Mission Head Says New Government’s Priority Must be Stopping Spread of COVID-19
With Iraq’s deep political and security challenges compounded by the onset of COVID-19 and plummeting oil prices, the newly formed Government must rise to meet people’s legitimate aspirations for a stable, more inclusive future, the senior United Nations official in the country told the Security Council in a 12 May videoconference meeting*.
“Short-term political and private calculations do not serve Iraq’s long-term interests,” said Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, Special Representative and head of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI). Iraq’s first priority is to prevent a rapid spread of the coronavirus. No amount of Government response can succeed without the active involvement of the entire population, she said, recalling three Prime Ministers-designate were seen in just 10 weeks amid political infighting.
Welcoming the formation of the new Government last week, with Mustafa al-Kadhimi confirmed as the new Prime Minister and 15 of 22 ministers approved by the Council of Representatives, she said the remaining vacancies must now be quickly filled, and more women and minority representatives appointed. Priorities now centre on reforming the security sector, limiting arms control to the State, boosting the economy, fighting corruption, advancing accountability, holding a national dialogue, balancing external relations, safeguarding Iraq’s sovereignty, promoting the return of internally displaced persons to their places of origin and advancing the conduct of early elections.
“One does not need a crystal ball to understand that the road ahead will be fraught with many complex challenges,” she said, recalling that Iraq’s issues did not arise overnight. It will be most important to manage public expectations and execute a response that involves the entire political class and all communities, acting with a sense of unity and building domestic strength. Indeed, there is a long list of urgent unfinished domestic business and, to regain public trust, the Government must prove itself able to carry out essential functions, such as law and order and public service delivery.
On the economic front, she said monthly oil revenues dropped from $6 billion to $1.4 billion between February and April. And at a time when the global financial system is being drained from all sides, it will be more difficult than ever to access international funds. With commercial activity at a near standstill, “the need to broaden Iraq’s revenue base could not be more apparent”, she said. The country should reduce its dependence on oil, upgrade its critical infrastructure, build responsive State institutions and fight corruption. The economy is projected to shrink by 9.7 per cent in 2020, with poverty increasing to 40 per cent.
On the security front, she said inflammatory rhetoric, and a pattern of attacks and counterattacks, remain a constant threat. The way armed elements, with differing ties to the State, choose to act in this moment will determine how Iraqis — and indeed many others — will perceive them. Iraq cannot be used as a theatre for power competitions or proxy conflicts. Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Da’esh) must not be given room to step up its activities.
She cautiously welcomed efforts to improve access authorization for humanitarian workers, noting that many access requests remain unapproved. A long-term solution is urgently required, with an empowered focal point to regularly engage with humanitarian partners on access issues. On other matters, she said there is no final, fully agreed and implemented deal between Baghdad and Erbil on the federal budget, or on oil and revenue sharing. Negotiations are ongoing and she called for a long-term approach to be taken. In the Kurdistan region, as elsewhere in Iraq, transparency, free expression, fundamental reform and fighting corruption are all of critical importance.
Turning to the issue of missing Kuwaiti, third-country nationals and missing Kuwaiti property, she said that notwithstanding recent progress — most recently the discovery of human remains in a third grave in Samawah site in January — she said the 113th meeting of the Technical Sub-Committee planned for 20 April was postponed, due to COVID-19. However, Kuwaiti authorities were able to carry out excavations on burial sites, as planned, during the last meeting in February, and she encouraged all members of the Tripartite Committee to follow this example.
In the ensuing discussion, delegates hailed the formation of a new Government and its efforts to bring armed groups under State control. Several encouraged Baghdad to accelerate long-needed structural and economic reforms, and to expand partnerships, regionally and globally.
