24 November 2020

Stakeholders Must ‘Step Up to Plate’, Prevent Iraq from Becoming Arena for Foreign-Power Rivalries, Top Official Tells Security Council

Permanent Representative Stresses Need to Ensure Independence, Sovereignty, Non-interference in Internal Affairs

Iraq must immediately address the ongoing financial and economic crisis to build domestic resilience and prevent the country from becoming an arena for foreign‑Power rivalries, the top United Nations official in that country told the Security Council during a 24 November videoconference meeting, urging the Government, Parliament, political parties and others to step up to the plate collectively in such efforts.

“Domestic resilience is the best defence against any form of external interference,” said Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, Special Representative of the Secretary-General and Head of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Iraq (UNAMI), explaining that several distinct, yet interlinked and mutually reinforcing, crises — on the political, security, economic, financial, social and sanitary fronts — continue to force the hand of the Government, pressing it into a reactive, crisis-management mode.

Introducing two recent reports of the Secretary-General (documents S/2020/1089 and S/2020/1099) she said the economy is projected to contract by nearly 10 per cent this year.  The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked further havoc on already extremely weak private sector activity and oil prices continue their extended slump, exerting downward pressure on gross domestic product (GDP) and domestic revenue.  In mid-October, a long-awaited economic white paper was released, providing a very useful overview of the structural imbalances which characterize the Iraqi economy, and describes a variety of much-needed reform measures.  It also acknowledges numerous opportunities which have been squandered since 2003, she added.

She stressed that the fight against corruption, sustainable inclusive economic development and dignified employment are not just economic necessities, but also the best devices in any “peace and security tool-kit”, as they provide lasting solutions to unrest and conflict, building domestic resilience to replace constant crisis management.

On the security situation, the drastically reduced levels of violence were encouraging, she said.  Nonetheless, Iraq’s reality remains harsh — with enforced disappearances and assassinations still continuing, she noted, underlining the pressing need for justice and accountability.  While a fact-finding committee has now been activated, it has not yet resulted in a swift end to perceived impunity.

On the June 2021 elections, she reported that Parliament has recently finalized necessary electoral legislation and UNAMI is ramping up its technical assistance.  Iraq’s electoral institutional capacity can and must be strengthened.  Late last week, the Government sent a letter to the Security Council with a request to obtain more support, technical assistance and electoral observation within the framework of UNAMI support to Iraq.

Under all circumstances, she stressed, the elections will be Iraqi-owned and Iraqi-led.  The responsibility for credible elections lies with the Iraqi authorities, electoral stakeholders, political actors and all Iraqi citizens, who are called upon to play a greater role in the public sphere.  Women and the youth can seize this opportunity to make their voices heard, as voters or as candidates, she said, emphasizing that electoral preparations must remain free from political interference at all stages.

She went on to say that 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.  Iraq must be shielded from foreign-Power rivalries and Iraqis must be given room to focus on their strength at home.

Turning to the relationship between the federal Government in Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government in Erbil, she observed:  “It takes two to tango,” urging both parties to keep their side of the bargain.  She also expressed regret that constructive negotiations between them are hampered by unclear constitutional guidance.  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.  Agreement must now urgently be found on how to enhance the federal system.

On the issue of internal displacement, she said that camp closures should not lead to another crisis — for instance in the form of secondary displacement, which is already occurring.

Regarding missing Kuwaiti, third-country nationals and missing Kuwaiti property, including the national archives, she said that under the aegis of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) — 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.  Two days ago, the Kuwaiti authorities publicly confirmed the identification of the human remains of seven persons as Kuwaiti missing nationals, thereby hopefully bringing some closure to their families.

“If the pandemic has taught us anything,” she told the 15-nation organ, “it is that local problems hardly ever remain local and that domestic trouble rapidly translates into trouble abroad.”

In the ensuing discussion, delegates agreed on the pressing need for Iraq’s economic and financial reforms, stressing the importance of holding a free, fair and inclusive elections in June 2021.  Several Council members warned against some foreign Powers using Iraq as a place to advance their regional interests, while others condemned attacks against diplomatic missions and personnel.

