Protests and civil unrest show ‘renewed sense of patriotism’ in Iraq, UN envoy tells Security Council

3 December 2019

After decades of sectarian strife and conflict, “a renewed sense of patriotism has taken hold”, the head of the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) told the Security Council on Tuesday.

Briefing from Baghdad, Special Envoy Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert said that “out of love for their homeland”, thousands of Iraqis have taken to the streets, asking for their country to reach its “full potential for the benefit of all Iraqis”.

“However”, she lamented “they are paying an unimaginable price for their voices to be heard”, pointing out that since 1 October, over 400 people have been killed and more than 19,000 injured.

She explained that although today’s youth has no recollection of life under the former dictator Saddam Hussein, who was executed after being found guilty of war crimes in Iraq in 2006, they are aware of what was promised after his death and “through the power of connectivity, they know perfectly well that a better future is possible”.

“The current situation can hardly be judged without putting it in the context of Iraq’s past”, Ms. Hennis-Plasschaert said, “but what we are witnessing is an accumulation of frustration over the lack of progress for so many years”.

‘Crisis of confidence’

Since the first night of demonstrations, the Special Envoy recalled that “events spun out of control”, 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”, she spelled out.

Although the Government announced various packages addressing the lack of housing, chronic and high unemployment, the need for widespread financial support and education, she noted that these are often perceived as unrealistic or “too little, too late”.

‘Harsh reality’

The UN official flagged that although “there can be no justification” for the killing and injuring of peaceful protesters, “this is precisely what we have been documenting”.

And while the rules of engagement are to minimize the use of lethal force, “the harsh reality” is that live fire, tear gas and unlawful arrests and detentions persist, “as do abductions, threats and intimidation”.

Drawing attention to “the critical importance” of full accountability and justice, Ms. Hennis-Plasschaert reiterated the significance of guaranteeing fundamental rights, beginning with the right to life, but also to peaceful assembly and freedom of expression.

She highlighted that media, internet and social media shutdowns add to the “public perception that the authorities have something to hide”, stressing that addressing hate speech “does not mean limiting or prohibiting freedom of speech”.

Noting that most protesters are peacefully seeking a better life, the Special Representative stressed that “it is the primary responsibility of the State to protect its people”, spelling out that all forms of violence are intolerable and must not distract from “the rightful demands for reform”.

Other shortcomings

Electoral reform, pervasive corruption and an environment conducive to employment and growth are all issues that must be tackled, according to Ms. Hennis-Plasschaert.

While fostering dialogue is imperative, “bloodshed, abductions and unlawful arrests”, must be terminated.

Moreover, 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”, she underscored.

Turning to the resignation of Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi, the Special Envoy updated the Chamber that President Barham Salih was given 15 days to replace him.

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

She emphasized that “a Government cannot go it alone” but is instead “a collective responsibility of the political class as a whole”.

Iraq at ‘a crossroads’

In closing, the UNAMI head argued that the country is as at a crossroads that cannot be resolved by “buying time with band-aid solutions and coercive measures”.

She called on Iraqis to build a sovereign, stable, inclusive and prosperous country: “Now is the time to act”, Ms. Hennis-Plasschaert concluded. “The great hopes of so many Iraqis call for bold, forward thinking”.

 

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