Briefing to the UN Security Council by SRSG Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert | BTSC
25 August 2021
Mr. President, thank you so much,
Distinguished members of the Security Council,
To be back in the Council chamber, after one and half years, feels, I have to admit, like a particular privilege and honour. And I truly hope that this progressive return to normalcy, or something approaching it, will soon be within reach for all.
For the time being, however, we must be realistic: the pandemic is far from over, taking its daily toll of cases and claiming even more lives when tragedy strikes, as it did with yet another devastating fire in the COVID ward of a hospital in Nasiriyah last month.
Now, Mr. President, if you allow me, I would dedicate most of today’s briefing to Iraq’s all-important elections on October 10th. The clock is ticking, with forty-six days left until Iraq goes to the polls.
Now, I would like to start by emphasizing that IHEC, the Independent High Electoral Commission, is working diligently towards Election Day - in line with the Electoral Law and in accordance with pre-approved timelines.
In recent months, IHEC has reached several complex milestones. And, of course, UNAMI has provided - and continues to provide - technical assistance wherever it can. Worth noting: five times as many UN personnel are currently engaged as were in the 2018 elections.
As you may have gleaned from our monthly public reports:
• Candidate lists have been finalized;
• A ballot lottery was conducted for all 83 constituencies;
• Ballot printing is ongoing, with all ballot papers expected in country by mid-September;
• The polling and results management IT systems are being reviewed by an independent audit firm;
• Two out of three planned polling day simulations have been conducted - with the most recent simulation and open to political parties and the media, on the 23rd of August. And the final simulation is scheduled for September.
• Recruitment of polling staff is ongoing, and training of electoral staff has begun as well.
• IHEC’s outreach strategy was launched on June 6 and covers key thematic areas including the new electoral system, the role of IHEC, the distribution of biometric cards, the counting process and announcement of results, integrity measures as well as specific awareness messages targeting, inter alia, women, youth, people with disabilities and IDPs or returnees.
I wish to commend IHEC not only for its dedication but also for its transformation. Iraq’s authorities and parties would do well to publicly acknowledge IHEC’s achievements so far. And the same goes for its independence. Casting doubt about IHEC’s ability to operate, risks further eroding voter confidence.
Now, in parallel, preparations for UN monitoring are moving rapidly. Most members of the preparatory team have been contracted and are being deployed to Baghdad as we speak. They will soon be followed by the regional teams, expected to be on the ground in the 1st week of September. And these regional teams will pave the way for the arrival of short-term experts.
Concurrently, and in line with our renewed mandate, UNAMI is stepping up its strategic communication efforts aimed at informing the Iraqi voters on election preparations and related UN activities, sharing facts and figures, tackling misinformation and managing public expectations.
We are often asked: will these October elections be different from the elections in 2018? This is a sensible question, as the lack of public trust in public authorities and institutions is long-standing and widespread.
In response, I can only point to the facts. The fact is, that IHEC is applying lessons learned from previous elections. The fact is, that significant changes to improve the electoral processes and preparations for E-day are being made - including an independent IT audit, new voter verification devices, numerous measures to tackle misuse of Electronic Voting Cards, and displaying election results in real-time during transmission, tabulation and announcement.
In other words: the October elections clearly have the potential to be different from the elections in 2018.
However, successful elections are not, and cannot be, the sole responsibility of IHEC. We therefore consistently call on all stakeholders (including government officials, parties, candidates, political forces, civil society organizations, media outlets and voters) to commit to transparent and credible elections - in words and in deeds.
Mr. President, not surprisingly, fear of electoral fraud is being expressed by many. By Iraqi citizens, and also by political parties. Looking back on past events, this fear is well understood.
At the same time, it is fair to emphasize that the political parties themselves are the ones who can make or break these elections. No matter how many technical measures are put in place, it is up to them collectively to refrain from any attempt to force or distort election results. It is up to them to stop the buying of loyalties, voter suppression and/or other intentional, illegal actions. It is they who must lead by example, collectively. You only need one bad actor to ruin it for everyone else.
Another issue is the fact that misinformation – and even conspiracy theories – continue to create false but accepted perceptions.
Regrettably, misinformation is abundant and wide-ranging. About IHEC. About protesters. About government officials. About political rivals. And yes, also about the United Nations.
Now, UNAMI is working tirelessly to provide IHEC and others with considerable technical support, spending millions of taxpayers’ money for additional experts on the ground. And yet, some have taken it upon themselves to baselessly claim that we were somehow calling for a postponement of these elections. Frankly absurd.
So let me be clear: if misinformation overtakes reality, it is not only an enormous energy-drain for those working hard for the greater good of Iraq, it is also risky business.
I therefore call, yet again, on all stakeholders to stick to the facts, to focus on their own roles and responsibilities, and to refrain from using the United Nations as a scapegoat. Truth, discipline and, yes, courage, are required at this critical juncture.
I also would like to call on all media outlets to provide accurate, reliable and timely information to the Iraqi people, instead of fuelling false perceptions to suit their backers.
