Hennis-Plasschaert: Leaders must Put Iraq First

Briefing to the Security Council by Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert 3 March 2020

Mister President, thank you so much
Distinguished members of the Security Council,

Iraq has not left the headlines in recent months, as domestic, regional and international events have continued to take their toll on the country.
And while we will explore these events today, I choose to begin with hope:

  • The hope of a people who remain united in their determination for a more just and prosperous future;
  • The hope of a sovereign nation that refuses to become a battleground for conflicts that are not its own;
  • And the hope that Iraq may very well find itself at the most opportune moment for genuine and lasting political reform in a generation.

But for this to materialize, political leaders and communities will have to step up to the plate: placing the country's interest above all else, building domestic strength.

And within this context, it is important not to sugar coat the current harsh reality.

The many brave Iraqis - who continue to pay an unimaginable price for their voices to be heard - deserve that we recognize the intolerable abuses they have been subjected to.

The killings. The abductions. The violence. The intimidation. The threats. These abhorrent human rights violations are ongoing and fly in the face of all that is decent. They have no place in a democracy, any democracy.

And yes, of course, we do recognize the challenges of operating within a fluid, puzzling security context with multiple actors. However, as I have stated many times: the ultimate responsibility for the peoples' safety and security undeniably rests with the State.

It is therefore imperative to put an end to these abuses. Moreover, it is imperative that perpetrators be brought to justice. Impunity ends where accountability begins.

And let me emphasize: justice and accountability are a matter of burning importance to the many Iraqis who have lost their loved ones or seen them injured, for no other reason than expressing their frustration with poor economic, social and political prospects.

Justice and accountability should also be a pressing matter for the State of Iraq. The rule of law must be strengthened if public trust is to take root.

Now Mister President,
As I have stated time and again: Iraq's problems did not occur overnight, nor will they be solved in an instant.

Yet times of crisis also present opportunities. And I sincerely hope that Iraqi political leaders will recognise in this moment the crossroads where they either stand idle, or where they place themselves in the service of their countrymen and women. But I have to say: the critical window of opportunity is closing fast.

Now, with regard to the participation of Iraqi women in the ongoing public protests, it is unprecedented and marks a new page in the history of women's grassroots mobilization in Iraq. Political leaders should heed this call.
Going back to the streets: the security picture is undeniably complex and most challenging to manage. We witness ambiguously identified armed entities with unclear loyalties. And we see groups or individuals using the cover of peaceful protesters and/or security forces to muddy the issues, misleading the public, harming the country's interest, confusing the scene and causing casualties.

All of this is part of Iraq's tough reality.

And as Secretary-General Guterres recently stated: "The large number of armed groups operating outside state control is preventing the country from functioning as a normal state."

However, it bears repeating that this is not something political leaders should hide behind. On the contrary. They must dismantle or formally integrate these armed entities under full state control without delay. In other words: this is no excuse for political and governmental inaction.

Now Mister President,
After five months of protests, and the many injured and killed, it should be clear that peaceful protesters - backed by a silent majority - it should be clear that they will not budge on their aspirations. Now, this should be the political class' first and last concern - but so far, we have seen few results.
And let me be clear: delivering on the demands of the people will require a collective effort. I again emphasize that no Prime Minister can go it alone. Every single political actor and leader is fully responsible for restoring the critical confidence of the public in their government and its institutions.

Late last November, the Prime Minister announced his resignation, which was soon approved by Parliament and the President.

The designation of a new Prime-Minister, and subsequent attempts to form a new government, ultimately failed due to distrust and disunity. This led to a complicated situation in which the Prime Minister-designate was not able to obtain sufficiently broad support to form his government within 30 days.

Within the last three days, we saw the withdrawal of the candidacy of the Prime Minister-designate - accepted by the President -, and the announcement by the previous and current caretaker Prime Minister that he was stepping back from most of his duties while calling on parliament to seek early elections in December 2020.
Constitutionally, the President now has another 15 days to nominate a new PM-designate, whose government and programme would again be subject to parliamentary endorsement. And While political consultations are ongoing, the question remains whether political parties will find a new consensus-candidate within these time limits.

Clearly, all this prolongs uncertainty and causes significant challenges - further eroding public trust.

Mister President,
One way or another: the road ahead remains fraught with difficulties.

I already mentioned the pressing need for accountability and justice. And another top priority is corruption: perhaps the greatest source of dysfunction in Iraq, and sadly, a core feature of Iraq's current political economy. It is built into everyday transactions.

A related feature of Iraq's political economy is its reliance on patronage and clientelism. This has resulted in a ballooning, inefficient public service that functions more as an instrument of political favour than as a servant of the people.

Now, A cynic would describe this "payroll corruption" as the perfect electoral mobilization strategy, where - perversely - low turnout benefits those pursuing their own narrow, partisan and/or transactional objectives.

Now It is important to tackle the system as precisely that: a system and not just a series of individuals or occurrences. Each bribe or favour serves to reinforce the existing structure.

Therefore, full systemic reform will be necessary. And no one understands this better than the Iraqi woman and man whose chances of a more prosperous life continue to be undermined by a system which ignores them.

Mister President,
Iraq is by no means a poor country, but as I said: private and partisan interests conspire to divert resources away from critical investment in the way forward.

