Briefing to the Security Council by SRSG Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert - Wednesday, 26 August 2020 [EN/AR]


Mister President, Distinguished members of the Security Council,

No country or community has been spared the devastating impact of COVID-19, and Iraq is no exception. To the contrary: the pandemic has aggravated deep existing economic and social challenges.

A few salient numbers to illustrate humanitarian concerns:
• Poverty has increased by over ten percent in recent months. One third of Iraqis now live below the poverty line, and two out of five suffer multiple deprivations in accessing basic social services and rights.
• Food consumption is now insufficient for over three million Iraqis, due to reduced purchasing power rather than food scarcity.
• With regards to education, over eleven million school and university students across Iraq have seen their studies disrupted.
• And Gender-based violence has alarmingly doubled, amid dwindling options for victims to seek assistance and find shelter.

Now, in terms of our response to these challenges, I reiterate my earlier message with regards to humanitarian access on the ground: we need a simplified system that enables currently immobilized humanitarian actors and supplies to rapidly reach people in need. Positive discussions are underway with the government, and we now hope to receive a decision within days.

In terms of security, conditions for humanitarian actors are also hazardous in certain areas, as was starkly highlighted today by the IED explosion that impacted a World Food Programme convoy in Ninewa.

Mr. President,
Economic trouble is never far from humanitarian concerns:
• Iraq is expected to experience a 9.7% decline in GDP. Oil revenues, severely affected by a steep crash in oil prices, have nearly halved.
• The private sector has been particularly impacted by job losses and income reduction, it also remains hindered by a lack of reforms. Non-oil GDP growth is decelerating in a country that is in dire need of economic diversification.
• And lest we forget: corruption remains endemic, and its economic cost untold as it continues to steal desperately needed resources from the everyday Iraqi, eroding investor confidence. Crucially, this scourge of corruption also drives many of Iraq’s security issues.

Now, the Iraqi government recognizes these challenges and has made economic and financial reform a priority.

The Minister of Finance is expected to deliver a detailed economic reform plan to Parliament imminently.

But for important, painful reforms to take root within a historical context of perceived rights and entitlements, the political class must come together as one, prioritizing the country’s interest and protecting the vulnerable. So far, however, we have seen too little of this spirit.

But let me emphasize: these reforms are of great importance to unlock a brighter future for all Iraqis, one in which the country can move from putting out fires to building sustainable solutions and domestic resilience.

As I’ve said before, many times,: an environment that promotes inclusive growth and employment remains the best remedy against unrest, conflict and external interference.

Mr. President,
The Government of Iraq is undoubtedly operating in the eyes of multiple storms at once.

Unresolved, long-standing grievances have not disappeared. And Iraqis want their voices to be heard. In recent months, social unrest has continued throughout Iraq - albeit somewhat muted by the ongoing pandemic.

Of great concern is another spike in the killings and targeting of activists and human rights defenders. Now, the silencing of peaceful voices - by exerting pressure on activists and media, by confusing the scene or even worse, by shedding blood – this deliberate silencing of peaceful voices -is an affront against basic rights and dignity.

And let us also remember those still missing, the ones in need of medical care and those who had to flee the country, often living in difficult circumstances and unable to return because of grave threats and intimidation.

And yet, Mr. President, we do find reason to be cautiously encouraged by the statements and some early actions of the current government. Indeed, we are witnessing a move towards greater accountability, more robust support to freedom of expression and assembly, and also tangible commitments to justice.

These are certainly hopeful signs, but further action is urgently needed to deliver true justice and accountability. Condemning the violence and announcing investigations are only a first step.

Now those who know (and love) Iraq recognize how puzzling the Iraqi context is, with too many parties pursuing their own narrow interests, weakening the State from within. Oblivious partisanship and short-sighted zero-sum politics continue to be major obstacles for progress. But to be clear: no party, person or entity must be allowed to hijack the legitimate demands of the Iraqi people.

Mr. President,
To my great regret, armed groups continue to recklessly flex their muscles, generally seeking to create an environment of blunt intimidation.

This means that, while Iraqi citizens are in desperate need of a stable, safe and secure environment, the sabre-rattling continues.

Surely, we all agree that Iraqis can scarcely afford another cycle of escalating violence. It is high time for these militant actors to take a long hard look in the mirror.

And benefitting from internal divisions, exploiting security gaps, Da'esh continues to claim lives.

