Critical ‘Window of Opportunity’ in Iraq Closing Fast, Special Representative Tells Security Council

SC/14134
3 March 2020
8739th Meeting (AM)

Critical ‘Window of Opportunity’ in Iraq Closing Fast, Special Representative Tells Security Council

Speakers Urge Forming Government Committed to Addressing Citizens’ Needs

Iraq today stands at a crossroads that could lead to a safe, prosperous future, even as it continues to grapple with complex political dynamics and the long echoes of war, the senior United Nations official in Baghdad told the Security Council today.

“The critical window of opportunity is closing fast,” said Jeanine Hennis‑Plasschaert, Special Representative of the Secretary-General and Head of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI), as she briefed the 15‑member Council.  At the present juncture, she said, Iraq’s political leaders can either stand idle or place themselves in the service of their fellow citizens.  Among the main issues facing the country are a fluid, puzzling security context — with unidentified groups using the cover of peaceful protests to muddy the water — as well as rampant corruption, the lingering threat posed by Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Da’esh) and challenges in forming a new Government.

Recalling that a complicated political situation emerged following the announcement in late 2019 that Iraq Prime Minister Abdul Mahdi would resign, she said it remains unclear whether political parties will arrive at a new consensus candidate within the designated time frame.  Meanwhile, the impact of the human rights violations committed in the country during the war are still being felt and accountability is a matter of burning importance to the Iraqi people.  Calling for free, fair and credible elections, she noted that the State-to-State violence, which took place in Iraq in January, was seen as a clear threat.  “Regional security developments should not eclipse domestic priorities and rightful demands for reform,” she stressed.

As Council members took the floor, many underlined their continued support for Iraq as it rebuilds from the rubble of its long war.  Several expressed concern about the country’s political stalemate, urging its leaders to push forward with the formation of a Government committed to addressing the needs of the people.  However, many also raised concern about tensions flaring across the wider region, emphasizing that Iraq must not become the theatre for more confrontation.

“Conflict and military operations are not an option for a country that has been affected by war for so long,” said the representative of Indonesia.  Underlining his delegation’s support for Iraq’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, he said that, in recent months, the international community has witnessed how crucial security and stability are for the country’s recovery — as well as how fragile those conditions are and how easily they can be derailed by any miscalculation.  He also pointed to new challenges in the delivery of humanitarian aid resulting from the recent political upheaval and called for the United Nations continued support.

The representative of the Russian Federation was among those speakers who sounded alarm over the continued threat posed by ISIL/Da’esh and other terrorist groups, including those that are slipping into Iraq from across Syria’s border.  While the Government of Iraq clearly views the recent public protests as a form of democratic self-expression, he nevertheless warned that it is unacceptable for outside forces to exploit those protests as a lever to pursue their own interests.  Recalling that the United States illegal killing of Iran General Qasem Soleimani in January violated Iraq’s sovereignty, he warned that the latter “cannot become an arena for the settling of political scores” and stressed that no one has the right to undermine Baghdad’s relationships with its neighbours.

The representative of the United States, however, cautioned that Iraq is currently threatened by Iran-backed militias which recently besieged her country’s embassy in Baghdad and launched rocket attacks.  The Government of Iraq should take all appropriate steps to protect the premises of diplomatic facilities, she said.  Agreeing that the country stands at a crossroads, she called on its next political leaders to deliver reforms that will combat corruption and promote fair and free elections.  The United States will use all available tools to provide accountability for corruption and human rights abuses, she vowed.

Belgium’s representative emphasized that, as Iraq embarks on the long path of reconciliation, it must respond to the legitimate aspirations of its people.  Condemning all acts of violence committed against Iraqi protesters — including by State forces — he called on all parties to engage in constructive dialogue.  He also joined other speakers in expressing concern about the continued threat posed by ISIL/Da’esh, expressing hope that Iraq will continue to work with the international community on that front.

