Briefing to the Security Council by SRSG Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert | 17 May 2022
17 May 2022
Thank you, Mr. President,
Distinguished members of the Security Council,
My briefing today will hit many all-too-familiar notes, as notorious aspects of Iraqi political life are repeating themselves in a seemingly incessant loop of zero-sum politics. But before delving into that, I would like to share some impressions on the recent and ongoing waves of massive dust- and sandstorms hitting Iraq.
Now, while a dust- or sandstorm as such is not a new phenomenon for the country, the current wave far exceeds Iraq’s experiences in recent years. Briefing this Council last February, I spoke about the dangers of climate change and its effects, with desertification as a central concern. Ever since, Iraq has been battered by intense dust- and sandstorms that obscure the sky, send people running for shelter, even resulting in sickness and death.
Now, these storms are only expected to become more frequent. In other words: continued inaction, also here, comes at enormous costs. Having said this, Mr. President, these storms are not the only concern for the people in Iraq.
Iraqis continue to wait for a political class that, instead of being content with stale power battles, they are waiting for a political class that will roll up its sleeves to make headway on Iraq’s long list of outstanding domestic priorities. As you know, national elections took place well over seven months ago, and multiple deadlines for the formation of a government have been missed.
Now, it is true, Iraq is not the only country facing a protracted government formation process. But Iraq’s political leaders would do well not to hide behind that argument. It distracts from what is at stake.
It excuses a political deadlock while non-state armed groups fire rockets with apparent freedom and impunity. It excuses a political stalemate while ordinary people suffer. It excuses a political impasse while simmering anger – public anger can boil over at any moments.
So, my question is: what will it take to realize that this situation is completely untenable?
To date, political leaders subscribe to the notion of dialogue, or another round of negotiations. But the necessary willingness to compromise? It is painfully absent. Visit any market and Iraqis will tell you: the national interest is, yet again, taking a backseat to short-sighted considerations of control over resources and power play.
It is therefore high time (and yes, I repeat myself), but it is high time to return the spotlight where it must be: on the people of Iraq, and a programme of action that provides:
Adequate service delivery to all citizens.
An end to pervasive corruption, factionalism and the pillaging of state institutions.
The implementation of desperately needed reforms.
The diversification of the economy.
Predictable governance instead of constant crisis management.
An end to impunity, with accountability as a key feature of the State, and (of course) …
Reining in non-state armed actors while asserting the State’s authority.
Over the past three years, you have heard me make these points numerous times. And one thing remains clear: the neglect of the population’s most basic needs has gone on for far too long.
Again, Iraqi political inaction comes at a huge price. Not (in the short term) for those in power, but for those desperately trying to make ends meet on a daily basis.
A few more specific observations, beginning with relations between Baghdad and Erbil. The sorry pattern of ad-hoc negotiations continues to prevail instead of what is critically needed: an institutionalized, predictable mechanism for the comprehensive, holistic and durable resolutions of all outstanding issues.
While this is evidently necessary, such a mechanism continues to be plainly missing, and this deficiency is sadly coupled with internal rivalries on both sides as well.
As I said last time: a spirit of partnership and cooperation can and must guide all stakeholders, including with regards to the recent Federal Supreme Court ruling on the KRG Oil and Gas Law. Having engaged with both sides on this matter, I am convinced that there is a way out.
However, and there is no denying it: events in the past have gravely eroded mutual trust. Hence, it will prove essential to build confidence, including by pledging to refrain from politically motivated, unilateral actions in the future.
Now, Mr. President, zooming in on the political situation within the Kurdistan Region: last year, in May, I participated in an event at the University of Kurdistan. It is a promising event with all Kurdistan Region political parties present.
In my remarks, I outlined the toxicity of political infighting and factionalism. I emphasized the importance of unity, not to be confused with uniformity. I spoke candidly about the need to move away from the yellow & green divide, about the responsibility of leaders to guide outreach and to bring together opposing interests, to focus on solutions that represent the interests of all peoples living in the Kurdistan Region - be it Erbil, Dohuk or Sulaymaniyah.
However, one year later, this promising event seems to have gained zero traction. On the contrary, divisions have deepened - with adverse effects on the peoples of the Kurdistan Region.
Now, and without repeating my remarks of a year ago, but it must be clear: the Kurdistan Region has a choice. And with the Kurdistan Region elections scheduled for the 1st of October later this year, it is of utmost importance to level the electoral playing field - with all political actors, big or small, enjoying equal opportunities. Promoting a conducive electoral environment, that is.
Additionally, I can only underline that geography does not always play in the Kurdistan Region’s advantage. In other words: its unique geopolitical circumstances alone, should be enough to give its leaders pause.
And, of course, that goes for the whole of Iraq as well. As I have said on countless occasions: whether we like it or not, a weak domestic home front only creates a welcoming environment for continued external interference.
Now, on a related note, let me also comment on incoming missiles and rockets: Disturbing, disruptive and dangerous.
With the IRGC claiming responsibility for up to 12 short-range ballistic missiles launched in the early hours of Sunday March 13, another worrisome chapter was opened. And while the IRGC described the targeted location in Erbil as “the strategic centre for conspiracy and evil acts of the Zionists”, no evidence for such claims was found. The targeted site is known as a civilian area, a private compound.
