Mr. President, Distinguished members of the Security Council,
We are now five months away from all-important national elections, scheduled to take place on October 10.
These elections were a central demand of the protest movement; and yet, many of its members continue to be persecuted with rampant impunity. The assassination of prominent activist Ihab Jawad Al-Wazni just two days ago, by unidentified gunmen in front of his house in Karbala, is yet another tragic example.
Now – the killers, the perpetrators, may think they have silenced a voice. The truth is: they have only amplified it. And our heart goes out to his loved ones and all of those who have lost friends and family in the fight to have their voices heard.
The promise of COVID-19 recovery is in sight with the beginnings of a vaccination campaign; at the same time - Iraq is struggling, like many other countries, with a large recent spike in cases nationwide.
An increase in oil prices has provided some budgetary breathing room, yet the economy remains in dire need of structural reform.
And while Iraqi leaders call for stability as a prerequisite for progress, violent attacks against both civilian and military targets continue with troubling regularity.
Now, these are but a few examples of the daily struggle in Iraq.
Ladies and gentlemen, as we speak, and for the second year in a row, Iraqis have had to mark Ramadan, and will soon celebrate Eid, while observing safety measures which are as restrictive as they are necessary.
And I would like to take this opportunity to again express my sincere condolences to those who lost friends and family members in the tragic fire at Ibn al-Khatib hospital in Baghdad last month.
Mr. President, on the 31st of March, after months of intense political negotiations, the Council of Representatives - at long last - approved the federal budget law for 2021.
While any budget is a work of compromise, we do note that efforts to control public spending and to invest in the private sector were thwarted as the budget law underwent parliamentary revision.
Also of concern: the budget remains heavily reliant on the oil sector, which accounts for roughly 80% of government revenues under the 2021 projections. Although oil prices have since risen, volatility in 2020 wreaked havoc on GDP. It turned surpluses into deficits, putting pressure on public debt and foreign currency reserves.
Looking beyond COVID-19, the economic outlook will depend on both structural reform and the oil markets. Needless to say, only one of these elements is in Iraq’s control. Simply put: a continued dependency on oil is not a solid strategy, far from it.
On this note, modest - indeed, minimal - progress can be reported on the implementation of Iraq’s recent economic white paper. The Ministry of Finance has been disbursing quick loans to small and medium-sized enterprises. And some private sector investment is taking place in the infrastructure, healthcare, education and tourism sectors.
But one cannot overemphasize the importance of tangible results for the population. Also, one cannot overstate the need for transparency, good governance and integrity in achieving these results. In other words: the return on investment must benefit the Iraqi people and not illicitly flow into private pockets.
Mr. President, turning to the vital Baghdad-Erbil relationship:
As you have heard me say before, we remain in ad-hoc compromise mode. Despite some intermittent successes in the form of one or two specific agreements, we are still in dire need of a long-term, constitutional way forward.
Parties continue to express their willingness to come to the table, but in the absence of an institutionalized, regular, structured dialogue, sustainable progress will remain elusive.
A case in point: the budget I was just referring to includes a deal on revenue sharing between the federal and Kurdistan Regional governments, reached following lengthy negotiations. However - here again, the devil is in the details, as ambiguous wording opens the door to divergent interpretations and mutual accusations of non-compliance.
Now, this bodes ill for the future of Baghdad-Erbil relations, and is also worrisome in the context of the upcoming elections: disagreements could easily be exploited to amplify divisions.
It is my hope that the Kurdish calls for stepped up UN mediation will bear fruit. But for that to happen, UNAMI needs the buy-in of the federal authorities as well. One thing is clear: the all-important Baghdad-Erbil relationship urgently requires sustained, strategic dialogue as well as clear-cut implementation mechanisms. I have to admit: my experiences thus far do not lend themselves to optimism in this regard.
On a separate note: the recent efforts of the Kurdish Presidency seeking to build greater Kurdish unity are commendable and encouraging. A federation is only as strong as the bonds between its components, and these bonds are strengthened by community reconciliation and cohesion.
Turning to elections: as I mentioned at the outset, we are mere months away from a milestone in the young history of Iraq’s democracy.
I am pleased to note that all necessary laws have now been adopted, including the Federal Supreme Court law. Our technical support to the Iraqi High Electoral Commission is ongoing - and we remain committed to assist Iraq in delivering these elections.
Having said that, I reiterate my call to all Iraqi stakeholders to uphold the integrity of the electoral process. The world is watching. Political pressure and interference, intimidation, illicit financial flows, all of it is most harmful to the credibility of elections, and hence to turnout.
And as I said before: candidates, campaigners, the media, voters, all of them, must be free to exercise their democratic rights before, during and after the election.
For elections to be trusted, disinformation must be combatted with facts, and intimidation must be replaced with accountability. Mr President,
The people of Iraq have spoken loudly and clearly as they demanded these elections, too many of them paying the ultimate price: now is not the time to let them down.
The failure to hold credible elections would cause significant, lasting, widespread anger and disillusionment, which in turn could further destabilize the country at a time where strength and unity are desperately needed.