The representative of the United States, thanking UNAMI for all its efforts, said that the upcoming elections are an opportunity to ensure that the Government responds to the needs of the people.  Noting her country’s financial support to those polls, she urged others to contribute, as well.  Given the importance of free and fair polls, it was critical to further address terrorist violence in the country, including attacks by Iranian-backed militias.  Applauding the white paper, she pledged continued assistance for Iraq’s economic reform and development, including to the private sector, noting the support that has already provided for services, return of displaced persons and other areas.  The establishment of a permanent committee to investigate corruption is critical, she stressed, calling on the Government to ensure its effective, independent operation.

The representative of the Dominican Republic, affirming support to UNAMI and noting the serious challenges facing Iraq, said that a national plan for development must, as a priority, strengthen the position of women at all levels.  In addition, measures must be taken to improve protections against sexual violence and to better assist children to attend school, particularly those without documentation.  While it was critical to fight terrorism in Iraq, all States must respect Iraq sovereignty and airspace and must refrain for using Iraqi territory for confrontations.  Expressing concerns about attacks on embassies, he urged they be addressed through security measures and regional dialogue.  He also urged cooperation on all remaining issues between Kuwait and Iraq.  With the assistance of UNAMI and with focussed attention on corruption, terrorism and the health crisis, the gates of peace and stability will open to the people of Iraq, he said.

Tunisia’s representative welcomed the scheduling of elections for 6 June 2021, with UNAMI’s continued technical assistance.  He also welcomed the agreement between the Government and the Kurdistan Regional Government concerning a budget transfer, adding his hope that a long-term durable agreement can be reached.  However, Iraq’s territorial integrity, in line with the Charter of the United Nations, was of concern.  Further, the protection of diplomatic staff must be ensured.  Turning to the economic crisis, due to the dip in oil prices and the heavy expenses the country must shoulder due to its fight against terrorism, he called for economic reforms, as well as the support of the international community to surmount such challenges.  Noting the impact of the pandemic on Iraqis and the efforts by the High Committee for Health and Safety to curb its spread, he also acknowledged improvements in Iraqi-Kuwaiti relations, expressing hope such cooperation efforts will continue.

The representative of the Russian Federation commended the Iraqi Government for its response to ongoing demonstrations by taking measures to counter corruption and launch an international dialogue to settle outstanding problems at all levels.  Noting that her country was working on compromise agreements, she urged all relevant actors to refrain from taking steps that would destabilize progress on this front.  It was necessary for all parties to respect Iraq’s sovereignty and coordinate their actions with Baghdad.  Adding her support for further progress to be made between Baghdad and Erbil, she said she hoped UNAMI will assist in the reconciliation process while ensuring that the sovereignty of the country is respected.  She also highlighted the progress between Kuwait and Iraq towards settle their issues, including the repatriation of Kuwaiti remains.  Underscoring that Iraq must not be an arena for regional confrontation, she called for the international community to promote peace and stability in the region, in line with Security Council resolution 598 (1987).  “The Russian Federation’s collective approach to problem-solving is still pertinent,” she stressed.

South Africa’s representative emphasized that national reconciliation remained vital for Iraq, underscoring that domestic unity was urgently needed to rebuild the country without foreign interference.  He commended the Government for improving public services and urged it to improve relations with the Kurdish Regional Government.  Peace and security are fundamental to growing the economy and providing services, he said, expressing concerns about the re-emergence of Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Da’esh) and noting the number of arrests made of that group’s members.  Iraq should not be an arena for foreign rivalries.  Rather, the country should be a key player in regional peacebuilding, he said, urging the United Nations to consider using the Peacebuilding Commission in such efforts.

Estonia’s representative urged that Iraq’s sovereignty and territorial integrity be respected and that all actors to refrain from any action that would threaten the country’s stability.  Welcoming preparations for the 2021 elections, she stressed the importance of UNAMI’s continued support for the polls.  The Government should also urgently pursue economic reforms, including establishing a permanent committee to investigate corruption and taking additional steps to bring all armed forces under State control.  Highlighting the Government’s announcement of a development plan for women, she also called for more attention be paid to the impact of COVID-19 on women and other vulnerable groups.  However, the continued attacks on protesters was of concern.  The Government should ensure the protection of all human rights, including during the critical fight against terrorism.  Welcoming the protection of diplomatic premises from missile attacks, she expressed concern, however, over continued attacks by Shia militias.

