Iraq Still Plagued by Socioeconomic, Humanitarian Woes despite New Prime Minister’s Promising Reform Plans, Special Representative Tells Security Council

Despite positive first steps by Iraq’s new Prime Minister, the country continues to operate in “the eye of multiple storms”, from popular discontent to mounting hunger to economic woes wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic, the top United Nations official in the country told the Security Council during a 26 August videoconference meeting*.

Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, Special Representative of the Secretary-General and Head of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI), said that while the Government of Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi has committed to responding to the needs of the people — including by prioritizing reforms, scheduling parliamentary elections and supporting more robust fundamental freedoms — COVID-19 is rapidly exacerbating a spectrum of long-standing challenges.  Unemployment in the country has spiked by more than 10 per cent amid the pandemic, one third of the population now lives below the poverty line, food insecurity is increasing and gender-based violence has more than doubled.

Introducing two recent reports of the Secretary-General (documents S/2020/792 and S/2020/753), she said humanitarian workers also face challenges.  On 26 August, a World Food Programme convoy encountered an improvised explosive device while on the move.  Calling for a simplified system that helps currently immobilized humanitarian actors reach those in need, she went on to describe a range of worrying economic indicators.  Oil revenues have fallen by 50 per cent and Iraq’s gross domestic product (GDP) is now projected to fall by 9.7 per cent.  Non-oil GDP growth is decreasing in a country which was already in desperate need of economic diversification.  Meanwhile, corruption remains a major problem.

Noting that the Government recognizes those challenges and has made reform a top priority, she urged the political class to unite to protect the interests of the Iraqi people — including the most vulnerable.  “So far, we have seen too little of this spirit,” she said, adding:  “An environment that promotes inclusive growth and employment remains the best remedy against unrest, conflict and external interference.”  She expressed concern particularly about a worrying rise in attacks against activists and members of the media, as well as the trend of oblivious partisanship and “short-sighted, zero-sum politics”.

Turning to other threats, she reported that non-State armed groups continue their “sabre rattling” amid the pandemic, while Iraq continues to exist in a uniquely challenging geopolitical environment.  Expressing hope that the country will be given further room to focus on domestic resilience — rather than being used as a venue for power struggles — she raised concerns about the recent escalation along the Iraqi-Turkish border, urging the parties to exercise restraint.  In addition, there is an urgent need to resolve several questions related to parliamentary seat apportionment and constituency delineation ahead of upcoming elections, now slated for June 2021.  UNAMI stands ready to assist with that process, which could open up a new chapter for Iraq should it be deemed credible.

She went on to address relations between Baghdad and Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan region in northern Iraq, pointing out that a lack of specificity in the Iraqi Constitution has resulted in 15 years without agreement on the enhancement of the federal system and without a deal on natural resource distribution or disputed territories.  “It is past time for Iraq to become more than the sum of its components,” she said, voicing regret that — yet again — preliminary agreement on a unified administration and stable security structures has not materialized.  “A final agreement can, and must, now be reached without delay,” she stressed, adding that anything else would be “intolerable negligence”.

Among other items, she also spotlighted the falling rate of return for Iraq’s remaining 1.4 million internally displaced persons and the issue of missing Kuwaiti, third-country nationals and missing Kuwaiti property, including the national archives.  UNAMI is engaging with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the Iraqi and Kuwaiti authorities to repatriate remains recently exhumed from a mass grave in southern Iraq.  Despite severe COVID-19 travel restrictions, she expressed optimism that such a transfer will take place soon.

As Council members delivered remarks, many welcomed the first few measures undertaken by the new Prime Minister.  However, some also underlined the need to demonstrate true commitment to implementing much-needed political, social and economic reforms.  Several speakers underscored Iraq’s extreme fragility, sounding alarms that COVID-19, terrorism, violence and economic strife could jeopardize the strides achieved in Iraq to date.

The representative of France joined other speakers in reaffirming her country’s support for Iraq and welcoming Prime Minister al-Kadhimi’s newly announced reforms.  It is now essential that they are implemented.  Praising UNAMI’s strong electoral assistance mandate, she voiced support for Iraq’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and underlined the need to keep the country free from regional tensions.  In that vein, she voiced concern about Turkish incursions and called for de-escalation, while also underlining the need to continue to counter the threat posed by Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Da’esh).  The international coalition and Iraqi authorities should continue to adapt their efforts to match the evolution of that threat, she said.