The representative of Iraq also addressed the Council, agreeing that, in the five months since taking to the streets, “the protesters have succeeded in making their voices heard”.  However, those months also saw Iraq subjected to several violations of its sovereignty.  “Iraq is now on the cusp of a new era of stability,” he said, outlining the Government’s efforts to respond to popular demands.  Rejecting violence, he voiced concern that outside forces infiltrated demonstrations in an attempt to defame both the peaceful protesters and Iraqi security forces.  In addition, he called for continued international support in Iraq’s fight against the remnants of ISIL/Da’esh while emphasizing the country’s sovereignty and rejecting all efforts to render it a battleground for conflicts.

Also speaking today were representatives of Germany, Dominican Republic, United Kingdom, France, South Africa, Tunisia, Estonia, Niger, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Viet Nam and China.

The meeting began at 10:04 a.m. and ended at 12:05 p.m.

Briefing

JEANINE HENNIS-PLASSCHAERT, Special Representative of the Secretary-General and Head of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI), said there is hope in the country if political leaders and communities “step up to the plate” and put their nation’s interests above all else.  It is important not to sugar‑coat the current harsh reality, as many brave Iraqis continue to pay an unimaginable price for their voices to be heard.  Recalling the many killings, abductions, violence and other abhorrent human rights violations to which they have been subjected, she also underlined the challenges of operating within a fluid, puzzling security context with multiple actors, adding:  “As I have stated many times, the ultimate responsibility for the people’s safety and security undeniably rests with the State.”

She emphasized the imperative to end human rights abuses — which have no place in any democracy — and to bring perpetrators to justice.  Accountability is a matter of burning importance for the Iraqi people and it must be a priority for the State.  Noting that the rule of law must be strengthened for public trust to take root, she said times of crisis also present opportunities and expressed hope that Iraq’s political leaders will recognize that they are at a crossroads where they can either stand idle or place themselves in the service of their fellow citizens.  “The critical window of opportunity is closing fast,” she added, pointing out that the participation of Iraqi women in the country’s ongoing public protests is unprecedented and marks a new page in the history of women’s grass‑roots mobilization.  “Political leaders should heed this call,” she said.  However, she warned that the security picture remains complex with ambiguously identified, armed entities with unclear loyalties active throughout the country.  Meanwhile, groups or individuals use the cover of peaceful protests and security forces to muddy the water, mislead the public and harm the country’s interests.

Calling on Iraq’s leaders to dismantle or formally integrate such armed entities under full State control without delay, she said that, after five months of protests, backed by a silent majority, it should be clear that the people will not budge on their aspirations.  “This should be the political class’ first and last concern,” she said, voicing regret that, so far, few results have been seen.  Noting that no Prime Minister can deliver on them alone, she recalled that a complicated political situation emerged since the announcement in November 2019 that Prime Minister Abdul Mahdi would resign.  Today, the question remains whether political parties will arrive at a new consensus candidate for Prime Minister within the designated time frame.

Turning to Iraq’s economic challenges — of which corruption is unfortunately a core feature — she said the economy is reliant on patronage and clientelism, resulting in a ballooning, inefficient public service “that functions more as an instrument of political favour than as a servant of the people”.  Calling for a full systemic reform, she said Iraq is by no means a poor country.  However, private and partisan interests continue to conspire to divert resources away from crucial investments.  The country must also build, repair and upgrade critical infrastructure and broaden its revenue base to reduce its dependency on hydrocarbons.  Illicit financial flows also explain why Iraqis continue to await roads, hospitals, schools and legal employment opportunities, and the threat posed by Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Da’esh) — while defeated territorially — cannot be ignored.  In the last two months, the group has continued attempts to increase its military operations in north‑east Diyala, northern Baghdad and parts of western Iraq, she said.

