As Paul Bremmer Wanted Them To Be

The following article was published by Reidar Visser, an historian of Iraq educated at the University of Oxford and currently based at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs. It is reproduced here with the author’s permission. Any opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Iraq Business News.

The Iraqi parliament marked the 9-year anniversary of the fall of Baghdad this week by approving a human rights commission, made up by 11 members. The legislation relevant to the commission was passed back in 2008, so it has taken a long time to agree on those 11. And, in an indication of continued dissension as to the legacy of the war that unseated Saddam Hussein, Iraqis are already divided regarding the significance of the new commission and the legitimacy of the process by which it emerged.

The concept of a human rights commission is in itself an important innovation, both in Iraq and in the Gulf region more broadly. The idea is that citizens can contact the commission directly whenever they wish to have cases of human rights violations heard. The commission, in turn, can decide to hand over cases to the judiciary. It is however important to note that the commission does not possess any judicial power of its own. Accordingly, it cannot be described as a fully-fledged oversight body vis-à-vis the police and the security forces.

At any rate, while the idea behind the commission may be beautiful, the way the commission emerged has already prompted some criticism among Iraqis. Hardly had the names of the 11 new commissioners been agreed by parliament before angry voices began shouting a well-known term of abuse: muhasasa!

Muhasasa means quota-sharing in Arabic. In the Iraqi context, it has become associated with the particular formula of ethno-sectarian power-sharing government that was established by the US occupation administrator Paul Bremer when he instituted the new Iraqi governing council in 2003. One of Bremer’s key concepts was that national decision-making institutions should reflect Iraq’s ethno-sectarian demographic balance proportionally. Bremer took this imperative quite literally: His memoir recounts how at one point he dismissed a gathering of seven Iraqis for being unrepresentative due to the presence of only a single Sunni Arab, and how he in another context nixed the participation of a Christian representative on the governing council based on the reasoning that the Christian representation on the council would become disproportionally high if there were two Christian members rather than one. Another consequence of Bremer’s thinking is that in most institutions of post-2003 Iraq, there would be a preset Shiite majority, mostly in line with their 60-65% share of the total Iraqi population.

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