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16 February 2021

Iraq at ‘Critical Crossroads’, Special Representative Tells Security Council, Urging Decisive Action to Stamp Out Lingering Terrorist Threats before Polls

Permanent Representative Seeks Response on Request for Election Observers, Highlights State Measures amid Overlapping Grave Crises

Iraq has arrived at a critical crossroads, requiring decisive concerted action to eradicate lingering terrorist threats ahead of national elections, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative in that country told Security Council today during a videoconference briefing.

Emphasizing that the Government of Iraq cannot rest on its laurels regarding the presence of violent extremists, Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert recalled last night’s deadly rocket attack on Erbil, northern Iraq, and the December 2020 suicide bombing that killed 32 people and injured more than 100 in Baghdad.

All stakeholders must do their part to boost Iraq’s resilience so as to thwart security threats against a worrisome backdrop complicated by the COVID-19 pandemic and the possible resurgence of Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Daesh), she emphasized.

Whereas 2021 presents many opportunities for profound positive change, she continued, much remains to be done since the impact of multiple, interlinked crises will be lasting, she cautioned, pointing out that Iraq continues to experience acute financial and economic difficulties, as reflected by the exceptional currency devaluation.

While oil revenues have increased by 40 per cent since November 2020, providing some “breathing room”, she continued, little has been done to implement much-needed reform at a time when Iraq can afford neither continued dependence on resource extraction, nor the excessive burden of an outsized public sector.  Fighting economic and political corruption, promoting robust governance, transparency and accountability must all be the watchwords accompanying reform, she stressed.  Moreover, agreement on the 2021 budget law requires reconciliation and compromise between federal Iraq and the autonomous Kurdistan region, she said, underlining the absolutely essential need for a positive, stable relationship between Baghdad and Erbil for the stability of the entire country.

Noting that the Council of Ministers called for elections to be held on 10 October, four months later than originally planned, she said the authorities have already taken steps to register candidates and voters.  However, Parliament has not yet finalized the outstanding Federal Supreme Court law, and further delays are unacceptable, she emphasized, calling upon all parties, stakeholders and authorities to come together, agree on a code of conduct and allow all candidates to operate freely, irrespective of ethnicity, gender, language, religion, belief or background.

Recalling Iraq’s request that the Council facilitate electoral observation, she stressed that, no matter what the response, the elections will be Iraqi-led and Iraqi-owned at all times.  Credible elections require a collective, concerted, timely and transparent effort, with all parties, authorities and stakeholders assuming their respective responsibilities in the service of the people, she said, adding that she is encouraged by calls for unity by some senior political leaders.

She pointed out, however, that transparency, justice and accountability remain largely absent, particularly in relation to repression of public protests throughout the country, including Kurdistan.  If that does not change, public anger will erupt yet again, sooner or later, she warned.  At the same time, Iraq must also address violent extremism, she continued, underlining that strengthening safety and security is as much about addressing its root causes as it is about the immediate ability to respond to threats on the ground, like the recent targeted attacks.

More broadly, she said that, despite operating in a uniquely complex geopolitical context, Iraq’s leaders continue to maintain open relations in the service of a foreign policy that emphasizes national sovereignty.  The country’s centrality to regional stability cannot be overstated, she added.  Iraq must build its domestic resilience and be shielded from rivalries, she emphasized, warning that reckless attempts to inflame tensions, such as the rocket attack on Erbil, pose grave threats to its stability.

Turning to the humanitarian situation and the plight of internally displaced persons, she reported that camp closures have been ongoing for the past three months and the possibility of further closures is imminent.  However, the haste and opacity surrounding such decisions are of great concern, she said, warning against decisions that can easily precipitate another crisis.  Closing camps cannot be an objective in and of itself, she stressed.  Instead, the focus must be on safe and dignified measures to solve displacement.

On a related note, she said that about 30,000 Iraqis reside in the Al-Hol camp in Syria, including a number of non-ISIL-affiliated humanitarian cases.  Describing Al-Hol as a ticking time‑bomb, she warned that, if it goes off, the impact will be immense.  Iraq has a responsibility to take back its citizens, she said.  Cautioning that spoilers, domestic and external, continue to confuse the scene, she underscored the importance of establishing stable security structures without further delay.

On the question of missing Kuwaiti and third-country nationals and missing Kuwaiti property, including the national archives, she reported that the Tripartite Commission confirmed the formal closure of case files for 20 Kuwaiti missing persons.  Describing that as significant progress 16 years after the last identification, she called upon all partners to seize the momentum of recent progress and further advance the search for missing persons.