She went on to call for free, fair and credible elections, as well as a broad reform of the underlying system.  The newly appointed electoral commission will need to stand with greater resolve in adhering to the principles of transparency, accountability, independence and professionalism.  Turning to relations between Baghdad and Erbil, she said the international community continues to await a final, long-term and sustainable agreement between the two parties.  The State-to-State violence which took place in Iraq earlier in 2020 was received as a clear and substantial threat to the country, and the risk of rogue action by armed groups with unclear reporting lines remains a constant concern.  “Regional security developments should not eclipse domestic priorities and rightful demands for reform,” she said.  On the issue of missing Kuwaitis, third‑country nationals and missing Kuwaiti property, she said hopes were renewed on that front in January when human remains were discovered and exhumed in Samawah.  She commended Iraq in its focus and urged Council members to lend their support to such work.

Statements

CHERITH NORMAN-CHALET (United States) said that Iraq still stands at a crossroads and is still in the headlines.  Iraqis are choosing their new political leaders as a result of their legitimate demands, she said, calling on its next leaders to deliver reforms that will combat corruption and promote fair and free elections.  Such reforms should be embraced as they are in Iraq’s national interest and will attract foreign investment, which will convert the country’s rich natural resources into a higher quality of life for all its people.  In the face of outrageous killings, the reformist movement endures.  The United States will use all available tools to provide accountability for corruption and human rights abuses.  There are still threats by Iran-backed militias, which besieged the United States embassy in Baghdad in recent days and rocket attacks continue, even in the last 48 hours.  The Government of Iraq should take all appropriate steps to protect the premises of diplomatic facilities.  ISIL remains a threat, she said, calling on the international community to assist Iraq in its counter‑terrorism efforts.  She called on Iraq’s new leaders to fully embrace UNAMI’s mandate.

CHRISTOPH HEUSGEN (Germany) said that he hoped that there will soon be a new Government of Iraq.  For that to happen, responsible politicians have to overcome political divisions in their country.  Political indecisiveness must be overcome, he said, noting that the country needs a united political class.  As Ms. Hennis‑Plasschaert has said, no Prime Minister can go it alone.  Only when there is a new, strong Government will it be possible to rein in the criminal activities of armed groups.  These criminal gangs have to be dismantled and reintegrated.  On the fight against corruption, he underscored that it is unacceptable that corruption is built into everyday politics.  If there is a new Government, there will be good governance if it allows civil society to flourish.  If there is an inclusive electoral process then there is hope for the country and for an economic recovery, he said.

JOSÉ SINGER WEISINGER (Dominican Republic) expressed support for UNAMI’s efforts to seek a political solution to the stalemate by promoting dialogue, fostering institutional strengthening and supporting the electoral process.  However, he voiced concern that no agreement has been reached on the appointment of a new Prime Minister and called on all parties to think carefully about that process, while taking into account the demands of the people.  The Government must fully respect the human rights of protesters, including the rights to expression and assembly.  He deplored recent violence that resulted from clashes between two allied nations in Iraq, resulting in the Government’s decision to withdraw its support from the allied coalition to combat ISIL/Da’esh, and expressed hope that such actions will not result in a resurgence of that group.  All parties should act with the utmost restraint and avoid exacerbating tensions.  He also underlined the need to continue to meet the needs of internally displaced persons and to put in place the conditions needed for their safe, voluntary and dignified return.

VASSILY A. NEBENZIA (Russian Federation) said his delegation is closely watching the political developments in Iraq, where the Government faces the difficult task of addressing the needs of a highly diverse society.  He urged all parties in the country to pool their efforts on the domestic agenda and reach mutually agreeable solutions.  While the Government of Iraq clearly views public protests as a form of democratic self-expression, he nevertheless warned that it is unacceptable for outside forces to exploit those protests as a lever to pursue their own interests.  Iraq needs to rebuild following the events of 2003 and the subsequent long war against terrorists.  He welcomed the continuation of dialogue between Baghdad and Erbil, which will help to deploy the country’s economic potential.  However, he expressed serious concern about the still significant threat posed by terrorist groups, noting that terrorists are now slipping over the border from Syria into Iraq.  Turning to the events in recent months, which have led to an “artificially whipped‑up situation regarding Iran”, he emphasized that Iraq “cannot become an arena for the settling of political scores”.  No one has a right to undermine Iraq’s relationships with its neighbours, he stressed.  In that vein, he cited the United States illegal killing of Iran General Qasem Soleimani in Iraq in January, which violated the sovereignty of a United Nations Member State without its knowledge.

