To mark its 10th anniversary, NCCI is publishing a series of 5 op-ed interviews during each week in April. The interviews will be held with individuals who have worked closely with NCCI for all or part of the past 10 years. The following interview focuses on NCCI’s more recent history to give readers an insight into challenges, successes, and initiatives, and it includes interviews with:
Former Executive Coordinator (2005-2008)
Former Field Coordinator (2008-2011)
Former Executive Coordinator (2011-2012)
Former Information and Communications Coordinator (2005-2008)
Executive Coordinator (2012-present)
NCCI: In 2005, NCCI experienced a kind of reorganization, closing its Kuwait office, relocating its Baghdad support staff office to Amman, and rewriting its charter.
a) What was the reason for this major reorganization?
Former Executive Coordinator (2005-2008): There were multiple reasons and factors. Developing the Amman office was meant to [better] respond to all NGOs who relocated to Jordan for security reasons. Closing the Kuwait office was due to limited funds and a small presence of NGOs in Kuwait (most of them knew each other and didn’t need a heavy coordination mechanism). Maintaining Erbil was meant to link with many NGOs that relocated in the north. And, of course, maintaining Baghdad with all support staff relocated to Amman (communication, administration and finance etc…). But there was no immediate change in coordination teams and coordination mechanisms.
The Charter is a separate issue. NGOs decided to review the charter in order to open the doors to newborn NNGOs, to develop the advocacy and lobbying mandate in parallel to the coordination one, but also to include themes like capacity building, research and publications etc. One of the main reasons was also to re-affirm the principle of NGOs and, accordingly, NCCI.
There was also a hidden reason behind the new charter. In fact, between the departure of Philippe Schneider and my arrival, there was a gap in the management of NCCI. During this period, some non-genuine NGOs became members of the platform. It was easier to cancel all registrations and ask for re-registration, according the new charter and its principles. The best way to filter and get rid of some private companies registered as NGOs, or religious or political organizations with different agendas than the humanitarian imperatives.
b) How did this affect its ability to implement projects and coordination? What were the advantages and disadvantages?
Executive Coordinator (2012-present): There were several reasons for the re-organization set up in 2005:
- Limited funds available for NCCI operations after July 2005
- A huge setup; NCCI had at that time (5 offices in Kuwait, Amman, Baghdad, Basra and Erbil with more than 60 staff members)
- The allocation of the majority of humanitarian actors to Amman
- The UN took the lead again on coordination, due to easy access of everyone to everyone in Amman (compared to Baghdad’s security difficulties(.
As for the change in the charter, in 2003, and the time of NCCI’s creation, many NGOs joined NCCI. NCCI had high levels of activities in terms of quality and quantity and the period witnessed the emergence of many active Iraqi NGOs. Due to all of this, there was a need to develop the charter according to: a) Iraq’s working environment, b) lessons learned during NCCI’s first year of working. To the best that I know, there was a need to review NCCI’s charter before 2005. However, and due to the high turnover in the Executive Coordinator position, this was not possible. After February 2005, NCCI had a strong leadership who started lobbying amongst members for necessary amendments in the charter.
NCCI: How did this affect its ability to implement projects and coordination? What were the advantages and disadvantages?
Former Information and Communications Coordinator (2005-2008): The reorganization affected a lot of the coordination. Imagine you go from a $1 million USD budget per year to $0. However, the change of charter enabled us to focus only on genuine humanitarian members, and also to open up to NNGOs. Therefore, to become stronger in front of adversity or to defend principles, as we all really stand on the same side.
NCCI: In what ways did the newly elected and formed Iraqi government facilitate or limit NCCI’s coordination activities? How did members (or the organization in question) reform their goals to adapt to the major political changes?
Executive Coordinator (2012-present): There is no doubt that when a government starts working, coordination of the humanitarian efforts in this country will be the responsibility of this government. However, INGOs and other actors will need time to build trust with this government in order to join the governmental coordination mechanisms. NCCI’s coordination activities were indeed limited in Iraq after the formation of the new government, but this wasn’t due to this reason rather than the relocation of the majority of humanitarian actors to the neighboring countries.