Although both sides – Iraq, Iran – although they are currently engaged in dialogue and do not wish to escalate the issue, Iraq rightfully rejects the notion that it can be treated as the region’s backyard, with routine violations of its sovereignty and territorial integrity. Now, another case in point are the ongoing Turkish and Iranian shelling activities in the North. So, what are we looking at? Cross-border shelling and missiles as the new normal for Iraq? This is a very risky way to advance interests, and one which further weakens the State of Iraq.
Needless to say: any country or actor seeking to settle a dispute has established diplomatic instruments, including our good offices, at their disposal.
Now, moving to Iraq’s very own armed actors operating outside state control: the reckless firing of rockets, including at an oil refinery in Erbil some two weeks ago, remains alarming and unjustifiable. These attacks seek to undermine Iraq’s security and stability within an already extremely volatile, politically charged post-electoral environment.
Fact is: “messaging by rockets”, “missile diplomacy” – these are reckless acts, with potentially devastating consequences. Also, and let me emphasize, Iraq does not need self-proclaimed armed arbiters. And I again underline the great importance of asserting the State’s authority. If the perpetrators are known, call them out. This is essential to uphold the Rule of Law.
Ladies and gentlemen, turning to the ever-pressing question of Sinjar:
As we know all too well, Sinjar’s recent history has witnessed horrific ordeals, culminating in the heinous crimes committed by Da’esh. Today, while locals urgently need to rebuild their lives, they continue to face unconscionable obstacles. Obstacles due to discord on security arrangements, public service provisions and a unified administration.
The Sinjar agreement, signed by Baghdad and Erbil in October 2020, was seen (by many) as a glimmer of hope: a very first but important step in the right direction.
At the time, I expressed hope that the agreement would lead to a new chapter for Sinjar, one in which the needs of the Sinjari people would come first, that it would help displaced people return to their homes, that it would accelerate reconstruction and improve public service delivery.
But for that to happen, stable governance and security structures are - of course - pre-requisites. Now, ever since the agreement was signed, I have called for a speedy implementation. Well clearly, the opposite is true. To date, there is no agreement on the selection of a new independent mayor, and funds for a new local security force remain blocked, possibly due to interference into unclear recruitment procedures.
Now, on these recruitment procedures: I again emphasize the importance of pragmatism and realism. Not all people who joined “other forces” in the past can simply be painted with the same brush. It must be understood that some of them, absent the authority of the State, simply opted for a safety net, an identity and an income to provide for their families.
We also called on both Baghdad and Erbil to reach out to the people of Sinjar, to open their arms to all Sinjaris. Meanwhile, critics of the Sinjar agreement kept on emphasizing the lack of consultations with local communities.
Now, while no one dismisses good advice, and certainly not UNAMI, I have to say: local consultations did take place and continue to take place. At the same time, it is true that both Baghdad and Erbil could and should step up their outreach at the grassroots level. The implementation of any agreement, winning hearts and minds, is hard work. And this one in particular.
A piece of paper alone will not do the job. One needs to be on top of it, 24/7, own it, constantly and proactively engage with the communities on the ground, provide explanations, clarify why a decision has been taken and why it benefits the Sinjaris in the medium to long term. Having said this: significant divides and the fragmentation of local communities are a fact of life in Sinjar, making things even more challenging.
And within this context, it is also important to note that Sinjar has increasingly turned into an arena for external and domestic spoilers.
Now, while some of this can be traced back to 2014 as Da’esh kicked off its atrocities, eight years later it is time to acknowledge that yes, mistakes have been made in the past, but Sinjar is part of the State of Iraq.
By giving room to external and domestic spoilers, the situation will not get any better. And by now, all stakeholders would do well to acknowledge this fact - notwithstanding their gratitude for the help and assistance received in the past. You know, nobody said that the establishment of stable security and governance structures would be an easy ride.
But there is no denying it: the lack of clear-cut coordination and implementation mechanism, the dominance of partisan interests and the ongoing presence of spoilers significantly hamper meaningful progress. I have to say – international observers have been deployed for less.
Clashes have again erupted in recent weeks. And this sadly made Sinjari families again pack their belongings and find their way back to the Kurdistan Region to seek shelter.
So, let me reiterate:
Sinjaris’ safety and security should be front and centre at all times.
They deserve peace under the authority of the State.
Domestic and external spoilers have no place in Sinjar.
Baghdad and Erbil must assume their responsibility, and urgently work together with only one objective: to improve the lives of people on the ground and promote the voluntary, dignified return of displaced persons to their homes.
A few words on the issue of missing Kuwaiti and third-country nationals and missing Kuwaiti property, including the national archives.
In recent months, the Iraqi Ministry of Defence has stepped up efforts to reach new witnesses through broadcasts, the media, as well as consular and diplomatic channels worldwide. As a result, at least two potential new witnesses have come forward during this period, confirming that broadcasts with a wide geographic reach can be helpful in eliciting information.
This demonstrated that investing efforts in obtaining new witness information, and insisting on acquiring satellite imagery analysis from relevant member States, are essential steps to bring this crucial and sensitive file to a close.
Now, Mr. President,
I will conclude my remarks by underlining (once more) the importance of overcoming the political stalemate. Significant domestic vulnerabilities are being compounded by the ongoing effects of the pandemic and global geopolitical tensions.
A sincere, collective and urgent will to resolve political differences must now prevail – it must prevail for the country to move forward and to meet the needs of its citizens.
Thank you, Mr. President.
Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Iraq