Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Iraq Ms. Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert Keynote address to the Sulaymaniyah Forum
15 March 2023
Ladies and gentlemen,
Participating in this Forum four years ago, in March 2019, I kicked off by saying that I would speak candidly and in a thought-provoking way, so that we could attempt to, honestly and constructively, address some of the deep-rooted problems in Iraqi processes and institutions. If you allow me, I will do so again today.
Now at the time, I said that only by focusing on the systemic concerns, would it be possible to revive public trust. I warned that simmering anger boils over easily, and that failure to act would inevitably lead to a new cycle of violence.
What happened after? And where are things today?
Of course, all of us will recall the mass demonstrations in October of that same year.
Many, many Iraqis – from all walks of life – took to the streets, protesting a lack of economic, social and political prospects; tired of corruption and partisan interests; after 16 years, simply done with undelivered promises.
What they were asking for: a country capable of reaching its full potential for the benefit of all Iraqis.
The rest is history. The heavy loss of life, as well as the many injuries, combined with a lack of accountability and the hijacking of peaceful protests by all manner of power dynamics, resulted in the rapid expansion of an already huge crisis of confidence.
Long story short: these events, as we all know, led to the Prime Minister’s resignation, the confirmation of a new government and importantly, the holding of early parliamentary elections two years later, in October 2021.
And while these elections were widely recognized as transparent and credible – which is no small feat for a young democracy – soon after, Iraq found itself in an extremely volatile and politically charged post-electoral environment.
Calls for parties to overcome their differences went unheeded. And with tensions on the rise for months, one did not need a crystal ball to see where this would lead to: a situation that resulted in armed clashes in the heart of the capital and elsewhere.
But, at last, in October 2022, after more than a year of discord and power play, the Council of Representatives confirmed Iraq’s new Government under the leadership of Prime Minister Mohammed Shia Al-Sudani. It was about time.
Ladies and gentlemen, looking back at my quarterly briefings to the UN Security Council over the past four years, it is undoubtedly clear: political, security, economic, environmental and institutional challenges have - by and large - remained consistent.
What does this mean?
It means that many of the aspirations and demands - that came to the fore in October 2019 – they are still alive. It means that band-aid solutions do not work. It also means that political inaction must be put behind us.
It moreover means that the patience and resilience of Iraqis will continue to be tested.
Why? Because no one can expect the new Government, this Government, to accomplish miracles overnight. Dealing with both the enormous legacy of Iraq’s past and the many challenges of the present. It will take time.
Certainly, Iraq has overcome some of the key, short-term impediments it was facing immediately after the removal of Saddam Hussein. But, since then, the country has grappled with a plethora of destabilising events and trends, both domestic and external.
From deadly sectarian violence, the fight against Daesh, armed groups operating outside state control and various external power competitions, to COVID-19, significant environmental challenges, and the adverse effects of climate change – to name but a few.
Now, these events of the past 20 years did not only compound existing fragilities inherited from the previous decades, they also exposed new weaknesses.
In other words: while Iraq, throughout its history, has navigated some very dark and difficult times, drivers of instability in the country’s more recent past…remain, to a large extent, the same - resulting in a pattern of recurring crises.
And these include, inter alia, systemic corruption, weak governance, poor service delivery, unemployment, and an overreliance on oil. All of which in turn impact the everyday Iraqi citizen, feed into public grievances, and exacerbate tensions within and between communities.
That said, we also know that out of any crisis, new opportunities can emerge. And let me emphasize this before anyone gets the impression that Iraq is a lost cause. It is not.
Iraq has immense potential. And painting a crescendo of doom, is not my objective here, not at all.
So, let me underline once more: the recent confirmation of Iraq’s new Government under the leadership of Prime Minister Mohammed Shia. Al-Sudani provides a crucial window of opportunity. An opportunity to steer the country back on to the course of stability.
In my most recent briefing to the UN Security Council, in early February, I mentioned that Iraq’s Government had shown its resolve to tackle a number of pressing issues.
Yet it is, of course, still early days. I can therefore only again emphasize that any government needs time to get things done. Also, for any government to achieve meaningful progress, broad support - be it from within or outside the coalition - is a prerequisite.