Returning to the issue of elections, she said credible polls require the collective effort and commitment of all Iraqis.  For elections to be trusted, unfounded theories must be disproved, baseless accusations refuted and intimidation replaced with accountability.  Moreover, transparency must rule and loyalties cannot be for sale, she added, expressing hope that Iraqis can continue to count on the Council’s steadfast support and solidarity.

Council members roundly commended the Government’s efforts while condemning recent violence.  Many expressed support for continuing efforts to ensure inclusive and fair elections, while others expressed concern about humanitarian conditions and targeted attacks against activists and journalists.  Delegates also called for resolving the long-standing issue between Iraq and Kuwait.  Several agreed that Iraq should become an exporter of peace and a leader able to reduce tensions in the region.

The representative of the United States, outlining the Biden Administration’s approach, said it supports a strong partnership with Iraq to, among other things, strengthen regional relations and counter-terrorism strategies.  The United States intends to help prevent a resurgence of ISIL while promoting stability, including by supporting credible and inclusive elections to be held in October.  Welcoming Iraq’s request for election observers, he said that he looks forward to working towards the determination of a feasible format.  However, the current report on the elections highlights Iraq’s complicated landscape, including the presence of militias and violent extremists, he noted, emphasizing that UNAMI and the Government of Iraq must, among other things, address Iran-backed militias and other deadly threats.  Outraged at Monday’s deadly rocket attack and other acts of violence, he pledged support in identifying the perpetrators and holding them accountable.  He went on to highlight other areas of support from the United States, which totals more than $2 billion since 2014, saying his delegation intends to remain an active partner in efforts ranging from economic reform to combating corruption.

The representative of Ireland rejected attempts to destabilize Iraq, noting that the Council is united in its support for that country’s security and territorial integrity and in the fight against terrorism.  Accountability is essential, but Ireland remains opposed to the use of the death penalty in all circumstances, she said, expressing regret over the recent executions in Iraq.  Welcoming the Prime Minister’s commitment to important political reforms and to holding early elections, she noted that important work remains to be done to ensure that the Iraqi people are empowered to vote freely and safely.  Also welcoming the recent finalization of electoral legislation, she acknowledged the letter received from Foreign Minister Hussein last week regarding electoral observation.  “We are carefully considering this important issue.”  She went on to cite the humanitarian situation, emphasizing that a new crisis in the form of secondary displacement must be avoided at all costs.

The representative of China, noting that the political process is at a critical stage, urged the international community to help create a favourable atmosphere for national reconciliation.  The most important thing in that regard is the holding of elections this year, he said, expressing hope that the polls will proceed smoothly.  The Government of China donated a remote videoconferencing system and computers to the Electoral Commission, he added, noting that helping Iraq not only benefits its people, but creates conducive conditions for peace in the region.  The international community should also support Iraq’s anti-terrorism measures.  Regional stakeholders should respect the principle of good neighbourliness, he said, while emphasizing that any military action requires the consent of Iraq.  Urging the international community to support Iraq’s fight against COVID-19, he said China dispatched teams of experts and donated supplies, and will provide 50,000 doses of vaccines to Iraq free of charge.

The representative of Norway said her delegation looks forward to the Council’s discussion on how best to meet Iraq’s request for election observation, and called upon all local stakeholders to ensure that all electoral and legal requirements are in place, including a federal Supreme Court law.  Condemning last night’s rocket attacks on Erbil, she said all efforts must be done to investigate them and hold those responsible to account.  Noting that ISIL remains a serious threat, she said Norway is committed to the Global Coalition against the group.  Emphasizing that long-term stability cannot be achieved without addressing underlying causes of conflict and instability, she said they range from economic, social and political aspects, to water security issues and climate change.  While welcoming the Government’s efforts to address those challenges, including its plans for much-needed economic reform, she stressed that national dialogue and reconciliation remain vital for Iraq’s stability.  She went on to call upon the Government and the Kurdistan Regional Government to reach agreement on federal budget allocations and oil revenues.

The representative of Estonia said all stakeholders must contribute to improving the environment for holding credible, transparent and inclusive parliamentary elections, which are crucial for restoring trust in the political system.  He went on to emphasize that the Council must seriously consider the options for responding to Iraq’s request for UNAMI to play an observer role in the elections.  Calling upon the Government to implement the economic reforms proposed in its white paper, he urged it to take additional measures to improve governance and the rule of law, and to bring all armed forces under State control.  Estonia welcomes the appointment of the third female Cabinet member and supports the President’s call for developing programmes to support women’s economic, social and political empowerment.  While expressing concern about the ongoing violence against protesters, civil society activists and journalists, he urged the Government to take further steps to ensure accountability for all violations.

