Masa Elkheir. Thank you all for coming. I have just concluded the first-ever visit by a UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to Iraq. I thank the Government of Iraq very much for its invitation, and for the extensive discussions we have had at the highest levels during my time here. I feel a deep personal connection with the people of this country, and I come here as a friend.
I spent the past four days in Baghdad, Erbil and Basra, meeting the Prime Minister of Iraq, the President and Prime Minister of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq and other high-level officials, including the Ministers of Foreign Affairs and Justice, as well as the Speaker of Parliament, the Chief Judge of the High Judicial Council, and the Chief Judge of the Appeals Court in Basra.
I also had several meetings with civil society, including women human rights defenders, environmental activists, journalists, lawyers, artists, members of the Marsh Arab (Ma’dan) community, as well as representatives from the diverse and rich cultural and religious fabric of Iraq.
And I experienced first-hand the reality of climate change in the Al-Salhiyah area of Basra’s Shatt Al-Arab district, in southern Iraq.
In 50-degree-Celsius heat, in the midst of drought-ridden and barren fields, local community leaders and representatives showed me pictures of the lush date palm trees that – just 30 years ago – lined parts of the now dried-up Shatt-al-Arab waterway.
Standing in searing heat in that scarred landscape, breathing air polluted by the many gas flares dotting the region, it was clear to me that the era of global boiling has indeed begun.
This is a climate emergency. And it is high time it is treated like one. Not just for Iraq but for the world. What is happening here is a window into a future that is now coming for other parts of the world – if we continue to fail in our responsibility to take preventive and mitigating action against climate change.
Iraq is among the most climate-vulnerable countries in the world. The serious environmental degradation here is the result of a toxic mix of violence, oil industry excesses, global warming, reduced rainfall, and lack of effective water management and regulation.
Just yesterday the Minister of Water Resources announced that water levels in Iraq are the lowest they have ever been. The water issue has wider regional implications, and all countries have to work to manage this precious resource as a public good. Water is a global public good.
Civil society actors spoke to me about the chronic pollution in Basra and the resulting health problems in the community, including high rates of cancer and other serious ailments. They also stressed the need for increased transparency. “People have the right to know what is going on, about the dangers to their health and environment, and to help with strategies to work together to mitigate and adapt to the impact of climate change,” as one rights defender said to me.
I welcome the Government’s public commitment to address, as a priority, the challenges of climate change and water scarcity. Much work lies ahead – in awareness raising, legislative and policy reform and capacity building of institutions. It is essential that this is done with the meaningful involvement of those most affected.
But I am concerned that a series of actions taken by people in positions of power – for example, bringing criminal defamation suits against journalists and civil society actors – have created a chilling effect on freedom of expression. There have also been reports of violence, intimidation and death threats against environmental activists, including by armed elements, stifling the open space for discussion that is so crucial to addressing these issues.
One activist pleaded for the protection of rights defenders, saying: “It should not be dangerous to share data and raise awareness of the problem. We need to work together to mitigate the impact – lives are at risk.”
This is an issue we have been working closely on, and we are planning a report on freedom of expression in Iraq.
Iraq has historically contributed so much – cultural, literary, intellectual, civilizational – to shaping our world today. It is a mesmerizing history, breathtaking in its beauty and diversity.
But as we know all too well, Iraq also has a more recent history of repression, injustice, conflict, trauma and some of the worst violations of human rights and dignity to which the world has borne witness. I can only but admire the incredible resilience of the people of Iraq who have lived such realities within their lifetimes.
Estimates suggest that up to a million people disappeared under the regime of Saddam Hussein and hundreds of thousands more since then, including between 2014 and 2017 when Da’esh took control of vast swathes of Iraqi territory, and in subsequent security operations. Such staggering figures are difficult to fathom. Behind each of these individuals is a family – a spouse, a child, a parent, loved ones who deserve recognition, and whose rights to truth, justice and accountability are violated.
I welcome the Government’s invitation to the UN Committee on Enforced Disappearances, which visited Iraq last year. I urge implementation of the Committee’s recommendations. I understand that a law on enforced disappearances is due to come before the Council of Representatives – a welcome step in the right direction. It is high time a law is passed, in line with international human rights standards. My Office will follow closely the consideration and passage of this law and is ready to advise and support, based on our experience in other countries grappling with this issue.
