Tuesday, 03 December 2019 18:52

Briefing to the Security Council by Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert 3 December 2019

Madam President,

Distinguished members of the Security Council,

In recent months, I have consistently referred to urgent unfinished domestic business in Iraq. Perhaps inevitably, today I will brief on protests and civil unrest.

Protests, initially driven by young people in particular. Giving voice to their frustration with poor economic, social and political prospects. Giving voice to their great hopes for better times. Away from corruption and partisan interests. Away from foreign interference.

Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis - from all walks of life - took to the streets, out of love for their homeland, emphasizing their Iraqi identity. All they are asking for is a country reaching its full potential for the benefit of all Iraqis.

However, they are paying an unimaginable price for their voices to be heard. Since early October, over 400 people have been killed and over 19,000 have been injured.

As we commemorate the fallen and pay our respects, their ideals and demands remain more alive than ever.

One of the protesters told me in the clearest of terms:
“A life in dignity and freedom. Or no life. This is what the protests are all about”.

Last week I visited a hospital in Baghdad and met with a 16-year-old boy, heavily injured by shrapnel. His mother said: “The lack of any prospect makes our teenagers desperate. It makes them think and act at least twice their age”.

Her son is only 16 years old. But 16 years is a very long time if one is waiting for political leaders to live up to their promises.

Now, these young people have no recollection of how horrific life was for many Iraqis in the time of Saddam Hussein. However, they are very much aware of the life that was promised after Saddam Hussein. And through the power of connectivity, they know perfectly well that a better future is possible.

I often said: the current situation can hardly be judged without putting it in the context of Iraq’s past. But what we are witnessing is an accumulation of frustration over the lack of progress for so many years.

After years - even decades - of sectarian strife and conflict, a renewed sense of patriotism has taken hold. Symbolized by the 16-year-old boy I met in hospital, as well as his countless brothers and sisters demonstrating in Iraq. Some well-known Iraqis refer to it as the ‘battle of a nation’.

And let me underline: any successful nation needs to warmly embrace the potential of its young people. This is all the more important in Iraq, with its remarkably young population.

Madam President, events spun out of control on the very first night of the demonstrations - with authorities immediately resorting to excessive force.

The high loss of life, the many injuries, the violence - combined with this long period of undelivered promises - all resulted in a crisis of confidence.

Although the Government announced various reform packages addressing issues such as housing, unemployment, financial support and education – these are often perceived as unrealistic or ‘too little, too late’.

Additionally, the Government’s investigation into the violence of early October is seen as incomplete. Who is smashing media outlets? Gunning down peaceful protesters? Abducting civil activists? Who are these masked men, unidentified snipers, unknown armed actors?
I do note that a number of arrest warrants have been issued, but I would like to emphasize that perpetrators must be brought to full account.

Now, Madam President, there can be no justification for the many killings and heavy injuries of peaceful protesters. Yet this is precisely what we have been documenting since the first of October.

The rules of engagement were reviewed to minimize the use of lethal force - and indeed, more restraint was observed at the start of the second wave of demonstrations, in Baghdad in particular.

Yet the harsh reality is that the use of live fire has not been abandoned, that non-lethal devices - such as tear gas canisters - continue to be used improperly causing horrific injuries or death, that unlawful arrests and detentions continue to take place - as do abductions, threats and intimidation. The recent events in Nasiriyah and Najaf are a case in point.

Therefore, I wish to reiterate the importance of guaranteeing fundamental rights. Above all the right to life, but also the right to peaceful assembly and freedom of expression. Additionally, I wish to (again) stress the critical importance of full accountability and justice – at all levels.

Also important to note: the shutdown of media outlets, internet and social media adds to the public perception that the authorities have something to hide. Addressing hate speech does not mean limiting or prohibiting freedom of speech.

Another grave concern, Madam President, is the encroachment of power dynamics - trying to hijack the peaceful protests.

Acts of violence that are politically motivated, gang-driven or arising from external loyalties, risk placing Iraq on a dangerous trajectory, sowing chaos and confusion - including the further loss of life and the destruction of public and private property.

This gravely undermines the rightful demands of the Iraqi people. It complicates the work of the security forces. And it provides a cynical excuse for political inaction or worse: an excuse for all kinds of conspiracies to justify violent crackdowns on peaceful demonstrations.

To be perfectly clear: the vast majority of protesters are evidently peaceful. Everyday men and women seeking a better life. And let me emphasize: it is the primary responsibility of the State to protect its people.

In other words: Any and all forms of violence are intolerable, and must not distract from the rightful demands for reform. This would compromise the State even further.
It would only harm an already gravely eroded public trust - further narrowing the Government’s ability to reform. And this ability grows weaker every time a peaceful protester is killed or injured.