The election of the new government didn’t change a lot of the reality of the humanitarian situation on the ground. However, the political overview (at national and international levels) adopted another direction. The international community welcomed the idea that “Reconstruction is Going Well in Iraq” while it was not going well and Iraq awoke in the beginning of 2006 to face one of the worst periods of sectarian violence and displacement in its history.
NCCI: In May, 2005 NCCI started having more interest in having NNGOs as members. Was this one of the reformed goals?
Executive Coordinator (2012-present): Indeed, NNGOs started to be important actors in humanitarian operations in Iraq. The deterioration in the security situation pushed the majority of international humanitarian actors out of the county and those who stayed in Iraq were hosted in high security compounds with very limited access to the field. Being out of the country or hosted in secured shelters forced humanitarian actors to start new management systems and to act through local partners (NNGOs). NCCI’s charter was reformed to welcome the new actors in the humanitarian field, as during NCCI’s establishment there we very few NNGOs who were mainly based in the KRG.
NCCI: During the period of the formation of the government (2006-2008), a civil-war was also taking place.
a) How did NCCI navigate the volatile political and security landscape during this period?
Former Executive Coordinator (2005-2008): Like most Iraqis, we were observing, analyzing, networking, collecting information, and acting according the context, location, timing to insure our security and to survive as human beings. Politically speaking, Iraq was strongly fragmented and having a global understanding of the situation needed additional research, understanding etc… to provide a coherent and consistent independent reading of the situation to our members in order to survive as an institution.
Our neutrality, our principles, our transparency, our network and our constant effort to explain who we are and acting according our principles helped us navigate the specific context described in your question.
b) What were the challenges and in which areas of its initiatives did NCCI excel?
Executive Coordinator (2012-present): Security analysis, incident anticipation, good contacts in the field, overview about the situation for the new comers to Iraq were the main elements of NCCI’s added value for NCCI for those who are stationed out of Iraq. Connections with other actors, links to the field, and information about who is doing what and where were very much appreciated services by NCCI’s members.
NCCI: How has NCCI’s registration as a Swiss NGO and Jordanian and Iraq INGO changed its role in Iraq’s humanitarian context and relationship with its members?
Former Executive Coordinator (2011-2012): By creating a legal presence in all three countries, NCCI is now better positioned to advocate on behalf of its members at an international level about the situation in Iraq. For example, we were able to gain ECOSOC status (something that would not have been achieved without our Swiss presence) enabling NCCI to bring humanitarian and developmental issues in Iraq to various UN fora, the European Union and significant donors. This is hugely important given the reduced attention for Iraq amongst international communities.
NCCI: With the decrease in violence and end of the civil war, how did NCCI and its members reorient themselves to new and developing needs of Iraqi humanitarian and civil society?
Former Executive Coordinator (2011-2012): Despite the fact that Iraq has always had a very strong sense of the need for civil society and a civil society itself, it became very clear in the past 5 years that existing civil society organizations needed a lot of support and training if they were going to have any real impact. NCCI started to focus more closely on Iraqi NGOs as potential members and indeed board members, in an effort to closely link NNGOs to INGOs and other international agencies. This has had quite an impact on NCCI's work as it is currently the first organization that an international agency will contact when aiming to be linked with civil society groups and NNGOs. This is a vital service for Iraq given the established lack of access in the field due to a continuing unstable environment.
NCCI's members started to re-orientate projects towards the emerging long term developmental needs. They did this also using more and more Iraqi NGO partners, also training NNGOs how to implement such projects. Consequently, NNGOs started to skill up in certain areas.
NCCI: How did projects change in response to Iraq’s post-civil war status? What role did NCCI have in rebuilding?
Former Field Coordinator (2008-2011): Since its inception, NCCI has been one of the major actors in prioritizing needs and setting the agenda for civil society in Iraq. NCCI continued highlighting the needs within the Iraqi context whether relief-oriented or development-oriented, by means of its field-based networks and nation-wide partnerships with different stakeholders. NCCI initiatives designed and implemented its activities in light of its awareness of the constantly changing needs of the humanitarian context in Iraq. Therefore, NCCI's projects varied from needs assessments, coordination of assistance provision, and relief delivery, to more developmental projects of civic education, capacity building, peace building, and community involvement in the democratic process at large.
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.