Tuesday, 24 November 2020 21:17

Briefing to the Security Council by SRSG Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert | 24 November 2020 (As Delivered)

Madam President,
Distinguished members of the Security Council,

In my last briefing to you, I stated that the Government of Iraq is operating in the eye of multiple storms at once. From the onset, I would like to emphasize that this very much remains the case.

Several distinct, yet interlinked and mutually reinforcing, crises - on the political, security, economic, financial, social, and of course sanitary, fronts – these crises continue to force the hand of the government, pressing it into a reactive, crisis-management mode.

And while all of us hope for the beginning of a global recovery from the covid-19 pandemic, it is clear that its devastating effects can - unfortunately - be expected to last.

Madam President,
The financial and economic situation in Iraq remains troubling, to say the least. The economy is projected to contract by nearly 10% this year.

Now, the impact of the pandemic has wreaked further havoc on already extremely weak private sector activity. And oil prices continue their extended slump, exerting downward pressure on GDP and domestic revenue.

In mid-October a long-awaited economic white paper was released. This important document provides a very useful overview of the structural imbalances which characterize the Iraqi economy. It also describes a variety of much needed reform measures. And it acknowledges numerous opportunities which have been squandered since 2003.

But while very few would dispute the urgency of steering Iraq towards economic recovery and resilience, we are left wanting on how and when this may be achieved. Or to put it a bit more bluntly: we are left wanting on the political ‘game plan’.

One thing is clear: without broad political consensus to transform the white paper into reality, it risks remaining just ‘words’ on a page.

But let me emphasize: serious, resolute measures to address the ongoing financial and economic crisis cannot wait, not for a day. Government, parliament, political parties and others will have to step up to the plate collectively.

With elections looming, I can only hope that urgently needed reforms, including some very painful ones, will not be swept under the carpet. This would only worsen Iraq’s situation, and thus fuel social unrest - sooner or later. In other words: I very much hope that political leaders will resist the temptation to use the electoral calendar as a reason not to deliver.

Now, in the meantime, the Iraqi government has seen it necessary to resort to borrowing in order to meet its obligations for the remainder of 2020, including for the payment of public sector salaries.

The original borrowing law, as proposed by the Minister of Finance, had a very clear objective: to create fiscal space to implement reforms. The reforms needed to diversify Iraq’s economy and reduce its dependence on oil, the reforms needed to boost economic opportunities while advancing sustainable development, the reforms needed to meet the aspirations of the many Iraqis that took to the streets.

However, the law, as actually amended and adopted by Parliament, significantly limits the government’s room for manoeuvre. One therefore must ask whether the ends justify the means.

Also, we must constantly be reminded of the fundamental importance of fighting corruption, while preserving fundamental rights in the process. In other words: any effort to reform Iraq’s economy must be accompanied by improved governance and transparency.

Additionally, the prevalence of muhassassa, patronage and clientelism continues to hinder progress in Iraq. This, too, must urgently be tackled - otherwise public resources, indeed the hopes and aspirations of the people of Iraq, will continue to be looted.

Moreover, this fight against the scourge of corruption, the quest for more sustainable, inclusive forms of economic development and growth, for dignified employment: these are not just economic necessities.

I said it before: these are ultimately the best devices in any ‘peace and security’ toolkit - as they provide lasting solutions to unrest and conflict, building domestic resilience to replace constant crisis management.

And at the end of the day: domestic resilience is the best defence against any form of external interference.

Madam President, Iraqis recently marked the one-year anniversary of the protests that began in October 2019. A powerful expression of solidarity and patriotism by Iraqis who demand justice and wish to build a more stable, prosperous homeland. A moment to remember the brave souls lost.

I truly hope that their shared determination to achieve a better future continues to inspire and guide Iraq’s leaders.

And I wish to emphasize, as I have many times: the right to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly must be defended at every turn, throughout Iraq. Now, the drastically reduced levels of violence are encouraging indeed. But Iraq’s reality remains harsh – with enforced disappearances and assassinations still part of this reality.

Within this context, I would like to underline once again the pressing need for justice and accountability. A fact-finding committee has now been activated. However, it has not yet resulted in a swift end to perceived impunity.

With regards to the June 2021 elections, I would like to recall the wise words of Grand Ayatollah Sistani.

In my meeting with him, mid-September, His Eminence made it clear that the early elections, if properly conducted, could provide a peaceful path out of the ongoing suffering of the country.

His Eminence emphasized the importance of voting freely, without any pressure, and underlined the need for integrity, transparency and observation.

Now, Madam President, I am pleased to report that Parliament has recently finalized necessary electoral legislation. And - in line with UNAMI’s mandate - we are now ramping up our technical assistance.

Iraq’s electoral institutional capacity can and must be strengthened. So, we ask and expect relevant authorities to step up - and to think in terms of solutions instead of obstacles.

Late last week, the Iraqi government sent a letter to this Council with a request “to obtain more support, technical assistance and electoral observation within the framework of UNAMI support to Iraq”. In a press conference, the Minister of Foreign Affairs explained the request and emphasised the need to rebuild public trust and to promote participation.

