A year following the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq questions regarding the nation’s political, security, and human rights infrastructure have taken a front seat in public debate. To be sure, the burgeoning democracy has many challenges ahead, many of which are not necessarily a result of the withdrawal but rather the effects of America’s invasion and subsequent reconstruction policies. In politics, force and power take precedence over compromise and dialogue, while many governorates, particularly Ninawa and Kirkuk, face almost daily attacks, which the nation’s security forces attempt to contain. On the other hand, human rights is a primary concern of civil society organizations, non-governmental organization, and even government ministries, who each try to work together, yet often face conflict, when attempting to build capacity to relieve the nation’s humanitarian problems.
Iraq’s Security Condition
Prior to the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, the disputed territories of Ninewa, Kirkuk, Diyala, and Salah al-Din had been primarily under the control of the American military, though still relatively insecure. However, during the past year these regions have remained Iraq’s most dangerous territories, with almost daily car bombs and violent attacks, while the Southern governorates are now much safer. In fact, the promise of increased safety seems fleeting, as September 2012 marked the most dangerous month in Iraq in over two years, with 365 deaths reported.[i]
Mosul stands out as one of the most dangerous cities, experiencing near daily attacks, as well as violations by local security forces. The Islamic State of Iraq (al-Qaeda’s Iraqi counterpart) still maintains strong influence in Ninawa and at one point, in 2011, deployed extortion, or a “jizya” tax, on the local government.[ii] Some even assert that any semblance of democracy in the governorate may only lead to more tribal influence.[iii] In mid-December of 2012, a series of deadly explosions and attacks occurred throughout Iraq, killing at least 29 people, 7 of whom were killed in Mosul.[iv]
Due partially to the lack and destruction of administrative, social, and security infrastructure by the U.S. military, as well as the lack of capacity building by reconstruction efforts, violence in many governorates remains a constant concern.
Violence, however, is not limited to non-government militias. Recently, Ninewa has taken center stage in an episode surrounding Iraq’s internal security violations against women. The rape of a 17 year old minor by an Army officer of the second division triggered outrage by government officials, particularly Iraqiyya List member Hamid al-Mutlaq, and citizens alike, resulting in the officer’s pending prosecution and sentencing.[v]
Iraq’s political space is also often occupied by force and coercion, as political opponents resort to methods that involve abuse of power, as opposed to mediation.
Earlier this year, Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi was indicted on terrorism charges, incurring a death sentence from which he subsequently fled to Turkey. While many debate whether the charges are legitimate and based on truth, al-Hashimi and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki hail from rival political parties, al-Iraqiyya block and al-Dawa respectively, resulting in speculation by some that al-Maliki used the judicial apparatus to exile (or effectively destroy) his political opponent.
Most recently, in an event that echoes the al-Hashimi episode, Minister of Finance, Rafei al-Essawi’s government offices were raided by militia forces, ending in the detention of the Minister’s guards and co-workers. And because al-Essawi also belongs to al-Iraqiyya block, many speculate on al-Maliki’s intentions as efforts to purge government ministries of his rivals.[vi]
This sparked protests across al-Anbar province, not completely aimed at the raids, but target to a large extent toward al-Maliki’s dubious use of power and force. According to Al Jazeera, Hikmat Iyada, provincial councilor for Anbar, told the protesters "We are gathered today not for Essawi and his bodyguards, but to change the course of this sectarian government and to overthrow Maliki's government…"
While many blame sectarian divisions as political obstacles, this ostensible political reality could be attributed to the invasion forces’ administrative policies of drawing political identities based on religion and ethnicity, while viewing political groups’ demands through a sectarian lens. By dealing with diverse interest groups in this way, and acting as a self-proclaimed “neutral” party by which direct negotiations between political groups do not take place, the U.S. administration set the stage for ethnic and religious tensions.
Humanitarian Issues in post-Withdrawal Iraq
Furthermore, Iraq’s larger humanitarian condition remains fragile. That being said, there have been some significant attempts at improving the situation both by the government and other organizations, though with recurring conflict on all sides. While the Iraqi Parliament and UNOPS got the wheels turning to draft the first policy on civil society, the civil society has been pretty much occupied advocating against a recent order issued by the Secretary General of Council of Ministers that “subjects NGOs to taxes and fees like companies.”
NGOs and civil society organizations face so many issues that taxes might be the least of them when human rights come to mind. On the Human Rights Day in December 2012, various Iraqi human rights entities, including ones established by the government, voiced their concerns about violations of human rights to which the Iraqis are subjected. In an interview with al-Aalam Newspaper on the 11th of December, Salama al-Khafaji member of the High Commission of Human Rights said “Iraqis are subject to huge violations and there is a need to make great efforts in order to create an environment where human rights can be applied.”