The representative to the United States called last week’s confirmation of the Prime Minister a “tremendous achievement”, noting that Iraq is well positioned to navigate its challenges and that her country looks forward to helping Baghdad realize its bold agenda. Noting that the United States has provided nearly $30 million in COVID-19 assistance, she said many relief actors continue to report access constraints, and while UNAMI has advocated to resolve this issue, she urged authorities to find a permanent solution to ensure aid delivery. UNAMI’s work is invaluable in documenting human rights violations. Recalling recent abuses against protesters, she encouraged the Government to “follow the paper trail” to bring perpetrators to justice. She welcomed UNAMI’s engagement on the Kuwaiti missing persons and archives file, urging it more broadly to heed the call of Iraqis demanding United Nations-supported and Iraqi-led and owned elections.
The representative of France urged the new Government to challenge the status quo and live up to the expectations of Iraq’s people. Reforms are needed to fight corruption, promote economic growth, improve public services and ensure gender equality. Accountability is crucial for a stable and democratic Iraq. Free, fair, inclusive and transparent elections will also be a major milestone. Urging Iraq to stay away from regional tensions and to bring all armed groups under State control, she expressed deep concern over the vulnerability of 1.4 million displaced persons and said efforts to combat COVID-19 must be scaled up in camps. On the humanitarian front, France will continue its construction of a hospital in Sinjar and support for survivors of sexual violence there. UNAMI must keep a robust mandate, notably its role in favour of inclusive political dialogue and she encouraged the Mission to pursue engagement with civil society. Progress is being made on the issue of missing Kuwaitis and third-party nationals and it is important that cooperation among all actors remain strong.
The representative of Indonesia, underscoring respect for Iraq’s sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity, welcomed the arrival of the new Government. “Iraq needs a stable and effective Government”, enabling it to address immediate the needs and demands of its diverse communities. The Council should support Iraq’s economic development, which will foster peace in the region. He expressed concern that remnants of ISIL/Da’esh continue to attack civilians and security forces, doubling their claimed activities to 370 incidents since January, as compared to 187 incidents during the same 2019 period. He welcomed Iraq’s efforts to address the humanitarian situation, notably by providing solutions for internally displaced persons. While efforts concerning the missing Kuwaiti persons and third country nationals, as well as the return of Kuwaiti property, have been delayed, he expressed confidence that progress will be made with continued work by the Tripartite Commission.
The representative of the Russian Federation said his country is ready to support all efforts to improve the situation in Iraq and called for continued support to Baghdad in its response to COVID-19. Inclusive dialogue and reconciliation will help overcome internal disputes and should restore mutual understanding between Baghdad and Erbil. Improvement in their relations will help Iraq promote security and effective use of its economic capacity, he said, encouraging both sides to reach and implement an agreement on all outstanding issues. As COVID-19 led to the suspension of demonstrations across Iraq, he urged all sides to “stay reserved”, calling it unacceptable for external players to instrumentalize the domestic situation. “Iraq should not be dragged into regional confrontation,” he said. Such attempts violate Iraq’s sovereignty. He encouraged Baghdad to build constructive relations with all its neighbours, stressing that “it is high time” to implement resolution 598 (1987), work out measures to enhance regional security and have a better look at the Russian concept of security in the Gulf region, as well as France’s constructive ideas and Iran’s peace proposal.
South Africa’s delegate voiced support for a renewal of UNAMI’s mandate in its current form. Noting that COVID-19 has a severe impact on countries which, like Iraq, are emerging from conflict, he appealed to the international community to provide as much support as possible. He urged Iraq’s new Government to balance external relations, safeguard national sovereignty, improve the lives of all Iraqis and secure the return of displaced persons. Welcoming the fraternal way in which Baghdad and the Kurdistan regional government reached an agreement on oil production, he said continued dialogue on revenue sharing is essential. As Iraq is entwined in regional rivalries “that arise out of others’ military misadventures”, he urged international and regional partners to exercise restraint, pursue immediate de-escalation, support Iraq and prevent it from becoming an arena for external conflicts.
