Briefing to the UN Security Council, SRSG Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert | 4 October 2022
Thank you very much,
Distinguished members of the Security Council,
Calls for Iraq’s leaders to overcome their differences, and form a government, have abounded since elections were held a year ago.
Over the past 12 months, we underlined (time and again) the importance of maintaining calm, of maintaining dialogue, constitutional compliance, respect for democratic principles, the unimpeded working of state institutions, and a functioning government to effectively address the legitimate demands for better public services, jobs, security, an end to corruption, and justice and accountability - to name a few.
But regretfully, discord and power play prevailed over a sense of common duty. And as a direct result of protracted political inaction, Iraq experienced some very critical and dangerous hours.
With protests and counter-protests being staged, tensions were on the rise for months. Supporters of political parties, many of whom carry weapons, got increasingly worked up. And one did not need a crystal ball to see where this could lead. Meanwhile, the ordinary Iraqi citizen was being held hostage to an unpredictable and untenable situation.
A dire situation, that culminated on Monday August 29, when the country stood on the brink of total chaos. Political tensions degenerated in armed clashes in the heart of the capital and elsewhere. The sad result: dozens of people killed, and hundreds wounded.
Now, these tragic developments are indisputably the result of the inability of Iraq’s political class to cast the die.
In other words: actors across the spectrum failed to place the national interest first. They left the country in a prolonged impasse, further fuelling already simmering anger.
And while one would expect that recent events would have served as a wake-up call, the harsh reality is that, to date, intra-Shia strife has not abated, nor have Kurdish parties come closer to agreeing on a presidential candidate.
So where do we stand now? The situation remains highly volatile.
After more than two months of paralysis, parliament resumed its sessions last Wednesday, September 28, amid tight (very tight) security measures. These measures, however, did not prevent further incidents, including a number of IDF impacts as well as clashes between protesters and security forces.
To be clear: there is zero justification for violence. Yet in this instance again, many were injured, 11 civilians and more than 120 members of the Iraqi Security Forces - all sons of the country.
And we have not seen the end of it yet. Last night, after three days of rocket attacks, Basra witnessed intense fighting, while smaller incidents were reported in other southern governorates.
On the first of October, last Saturday, we remembered the victims of the Tishreen demonstrations.
Three years ago, as you recall, Iraqis took to the streets to protest a lack of political, economic and social prospects. It was a mobilisation of an unprecedented scale, and it turned into a tragedy. Several hundreds of Iraqis died, and many more were severely injured, abducted, threatened or intimidated.
As a result of these protests, the previous government stepped down, and early elections were organized, a year ago. In other words, and I said it often: last year’s elections were extremely hard-earned. And with this in mind, the absence of a functioning government 12 months later is hard to justify.
It has to be said that last Saturday, new protests were expected. The hope was that they would be held peacefully. But in the early morning hours, we woke up to another call of our “sense and warn” alarm system. The day was not off to a promising start.
Throughout the day, however, protester numbers remained relatively low. Not because Iraqis are now suddenly content, but because they do not wish to be instrumentalized in the ongoing power struggle - as made abundantly clear by many of those who took to the streets in 2019.
The Iraqi Security Forces demonstrated great restraint in their response, adhering strictly to given orders. But regretfully, some disruptive elements were present on the streets. And I can only reiterate the importance of keeping any protest away from violence. The fact is: the smallest spark can suffice to trigger a major disaster.
We brought our full support to the National Dialogue under the auspices of Iraq’s Prime Minister. A forum that, so far, convened twice. For this initiative to bear fruit, however, it is crucial that all parties take their seat. I repeat, all parties.
As an aside, it is worth noting that none of the parties were represented by women.
That said, it is also incumbent on all to act responsibly in times of heightened tensions. This means refraining from making provocative statements and feeding into counter-productive, not to say harmful, discourses.
And while I am usually disinclined to air our initiatives publicly, I would like to emphasize our intense engagements during the past months and weeks; from participating in dialogue and holding countless bilateral meetings to drafting roadmaps and conducting shuttle diplomacy in various forms. Believe me, we tried, non-stop.
That said: we do not have a magic wand. Ultimately, it all comes down to political will.
Equally important is the understanding that, at the end of the day, one can only be influential if you accept the influence of others. If only there was a willingness to compromise.
One thing is clear: the persistent and overt lack of trust perpetuates a zero-sum game, a game in which commitment to concrete solutions is being avoided.
Having said this, Mr. President: there are solutions.
Of course, every situation has its own history and idiosyncrasies. But let me be clear: since the elections were held a year ago, all sides - and I mean all sides - made strategic mistakes and miscalculations. More importantly still, they missed many valuable opportunities to resolve their differences. And with risks of further strife and bloodshed still very tangible, dwelling on who did what when is no longer an option.
Hence, it is high time for Iraq’s leaders (all of them) to engage in dialogue, collectively define core Iraqi needs and pull the country back from the ledge.