The representative of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines welcomed the completion of the Government-formation process, as well as the Prime Minister’s announcement of his priority areas.  It is crucial that the international community support the Global Humanitarian Response Plan for COVID-19, of which Iraq is a beneficiary.  Recognizing the efforts by UNAMI and the United Nations country team to raise awareness about the increase in domestic violence amid COVID-19, she joined other speakers in condemning continued acts of violence perpetrated by ISIL/Da’esh during the pandemic.  Equally important is accountability, which is critical to the reconstruction process.  “No act violating international humanitarian law or human rights law should be carried out with impunity,” she stressed.

South Africa’s representative was among those speakers who welcomed UNAMI’s mandated tasks related to strengthening the Government and carrying out the electoral process.  Underlining the importance of inclusion, reconciliation, unity and social cohesion — which are needed to build resilience against narrow partisan interests, foreign interference and criminal elements — he also welcomed the resumption of federal monthly payments to the Kurdistan regional government.  As COVID-19 has strained Iraq’s already fragile health system and further deteriorated its humanitarian situation, Iraq must diligently work to slow the spread of the virus.

The representative of Germany pledged his country’s support to UNAMI, noting that Germany is one of Iraq’s leading donors.  Citing reports of arrests and acts of violence against protesters, civil society activists, human rights defenders and journalists, he condemned in particular the recent targeted assassinations of activists in Basra and Baghdad and welcomed the Government’s stated commitment to protect those exercising their fundamental rights.  He also echoed expressions of concern about the impact of regional tensions on Iraq, calling for de-escalation and restraint by all regional and international players.  “Iraq should neither be dragged into, nor become an arena for, a regional confrontation,” he said.

Niger’s delegate also welcomed the formation of Iraq’s Government, while calling on all political leaders to spare no efforts to ensure collaboration between the country’s executive and legislative branches to fill remaining cabinet seats.  He voiced concerns that ISIL/Da’esh retains the capacity to carry out attacks against both civilian and military targets, underlining the need for Iraq’s partners to continue to support Iraq in fighting terrorists.  Noting that COVID-19 poses serious challenges, he also urged the international community to support the Global Humanitarian Response Plan — including key activities identified for Iraq — and to support the competent national authorities in charge of guaranteeing fair and inclusive elections in 2021.  Among other things, he also underlined the importance of including Iraqi women and youth in the new Government and called on UNAMI to continue its consultations with the Women’s Advisory Group.

The representative of Indonesia, Council President for August, spoke in his national capacity, emphasizing that reforms and fair elections are now crucial next steps for Iraq’s future.  Welcoming the new Government’s priorities, he expressed support for efforts to counter threats by ISIL/Da’esh and other terrorist groups.  The Council should lend its support, not only in assistance and capacity-building but also in ensuring the country’s independence, unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity.  Calling for strong international and regional support, he spotlighted the crucial principle of “good neighbourliness” and welcomed Iraq’s strengthened relationship with Kuwait.

Viet Nam’s delegate expressed a concern about the humanitarian situation in Iraq during the pandemic, spotlighting a dramatic increase in cases of COVID-19 over the last two months.  The well-being of millions of people heavily depends on international assistance, he said, underscoring UNAMI’s crucial role.  In the long run, Iraq will continue to face tremendous challenges due to deep-seated problems.  The international community must remain strongly committed to supporting the country as it works to stabilize the humanitarian situation, reconstruct and develop, he said.

The representative of the Dominican Republic urged all countries to respect Iraq’s sovereignty, territorial integrity and airspace, show restraint and avoid using its territory as an arena for hostile confrontations.  They should also refrain from carrying out any military activity without the Government’s consent.  Citing the creation of the high-level fact-finding committee to investigate the use of force against civilians during recent popular protests — as well as the decision to allow compensation to victims’ families — he underlined the paramount importance of identifying perpetrators and establishing criminal accountability.  In addition, he said, UNAMI should engage with the relevant civil society groups to better address the issue of domestic violence during the pandemic.