Viet Nam’s representative took note of the Supreme Judiciary Council decision to release protesters and the Iraq Prime Minister’s statement that pensions would soon be paid, underscoring that all parties must work together, given the difficulties in reaching agreement on such issues. While stringent steps have helped to limit COVID-19 cases and led to the easing of curfew and lockdown, it is necessary to continue employing the required measures to avoid a second wave of infections. The suspension of activities by the coalition against ISIL/Da’esh has allowed for a surge in terrorist acts and he appealed for resources, attention and political will to sustain counter-terrorism efforts. He called on all parties to commit to national reconciliation, urging the international community to continue its support for the country.
Niger’s representative encouraged Iraq to develop friendly relations with neighbouring countries and to expand its partnership at the regional and global levels. He appealed to all stakeholders — inside and outside the country — to exercise maximum restraint. He welcomed UNAMI’s efforts to promote dialogue among political parties and regional governments and consultations held with the Women’s Advisory Group, also commending its determination, along with the Tripartite Commission and International Committee of the Red Cross, on the issue of missing persons from Kuwait and third countries. He called on the new Government to hold accountable those responsible for violence against protesters, and for a halt to mass arrests for persons breaking the COVID-19 related curfew. The fight against terrorists, while ensuring respect for international human rights, is also important.
The representative of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines joined other speakers in welcoming the formation of Iraq’s new Government and voicing concern about the impact of COVID-19. Welcoming the Government’s early efforts to combat the pandemic, as well as close cooperation between UNAMI and the World Health Organization, she urged Iraq to keep human dignity at the centre of those efforts. She underscored the importance of delivering unhindered humanitarian assistance and of facilitating the voluntary, safe and dignified return and reintegration of displaced persons in line with international law. “Amidst the fight against the pandemic, Iraq is still recovering from the war on terror,” she said, voicing concern about continued attacks committed by the remnants of ISIL/Da’esh and warning against allowing any impunity for violations of international law.
The representative of the United Kingdom welcomed the confirmation of Iraq’s new Prime Minister and called for the swift appointment of remaining ministers. He welcomed the unity shown by political and religious leaders in tackling COVID‑19, recalling the United Kingdom’s provision of $12 million to assist in the response. He urged Erbil and Baghdad to address security challenges, including negotiations for internally disputed territories. He drew attention to the United Kingdom’s support for efforts to avoid a resurgence of ISIL/Da’esh, condemning acts by certain groups that led to the 11 March death of a corporal and two United States service personnel. The Government must take swift action against the perpetrators and prevent such incidents. The formation of the new Government presents an opportunity to address the legitimate demands expressed during recent protests and to hold accountable those who used excessive force against the protesters. He expressed regret that the 113th meeting of the Technical Sub-Committee was postponed, noting that the exhumation of a third mass grave site on 31 January will provide long-needed closure to Kuwaitis.
China’s representative emphasized that Iraq’s sovereignty, political independence and territorial integrity must be fully respected. Iraq should not become an area for external conflicts and any military action within the country must be subject to the Government’s consent. The international community must keep supporting Iraq in its fight against terrorist remnants. It must also help it deal with foreign terrorist fighters and bring terrorists to justice, in accordance with its domestic laws. International partners, including the United Nations, should extend more assistance to Iraq to enhance its ability to address COVID-19, he continued, noting that a team of Chinese medical experts has just completed a 50-day mission to Iraq, training more than 1,000 medical staff.
The representative of the Dominican Republic praised UNAMI’s support for efforts to prevent a larger outbreak of COVID-19 and welcomed the new Prime Minister’s aspirations to strengthen Iraq’s economy, tackle corruption, restore State sovereignty and meet with protesters. The international community must do more to help Iraq prevent a resurgence of ISIL/Da’esh, he said, adding that acts of violence against journalists, protesters and activists must be fully investigated. He urged UNAMI to engage with civil society organizations to tackle gender-based violence and appealed for the new Government in Baghdad to include the participation of women and youth.
Germany’s representative called on the new Government and all Iraqi political leaders to act swiftly to implement reforms, adding that his country is prepared to continue its substantial support to Iraq and to work closely with the new Government. He expressed concern about the difficulties that non-governmental organizations face in Iraq and welcomed the Prime Minister’s personal commitment to protect the fundamental rights of peaceful protesters, civil society activists and human rights defenders. He went on to call for de-escalation and restraint among all regional and international players, emphasizing that “Iraq should neither be dragged into, nor become an area for, regional confrontation.”
