UN Security Council Briefing | Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Iraq Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert
06 February 2024
New York, 6 February 2024
Thank you, Madam President,
Distinguished members of the Security Council,
With the conflict raging in Gaza, as well as armed action elsewhere, the Middle East is at a critical juncture. And, the same is true for Iraq.
Now to be clear: Iraq’s Government’s efforts are focused on avoiding a domestic (and regional) spillover. Still, continued attacks have become a harsh reality. And, these attacks originate from within and outside of the country’s borders. Attacks which, if they were to continue, stand to undo Iraq’s hard-won stability, as well as other achievements made in the past 18 months.
Now, as we all know, history can have a long tail. One which can impact the present. And, this is searingly true for the Middle East. To fully grasp the current regional and domestic dynamics, therefore, we would need to traverse decades - an exercise this briefing does not allow for.
That said, it is within this context that various Iraqi armed groups (groups acting outside state control, that is) reference, as a justification for their operations, a doctrine which transcends politics and state borders. Other motivations expressed pertain specifically to Iraq, such as calls for Iraqi skies to be, and I quote, “free”, and for an end to the international military presence in the country.
However, for Iraq to further continue on its path of stability and progress, an enabling environment will prove essential. And, such an environment requires restraint from all sides.
Yes, indeed, from Iraq’s armed actors. And, as might be expected, restraint from Iraq’s neighbours and other countries is just as crucial.
I have said it numerous times in the past and will say it again: messaging by strikes only serves to heighten tensions, to kill or injure people and to destroy property.
A case in point was the attack on 28 January, which killed and injured US service members. This was seen again, with the retaliatory strikes on 2 February, which also resulted in casualties.
But rather than resorting to the use of force, all efforts should centre on safeguarding Iraq from being drawn in any way into a wider conflict.
And it is precisely within this context that many expressed shock over Iran’s missile attack on Erbil a few weeks ago, which killed civilians - including a little girl. Based on accusations the Iraqi Government has strongly refuted, these actions were sorely at odds with the great efforts made on the Iraq-Iran security agreement, which I highlighted in my October briefing.
Meanwhile, Turkish military operations in the North also continue. Just because these attacks have become the new “normal” does not mean that they do not seriously compound the risk of new arenas of violence being opened.
Now, when talking about the incendiary potential of retaliatory strikes, we would like to welcome the recent launch of dialogue through the United States-Iraq Higher Military Commission.
This dialogue channel opened at a critical moment. And, the setting of joint objectives could only be a positive development amid rising tensions.
Having said all this today, I am compelled to reiterate our appeal to all sides to exercise maximum restraint. With Iraq cloaked in an already complex tapestry of challenges, it is of greatest importance that all attacks cease.
While we are (of course) aware that many authorities and actors seek to limit further escalation, it is clear that the situation remains volatile. Iraq (indeed, the wider region) remains on a knife-edge, with the tiniest miscalculation threatening a major conflagration.
Now, on a more optimistic note, Madam President, on 18 December 2023, Iraq held local elections for the first time in 10 years. And, in the case of Kirkuk, for the first time since 2005.
This electoral process took place in a broadly peaceful and technically sound manner. It marked another milestone in the Government’s efforts to break from past cycles of dysfunction. And we truly hope that the re-establishment of local representative bodies, which have been inactive since 2019, will signify another major step forward.
Now, a challenge for future elections will be to rally a higher voter turnout and, importantly, to encourage Iraq’s eligible voters to register.
While turnout among registered voters for the 2023 governorate council elections was on par with Iraq’s national parliamentary elections (two years prior) around 60 per cent of registered voters did not cast their ballots.
And this, combined with the fact that millions of Iraqis did not even register to begin with, spotlights the magnitude of the challenge that lies ahead. Building public trust, and thus encouraging the majority of Iraq’s eligible voters to participate in the democratic process, will entail continuous and hard work.
Another positive development to report on is that Iraq’s Government continues to strengthen the country’s finance and banking sectors.
Mergers and structural reforms of key insurance and banking entities, demonstrate - yet again - the Government’s commitment to nurturing a transparent, compliant financial sector in Iraq.
Steps taken to strengthen public financial management, including by establishing a single treasury account, have also been welcomed by the IMF and others.
Now, alongside new electronic platforms for foreign currency sales, which I mentioned in my last briefing, these initiatives are set to be instrumental in enhancing the transparency and manageability of Iraq’s public finances.
Meanwhile, ambitious construction projects continue apace. These have included major housing complexes, which will, I hope, be open to all Iraqis.
Similarly, a government commitment to build a thousand new schools by the end of 2024, if realized, would be a real opportunity accelerator. And national incentives for development projects, like special loans and exemptions, also indicate the Government’s determination to see these and other visions take concrete shape.
Next month Iraq will become the first country in the region to join the International Labour Organization’s Convention on the Elimination of Violence and Harassment in the World of Work. Coupled with the new national social security law, this sets a regional precedent for employee protection which should benefit Iraqi workers, especially women. And, such standard-setting and benefit expansion must also be seen as part of efforts to strengthen Iraq’s private sector.
Now, these and other reforms, as I have said before, are critical to unlocking a brighter future for all Iraqis. A future in which the country can move from fighting fires to crafting sustainable solutions. A future in which young people can use their skills and capacities to better their lives and communities, rather than taking to the streets out of desperation, or worse: taking up arms.
Madam President, let me hone in on a few other issues.
Firstly, climate change. Iraq’s participation in the COP28 Summit in December produced some promising commitments. These included a complete phase-out of gas flaring by 2028 and the establishment of a new green sustainable bank to diversify the Iraqi economy away from fossil fuels.