In other words, all leaders should assume responsibility and return the spotlight where it must be: on the people of Iraq.
Make no mistake, public disillusion is running sky-high. Too many Iraqis have lost faith in the ability of Iraq’s political class to act in the interest of the country and its people. And a continued failure to address this loss of faith, will only exacerbate Iraq’s problems.
Focus is equally important. We have seen the announcement of a plethora of initiatives since the elections in October last year. But too many tracks and too many cooks distract, confuse and blur the picture.
As I said, there are solutions. But for solutions to see daylight, genuine and timely dialogue is essential, including a willingness to compromise.
And yes, it goes without saying: delivering a functioning government is merely the first step to overcoming the current crisis in a sustainable way. A wide range of critical issues must be addressed. Chief amongst them is the adoption of a federal budget, absent which state spending could come to a halt by the end of the year.
And work towards transformative change has to kick off.
Let us face it: since 2003, too many opportunities to conduct meaningful and much needed reform have been wasted. Nearly 20 years on, Iraq’s leaders must acknowledge that systemic change is vital for the country’s future.
Attempts to push through incremental reform, including in the fight against corruption, have failed so far – having been actively undermined or obstructed.
I said it many times, also in your chamber: corruption is a core feature of Iraq’s current political economy, built into everyday transactions. This is not just me saying it. It is widely recognized.
A related feature is Iraq’s reliance on patronage and clientelism. This has resulted in a ballooning, inefficient public sector that functions more as an instrument of political favour than as a servant of the people.
And while Iraq is by no means a poor country, private and partisan interests conspire to divert resources away from critical investment in national development.
What I am saying is: Iraq’s political and governance system ignores the needs of the Iraqi people, or even worse, actively works against them.
Pervasive corruption is a major root cause of Iraqi dysfunctionality. And frankly, no leader can claim to be shielded from it.
Keeping the system “as is” will backfire, sooner rather than later. That said, it is important to frame it as precisely that: a system, rather than a collection of individuals or a series of events.
As calls for early national elections have become more pronounced, let me elaborate further on this topic.
Besides the obvious benefits for political parties to clarify a number of matters in advance, we emphasized the importance of following established (legal) procedures and mechanisms.
We also made clear that - at this point in time - we would not be able to confirm UNAMI’s ability to assist in new elections, as this would depend on a formal request of the Iraqi Government addressed to your Council, and (of course) subsequent deliberations.
Other questions are also worth raising, for instance:
- What are the guarantees that new national elections will not be held in vain once again?
- How will Iraqi citizens be persuaded that it is worth casting their vote?
- And what reassurances would the international community need for them to support new elections?
On the topic of elections, we have also actively engaged Kurdistan Region authorities and political parties on several outstanding issues related to the 6th Kurdistan Region parliamentary elections.
These elections were initially scheduled for the first of October, that is, three days ago. To date, however, Kurdistan Region political parties are yet to find common ground, with again the “yellow and green” divide as the single most disruptive factor impeding progress.
In no uncertain terms, we made clear that, here also, we do not have a magic wand. Here also, it comes down to political will. Here also, party leaders should understand that one can only be truly influential if they accept the influence of others. Hence, a willingness to compromise is essential. More generally: monopolizing power breeds instability. That goes for both Iraq as a whole and for the Kurdistan Region.
Now, let me stress the following: the political fallout of not conducting timely Kurdistan Region parliamentary elections, of not properly managing public expectations, of neglecting basic democratic principles, will bear a high cost. And if that were to happen, it would not be for lack of warning.
Hence, we are impatiently waiting for parties to fulfil their many promises and to act in the service of the peoples of the Kurdistan Region.
Addressing the Council in May, I raised the alarm at Turkish and Iranian shelling in the North having become the “new normal” for Iraq. And with last week’s Iranian attacks, I can now only repeat myself.
These reckless acts, which have devastating consequences, killing and injuring people, must cease.
No neighbour should treat Iraq as its backyard. No neighbour should be allowed to routinely, and with impunity, violate Iraq’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Yet it is happening. Time and again.
On the issue of missing Kuwaiti and third-country nationals and missing Kuwaiti property, including the national archives:
We are pleased to see that Iraq’s efforts to reach new witnesses continue unhindered. These witnesses are of great importance to help locate new potential burial sites. Equally important is the contribution of Tripartite Member states through their provision of satellite imagery analysis.
The handover by Iraq on July 4 of additional missing Kuwaiti property, including a historical sword, two historical copies of the Holy Quran, and items belonging to the Kuwaiti Ministry of Information, marks another positive step.
It is hoped that, with persistence, determination and commitment from all, more results will soon emerge.
To conclude my remarks, let me again emphasize the importance of embarking on a path towards political stability. And let me say it once more: there are solutions.
It is in the power of any Iraqi leader to drag the country into a protracted and deadly conflict, as it is in their power to place the national interest first and lift the country out of this crisis.
Thank you, Mr. President.