The representative of Estonia said the Government of Iraq must act now to develop long-term measures aimed at overcoming the country’s multiple challenges.  “It is crucial that all political actors show national unity and solidarity and allow Prime Minister al-Kadhimi’s Government to do all it can to move towards a democratic, peaceful and prosperous Iraq,” he said, calling for the international community’s support.  Among other things, he underlined the need for more attention to COVID-19’s impact on vulnerable populations — including women and children — and for expedited structural reforms in the economic, security and institutional arenas.  He also joined other speakers in welcoming the announcement of elections in June 2021, urging the Council of Representatives to finalize Iraq’s elections law, and voiced concern about continued violence against protesters and journalists.  The Government must ensure the protection of human rights, including freedom of expression and assembly, and hold perpetrators to account.

China’s representative echoed some of those points, emphasizing the need to respect Iraq’s sovereignty, political independence and territorial integrity.  The international community should respect national ownership and leadership in all its endeavours and refrain from imposing solutions and interfering in internal affairs.  Meanwhile, partners should support Iraq’s efforts to safeguard national security and combat terrorism, while refraining from any double standard and politicization.  Spotlighting the urgent need to help Iraq boost its socioeconomic development and ease it fiscal hardships, he called on the international community to help the country carry out reconstruction, diversify its economy, create more jobs, eradicate poverty and improve public services and livelihoods.

The representative of the United States drew attention to his country’s recent dialogue with Iraq — carried out amid the pandemic — which he described as a testament to its commitment to a sovereign, stable and prosperous Iraq.  Pledging the United States commitment to counter-terrorism, health care, economic reform, trade, energy and other critical issues, he recalled that Washington has contributed $706 million in humanitarian aid to Iraq in fiscal year 2019.  Expressing outrage about the recent killings of activists, media professionals and peaceful protesters, he echoed the need to keep Iraq free of foreign intervention — including by Iran, which seeks to sow chaos across the region.  For those reasons, he said, the United States recently took action to reimpose sanctions against Tehran.  “Iran must never gain access to more modern weaponry to threaten its neighbours or the region,” he stressed.

The Russian Federation’s delegate joined other speakers in welcoming early actions by Iraq’s new Government and calling for international support as the country tackles COVID-19 and its resulting challenges.  Spotlighting the serious threat posed by ISIL/Da’esh — which can only be countered through broad cooperation — he said that all those involved in the fight against terrorism in Iraq must support the country’s sovereignty and coordinate their actions with Baghdad.  Stressing that the country should never become an arena for regional confrontation, he said the United States is once again attempting to blame Iran for destabilizing acts, when “we all know the origin of the current […] turmoil in Iraq”.  The Russian Federation has proposed several ways of resolving the question of Iran sanctions — invoking resolution 598 (1987) and the idea of collective security — and has invited the Council’s five permanent members, along with Germany and Iran, to participate in a dialogue summit to resolve their differences.

The representative of Iraq agreed that his country faces many challenges.  However, “our willingness to deal with them is greater”.  The Government is working hard to meet the people’s expectations by preserving peace and security, providing services, countering COVID-19, fighting terrorism and enacting reforms.  Warning that the pandemic could lead to the health-care system’s collapse, he cited a range of preventive measures and said the Government is honouring the constitutional rights of peaceful protest and freedom of expression.  Even before elections in June 2021, Iraq’s sovereignty must be honoured, the rule of law should be strengthened, national control over the armed forces should be achieved and foreign Powers must be prevented from using the country for their political and strategic agendas.

Against that backdrop, he pledged to enforce State authority by controlling the possession of arms and restricting them to Government and military use.  Noting Iraq’s commitment to combat terrorism — which still poses an imminent threat — he vowed to work with the international community to facilitate humanitarian assistance and engage with the international coalition on the issue of foreign troops.  He also raised concerns about Turkish military operations in the north — conducted without any prior consultation — and affirmed his country’s right to confront any attack that threatens its security.  The international community should support his country while strongly condemning violations of Iraqi sovereignty by any State.

Also speaking were the representatives of Belgium, Tunisia and the United Kingdom.

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