The representative of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines expressed support for strengthening United Nations engagement to assist the Government with elections, thereby ensuring the credibility and integrity of the electoral process.  In that regard, she welcomed the critical role played by UNAMI in accordance with its mandate.  Underscoring that the upcoming elections must be Iraqi-led and Iraqi‑owned, she said it is also critical to bolster domestic resilience.  There is also a need to collectively address the ongoing economic crisis, she said, calling upon international partners to support the Government’s efforts in that regard.  Turning to the identification of missing Kuwaiti and third-country nationals and missing Kuwaiti properties, she welcomed the progress made and recognized the role of the Tripartite Commission, International Committee of the Red Cross and UNAMI in advancing that issue.

The representative of Tunisia, expressing support for the Government’s efforts to overcome current challenges, said UNAMI’s role should be enhanced to provide effective support ahead of the October elections.  Commending Iraq’s valiant counter-terrorism initiatives, he condemned recent attacks and ongoing threats.  Welcoming the Government’s efforts to promote the role of women, he highlighted several initiatives making inroads in that regard.  He went on to call for a long-term agreement between the Government and the Kurdistan Regional Government, expressing Tunisia’s respect for Iraq’s territorial integrity and urging both sides to engage in constructive dialogue.

The representative of Kenya voiced support for Iraq’s request to expand UNAMI’s mandate ahead of the elections.  Commending plans to combat gender-based violence and boost the role of women, he said inclusivity and Government reform remain the way forward.  Kenya condemns recent attacks by ISIL and urges the international community to help Iraq and other countries stamp out terrorism, he emphasized.  Iraq should become an exporter of peace, he added, calling upon all actors to uphold the country’s political independence and territorial integrity in its quest for security.

The representative of the Russian Federation emphasized that stabilizing Iraq cannot be done quickly, especially amid the spread of the coronavirus and ongoing economic instability.  Terrorist threats have created a fragile security landscape, he said, citing recent targeted attacks.  Dialogue can solve outstanding problems, he said, urging all parties to seek compromise in order to stabilize the domestic situation.  Elections are among the priorities, he noted, expressing readiness to discuss the issue with other Council members.  Other forward steps include resolving relations between Baghdad and Erbil and addressing remaining issues in the Iraq-Kuwait dossier, he said.  Indeed, Iraq has the diplomatic potential to reduce tensions within its borders and in the region, in accordance with Council resolutions and a recent Russian Federation proposal, he added.

The representative of France said the international community has a duty to accompany Iraq along the path to stability, including by holding free and fair elections, with the Council addressing related issues and providing an effective response to the Government’s request for monitoring.  Condemning recent attacks, he emphasized that the Council must fully support Iraq’s efforts to stamp out incursions by armed groups.  France remains worried about attacks against activists and conditions facing displaced persons, he said, adding that they should be guaranteed safe return to their homes.  The international community must help to stabilize and rebuild regions previously occupied by Da’esh, he said, calling for further progress in the dialogue between Baghdad and Erbil, and for Iraq and Kuwait to resolve outstanding issues.

The representative of Niger condemned targeted attacks against activists and encouraged the Government to bring the perpetrators to justice.  The authorities must also find ways to protect fundamental freedoms and human rights defenders, he added.  Turning to the electoral process, he said a sustainable process must include women and young Iraqis.  Niger supports the role of women in peace efforts, he declared, encouraging the Government to do its utmost in that regard.  The international community must lend its full support to Iraq’s pursuit of peace and stability, he emphasized.  Concerning ISIL, he stressed that all actors must fully support efforts to stamp out the terrorist group.

The representative of Viet Nam emphasized that, despite the importance of United Nations and other international support, the elections must be Iraqi-owned and Iraqi-led.  They must be held in a free, fair and inclusive manner, with broad participation by all segments of society, especially women and young people, he said, welcoming in that regard the passage of the election law that reserves 25 per cent of seats in Parliament for women.  Turing to the humanitarian situation, he joined other speakers in calling for the safe, voluntary, dignified and sustainable return or settlement of internally displaced persons.  He urged all parties to avoid a crisis of secondary displacement at all costs.