The representative of the United Kingdom, acknowledging steps taken towards economic reforms, said that much more work, along with international support, was needed to face the severe economic crisis.  To that end, his country hosted the first meeting of the Iraq Economic Contact Group focused on vital economic reform.  He also welcomed steps towards regional integration taken with Egypt and Jordan.  Affirming support for Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi’s commitment to free and fair elections with the support of UNAMI, he also welcomed improved relations between the Government and the Kurdistan Regional Government.  The agreement on Sinjar should be followed up by continued assistance from UNAMI and cooperation by Urbil and Baghdad in ensuring services and security in the area, he said, urging that all outstanding issues be resolved through dialogue.  Stepped up cooperation was crucial to stop attacks by terrorists and militias.  There also needed to be continued progress in ending attacks on protesters.

Belgium’s representative highlighted the importance of full meaningful participation of women in the upcoming elections, underscoring that those elections will contribute to fostering a stable democratic situation.  The disastrous economic situation has been further exacerbated by the pandemic, she observed, adding her support to efforts to diversify the economy, develop the private sector and strengthen the fight against corruption.  The recent adoption of a white paper by the Council of Ministers was welcomed in this regard.  However, the Iraqi Government must do more to support the most vulnerable, including displaced persons.  Any closure of camps must be done with sufficient notice, she said, calling on Iraq to work with international partners, including United Nations agencies.  Further, she called on Iraq to facilitate the agreement on Sinjar, which is an important step in strengthening trust.  Concerning the rocket-fire last week by the militia group Ashab al-Kahf, she stressed:  “Non‑State actors must not operate beyond State control.”

The representative of China commended the positive measures taken to meet Iraq’s political challenges, despite rampaging terrorist forces and the impact from the pandemic.  He also welcomed the interim agreement in the Sinjar district, expressing hope the two sides will continue to strengthen cooperation and accelerate integration and development.  Recalling the Secretary-General’s reports, which noted that terrorist remnants are continuing to cause civilian casualties, he said support must be given to Iraq in dealing with foreign terrorist fighters, bringing terrorists to justice according to its domestic legislation and preventing the activities of terrorists.  “Peace and development cannot be achieved in an unstable neighbourhood,” he stressed.  However, any military action taken in the country must be approved by Iraq and their territorial integrity and sovereignty must be effectively respected.  He highlighted progress made on the issue of missing Kuwaiti persons and property, including the national archives.  A people-centric approach to development is needed to improve the humanitarian situation, he said.

Indonesia’s representative stressed that the preparations to hold credible elections must be a collective effort of all stakeholders, including the Government, the Independent High Electoral Commission, the judiciary, parliamentarians and the technical facilitation of UNAMI.  He voiced concern that ISIL continues to attack civilians and diplomatic premises.  To this end, the support of all countries is needed, he said, calling for greater cooperation in countering terrorism in accordance with international law and full respect of Iraqi sovereignty and territorial integrity.  “Iraq’s spirit of good neighbourliness should be reciprocated by its neighbours, as another hot spot in the Middle East will benefit no one,” he added.  Noting the repatriation of human remains by Iraq to Kuwait on 16 September, he called for continued cooperation between both countries and underlined the significant roles of UNAMI and ICRC.

The representative of Germany, which also serves as co-chair of the Iraq Economic Contact Group over the next six months, expressed support for the Iraqi-led economic reform process.  Germany will contribute €6 million to UNAMI’s efforts to support the upcoming parliamentary elections, he reported, calling for United Nations engagement in electoral observation.  However, the short-notice closure of internally displaced persons camps was concerning.  His Government was ready to work with the Iraqi Government and the United Nations towards facilitating safe, voluntary and sustainable returns of all internally displaced persons.  He also stressed that Iraq must not be dragged into nor become an arena of confrontation.  At the same time, attacks against diplomatic missions and personnel must cease.  While the fight against terrorism remains important, he expressed alarm at reports of mass executions of individuals convicted of terrorism-related crimes and called on Iraqi authorities to refrain from such activities and pursue a consistent policy towards the abolition of the death penalty.