Now to avoid any misunderstanding, let me underline once again: the October elections are and will remain - at all times - Iraqi-owned and Iraqi-led. Meaning that Iraqi authorities and stakeholders bear the full and ultimate responsibility.
Ladies and gentlemen, as I have shared many times: accountability for serious crimes and human rights violations remains limited – very, very limited.
Despite public statements expressing intent to ensure accountability and the establishment of investigative committees, there have been few prosecutions for the killing and serious injury to protestors. No information has been made public on the patterns of violent attacks against demonstrators and critics, attributed to so-called “unidentified armed actors”.
Now, this climate of continued impunity for serious crimes and human rights violations - such as targeted killings, abductions, intimidation, such a climate -can only embolden perpetrators, further eroding trust in the State and raising serious concerns ahead of the October elections.
Different, but also worrisome: the developments in the Kurdistan region in the past year. These developments give rise to concern about the active curtailment of free expression. Critics of public authorities have risked not only intimidation, movement restrictions and arbitrary arrest, but some were also charged with defamation, and others, more recently, were prosecuted under national security laws.
Mr. President, some words on Kirkuk and Sinjar:
With regards to Kirkuk, I note that - for two years now - we have been facilitating dialogue between representatives of the components of Kirkuk. An agreement, however, has still not been reached. I would like to use this opportunity to urge all stakeholders to spare no efforts and to conclude a fair agreement without further delay. The people of Kirkuk deserve to live in stable and prosperous conditions.
With regards to Sinjar: representatives of the federal and Kurdistan regional governments are engaged in discussions around the security provisions in the agreement reached last October. These provisions have not yet been implemented, hindering progress on administration and reconstruction. Here too, the absence of an institutionalized dialogue and implementation mechanism between Baghdad and Erbil is being negatively felt, fuelling misperceptions and distrust.
One brighter development is the passing of the Yazidi Survivors Law. The provision of reparations to survivors, and the legal recognition of ISIL’s atrocities against women and girls as crimes of genocide and crimes against humanity, further underscores the need to hold the perpetrators accountable for the crimes they committed.
Mr. President, progress is being made in combatting the remnants of ISIL, with international support at the request of Iraq, but terrorism continues to claim far too many innocent lives.
Also of grave concern is the fact that rockets and improvised explosive devices remain a constant in Iraqi life. Cynical and callous armed entities continue to seek a destabilized country. And despite the government’s objective of bringing all arms under state control, we are witnessing the use of new capabilities by non-state actors, with potentially devastating effects.
Now, looking at the region and beyond, and as I have said many times: the Iraqi government is deeply committed to playing a constructive regional role rather than falling victim to external tensions. And we are seeing early signs that this commitment is paying off.
And very true, Iraq has great potential to operate as an honest broker, promoting peace and stability in the region. But to truly succeed, and at the risk of repeating myself, this should go hand in hand with concrete actions focused on bringing all arms under state control.
More broadly, I would like to call - once again - for all parties to respect the principles of state sovereignty and territorial integrity.
Turning to the humanitarian situation: in the past seven months, sixteen camps have been closed or reclassified - affecting around 50,000 Iraqis.
These closures, often carried out at short notice, did not always permit the necessary preparations for families to safely return to areas of origin.
Needless to say: when camps are closed before return conditions are appropriate, Iraqis face dire consequences. Families are rejected by home communities, denied protection by local authorities, stranded by security escorts en route, and even physically attacked. This is certainly not the path towards recovered and stabilized communities.
The position of the UN remains unchanged: we fully understand and support the goal of the Iraqi authorities to end displacement. However, durable solutions must be in place to succeed in doing so.
In other words: the focus must be on solving displacement rather than closing camps.
Mr. President, on the issue of missing Kuwaiti, third-country nationals and missing Kuwaiti property, including the national archives:
The human remains of an additional eight Kuwaiti missing persons and one third-country national were identified since I last briefed this council.
Additionally, the remains of an Iraqi soldier were handed over by Kuwait to Iraq, in the first transfer of its kind since 2013.
I extend my heartfelt condolences to all the families of the missing persons, who have long awaited information about the fate of their loved ones.
Despite COVID-19 related challenges, the persistent efforts by the Governments of Iraq and Kuwait, the ICRC and the Tripartite Commission, have collectively yielded progress. And it is my sincere hope that this cooperation will yield further positive advancements in the months to come.
Ladies and gentlemen, allow me in closing to emphasize once again the importance of credible elections.
At this critical juncture, transparency and the rule of law must prevail.
A trusted electoral process, with free and wide-ranging participation, can help steer the country towards the safe and prosperous future Iraqis deserve.
The way to express one’s voice, to make one’s choice, is at the ballot box.
This essential democratic exercise requires every voter, candidate, journalist, activist, all of them, to play their part. Boycotting elections, and thus staying outside the electoral process, is risky business and comes potentially at high costs.
Now, Mr. President, as the holy month of Ramadan draws to a close, I would like to end by conveying my best wishes to all those celebrating despite the restrictions.
Thank you. Eid Mubarak.