Iraq's massive oil wealth has financed a crude rentier system that sees enormous revenues converted to salaries in unproductive sectors.

Now While external factors (such as regional tensions and oil price fluctuations), while they continue to weigh on the national economy, there are internal factors which Iraq can control. Reducing bureaucracy, increasing the ease of doing business, strengthening the rule of law, anti-corruption mechanisms: these measures can all incentivize the domestic private sector while attracting foreign investment. These steps are necessary to build a healthy environment that is conducive to broad-based, fairly distributed growth and employment generation.

Iraq must also build, repair and upgrade critical infrastructure, and broaden its revenue base to reduce its dependency on hydrocarbons. Now, Agriculture is already showing promise - good news - as a candidate for investment. And an agricultural revival, in the birthplace of agriculture, will not only improve employment and social cohesion (notably in liberated rural areas) but also strengthen Iraqi food security.

And Within this context, I would also like to highlight the creative resilience of the Iraqi people. Because If one looks beyond the statistics and legal structures, we observe - on the street - plenty of commercial activity. And One can only imagine what this spirit of innovation and entrepreneurship could achieve if freed from the burdens of red tape and bribes.

Mister President,
An important aspect of corruption is illicit financial flows: they not only help explain why Iraqis continue to await roads, hospitals, schools, and legal employment opportunities. They also contribute to further destabilization, by providing channels for the financing of organized crime and violent extremism.

And with regards to violent extremism, we cannot ignore the continued threat of terrorism.

Although ISIL has been defeated territorially, it continued - in the past two months - its attempts to increase its military operations in northeastern Diyala, northern Baghdad and areas of western Iraq.

it goes without saying that ISIL must not be allowed to regroup and recruit. And while constructive negotiations between Iraq's government and its allies are ongoing, following the vote on the parliamentary resolution on the presence of foreign troops, Iraq's allies continue to assist the government and its institutions in the fight against ISIL.

Now It is obvious that a strong state which has a monopoly on the use of force is best equipped to face these multiple security threats. And of course, an equally powerful tool against violent extremism is fairness and justice.

Mr. President, turning to the need for free, fair and credible elections. While the "electoral reset" is a top priority for many - broad, underlying systemic reform and a strong, independent electoral commission will prove crucial.

In other words: the newly appointed electoral commission will need to stand with greater resolve in adhering to the principles of transparency, accountability, independence and professionalism as they rebuild the commission's institutional capacities and kick-start technical electoral preparations.

Moreover, in order to firm up the electoral calendar, there is an immediate need to complete the electoral legal framework. Parliament must act on pending, urgent elements of the electoral law, in particular constituency demarcation and seat apportionment, hopefully bringing voters closer to the candidates and making future elected representatives accountable to their constituents.

Now Turning to Baghdad-Erbil relations, notwithstanding an encouraging preliminary deal between the KRG and the Federal Government on oil and revenue sharing, we continue to await a final, long-term and sustainable agreement on this file as well as on security co-operation and Sinjar.

Mr. President,
I think we can all agree that the volatile domestic and regional climate took an extraordinary toll on Iraq in the past months. To point out the obvious, the state-to-state violence we saw play out across Iraq earlier this year, was received as a clear and substantial threat to the country.

The modus operandi and rules of engagement have shifted, and the risk of rogue action by armed groups with unclear reporting lines is a constant concern.

Beyond the immediate security threat, this also takes critical political attention away from urgent unfinished domestic business. But As I have stated before, regional security developments should not eclipse domestic priorities.

Now The question is whether Iraq will flourish as a venue for peace and understanding, or suffer as the arena of external battles.

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

Hopes renewed in January when new human remains were discovered and exhumed from a third grave in Samawa. Despite a very challenging operational context, the Iraqi Ministry of Defence has demonstrated commendable focus on this important file, leading the excavation efforts with assistance from the ICRC.

And I truly hope that the DNA identification of these newly discovered human remains, as well as those that are still being analysed in Kuwait, that it will prove positive and that it will bring closure to the families and relatives of those who went missing nearly thirty years ago.

The contribution of the Tripartite Committee members through the provision and analysis of satellite imagery, supported by witness information, it all proved crucial in locating the Samawa sites. And I would like to call all members of the Committee to continue their steadfast support to the efforts underway for other potential burial sites.

Mr President,
In closing, It was my intention to conclude with words of hope. But the ongoing political indecisiveness and dissension, leading to a further paralysis in decision-making, unfortunately do not give cause for immediate optimism. The country and its people continue to be pushed into the unknown.

Also, the repeated pattern of parliamentary sessions which have failed to reach quorum is exactly the opposite of what the country needs, especially during a period of acute political crisis. The fundamental mandate of an elected representative is: to be present, to be counted and to vote.

Now Like I said last time: out of the ongoing political crisis - a fairer, stronger and inherently more resilient Iraq can emerge. But again, for this to materialize: political leaders will have to act fast, placing the country's interest above all else.

Iraq must and can find strength in diversity, recognizing a cohesive society as more than the sum of its parts.

Putting out one fire after the other is no strategy. It must move from constant crisis management to sustainable and stable politics, building resilience through deep and broad systemic reform. And as we all know: at the end of the day, Mr. President, strength at home is a prerequisite for strength abroad.

Thank you.

(Source: UN)

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