France’s representative said although the Iraqi reforms process has been made more difficult by the pandemic, they remain essential to secure the nation’s future.  On the announcement of elections to be held in 2021, she said France will contribute €1 million to UNAMI to assist in facilitating the process.  Despite progress, attacks on protestors, civil society and journalists continue, she said, urging the Iraqi Government to hold the perpetrators of such crimes accountable.  While international military support remains essential to combat security challenges in the country, Iraq must remain outside of regional tensions.  As for the plight of internally displaced persons, they must continue to receive aid after leaving camps and vaccination campaigns should be intensified, especially in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The representative of Viet Nam commended the Iraqi leaders for their efforts in working with the Kurdistan Regional Government, expressing hope that the recent agreements between them will support the return of displaced people and restoration of stability.  He also welcomed the ongoing cooperation between Iraq and Kuwait in the search for missing Kuwaitis and third-country nationals despite constraints resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.  However, the security situation continues to be a grave concern.  ISIL still poses a threat and violent attacks occur in many places.  He also pointed also to the impact of the pandemic on the economy, the health‑care system and humanitarian conditions.  According to the World Bank, poverty in Iraq is estimated to increase in the short term by 7 to 14 per cent which means that 2.7 to 5.5 million Iraqis would become newly poor, he pointed out, underscoring that the continued support of UNAMI and other United Nations agencies was essential to Iraq’s progress.

Niger’s representative, while welcoming the compensation given to injured demonstrators, expressed concern regarding the increase in murders and attacks on human rights defenders by non-identified assailants.  He urged that the committee tasked with investigating these attacks is up and running.  Bringing those perpetrators to justice will help build trust between the Iraqi Government and its people.  The participation of women and young Iraqis is also essential for the upcoming elections, he said, highlighting the recent announcement of a national development plan to bolster women’s participation in senior decision-making positions.  He also commended the repatriation of human remains of Kuwaiti citizens despite pandemic-related restrictions and called attention to the logistical support by ICRC and the Tripartite Commission in this regard.  The international community must continue its vigilance against ISIL/Da’esh, he emphasized because this “terrorist hydra continues rebuilding”.

The representative of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Council President for November, spoke in her national capacity, condemning the attack over the weekend just north of Baghdad.  Expressing support for the Government as it prepares for elections next year, she highlighted its commitment to the empowerment of women.  The plight of Iraq’s citizens must remain a priority and perpetrators of attacks on civilians must be held accountable.  The targeted killings of members of civil society, including political and human rights activists, are unacceptable.  She also stressed the importance of a coordinated response towards the COVID-19 pandemic, drawing attention to the role of the World Health Organization (WHO) in assisting the Iraqi Government.  Welcoming the continued cooperation between Iraq and Kuwait on the search of missing Kuwaiti and third-country nationals, she stressed the importance of UNAMI and ICRC.

The representative of Iraq said that, due to the huge and complex challenges that continue to face his country, his Government is working at a maximum level to meet the people’s expectations in peace and security, services, pandemic response, counter-terrorism, and reform in both the political and economic spheres.  However, the impact of COVID-19 could lead to the collapse of the health system, despite all measures take and the generous aid from WHO and friendly States.  In regard to meeting demonstrators’ demands and filling in the “trust gap”, measures are being taken to allow all voices to be heard, protect protesters from attack, bring perpetrators to justice and provide compensation to families of those killed.  Further, in the fight against corruption, border controls and accountability are being strengthened.  He called the upcoming early election an essential part of the reform programme.

Nonetheless, to allow for all reforms, Iraq’s independence and sovereignty must be ensured with cooperation from all relevant States, in accordance with principles of common interest and non-interference in internal affairs, he said.  He pledged the enforcement of State authority and rule of law, through reigning in armed groups and arresting those responsible for attacks.  Turning to the agreement on Sinjar, he said it is the culmination of months of engagement with the Kurdistan Regional Government and paves the way for reconstruction in the north of the country.  Reiterating Iraq’s commitment to fighting terrorism and facilitating humanitarian assistance, he urged that further efforts be made to repatriate the family members of foreign terrorist fighters.  While highlighting the need for concerted efforts to rehabilitate and integrate terrorist victims, he acknowledged United Nations efforts in these areas.

He called on the Security Council to condemn violations of the sovereignty of Iraq and prevent future violations by any Member State, adding:  “Iraq will not be a ground for conflict or a base point for any other country’s strategy towards any of the neighbouring countries.”  He also asked the Council to continue supporting the Government in all the challenges outlined, including terrorism, reconstruction of areas liberated from ISIL and the return of internally displaced persons.  Finally, he reiterated the need for support for election observation to ensure the credibility of the polls.  Noting Iraq’s increasing cooperation and engagement with regional States and partners around the world, he thanked the United Nations and UNAMI for their tireless efforts, expressing hope for continued assistance towards a stable and prosperous region.

For information media. Not an official record.