A slew of projects to incentivize water conservation and sustainability across various sectors, as well as promised investments in clean energy exploration, also augur well for the future.
Now, when it comes to climate change, cries from global platforms have increasingly formed a crescendo of doom. And, in Iraq, it is not hard to see why. Water scarcity, desertification, forced migration, conflict over natural resources, extreme weather events – they all combine to paint a rather bleak picture in which existing fault lines come under increasing pressure.
But instead of giving into a sense of despair, and as emphasized by Iraq’s Prime Minister, focus must now shift to mitigation and adaptation. For instance, through the implementation of inclusive, peace-positive environmental management programmes, the modernization of irrigation infrastructure, and immediate steps to reduce oil reliance. That said, without moving from promises to actions, opportunities may slip away - and fast.
Secondly, I wish to again highlight existing feelings of exclusion and marginalization - which, as we all know, often lead to recurring cycles of conflict. Managing diversity is never easy, but if done well represents a major win in preventing instability, mistrust and violence, and in promoting respect for human rights.
Key to this is the rule of law. Of course, if justice systems are seen to be treating people in discriminatory ways, tensions among communities can quickly boil over.
Madam President, as you know, in mid-November, a ruling of the Federal Supreme Court suddenly ended the term of Iraq’s Parliamentary Speaker. Today, nearly three months later, political bickering continues to prevent consensus on his replacement. Needless to say: we can only hope that an agreement will emerge - sooner rather than later.
On the Kurdistan Region, I regret to report that the Region’s parliamentary elections have again been held up. Initially scheduled for October ‘22, they were postponed to November ‘23 then further delayed to February of this year. And we are now awaiting a new date.
Let me be clear: these continued postponements do not help already low trust levels, nor do they contribute to Iraq’s stability.
And, wrangling between Baghdad and Erbil on financial and budgetary issues goes on. While acknowledging that there are various difficult and technical issues at play, this does not change the fact that, in the absence of a sustainable agreement, it is the everyday people who suffer.
The recent decision of the federal Government to approve the financing of the Region for the month of January, in accordance with the federal budget for the year 2024, is, of course, to be welcomed. But we can only reiterate that a more permanent solution is desperately needed. In simple terms: if stability is to be preserved, the Kurdistan Region must receive funding to pay its civil servants their monthly salaries.
Meanwhile, UN Iraq continues to evolve. The Mission’s Independent Strategic Review is ongoing. And the Country Team has shifted (as you know) from a humanitarian to a development focus – And of course, a new UN Cooperation Framework is on its way, which will support national priorities and accelerate the achievement of the SDGs.
We wish to mention that Iraq’s Council of Ministers has set 30 July 2024 as the date for the closure of all displacement camps throughout the country, including the Kurdistan Region.
This decision is welcome as it defines concrete steps, establishes mechanisms and dedicates government funding to the goal of ending displacement.
Having said this, UN Iraq underscores that this decision should be complemented by solutions for displaced people outside camps. Equally important is ensuring all returns and relocations are informed, safe, voluntary, dignified and inclusive, and pursued in cooperation and coordination with the Kurdistan Regional Government.
Madam President, turning to the issue of missing Kuwaiti and third-country nationals, and missing Kuwaiti property, including the national archives.
The Government of Iraq remains undoubtedly committed to this file. But with 308 missing persons still unaccounted for, swifter progress is needed. And, this must involve the dismantling of bureaucratic hurdles and immediate follow-up on outstanding issues.
There is also a clear need to redouble efforts to locate and return missing Kuwaiti property, including the national archives. What we are essentially saying is that it is in everybody’s interest to show a sense of urgency so as to bring this important file to a close.
Madam President, what is needed now? As I have said many times: no government can go it alone. Hence, we can only hope that each and every one of Iraq’s politicians will continue working to put the country on the clearest path to success, in the best interests of all Iraqis, whatever their affiliation, background or ethnicity. And the same goes for any other actor, in- or outside Iraq: they are expected to support this objective, rather than to thwart it.
One thing is for sure: the need for sustainable progress, for real reform, for better living standards will not decline. Iraq’s population grows every year, driving even more demand for jobs, housing, water and other essential services. While many of the plans on the Government’s books hold the key to meeting these needs, they will become more and more difficult to realize with each year that passes. And, so, the time to act is now.
In closing, Madam President, let me once again stress the importance of an enabling environment and thus the urgent need to cease attacks, be they originating from within or outside of Iraq’s borders. And, as stated many times in past years, this must include reining in armed actors operating outside state control.
It is quite simple: the enormous risks and potential devastating consequences of continued escalation cannot be overstated. And this is, again, true for Iraq, the region and beyond.
Last but not least, in December 2018 I arrived in Baghdad. Now, five years later, it is almost time for me to say goodbye. I expect to depart from this position at the end of May. And, this is not easy, I have to say. Through the many highs and lows, Iraq simply has become part of me. That said, today’s briefing could very well be my last address to the Security Council on Iraq.
And, while it is tempting to look back and reflect, I am conscious of time constraints, of course, but please allow me to use this opportunity to thank both the Council and Iraq’s authorities for their support, and to express my vast appreciation for each and every one of my UN Iraq colleagues. Most importantly, I wish to thank the people of Iraq for their boundless hospitality, their generosity and their kindness. Wherever I go, they will always have a special place in my heart.
And I can only hope that one day, inshallah, people from around the world will get to know the real Iraq.
A country of immense beauty. A country of rich diversity and culture, where there are so many opportunities to grasp.
Now, let me end by publicly paying tribute to all Iraqi men and women. For their sacrifices, their strength and the depth of their commitment to building a prosperous, democratic and peaceful Iraq.
Long live Iraq
Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Iraq