KAREN PIERCE (United Kingdom) said that, while Iraq has made progress in recent years, the past few months have been challenging.  The resignation of the Prime Minister is the latest setback, she said, appealing to Iraq’s leaders to put their citizens and the sound governance of the country first.  Iraq needs an inclusive and representative Government and this aim is important given the clear dissatisfaction with the status quo that can be seen in the large-scale demonstrations.  Hundreds have been killed and thousands injured.  Iraq’s people have the right to protest peacefully.  The United Kingdom urges the Iraqi authorities to follow through on their commitments to conduct credible investigations into the violence and hold those responsible to account.  The United Kingdom stands ready to support Iraq in delivering crucial reforms that address popular concerns.  ISIL/Da’esh remains a persistent threat to Iraq’s security, the region and the wider world.  Iraq and the international community should continue to work together to address this threat.

ANNE GUEGUEN (France) said that Iraq has been buffeted by many challenges during its recent history and is at a crossroads.  It is being affected by regional tensions and must successfully conclude the fight against ISIL/Da’esh.  It is important to ensure Iraq’s full sovereignty and that it recovers its institutional stability.  It is important to support Iraq’s people in their legitimate demands.  The human toll of protests has been very high, she said, expressing concern over arbitrary arrests, killings, enforced disappearance and the indiscriminate use of force against people exercising their right to peacefully protest.  The Iraqi authorities need to guarantee the protestors’ right to freedom of assembly and the right to protest.  Iraq must bestow itself with a Government that is able to institute the reforms expected of it.  UNAMI should continue to support the Iraqi authorities, particularly with regard to electoral assistance.

JERRY MATTHEWS MATJILA (South Africa) said that his country welcomes the reforms proposed by the Government of Iraq to improve governance structures and the implementation of service delivery.  He also expressed support for the drive for an inclusive Government, which will bring together the broad spectrum of Iraqi society into governance structures.  Regarding the security situation, he condemned the recent incidents in Anbar, Diyala, Kirkuk, Ninewa and Salah al-Din, which resulted in casualties and the destruction of crops.  Peace and security are fundamental prerequisites for Iraq to grow its economy and provide basic services for all its citizens.  South Africa supports the full consolidation of control of the Iraqi Government over its territories, as well as its efforts to eradicate the threat posed by ISIL/Da’esh.

TAREK LADEB (Tunisia) expressed hope that the parties in Iraq will be able to “move past this sensitive phase” through dialogue that prioritizes the will of the people.  In recent years, Iraq has been able to defeat ISIL/Da’esh terrorists and defend its security, and today the country requires continued international support for economic development, reforms and the strengthening of democracy.  In that regard, he echoed calls to respect the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and underlined the importance of continuing efforts to identify missing Kuwait persons and third-party nationals, as well as to identify and return missing Kuwaiti property.  He expressed satisfaction over progress on that front, which was facilitated by cooperation among Kuwaiti, Iraqi and other leaders with the support of the international community.

SVEN JÜRGENSON (Estonia) said that Iraq is facing significant challenges on its way towards peace, stability and prosperity.  In the context of increasing regional tensions, the continued support of the international community to Iraq’s security and reconstruction remains crucial.  All actors have to respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Iraq and Baghdad should continue engaging with international stakeholders.  On the continued political crisis, he urged all political parties and factions to resolve their differences and to agree on a consensus candidate for Prime Minister.  It is vital to continue with credible economic reforms, to create jobs, to provide basic services and to implement the rule of law.  A greater presence of women and youth should also be secured when appointing new ministers, he said, calling on Iraq to complete the electoral reform process and to continue engaging with the United Nations in this regard.

