Briefing to the UN Security Council, SRSG Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert | 2 February 2023
Distinguished members of the Security Council,
In May 2003, nearly 20 years ago, the Council adopted Resolution 1483 to chart a way forward for post-Saddam Iraq. Sergio Vieira de Mello was appointed as the Secretary General’s Special Representative, for four months, to help set up UN operations at their early stages.
At the time, he stated: The people of Iraq, as we know only too well, have suffered and have suffered enough. It is time that we all […] come together to ensure that this suffering comes to an end, and that Iraqi people take their destiny into their own hands […].
That same year, mid-August 2003, the Council established the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq, UNAMI. A few days later Sergio de Mello and 21 colleagues lost their lives in an attack on the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad. Another 150 colleagues were wounded in the blast. And while they fell victim to the violence they were committed to stop, our work continued. But yes, 2023 will surely be a year of remembrance – in many ways. And I would like to use this opportunity to thank the successive Iraqi governments for the constructive working relationship that they have maintained with the United Nations throughout these two decades.
In the past 4 years, I often said that Iraq’s situation could hardly be judged without placing it in the context of Iraq’s history as decades of trouble continue to impact the present. And this still holds true today. Iraq’s challenges did not arise overnight. And dealing with both the legacy of the past and the many challenges of the present it will take time – no matter who is in the driving seat. It should also be underlined that no government can go it alone. In other words: it is of the greatest importance that political parties and other actors prioritize the country’s interest above all else. At the end of the day, it is and remains a joint responsibility.
Now – as any government will require both time and broad political support to move Iraq forward, let me emphasize the importance of managing public expectations. Overpromising and underdelivering can have dire consequences. And sugar-coating the situation will only add to feelings of frustration and disillusion.
Some three months ago, the Council of Representatives confirmed Iraq’s new President and Government – ending more than a year of tensions, political discord, and power play. Three out of 23 cabinet ministers are women. Needless to say: we eagerly await a further increase of women in decision-making positions. Looking ahead, and as I explained, no one can expect Iraq’s challenges to be resolved overnight, but I’d also like to see the glass half full.
In my most recent briefing to the Council, last October, I emphasized (not for the first time) that, since 2003, too many opportunities to conduct meaningful and much-needed reform have been wasted, while stressing that pervasive corruption is a major root cause of Iraqi dysfunctionality. I made it clear that it is past time to act on several key issues, and that the window to do so is only brief.
In its first three months in office, Iraq’s new government – under the lead of Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani – showed its commitment to tackle the most pressing challenges facing the country, including endemic corruption, poor public service delivery and high levels of unemployment.
On the fight against corruption, the government has taken a number of important steps, including with regards to the recovery of stolen funds and the investigation of corruption allegations.
And I can only encourage the Iraqi government to persevere, as those who stand to lose will undoubtedly seek to hinder these efforts. But if Iraq is to build a system that serves the need of society instead of serving a closed community of collusion, then ensuring accountability across the spectrum, is absolutely essential. This means giving no respite to those who extract state resources for private and/or other interests. Moreover, systemic change will prove vital. I spelled it out so many times: throughout the years Iraq’s corruption turned into a system – that is, going beyond a collection of individuals or a series of events.
Ongoing government efforts to improve public service delivery should also be acknowledged. That said, and being mindful of managing public expectations, I would like to recall that effecting meaningful change (that positively impacts the lives of all citizens) it will take time – as this can only happen through structural change that requires systemic, socio-economic reform, stronger institutions and better governance at all levels.
Also, and there is no denying it, delays in much-needed and long-awaited economic, fiscal and financial reform are palpable throughout the country. Most recently, it has been concerning to see the increase in the exchange rate on the parallel market adding to the pressure on everyday Iraqi women and men. On the short-term, it is obviously essential that the federal budget is passed ASAP. A further delay will only result in worsening the situation due to the well-known spending constraints.
Now - on this topic, I would like to (yet again) caution against measures that will result in further bloating Iraq’s public service. Despite the pressing need to address high levels of unemployment, Iraq can simply not afford to add to the burden of an already extremely inflated public sector. And in a related observation, let me reiterate that oil dependency leaves the Iraqi economy more vulnerable to external shocks. Iraq should thus prioritize sustainable economic diversification, including the development of a value-adding, employment-generating private sector.
There are of course many other areas that require the immediate attention of Iraq’s government. From the significant environmental challenges; the importance of energy independence; the continued returns of Iraqi nationals from Al-Hol and other camps and prisons in North-eastern Syria; the need to swiftly implement the Sinjar Agreement; the long-awaited finalization of the Kirkuk-dialogue; the transition from humanitarian response towards durable solutions and development; to issues such as constitutional amendments and substantive progress on security sector reform - to name but a few.
