Two years after uprisings spread across the Middle East and North Africa, countries are struggling to find a way to effectively dismantle the political structures of former regimes. Those seeking to carve a path forward have much to learn from Iraq, where the de-Baathification process was so poorly designed and executed that it significantly contributed to the collapse of many state functions. A decade on, its impacts can still be felt.
In Saddam Hussein's Iraq, membership in the Baath party was the standard requirement for state employment, creating a hegemonic party with a foothold in every public institution and all corners of society. The party had unbridled powers, which it used liberally to engage with the state security apparatus in extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, torture and other grave human rights violations during three decades of rule.
After the fall of the Iraqi regime in 2003, the new, US-led Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) introduced a sweeping, indiscriminate de-Baathification process intended to rid the country of the Baath party's influence. As the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) has outlined in its new report, this process led to the dismissal of thousands of individuals based on their rank within the Baath party hierarchy, rather than on their actual conduct, which should have been assessed through fair vetting procedures.
ICTJ's research and interviews with the official body that led de-Baathification initiatives for much of this period showed that these wholesale dismissals, combined with a lack of due process, badly undermined Iraq's government and military structures and fuelled a sense of grievance among those affected - not just employees, but also their families, friends and communities. It is unsurprising that the process became a significant contributing factor in widespread social and political conflict.
The impact on the Iraqi Ministry of Education and its employees illustrates some of the most severe effects of this short-sighted policy. Given the regime's penchant for distributing propaganda via classrooms, the education ministry was staffed by more senior party members than any other, and thus was by far the most affected by vetting, with 16,149 dismissals by June 2004. Another 1,355 were removed over the next 16 months. Schools and education administration were so severely short-staffed as a result that the CPA ordered many reinstated.
Iraq's de-Baathification debacle provides many important lessons for post-revolution countries in the region. Since dissolving their respective ruling parties, Tunisia, Egypt and Libya have adopted, or are considering adopting, further measures that are liable to exclude individuals from political life based on their past party affiliation rather than their past conduct. Dealing with the regime's entrenched security apparatus will be paramount in any post-Assad Syria.
US wasted billions in rebuilding Iraq
Reform is never easy, but there are steps that can be taken to improve the process.
Using Iraq as a cautionary tale, policymakers and civil society should be sure to create a vetting system based on fair, case-by-case examinations of individual competence, suitability and any record of human rights violations.
Vetting programmes are by their nature controversial, because they impact the livelihood and reputation of individuals as well as institutions. It is therefore necessary to set clear and realistic objectives to be achieved over a defined period of time, realising that a vetting programme cannot by itself reform the public sector or deliver justice to victims.
No vetting programme can be implemented without reliable, accurate, up-to-date information. If such data does not exist, policymakers should initiate a comprehensive mapping process to gather and assess information that can be used to determine the programme's scope, focus and goals.
A successful vetting process must also be, and be seen to be, procedurally fair. In practice, this means that those in question must have a full opportunity to answer the allegations against them, including having adequate time to examine the information collected against them.
While the implementation of a proper vetting programme is usually limited to a particular timeframe, it should also be designed with a set of clear criteria that can help to protect against future abuses. Addressing new recruitment and promotion criteria is just as critical to a successful programme as determining the framework for dismissals.
It is equally important to engage in extensive consultation with civil society and the public to ensure wide public buy-in and strong political support, especially as those individuals who stand to be dismissed will naturally resist the process. Consultation can help policymakers to develop a more targeted, effective programme, improving the chances that it will be implemented with the full confidence of the public. Ultimately, vetting members of the old guard is a mode of institutional reform - a process intended to help rebuild trust in government.
Unfortunately, de-Baathification in Iraq was a dysfunctional, counterproductive process that intensified social, sectarian and political divisions. The shortfalls of the Iraqi model should serve as a warning to those today who seek to reinforce the rule of law in their countries.
Miranda Sissons and Abdulrazzaq Al-Saiedi are co-authors of the ICTJ report "A Bitter Legacy: Lessons of de-Baathification in Iraq" (March 2013).
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.