MARC PECSTEEN DE BUYTSWERVE (Belgium) said that, as Iraq embarks on the long path of reconciliation, it must respond to the legitimate aspirations of its people.  The rights to expression and freedom of assembly are crucial, he said, condemning all acts of violence committed against Iraqi protesters, including by State forces.  All parties should engage in constructive dialogue aimed at building a new Government that is committed to job creation, security sector reform, the provision of basic services and the fight against corruption.  Meanwhile, the Government should seek to regain its monopoly over the use of force.  Spotlighting Baghdad’s recent decision to end the “access letter system” for non-governmental organizations — which has had disastrous impacts on the delivery of humanitarian assistance across the country — he urged the authorities quickly find a solution.  He also urged them to continue to combat the threat posed by ISIL/Da’esh, expressing hope that they will continue to work alongside the international community in that arena.  Recalling that Belgium chairs the Council’s Working Group on Children and Armed Conflict, he said the most recent report of the Secretary-General notes that the gravest violations in that area took place during the conflict in Iraq.  However, challenges remain and the Working Group will push forward on that front, he said.

ABDOU ABARRY (Niger) welcomed the prevailing calm in Iraq and encouraged the authorities to continue their efforts to create friendly relations with neighbouring countries.  He expressed his hope that the political process will lead to the establishment of institutions that will ensure the country’s stability with the appointment of a consensus Prime Minister.  This political process must aim to find solutions to the many challenges that Iraqis are currently facing.  In addition to the threat faced by terrorism, corruption is a great threat as it deprives the country with the resources it needs to rebuild.  He expressed concern with the way the protests have been managed.  He called on the Government to overcome existing administrative and security difficulties so that violations against children, documented in the Secretary-General’s recent report, are brought to an end.  It is regrettable that terrorism remains present in the country and that ISIL/Da’esh is continuing its rapid reconstruction.  Iraq needs to continue the fight against terrorism while ensuring respect for human rights.  Iraq has come a long way and the efforts that have been made need to be recognized, encouraged and supported.

ISIS AZALEA MARIA GONSALVES (Saint Vincent and the Grenadines) said that UNAMI’s mandate provides a platform to support the Government of Iraq in tremendous ways, including in the advancement of political dialogue.  She welcomed the Mission’s engagement with the Women Advisory Group to solicit input on the Government’s ongoing constitutional review.  The meaningful participation of women in political processes is essential for achieving a peace that extends beyond the silencing of the guns.  Her country commends the constructive cooperation between UNAMI and the Government of Iraq regarding missing Kuwaiti persons and third‑country nationals, and noted the success of these efforts.  She remains concerned over ongoing protests and is troubled by the allegations of abuses of the protestors.  While the establishment of a committee to investigate reprisals against protestors is a positive move, she urged greater progress in holding individuals and groups accountable.

DANG DINH QUY (Viet Nam) said that he is encouraged by the progress Iraq has made in recent months.  The Government of Iraq has carried out positive measures to meet the legitimate demands of its people, as well as continued efforts towards national reconciliation.  The situation in Iraq remains challenging, especially in the context of increasing regional tensions.  During the reporting period, protests continued with violence in Baghdad and several other governorates.  The formation of a new Government has been delayed and the final text of the new elections law has not been published.  He called on concerned parties to make further efforts to overcome their differences and facilitate the formation of a new Government for the sake of stabilizing the political situation.  Addressing the economic difficulties of the country should be a priority and the Government of Iraq has the primary responsibility to do this, with the support and assistance of the international community.