The representative of Mexico expressed concern over abuse of Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations in the context of fighting terrorism, citing the risk of de‑facto broadening of exceptions to the general prohibition of the use of force, as contained in Article 2, paragraph 4 of the Charter.  That is an unacceptable irregularity, he emphasized.  Concerning the October parliamentary elections, he said that, despite COVID-19, progress has been made in organizing the electoral process, including the approval of the electoral law, the demarcation of electoral districts and the registration of voters via biometric technology.  He went on to applaud the reservation of 25 per cent of parliamentary seats for women and the allocation of seats to minority groups, urging the Government to continue to strengthen institutional capacities and develop human capital in electoral matters.  Turing to the execution of 21 terrorists, he called upon Iraq to place a moratorium on capital punishment and eventually abolish it.

The representative of India, citing the report of the 1267 Committee’s Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team, warned that the threat posed by ISIL to international peace and security is on the rise again, with most of the group’s 10,000 fighters in the region active in Iraq.  The Council should focus on eliminating every threat posed by ISIL and other terror groups, he emphasized, recalling that India’s External Affairs Minister proposed an eight-point action plan for effectively countering terrorism during the Council’s ministerial meeting last month.  He went on to note that international assistance to the Electoral Commission and United Nations observation of the electoral process will enhance the credibility of the elections, expressing India’s full support for Iraq’s request for United Nations observation of the upcoming elections.  India has always been supportive of a democratic, pluralistic, federal, unified and prosperous Iraq, he said, pointing out that his country has contributed $30 million to relief and reconstruction in the country.

The representative of the United Kingdom, Council President for February, spoke in her national capacity, emphasizing the essential need that the October elections are free, fair and credible.  The United Kingdom looks forward to further discussions on how the United Nations can support the elections following Iraq’s request for United Nations observation.  Noting that Iraq faces an economic crisis entailing increased unemployment, poverty and food insecurity, she said the short notice and uncoordinated closure of camps for internally displaced persons is deeply troubling, and urged the Government to coordinate with the United Nations to ensure that all returns are safe, dignified and voluntary.  She went on to welcome continuing efforts to strengthen relations with regional neighbours, reiterating the importance of dialogue and cooperation between Iraq and Turkey to combat terrorism, ensure regional security and protect civilians.  The United Kingdom continues to support Iraq as it seeks to deliver free, fair and inclusive elections, combat terrorism and implement crucial economic reform, she said.

The representative of Iraq outlined the overlapping grave challenges across his country’s health, security, economic and social sectors, highlighting Government responses, including initiatives to combat terrorism and COVID-19, the implementation of fiscal and policy reform, and mine clearing.  As the alarming rise in COVID-19 cases threatens to overwhelm the health sector, Iraq counts on the international community’s support to ensure no one is left behind, he emphasized.

He said the Government aims to boost confidence among youth and other groups, respond to human rights violations and prevent outlawed groups from targeting protestors, adding that it has worked to restructure the security forces, end impunity and enhance accountability for those involved in injuring or killing protestors.  Other priorities include fighting terrorism and ensuring the safe return for displaced persons.  Condemning targeted attacks on Erbil and other places, he reiterated Iraq’s commitment to the better use of security forces while continuing to implement relevant Council resolutions.  Going forward, Iraq needs help to boost capacity‑building and infrastructure, to rebuild in areas liberated from ISIL and to establish a national counter-terrorism centre.

He went on to state that steps have been taken to issue identification papers to internally displaced persons, noting that more than 40 camps have been closed and others are slated for closure.  More than 30,000 displaced persons have returned to their communities, and Iraq and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) are implementing a plan to reconstruct demolished homes, he said.  Concerning the COVID-19 response, he said assistance has facilitated support for cash transfers, health sector initiatives and medical responses, among other efforts, he said, thanking international agencies and donor countries.  Regarding the elections, he highlighted gains in voter registration and the installation of electronic voting machines.

Iraq is engaged in dialogue with the Kurdistan Regional Government on issues from borders and budgets, he said.  As for regional relations, he said Iraq continues to promote good neighbourliness, including through discussions with Saudi Arabia and Jordan and talks with Kuwait covering the remains of Kuwaiti and third-country nationals, indemnity payments and the return of Kuwaiti properties.  He went on to underline that the time from now until election day is critical, and expressed hope for the Council’s continued support, including a response to Iraq’s request for electoral monitors.  Enhancing the trust of citizens is a major pillar for a successful democratic process, he said, adding that a fair, transparent election will also enhance Iraq’s efforts to better fight terrorism and overcome its current challenges.

For information media. Not an official record.