Having said this, I wish to underline that under all circumstances the elections will be Iraqi-owned and Iraqi-led.

Indeed, the responsibility for credible elections lies not only with the Iraqi authorities, but with all Iraqi electoral stakeholders, with all political actors and with all Iraqi citizens - who are called upon to play a greater role in the public sphere.

Animated by a patriotic desire to better their country, the people of Iraq, in particular women and the youth, can seize this opportunity to make their voices heard, as voters or as candidates.

And let me also use today’s briefing to reaffirm in the clearest of terms that electoral preparations must remain free from political interference, at all stages.

Madam President, while we welcome the decrease in attacks on diplomatic missions in recent weeks - the deplorable rocket attacks on November 17 are another stark reminder of the fact that much work remains to be done - including the hard work of broad, meaningful dialogue.

Now, for a variety of reasons, the coming months will be a delicate and crucial period. It should be understood that any form of misinformation, all kind of conspiracies and/or a perceived lack of transparency or commitment, could lead to regrettable and most counterproductive miscalculations.

Meanwhile, Iraq’s leadership continues to assert its independence and sovereignty, seeking to maintain all channels of communication open as it builds a foreign policy that serves Iraq’s national interest.

The centrality of Iraq in building regional stability is a fact. And it bears repeating that Iraq must be shielded from foreign power rivalries - that Iraqis must be given room to focus on their strength at home.

With regards to the Baghdad-Erbil relations: all of us will agree that a positive and constructive relationship between federal Iraq and the Kurdistan Region is key to the stability of the whole country.

However, the recent vote in Parliament, on the borrowing law, has shown us - once again - how brittle this relationship is.

Let us be reminded that it takes two to tango. We expect both parties to keep their side of the bargain. We expect both parties to demonstrate transparency - be it on revenue management or on countless other contentious issues.

It should be clear, however, that a Kurdish Region public servant is not only a Kurdish Region public servant: she or he is also an Iraqi citizen.

The payment of public civil servants should be shielded from political disputes, they cannot and should not be collectively victimized. A solution is urgent, and political will to find a way out will - once more – be of the greatest importance.

Now, as I emphasized during my most recent briefing: constructive negotiations between Baghdad and Erbil are hampered by unclear constitutional guidance. And this ambiguity - unfortunately - takes a daily toll on the numerous outstanding issues.

In the past 15 years, many opportunities to arrive at a clear set of principles, rules and guidelines have been wasted. But agreement must now urgently be found on how to enhance the federal system.

And yes, with many other pressing issues on their plate, Iraq’s leaders and politicians may be tempted to ignore this issue. But the bitter truth is: as long as no lasting solutions are found, the relationship will not get any better. On the contrary.

Madam President, the desire of the Iraqi government to rapidly resolve internal displacement is both understandable and justified.

However, in the absence of sufficient durable solutions, serious concerns around the planning and implementation of camp closures and consolidation came to the fore in recent weeks.

While we fully understand that Iraqi authorities are working under tremendous time pressure, it must be clear that camp closures should not lead to another crisis - for instance in the form of secondary displacement, which is already occurring.

In coordination with the Iraqi authorities, we continue our work on a joint ‘durable solutions’ plan, while at the same time extending lifesaving services to the IDPs who are not able to find safe and affordable accommodation.

Let me move on to Sinjar, Madam President.

A hard-won agreement was signed between Baghdad and Erbil in early October. An important agreement, as it could pave the way for a new chapter for Sinjar, for all Sinjaris.

A chapter in which the interests of the Sinjari people will come first. A chapter in which reconstruction will be accelerated and public service delivery improved. A chapter in which displaced Sinjaris can return home.

Admittedly, signing off on such an agreement is just a very first step. As I emphasized to all stakeholders and Sinjari-representatives during a joint meeting in Mosul last week: swift, decisive and well-coordinated implementation will now prove essential. Stable security structures are priority number one, followed by a unified administration.

With your permission, I will now turn to the issue of missing Kuwaiti, third-country nationals and missing Kuwaiti property, including the national archives.

Despite the difficult circumstances imposed by the pandemic, I am pleased to report that - under the aegis of the International Committee of the Red Cross, and with assistance from UNAMI - the Government of Iraq, on 16 September, handed over - to Kuwait - the remains of 20 persons exhumed from a mass grave site in southern Iraq last January.

This step marks Iraq’s continuous commitment to bring this humanitarian file to a close.

Another important development took place two days ago:
the Kuwaiti authorities publicly confirmed the identification of the human remains of 7 persons as Kuwaiti missing nationals, thereby hopefully bringing some closure to their families.

Madam President, in closing, I would like to call for continued solidarity with the people of Iraq.

Of course, with the ongoing global pandemic, the many challenges faced by all nations are well understood. And it may be easy to lose sight of Iraqis’ hopes and dreams at this critical juncture in their modern history.

But if the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that local problems hardly ever remain local, and that domestic trouble rapidly translates into trouble abroad.

In other words:
Your continued support is vital, and much appreciated.

Thank you.

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