The representative of Estonia, Council President for May, spoke in his national capacity, welcoming the measures taken by the Government of Iraq to contain the spread of COVID-19. The urgency of the challenges facing the country require all political actors to put their differences aside. Welcoming the formation of a new Government, he underlined the need to promptly fill all remaining posts and ensure the full participation of women. The new Government should accelerate structural reforms, improve governance, counter corruption and implement rule of law, and the international community should lend its support. Meanwhile, as regional tensions continue to affect Iraq’ stability, all actors should respect the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and support the Secretary-General’s call for a ceasefire amid the pandemic. “It is crucial not to allow ISIL to gain from the increased challenges, including those caused by COVID-19,” he said.
The representative of Iraq said that while the challenges facing his country are great, they are not greater than the Government’s will to address them. All Iraqis — “from Basra to Kurdistan” — will work together to overcome them, having already united to defeat Da’esh. Facing a pandemic that could overwhelm the health system, an economic crisis exacerbated by a dependence on oil and a trust gap among several sectors of society, which led to a wave of protests, “we understand that taking the responsibility of forming a Government and leading in such conditions is not a privilege, but a test for our faith in our country and its people that we cannot shy away from.” While the Government came in response to a political crisis, it aspires to accommodate solutions.
Outlining priorities, he said Iraq’s sovereignty must be preserved and honoured, with efforts taken to strengthen the rule of law, reclaim State control over armed forces and prevent foreign Powers from threatening Iraq’s security and using the country as a base to attack others. Iraq’s sovereignty and independence are crucial to stability in the region, which the Government believes can be enhanced by establishing friendly relations with all countries.
The new Government pledges to use all State capacities to fight COVID-19, he said, enforce State authority by restricting arms possession to Government and military institutions, and draft an exceptional budget law to tackle the economic crisis, covering all governorates, including the deprived southern areas and those destroyed by Da’esh, as well as the Kurdistan region. It will initiate a frank and inclusive national dialogue to address the demands of recent protests and launch a fact-finding and accountability campaign into the violence surrounding them, prosecuting those responsible. Finally, the Government pledges to combat corruption by adopting legal mechanisms to protect public assets, promote the role of judicial institutions and recover public funds, both inside and outside Iraq.
To fulfil these priorities, he said the Government enacted orders during its first cabinet meeting on 9 May, agreeing on the immediate release of pension payments, the establishment of a truth finding committee to investigate protest-related violence, the release of all detainees who participated in the October 2019 protests, and the creation of an expert committee to provide recommendations on a legal framework for elections and on the establishment of a committee to prepare for the strategic dialogue with the United States on preserving Iraq’s sovereignty.
“Fighting and countering terrorism is at the core of my Government’s security strategy,” he asserted. To this end, the Government will lead negotiations with the international coalition on the presence of international troops in the country. He welcomed the repatriation of family members of foreign terrorist fighters completed thus far, calling for efforts to rehabilitate and integrate victims of terrorism, especially in retaken areas.
On cooperation with Kuwait, he said the Ministry of Defence continues to excavate remains at Samawah, Khamisiyah, Al-Radhwania, Karbala, Salman Pak and Al-Burjusiya. He called on the Tripartite Commission and Kuwait to accelerate the announcement of DNA test results on the remains of 47 missing persons found and handed over in August 2019. The search for a new set of Kuwaiti archives that were supposed to be delivered by Iraq’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs in April 2020 are ongoing, however; due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the delivery has been postponed. A $440 million compensation payment was made on 28 April, leaving an outstanding balance of $2.8 billion. He urged the Council to condemn violations of Iraq’s sovereignty, support the Government in addressing the challenges and cooperate with it in the war on terrorism, as his country still stands on the frontline.
Also participating in the meeting were representatives of Belgium and Tunisia.
* Based on information received from the Security Council Affairs Division.