It is high time to recognize that Iraq leads and owns the October elections. It is high time to stop blaming others for things of your own doing. It is high time to acknowledge that the credibility of these October elections will prove essential for Iraq’s future.
Mr. President, of course, elections are not an ultimate objective in and of themselves. They are a means to an end. And that end is improved governance to build a safer, more prosperous and just Iraq.
And while the world is watching, I can only emphasize that the responsibility for the success of the upcoming elections rests with the Iraqi stakeholders and authorities. Not only that, also the responsibility for what comes next: the formation of a new government, one that is able - swiftly and effectively - to address Iraq’s long list of unfinished domestic business.
Now, a few words on the calls for a boycott or postponement of the elections. The reasons for such calls vary. From everyday Iraqis expressing their disillusionment, their lack of trust, their anger, their loss of hope…to apparent acts of political manoeuvring.
However, to be frank, a boycott is not an effective strategy, nor will it solve anything. On the contrary. A vote not cast, is in fact a gift to those you may be opposed to. Hence, it is important, for voters and politicians alike, to return to the process.
Also, and importantly, Iraq needs to move beyond the elections to (hopefully) go from a prolonged political standstill to dynamic and responsive governance.
Now - to the Iraqis calling for a boycott because of their disillusionment, I would like to say the following:
The Iraqi people are not a homogeneous and uniform group. Iraq is a diverse society, home to a vast array of peoples, languages and religions. Visions and opinions differ.
This means that the outcome of the elections might not be what you are hoping for. It might even provide legitimacy to a government that would not be your personal preference.
But one thing is certain: by not voting, you place yourself outside the electoral process. Events that affect you will only be shaped by others. As I said: by not casting your vote, you are gifting your silence to those you may disagree with.
And yes, there is no denying it: a sense of realism and pragmatism is important. Also, because these elections will not lead to immediate miracles. No elections can.
Plainly speaking, Iraq is desperately in need of deep, structural reforms. And such reforms take unwavering determination, immense patience and lots of time.
Now, It has to be said, democracy - for all its rewards – can be (in many ways) painstaking business. Balancing diverse interests and opinions always requires compromise. And the truth is: sustainable democratic societies across the world are often the opposite of overnight wonders: again they require immense patience to build, and constant efforts to maintain.
Now, don’t get me wrong: after the many years of hoping, demanding and protesting, impatience is (of course) very understandable. So yes, the pain, the disillusionment, the frustration about a lack of economic, social and political prospects are very well understood.
But in a democracy, one makes one’s voice heard not only through public protests but also, and critically, at the ballot box. This is your country, your vote. Stand up and be counted.
And to the authorities, civil servants, officials, political forces, parties and candidates - I would like to say:
Do not let the Iraqi people down. Service to the citizens - whatever their background, belief, religion, opinion or conviction – service to the citizens should be your first priority. And the focus must be on solutions that represent the interests of all people. Solutions that only speak to the majority, or a certain component in particular, are untenable in the long run.
And actions speak louder than words. Beautiful declarations and speeches are plenty, but at the end of the day it is all about getting things done. Combat pervasive corruption. Tackle negligence. Fight incompetence. Leave aside narrow partisan interests. Overcome factionalism and muhasasa. Do not allow the pillaging of state institutions.
Proceed at once with desperately needed reforms. Diversify the economy to decrease Iraq’s vulnerability to commodity price swings.
Move away from constant crisis management and ad-hoc deals. Instead, implement what you agreed upon and work towards a predictable modus operandi.
Halt the intimidation, aggression, abductions and assassinations. End impunity. Understand that accountability is the key to restore public trust. Act upon it. The Iraqi people have a right to know.
Work on Iraq’s domestic resilience. And do not fall prey to external power competitions. Rein in armed groups that continue to operate outside state control, be they foreign or domestic. Assert the sovereignty and authority of the State.
Acknowledge that political inaction comes at a very high price which the Iraqi people ultimately pay. Recognize that empty or broken promises only further erode public trust and Be wary of the fact that simmering anger easily swells.
All this to say: the stakes are immensely high. I hope history will not repeat itself.
Mr. President, before closing, a progress report on the issue of missing Kuwaiti, third-country nationals and missing Kuwaiti property, including the national archives.
Since my last briefing, the State of Kuwait conclusively identified the remains of a further 10 individuals from its list of persons missing since 1991.
This means that after thirty long years, a total of thirty cases of missing persons have been formally closed since November 2020. And I sincerely hope that this important step will bring some closure to the families of the missing.
Additionally, I would like to express my hope that an improvement in the COVID-19 situation - and a subsequent easing in related restrictions - will soon allow the resumption of field missions and explorations of potential burial sites to achieve further positive results.
Mr. President, in closing, let me underline that - with the election date rapidly approaching – Iraq will have our support at every step of the way.
These elections were hard earned. And I can only emphasize the importance of credible elections for the future of Iraq’s young democracy.
Thank you very much.
Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Iraq