Madam President, the weight of Iraq’s past and the immensity of current issues would surely be challenging to any Government’s ability to act, and to act fast.

However, the shortcomings are long-standing and painfully real. To give you a few examples:

Free, fair and credible elections: the call for electoral reform reverberates all over Iraq. Iraqis call for independent and impartial electoral management, for changes in the electoral system to bring voters closer to their candidates and to make their elected representatives duly accountable.

Secondly, pervasive corruption: we have heard plenty of words and gestures, but have seen fewer concrete outcomes. The political class will need to lead by example, for instance by publicly disclosing their assets and by abolishing their so-called ‘economic offices’.

I cannot overstate that anti-corruption efforts in Iraq will be key to unlocking immense social, economic and political potential. Without meaningful progress here, we risk treading water on nearly every other front.

A related key demand of the demonstrators is an environment conducive to employment and growth. While this is one of the best remedies against unrest and conflict, we have seen precious little in terms of implementation.

Madam President, some three weeks ago, following consultations with a wide range of Iraqis, including protesters and authorities, we proposed a number of steps as a way forward. And further initiatives to foster dialogue are ongoing or on their way.

But for this dialogue to succeed, the protesters’ conditions are clear: an end to the bloodshed, abductions and unlawful arrests.

Also, it must be understood that without full accountability and justice - it will be nearly impossible to convince the people that political leaders are sincerely willing to engage in substantial reform.

And while I acknowledge that a collective protesters’ movement does not necessarily recognize central leadership, some structure and coordination on the part of the peaceful protesters will prove of great importance as well.

Madam President, the Prime Minister’s resignation was accepted by Parliament last Sunday. Today, the Speaker asked the President to designate a new Prime Minister - he will have 15 days to do so. In turn, the Prime Minister-designate will have 30 days to form a government.

While talks about the Prime Minister-designate are ongoing between political leaders, I would like to emphasize the urgency of current circumstances. Political leaders do not have the luxury of time and must rise to the moment.

Moreover, they will have to come clean in public and advance real solutions, instead of leaving it to a Prime Minister with little or no support. I have always emphasized that a Government cannot go it alone. It is a collective responsibility of the political class as a whole.

With your permission, Madam President, I will now briefly turn to Baghdad-Erbil relations. Another critical file. As I said in earlier briefings: relations are surely on an upswing, but I must repeat that, to date, this has not materialized in the form of real breakthroughs on the ground.

In Sinjar, we continue to face major restrictions to our humanitarian action. Erbil and Baghdad are duty-bound to establish a single administration and stable security structures. Their ongoing failure to agree can no longer be explained nor tolerated.

Another concern is the situation in Dohuk governorate: over 16,000 Syrian refugees have arrived so far, and more continue to arrive on a daily basis. Nine years into the Syrian conflict, we did not expect to open new refugee camps in Iraq. And let’s not forget: they add to the quarter million Syrians already being hosted in the Kurdish region.

Now, while the protests dominate our attention, we should not forget the legacy of yesterday’s fight against ISIL. As we speak, a new disaster is in the making. On many occasions, I have stated that the situation in camps (such as al-Hawl) is not sustainable. Transnational threats demand collective action, but instead we are seeing a frankly shocking lack of international long-term thinking.

Madam President, I would now like to turn to the issue of missing Kuwaiti, third-country nationals and missing Kuwaiti property, including the national archives.

Despite the domestic crisis, I am pleased to report that, on October 27, Iraq handed over approximately 200,000 books belonging to the Kuwaiti National Library and Kuwait University.

I would also like to commend the difficult work carried out by Kuwaiti forensic experts in the ongoing identification process of the human remains that were found earlier this year in the Samawah desert. I truly hope that these efforts can soon be completed, delivering some closure to relatives.

A final word, Madam President, on the ongoing demonstrations in Iraq. The country is as at a crossroads.

In my meeting with Grand Ayatollah Sistani, he expressed concern that relevant actors might not be serious enough to implement any meaningful reform. He added that “the situation cannot continue as it was before the demonstrations”.

Very true.

Meanwhile, the protesters appear determined to persevere as long as their demands remain unheeded.

The situation cannot be resolved by buying time with band-aid solutions and coercive measures: this approach will only further fuel public anger and distrust.

Pursuing partisan interests, muddling through or brutally cracking down on peaceful protesters: these are no strategies at all. And nothing is more damaging than a climate of anger and fear. We must not let history repeat itself.

Out of any crisis, new and great opportunities can emerge. Iraq is not a lost cause. Far from it. It has immense potential.
The challenge is to seize this opportunity and to build a sovereign, stable, inclusive and prosperous Iraq. Now is the time to act. The great hopes of so many Iraqis call for bold, forward thinking.

Thank you very much.

Last modified on Tuesday, 03 December 2019 20:10

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