The Role of Minorities and their Significance in Building Social Stability. Let 2021 Be the Year of Minorities in Iraq. Remarks by SRSG Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, Thursday 31 December 2020
Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,
I am very pleased to be addressing this timely workshop on a topic that could have easily been ignored, given the numerous competing challenges facing Iraq. It is most encouraging that critical issues of citizenship, diversity, inclusion, and coexistence, have been placed front and centre today.
My years in Iraq have reinforced the conviction that tolerance and inclusiveness are not only moral and political imperatives: they are a precious source of national vitality, of cultural and indeed economic wealth. A society in which diverse groups peacefully coexist is not only a secure society, but also a dynamic, prosperous and self-confident one.
It is at once a cliché and a fundamental truth that Iraq is, and has always been, a rich mosaic of cultures. Some of the greatest inventions in human history were created or perfected here: the wheel, the written word, algebra, and countless more.
Crucially, these were not the innovations of one community, speaking one language, sharing one culture. Instead, they are the products of diversity, of ideas and viewpoints being exchanged. The communities who gave humanity these legacies embraced and leveraged their differences.
And Iraqis should take just as much pride in their current diversity. Not only does it offer immense cultural beauty, it can also provide a competitive edge in the global knowledge economy.
A strong House of Wisdom, however, requires solid foundations. Sadly, these have recently been shaken to their core. Mismanagement, geopolitical tensions, callous communitarianism, incitement and hate speech, the horror of Da’esh, have all conspired to render many people in Iraq extremely vulnerable.
Displacement, rights deprivations and poor access to essential services disproportionately affect Iraq’s minorities, along with women, the young, the elderly, and those suffering from disabilities. This has only worsened with the economic downturn.
In my most recent briefing to the UN Security Council, I emphasized that combatting divisive muhassassa, fighting corruption, building domestic resilience and more inclusive forms of development, are not just economic necessities: they offer political alternative to constant crisis management. Moreover, cohesion undermines those pursuing private gains instead of the national good. And unity strengthens sovereignty: the more Iraqis speak and act as one, the less vulnerable they are to external meddling.
Conversely, a community that is united will be best positioned to defend its interests at the national level: therefore, intra-community reconciliation is just as important as the work at the inter-community level.
We all agree that that defending diversity is imperative, but the question is: how? Well, the key is: respect for fundamental rights and the rule of law, applied to all without exception.
Like a physical crossroads, a crossroads of civilizations offers multiple options, and allows us to go in different directions. But properly navigating a crossroads, requires rules, and for these rules to be respected. Anyone who has driven in Baghdad will agree that very few adhere to any rules in sharing the road.
Building on that metaphor: respecting multiple identities, which can combine and complement each other rather than suppress, exclude or supersede each other, requires the recognition of every citizen’s equality before the law.
Political and community leaders must step up, join hands and serve the interests of the Iraqi people, never engaging in or condoning inflammatory actions and statements that stigmatize, blame or dehumanize.
Just as Iraq must be treated as equal and sovereign within the international community, so must all Iraqis be treated as equal citizens at home. The UN is based on the sovereign equality of all members, and Iraq’s sovereignty is strongest when the equality of all its components is assured.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities are essential reading. But today we will focus on a central principle: States have a responsibility to protect and promote the identities of minorities, and may not discriminate against them.
Of course, individual and collective identities intersect in complex ways. But there can be no superior or separate rights for any group that would place its members outside the rule of law. Social, cultural or religious identity should never be invoked to justify any form of oppression or rights violation.
Today’s workshop asks us to examine the role of diversity in building citizenship: in fact, we can emphasize the importance of citizenship rights in preserving diversity.
Now, as you know, the promotion of human rights and the rule of law is central to the UN mandate in Iraq:
- We monitor and report on human rights - including those of minorities.
- We help strengthen government institutions to ensure these rights are realized for all – we have a strong partnership with the Iraqi High Commission for Human Rights, and hope that the draft law on Anti-Discrimination and Protection of Diversity will soon be finalized.
- We advocate extensively for the protection of minorities, including their languages and rights: two recent workshops in Baghdad and Erbil focused on these very issues.
- We facilitate and participate in community reconciliation initiatives throughout Iraq.
- We seek to tackle root causes of inequality and issues such as hate speech, against which UNAMI adopted a Plan of Action and we will continue advocating for rights-based measures, including with regards to the draft law on combating cyber-crime.
- We support the safe return of displaced persons to their communities of origin, especially when they are in a minority situation.
- We emphasize the need for justice and accountability for crimes affecting Iraq’s communities as well as greater public awareness of Iraq’s troubled history vis-à-vis minorities.
In recent conversations with minority representatives as well as young demonstrators…I felt (once again) their great disappointment and despair. I explained that change requires time, and hard work by many. I also explained that a collective understanding on the way forward cannot be imposed by the UN: Iraqi ownership is essential.
I am the first to admit that Iraq’s challenges did not arise overnight, and are larger than any single government. But the essential spirit of unity is too often being undermined by narrow divisive interests.
Iraqis have overcome immense challenges in the past, and should not despair today. This October, the UN celebrated its 75th anniversary in the service of humanity. Iraq is a founding member of the United Nations - and we will continue our partnership, working together for a safer, more prosperous and just Iraqi society.
In the short term, Iraq will continue to face multiple storms at once, from economic and security challenges to the pressing need for reform.
The June 2021 elections can give all Iraqis the opportunity to have their voices heard in shaping their future. The credibility of these elections will prove essential, and political leaders must ensure that debates are about ideas and policies rather than bankrupt identity politics.
I sincerely hope that 2021 will be the year in which every Iraqi can proudly say “I too am Iraq”.