It is quite simple: the kind of in-depth change that is needed now requires relentless commitment from a wide range of actors. And absolutely, it also requires placing the national interest above all else.
In turn, the Iraqi people need to see that (slowly but surely) progress is being achieved for all Iraqis – and that includes women, minorities and young people.
They need to see that inclusivity and equality are not mere words in speeches but are dealt with as absolute essentials.
They need to see that civic space is not being restricted but given room to flourish, thereby guaranteeing the freedom of expression.
They need to see that justice and accountability are ensured, for all - regardless of affiliation or background.
And they need to see that creating a conducive and “all-in” environment is at the core of any policy or piece of legislation.
Ladies and gentlemen, with Iraq’s long list of outstanding business on everyone’s mind - it is important to focus, to not get distracted or create new and unnecessary headaches for the Government.
In other words, to break with the cycles of instability, what must the priorities be? What is the potential impact of a certain law or regulation? Also, could it be controversial or divisive? Could it antagonize communities? And if so, what does that mean for the broad support desperately needed now?
Be it possible changes to existing laws, the entering into force of a ban, or potential limitations to rights and freedoms – ignoring the wider impact is risky business.
So at all times, the question must be: is it truly worth the time and effort or will the sum of such issues, at a certain point, be greater than the whole of its parts - thereby (again) distracting too many people from the key priorities, even estranging them?!
That said, ladies and gentlemen, let me go back to the long list of pressing issues.
I will name just a few:
First and foremost, the 2023 federal budget, the Prime Minister explained already; it has been passed by the Council of Ministers. And that is truly good news - yet, it is of course still to be passed by Parliament. Clearly, without a budget - passed by Parliament - much of the implementation of the Government Programme will be held back - including public service delivery.
Also, and importantly, high oil prices cannot keep the country afloat. Similarly, creating jobs sustainably cannot be achieved by further ballooning the public sector. Economic and financial reforms are desperately needed.
Efforts to combat Iraq’s systemic corruption need to go beyond individuals or events. The system that was built after 2003 is simply untenable. And if left as is, it will - yet again - backfire.
Additionally, the many outstanding issues between Baghdad and Erbil call for institutionalized relations. In the absence thereof, little will improve, but not all.
And here too, I could go on.
To, again, cut a long story short: in my address to you, here in Suli - back in 2019, I depicted a landscape marred by factional politics, non-state actors, distortion of state resources, poor services and a lack of jobs. And now, four years later, many of these issues remain sorely acute.
What I am essentially saying is: there is no time to lose.
Definitely, the challenges ahead are manyfold. It would be naive to think that the legacy of past hardships and newly emerging threats, will not continue to test the country’s resilience.
And yes, as any other country, Iraq will be put to the test - sooner or later. But the fear is that, without prompt action, Iraq will flunk this test.
Hence, it is important to anchor the country in the stability it needs to withstand future shocks. And for that to happen we must collectively learn from history – and recent history, at that – to avoid repeating it.
Now, ladies and gentlemen, my remarks today focus on Iraq in its entirety, but the political infighting and parties’ vested interests in the Kurdistan Region cannot be left unmentioned.
Participating in an event at the University of Kurdistan almost two years ago, in May 2021, I concluded my remarks by stating that the Kurdistan Region has a choice:
It can unite, tackle systemic corruption, further strengthen its respect for fundamental rights and freedoms, make meaningful progress on security and economic reform, and engage in dialogue despite internal differences that at times (I admit) seem insurmountable. Or…
Or it can fail to put its house in order, risking what it has achieved in past decades.
And it pains me to say it, but so many people are wondering: what wake-up call are the parties waiting for?
In closing, ladies and gentlemen, let me emphasize: it is our sincere hope that - relying on its immense wealth, diversity, opportunities and potential - Iraq will now be able, and thus be enabled, to successfully move ahead.
After 20 years, the country deserves to rise above endless cycles of instability and fragility. Iraqis are very much aware of the life that was promised after Saddam. Two decades on, they deserve better.
It is as simple as that. And collectively, I am convinced that it is still possible to usher in that promised future.