There is also a painful history of the use of torture and other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment – under Saddam Hussein, during the US-led occupation of Iraq, during the conflict with Da’esh, and continuing into present-day Iraq. I’m encouraged by what I heard both from the Prime Minister and the Minister of Justice on tackling the issue of torture in the country, and to take preventive measures to ensure that torture has no place in the future of Iraq. I welcome their commitment to consider ratification of the Optional Protocol to the UN Convention Against Torture. The Optional Protocol mandates the creation of a national preventive mechanism, which conducts regular visits to places of detention and can play an important role in eradicating torture. I have offered our support in this regard.
Key to stopping such serious human rights violations is putting an end to the impunity that past perpetrators of human rights violations have enjoyed. This was a matter I discussed extensively with the Government and civil society, including in relation to the Tishreen protests of October 2019.
We have documented that at least 487 protesters were killed and 7,715 injured during demonstrations between 1 October 2019 and 30 April 2020, due to the use of force by Iraqi Security Forces and armed elements against protesters. The Government established a fact-finding committee and provided welcome support to victims through compensation programmes. Given the passage of time and lack of accountability, I have urged swift, transparent action to stem the impunity that has taken hold in relation to the Tishreen protests.
Equally important is the strengthening of judicial and national human rights institutions so that they can work independently and effectively – which I raised in my conversations with senior officials. I welcome all efforts of ongoing law reform in line with international human rights standards.
I have also called on the authorities to declare an official moratorium on the use of the death penalty in Iraq – where more than 11,000 people remain on death row.
Issues of concern that arose in almost every interaction I had were access to basic services, the need for good governance and transparency – and corruption. It is crucial that robust anti-corruption measures are taking hold, and that a culture of transparency, open to public scrutiny, is fostered. I also offered our Office’s expertise on human rights in national budgeting, to ensure that national budgets can deliver on basic services and are inclusive, building upon the Government’s important social safety net for the most vulnerable.
I am also in Iraq at a time when the terms “gender” and “women’s empowerment” are – astonishingly – under attack, distorted and confused. This makes no sense in the face of the massive challenges that the country has. The use of these terms is not in contradiction with any culture, religion or tradition.
All evidence tells us that we need more women in decision-making positions, and more protections in law, policy and society against violence against women. The 25 per cent quota for women in the Council of Representatives, Iraq’s legislature, is commendable – and needs to be increased. Attempts to ban the use of universally accepted terms that are crucial for achieving equality and non-discrimination are harmful, as are threats and intimidation against women working on these issues.
I urge leaders across society to cease the politics of distraction. Human rights must not be instrumentalized to divide us – human rights are what unites us, what brings us together as humanity, in dignity. Do not allow populist rhetoric to create more fractures in a society that has already experienced fragmentation. Disinformation campaigns, hate speech and incitement to violence must not be given free rein.
As we mark the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights this year, its principles are powerfully relevant for a State as richly diverse as Iraq, particularly its guarantee of human rights without distinction of nationality, gender, national or ethnic origin, religion, language, sexual orientation or any other status.
Twenty years ago this month, 22 of my UN colleagues, including my predecessor Sergio Vieira de Mello, were killed in a suicide bombing at the Canal Hotel in Baghdad, and 150 others were injured. These were colleagues who were in Iraq with a sincere desire to support and assist the Iraqi people in their aspirations for a better, more just future. I witnessed how these aspirations live on today.
There is a yearning for a common vision for a future that is grounded in human rights to be able to deal with the many difficult, long-standing issues it faces, so that the wounds can heal, and the gains that have been so painstakingly achieved can be preserved.
I leave Iraq with a clear appreciation of the progress, efforts and achievements of the people of this beautiful, diverse country – but also with the concern that the gains remain fragile.
I call on all those in positions of authority and influence to be guided by the interests and the human rights of the Iraqi people above all else and to tackle the corruption, discrimination, impunity, climate change and the remaining obstacles to lasting stability and peace.
To be able to address the big challenges of our times, we need to draw on the creativity and innovation that thrives when people are able to discuss the issues and propose solutions together. This means enlarging these freedoms as much as possible.
Our UN human rights team in Iraq is ready, as always, to assist, advise and support the promotion and protection of human rights for all Iraqis.