Mr. President,
The Government of Iraq also operates in a uniquely challenging geopolitical environment. And I would like to salute and encourage Iraqi efforts to emphasize national independence and sovereignty.

The Iraqi government is determined to keep multiple channels of communication and exchange open, opting for state-to-state dialogue and relationship-building first and foremost.

I sincerely hope that Iraq will be given further room to focus on its domestic resilience, instead of being used as a venue for different power competitions.

The recent escalation in Iraqi-Turkish border areas is also a matter of great concern. We continue to urge both countries to resolve their differences through dialogue and cooperation with full respect for national sovereignty.

Mr. President,
A central popular demand has consistently been the holding of early elections, and the date of 6 June 2021 has now been announced.

However, Parliament has not yet resolved the crucial questions of seat apportionment and constituency delineation. Now, technical considerations, not partisanship, must govern their finalization.

Equally important, IHEC - the Independent High Electoral Commission, must be strengthened and freed from persistent political pressures, particularly in personnel selection as well as the development and implementation of electoral procedures.

To address electoral challenges and build public confidence in its impartiality and technical capabilities, IHEC also needs to adopt workable measures such as:
• a comprehensive, inclusive voter registry,
• a transparent, tested and reliable election results system, and
• a judicious framework to handle electoral complaints and appeals.

And of course, UNAMI stands to ready to assist.

Now, restoring public trust is hard work. And within that context, free and fair elections will prove crucial. An electoral ‘reset’ could open a new and important chapter for Iraq. But for this to happen, the elections must be credible. This is not only the responsibility of IHEC and the Government, but also of all Iraqi political actors and electoral stakeholders.

Turning to Baghdad-Erbil relations: constructive negotiations are the only viable way forward, I have said it many times.

Now, the Iraqi Constitution was drafted under great time pressure in 2005. General principles were enshrined in the text, with their implementation left to be specified by subsequent supporting legislation.

But fifteen years later, this lack of specificity continues to shape the debate between the federal government and the KRG. Fifteen years without an agreement on the gradual enhancement of the federal system; fifteen years without a deal on natural resource distribution or disputed territories; fifteen years without laws enacted to clearly define the rights and obligations of both Baghdad and Erbil.

Instead, we are witnessing another instance of ad-hoc crisis management. I am certain we can all agree that it is past time for Iraq to become more than the sum of its components.

And yes of course, we do cautiously salute the agreement, albeit tenuous, recently reached by Baghdad and Erbil on issues including the payment of Kurdish public salaries.

Mr. President,
Earlier this month we commemorated the 6th anniversary of the horrific Sinjar massacre. I regret to report - yet again - that preliminary agreement on a unified administration and stable security structures has failed to materialize. A final agreement can (and must) now be reached without delay. Anything else is intolerable negligence.

Something else, Mr. President:
In my most recent briefing in May I emphasized that, in the Kurdistan region, as elsewhere in Iraq, transparency, fighting corruption, freedom of expression and fundamental reforms are of critical importance. I must repeat that message today. Forceful responses to public criticism, protests, harassment or the shutting down of media outlets are surely not the way forward. In confronting complex challenges, governments must also (and always) continue to defend fundamental rights and freedoms.

If you allow me, Mr. President,
A few words on the rate of return for the remaining 1.4 million Iraqi IDPs, now at a three-year low.

Understandably, it is the desire of every Iraqi to live in a country without displacement camps, but these camps will not disappear until durable solutions are found.

We have initiated positive discussions with the government, but I would like to reemphasize that the wishes of the IDPs for return or integration must be prioritized. And this in turn requires the cooperation of receiving and/or host communities.

Mr. President,
I would like to turn to 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 and the Iraqi and Kuwaiti authorities to repatriate Kuwaiti remains exhumed from a mass grave site in southern Iraq last January.

Despite severe travel restrictions imposed by the pandemic, I am optimistic that the transfer will take place in the near future. Meanwhile, Kuwaiti forensics continue their complex DNA analysis to identify those Kuwaiti remains already repatriated last year. We look forward to the announcement of their results in due course.

Mr. President,
In closing, I would like to pay tribute to the courage, discipline and sacrifice of Iraqi women and men in confronting shared hardship.

It is essential that we maintain our support to the brave Iraqis who are not giving up, who continue to push for change.

I will end by emphasizing that time is a critical factor. So yes, it is high time for tangible results.

Thank you.