Human Rights in Iraq
While non-governmental organizations and civil society organizations have a relatively short history in Iraq, the history of human rights in the last ten years is quite deep. Violations, particularly the atrocious Abu-Ghraib episodes, by occupation forces in prisons and in public remain fresh in the Iraqi memory, while the arguably contradictory yet beneficial monetary contributions by the United States and other coalition forces had supported reconstruction a great deal. After the withdrawal, however, the drop in global humanitarian aid to Iraq has been cumbersome, as well as the state in which the nation was left: to essentially pull itself up by its bootstraps.
In a report published by the UK (the Foreign & Commonwealth Office's Annual Human Rights Report for 2011), human rights in Iraq were described as improving. The report stated “Iraq continues to deal with the legacy of decades of appalling human rights violations under Saddam Hussein’s regime, as well as institutional deficiencies and the fallout of the 2003 Iraq War. The precarious security situation and political tensions within the Iraqi government have made progress and engagement on human rights difficult, and we have not yet reached the point where a culture that respects human rights is ingrained in Iraqi society.”
The UK report has appraised the advancement of Iraq, saying “Iraq faces many human rights challenges as it emerges from years of conflict, but it is important to recognize the progress that has been made by the Government of Iraq and Iraqi civil society. Indeed, since this report was written, we have seen the establishment of the Iraqi High Commission for Human Rights and the publication of the National Action Plan on human rights”.[vii]
Iraqi Ministry of Human Rights said on its website, regarding the reports, that “despite the challenges and difficulties facing Iraq,” it is “advancing much on human rights.”
The Ministry of Human Rights goes on to list some of the most controversial newly-issued laws on freedom of expression, including the Journalists Rights Law of 2011, as examples of the achievements made in the field of human rights, despite the gaps found in several of these law that make them according to observers a tool to restrict rather than enhance the freedom of expression.[viii]
One local NGO, told al-Aalam newspaper that the “situation of human rights in Iraq is unbalanced, as improvements are seen in one aspect only to have deterioration in another,” said Shaza Naji the head of Women for Peace Organization.
Who is Doing What?:
Ministry of Human Rights
The Ministry of Human Rights was established in 2003. Although its mandate covers all human rights abuses in Iraq, the Iraqi Ministry of Human Rightshas to date primarily focused on recording the abuses of the Ba’athist Administration. The investigation of the crimes of the previous administration of the country is certainly necessary and commendable for any national Iraqi human rights body. However the investigation of the past should not occur in the place or at the expense of the investigation of human rights abuses occurring on the watch of the current government.
High Commission for Human Right
When formed in 2008, the High Commission for Human Rights was hailed as a “milestone” that will further support the existing efforts by the national Government’s human rights ministry, the judiciary, the Council of Representatives, law enforcement agencies and civil society groups, said Staffan de Mistura, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Iraq at the time.
Four years later, the HCHR is still inactive. According to Dr. Bushra Al-Obeidi member of the HCHR, the latter needs 19 million dollars to commence its activities. The requested money will be spent on logistics, hiring, etc.
The good news is that the HCHR will abstain from tackling old political-humanitarian cases, including the prisoners and missing persons files of the Iranian-Iraqi war or the Saddam invasion of Kuwait, leaving such files to the Ministry of Human Rights while focusing on current violations of human rights[ix].
Iraqi Federation of Human Rights Defenders Established
The establishment of the Iraqi Federation of Human Rights Defenders was officially announced in Erbil on July 16th, 2012, a precedent in Iraq as it represents the first union of its kind. Members of the Federation included academics, media personnel, workers of human rights organizations and activists defending human rights. The Federation aims to creating a society where freedom and the dignity of human beings are fully respected.
In September 2012, the Federation called on civil society organizations, NGOs, the Academia, journalists, and human rights activists to apply to join the Administrative Body of the Federation that will be selected in a general conference to be held before the end of 2012. So far, there is no news about the said conference.
Outlook and Conclusion
To be sure, a number of Iraq’s institutions remain unstable and fragile. Political corruption and the government’s lack of capacity to deliver basic security and services prolong other humanitarian problems, while NGOs and CSOs struggle to build a strong civil society and advocate against poor policy. However, there are still signs of national cohesion and public organization for which the government cannot take responsibility, showing signs of unity and a popular desire for change.
Recent protests in al-Anbar against Nouri al-Maliki’s policies and use of power as well as continuous dialogue between government offices and humanitarian organizations signify public agency that may move politics beyond violence and corruption and past that which was limited by occupation. Thus, if substantial change is to occur, it will not come from the government but from the Iraqi political public and civil society.