baghdad are fully aware of the fact that the archives of the Saddam Regime’s repressive organizations and other civilian institutions were extensively looted during and immediately after the 2003 invasion. The Americans were themselves involved in the lootings. We all know that tens of millions of the seized Iraq records were shipped to the U.S., while the remnants are kept inside Iraq under tight American control. The seized materials include government records, non-governmental records, the Ba’ath party records and personal papers of high-ranking officials of the former regime.

During the CPA[Coalition Provisional Authority]’s reign and the subsequent period of Iraq’s sovereignty, U.S. military and U.S. State Department officials encouraged and even helped others to loot and then to ship abroad Iraqi records, notably the Iraqi Memory Foundation (IMF). The latter is essentially a private American initiative, whose activities unequivocally violate current Iraqi archival legislations (No. 111 of 1969 and No. 70 of 1983). The IMF does not recognize Iraq’s national government or its sovereignty. And this is ironic, given the fact that the ‘New Iraq’ is considered to be a close ally of America!

The U.S. has been the hungriest scavenger of other nation’s records in the world; a position that reflects the numerous conflicts in which the U.S. has been involved, since the Second World War. U.S. seizures include records from: Germany, Russia, Poland, North Korea, North Vietnam, Grenada and Afghanistan.

While itself seizing tens of millions of current records of the former Iraqi state, during and immediately after the 2003 invasion, U.S. military and intelligence agencies tolerated the looting of what remained of Iraqi records by local political parties, organizations, citizens and even foreign reporters. In some cases, the U.S. government purchased records from a few well-known Iraqi looters of records, notably the president of the Political Prisoners Association, who fled the country after a warrant was issued for his arrest by the Iraqi authorities. He now lives in America!

There is no doubt in my mind that the Americans violated the international law of war in tolerating the destruction and the looting of non-current records and other records they considered to be of no importance to them. However their indifferent attitudes to the lootings and the destructions went against the U.S.’s own interests in many respects. First, they damaged enormously the U.S.’s international reputation and credibility. Second, they created a very negative impression among Iraqi citizens and particularly the educated classes. The latter viewed the Americans as mere ruthless imperialists, soon after the invasion. Third, the Americans needed information contained in the looted and destroyed records for the purposes of the day-to-day administration and reconstruction of Iraq….

By introducing the Minerva Research Initiative, the Pentagon is practically and overtly usurping our duty of collecting, preserving and facilitating access to Iraqi records for all people, who may and should use them for research and other legitimate purposes….

Providing access to sanctioned US universities, US research centers and US scholars is gross discrimination against the undeniable owners of the seized records, the Iraqi People, who are the main subject of the records. By taking this ill-conceived action, the Pentagon and the U.S. intelligence agencies have disregarded important considerations, including the right to privacy, the appreciation of cultural distinctions, respect for the social sensitivities of another nation, and respect for the rights of the victims….

If the Pentagon and U.S. intelligence agencies are sincere, why do not they allow us, the true owners of the records, too to use the seized records for ‘academic’ purposes? Why do they not deliberate with the Iraqis about their ‘academic’ project? Why do they keep the original Iraq records in their storage rooms, after they digitalized them?

….We do not know what code of ethics or criteria the Pentagon and U.S. intelligence agencies might have been using in treating, processing or selecting the seized records. We do not know to what extent the Pentagon and U.S. intelligence agencies might have changed, manipulated or destroyed data or records to distort evidence or to hide undesirable facts.

We hope that our American colleagues will not follow the example of the Hoover Institute in avoiding its academic responsibility. A true academic institute will not give shelter to the illegitimately-seized and illegally-shipped records of the Ba’ath party.

American universities, research centers and independent scholars should reflect on what has happened in Iraq, since the 2003 Invasion, before applying to the Pentagon’s Minerva Research Initiative.

The issue of seized records of other nations has a clear ethical dimension for both sides: the occupier and the occupied. There is hope that U.S. universities, research centers and independent scholars will acknowledge the moral dimension of the issue of seized Iraqi records, and react to it accordingly in a positive and a constructive manner.

For the Iraqis, this is an undeniable cultural imperialism, which is not really different from the colonists’ looting and smuggling of ancient artifacts of colonized peoples during the last two centuries.

…there is no real difference between the actions of the arsonists loyal to Saddam Hussein, who destroyed millions of records, including those of Iraq National Archive, and the actions of the U.S. army and intelligence agencies that seized, shipped and abused tens of millions of other Iraqi records….

The monopolized use of the records of the conquered nations by the conquerors for questionable research purposes should not be interpreted as mere misconduct. By their very nature, such researches will involve premeditated abuses. They will definitely benefit the political and military establishments of the conquerors, and will be detriment to the newly-established political regime and especially to the people of the conquered territories….

The Pentagon and U.S. intelligence agencies have been abusing the information contained in the seized records for tightly controlling the life and the destiny of Iraqi people….

there is an urgent need to replace the prevailing pragmatic morality with a new academic one; one that gives priority to the interests of the conquered nations, and respects unconditionally the principles of national self-determination and the rule of law at international level.

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4 thoughts on “Minerva Research Initiative Violates International Law and Iraqi Sovereignty

  1. Not aware that USA had “looted” Russian, Polish, North Korean and North Vietnamese
    records….have to wonder how access was gained, in order to “loot”.

    As for Germany and Iraq….perhaps the “fortunes of war”, affecting those defeated in battle?!!!

  2. No, there is no “fortunes of war” in international law, unless you are speaking of the unwritten “laws” of pirates, bandits, and other types of thieves. I don’t know about the other countries’ records, this article was about Iraq’s.

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