I will certainly report on these issues in future briefings but there’s one more area I would like to mention now. That is, the protection and promotion of human rights, including accountability for human rights violations and abuses. To again quote Sergio Vieira de Mello - before he flew out to Baghdad in 2003: I believe, he said, that respect for human rights is the only solid foundation for durable peace and for development. In line with these words, let me here emphasise that silencing, obstructing, dismissing or undermining constructive criticism achieves one thing only: it tarnishes the image of the State and erodes public trust. Whereas encouraging public discourse enables institutions to flourish and to adapt. Needless to say: genuine commitment to human rights is pivotal to any country, including Iraq.
Madam President, turning to Baghdad-Erbil relations. The government programme expressed commitment to resolve outstanding issues between the federal and the Kurdistan Regional Governments, including legislating the oil and gas law within six months.
Some initial steps have been taken to this end, including a number of high-level visits and the creation of joint technical committees. Dynamics were generally described as positive, and that is a good thing. Yet a structured dialogue, which remains of great importance to institutionalize relations, such dialogue is still missing. And crucially, these consultations are yet to translate into concrete agreements, including, as mentioned, on the pressing issue of the 2023 federal budget.
All things considered, it is our hope that the recent ruling of the Federal Supreme Court does not stymie ongoing negotiations on the budget. We wish instead that both Baghdad and Erbil remain incentivised to reach a lasting arrangement so as to move away from constant crisis management.
Zooming in on the Kurdistan Region. In my previous briefings, I outlined the risks of political infighting. Regrettably, divisions among ruling parties in the Kurdistan Region continue to have adverse effects on its institutions and its people. It even translated into one coalition party boycotting the cabinet sessions since October.
Last Saturday, a meeting of the parties in Sulaymaniyah offered a glimmer of hope. While this meeting in itself was an important message, I cannot but emphasize the need to act quickly and pragmatically. To be clear: the Kurdistan Region’s political parties cannot afford to lose more time. Hence, swift compromises on outstanding fiscal, administrative, security and electoral disagreements are urgently needed.
On Iraq’s external relations, Madam President, I am pleased to report that the Iraqi government continued its policy of openness and balance, based on mutual interests and also respect for the principles of sovereignty, territorial integrity and good neighbourliness. And as I stated during the “Baghdad II” conference in Amman on 20 December, I wholeheartedly support Iraq’s Prime Minister in his endeavour to make Iraq a platform for dialogue and investment. That said, Iraq continues to face repeated and destabilising violations of its sovereignty and territorial integrity.
To state the obvious: messaging by strikes does nothing but recklessly heighten tensions, kill people and destroy property. Again, established diplomatic instruments are at everybody’s disposal, also when neighbours are faced with perceived national security threats. For Iraq to further bolster its domestic stability, it is incumbent on us all to help foster an enabling environment.
Anticipating the next speaker, let me just reiterate that Iraq remains one of the most explosive ordnance-contaminated countries in the world. Nationally-led clearance efforts, including national budget allocations, are truly commendable. However, the sector as a whole remains underfunded. Consequently, Iraqi civilians pay the price. In 2022, explosive remnants of war continued to be the leading cause of child casualties in Iraq and caused overall one third of civilian casualties. I can therefore only encourage the international community to continue its support.
Madam President, allow me to turn to the issue of missing Kuwaiti and third-country nationals and missing Kuwaiti property - including the national archives. We, of course, highly welcome the steps taken by the Government of Iraq to encourage more witnesses to come forward. We also commend the continuous cooperation of the Members of the Tripartite Commission on the provision of satellite imagery. Both are vital to efforts for the identification of other potential burial sites.
In conclusion, Madam President, I would like to convey both a sense of hope, and a sense of urgency. The hope is that the confirmation of Iraq’s new government will provide an opportunity to structurally address the many pressing issues facing the country and its people. The urgency is for Iraq’s political class to seize the brief window of opportunity it is awarded, and to finally lift the country out of recurring cycles of instability and fragility.
Lastly, allow me to congratulate (once more) Iraq’s national football team for its recent Arabian Gulf Cup victory. It is worth noting that Iraq hosted the tournament for the first time since 1979 – after decades of isolation, violence, strife, and tensions. In my humble opinion, a great testimony to Iraq’s return to normality and its potential to rally not only the nation but also regional partners around a common and positive objective.