MUHSIN SYIHAB (Indonesia) spotlighted encouraging signs of progress in Iraq and underlined his delegation’s support for the latter’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.  In recent months, the international community has witnessed how crucial security and stability are for Iraq’s recovery — as well as how fragile those conditions are and how easily they can be derailed by any miscalculation.  “Conflict and military operations are not an option for a country that has been affected by war for so long,” he stressed, reiterating Indonesia’s support for Iraq’s struggle against ISIL/Da’esh and calling on the international community to focus on eliminating the group entirely.  He hoped that a new Prime Minister will soon be appointed, noting that the recent political upheaval has posed operational and security challenges for humanitarian operations.  The Government should continue to facilitate the delivery of assistance by the United Nations and its partners, he said, also expressing support for UNAMI’s work.

ZHANG JUN (China), Council President for March, speaking in his national capacity, said that the peace, stability and reconstruction of Iraq is at a critical stage against a backdrop of tension in the region.  All countries should fully respect the will of Iraq’s people and support the Government in addressing its internal and external challenges.  A good atmosphere should be created for political dialogue and national reconciliation, while the international community should support the country to help it manage its own internal affairs.  China is firmly against interference in Iraq’s internal affairs, he said, underscoring that military action on its territory must be subject to the consent of Iraq, so as to avoid it becoming a victim of geopolitics.  He welcomed an improvement in relations between the central Government and the Kurdish regional government.  The international community should support Iraq in the consolidation of its achievements in counter-terrorism and safeguarding national security.  It should also fully respect Iraq’s sovereignty and jurisdiction and support it in bringing terrorists to justice, and should actively promote Iraq’s economic recovery, as development is a fundamental guarantee for peace, he said.

MOHAMMED HUSSEIN BAHR ALULOOM (Iraq) said that, in the five months since taking to the streets, “the protesters have succeeded in making their voices heard”.  However, those months also saw Iraq subjected to several violations of its sovereignty.  Outlining the country’s long struggle to combat terrorism, he declared:  “Iraq is now on the cusp of a new era of stability.”  The Government has undertaken intensive consultations to meet the legitimate demands of protesters and achieve the desired reforms, and on 1 February, President Barham Salih announced plans to form a new Government.  Iraq adopted a new law creating an electoral commission, and appointed nine people to its Board of Commissioners, as well as a female judge to serve as its chair.  Emphasizing that the new electoral law marks an important departure from past practice, he said it ensures a more just representation of the different segments of Iraqi society, as well as the broader participation of young people, including by reducing the age for political participation from 30 to 25.

Underlining the importance of respecting human rights — including the rights of freedom of expression and assembly — he said his Government rejects all forms of violence and restricts the use of force by its security forces.  Indeed, those forces exercised the utmost restraint while dealing with the protests.  However, some outside forces infiltrated those demonstrations in an attempt to defame both the peaceful protesters and the security forces.  He went on to emphasize Iraq’s sovereignty, rejecting any efforts to render it a battleground for conflicts.  Recalling that the Government condemned recent attacks committed on Iraqi soil as a breach of international law, he emphasized Baghdad’s commitment to ensuring that its territory is not used to strike any other State.  He also condemned breaches committed in Iraq against the United States embassy and the Iran consulate, noting that the Government is investigating them, and underlined his country’s commitment to providing protection to all accredited diplomats.

Meanwhile, he continued, the remnants of ISIL/Da’esh — as well as the group’s movement from Syria into Iraq — continue to pose a threat requiring the support of the international community.  He stressed that any country seeking to render assistance to Iraq’s Government, or to provide weapons to help it combat terrorists, should only do so with Baghdad’s approval.  Thanking those countries that have agreed to accept their extradited nationals who are former ISIL/Da’esh members, he urged others to do the same.  Iraq is committed to cooperating with Kuwait on the matter of its missing nationals and property.  In that vein, he recalled that the remains of 21 missing persons were found in January and are now being analysed in Kuwait, and urged the latter to inform Iraq as soon as possible as to their nationality.  As part of its commitment on that front, Iraq recently paid Kuwait $250 million.  It also stands committed to continuing its consultations with Kurdistan — including on the issue of oil revenues — which he hopes will lead to a final agreement.

For information media. Not an official record.