Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 30 October 2020

Your voice is heard, UN envoy to Iraq tells protesters

Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert urged the country's youth not to lose hope amid a crackdown on a four-month protest movement

Special Representative of the United Nations Secretary General for Iraq Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert has a message for Iraq’s young peaceful protesters: "Your voice is being heard”.

Young Iraqis must not lose hope, she said, as she urged all sides to draft a political agreement that can stabilise the country.

Speaking exclusively to The National in Davos last week at the World Economic Forum annual meeting, Ms Hennis-Plasschaert said she is preparing a road map for Iraq that she will present next month.

“They believe in their country,” she said of the young protesters on the streets of Baghdad and southern Iraq. “Do not lose hope; there are many people with you, ready to support you. And if it comes to your demands – a country free from corruption, criminal elements and foreign interference – it is well understood by many.”

Every crisis can be a stepping-stone to build something new

Ms Hennis-Plasschaert said she is fully aware of the dangers and difficulties facing the protesters, of whom more than 650 have been killed and more than 24,000 wounded since early October.

“The accumulated frustration of the past 17 years is very obvious”, she said. “I understand that people, standing up for their rights and things such as better public services, that they are frustrated because they feel their voices are not being heard. But their voices are being heard”.

She has visited Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, the epicentre of the four-month uprising, and hospitals where the wounded are being treated and understands the reality of what the youth are facing.

"'Do not lose hope’ is easily said, I know how difficult it is out there. Iraq is a state with so much potential and they know it. That is why they are on the streets, they know what Iraq has to offer, not only its people but the world,” she said.

However, Ms Hennis-Plasschaert is also hopeful that the monumental challenges facing Iraq can lead to positive change. "Every crisis can be a stepping-stone to build something new, but it is high time we see decisiveness because the people on the streets are paying an unimaginable price for their voices to be heard. The many deaths and injured, it cannot be in vain."

One issue that both angers and worries Iraqis is identifying who is behind the killing and targeting of protesters and Ms Hennis-Plasschaert is careful not to point fingers.

While on-the-ground reporting suggests militias with political ties are behind some killings, the government simply refers to them as "unlawful elements". Security services are also blamed for much of the bloodshed.

On culpability, she says: "Officially we don’t know. An investigation was initiated and the outcome did not tell us much. Further investigation will take place but without full justice and accountability it will be very difficult to convince the Iraqi people that the authorities and political leaders are sincerely willing to engage in substantial reform."

While some Iraqis are angry that the UN does not speak more openly about the militias on the streets, and does not name their backers, Ms Hennis-Plasschaert said the international organisation must be careful to maintain its "impartial position" in order to operate in any country.

"Many people know perfectly well what is going on. There are unarmed groups operating in Iraq outside state control. That is no news, that has been happening for a long time and it is extremely important to address that."

I don’t have weapons. The only weapon I have is my voice.

Ms Hennis-Plasschaert responded to criticism from some that she should be taking a more firm stance or applying pressure on the militias.

"I don’t have weapons. The only weapon I have is my voice. I cannot send in troops and this is not what we should opt for. At the end of the day, the peaceful protests are all about ‘we want our country, a sovereign country, a country with better economic and social prospects’.

"The UN provides technical advice and humanitarian assistance but we also use our voice on human rights violations, trying to convey what is happening in the most useful possible way."

She said that a solution requires serious reforms.

"If you want to address the problems in Iraq now, you need electoral reform, political reform, you need to build an environment that is conducive to growth and jobs," she said.

But before that can happen, "You need to disarm and demobilise armed groups. How are you able to exercise your sovereignty if you have outlaws operating, launching rockets on a daily basis? That is unacceptable."

You feel it. You see it. It is in the air. It is so clear that they have a point

The UN envoy said: "I know Iraq’s leadership, including the prime minister, is trying to tackle the issue but, and again, full accountability and the obvious chasing down of those responsible is of the utmost importance."

The former Dutch minister of defence expressed solidarity with everyday Iraqis struggling with unemployment, lack of services, entrenched nepotism and corruption.

"People on the streets keep telling me that the peaceful protests are all about a life in dignity and freedom or no life. Young people are desperate. That hits you. You feel it. You see it. It is in the air. It is so clear that they have a point."

However, Ms Hennis-Plasschaert is also focusing on long-term solutions with a road map on resilience, which she says will be shared with Iraqi politicians in February.

"We tried several times to lay the foundation for a road map to find a way out of the ongoing crisis. But again, at the end of the day, it should be an Iraqi-owned and Iraqi-led process. It is not too difficult to think of what is needed to build resilience at the state and societal level but it needs to be adopted and internalised by the Iraqis themselves.

"If you look at the people voicing their hopes for better times, away from partisanship, foreign interference, criminal elements, corruption, all these things, it is, as I said, not too difficult to think of what has to be done to become resilient against these kinds of elements, issues and influences."

In Iraq, the UN may also have to suspend aid programmes because the government has failed to issue the necessary access letters.

"It is kind of cynical that you end up with lots of bureaucracy and obstacles to overcome to deliver on very basic needs of people," Ms Hennis-Plasschaert said. "Although it is not done intentionally, it is another example of red tape and bureaucracy leading to serious problems for Iraq’s most vulnerable communities."

In her first year in the post, Ms Hennis-Plasschaert says she has tried to engage with all sides in Iraq and attempts to bridge gaps between them.

A photo released by the Iraqi Prime Minister Media Office, shows Iraqi acting Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi meeting with the U.N. special representative to Iraq Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert at the prime minister's office, in Baghdad, Iraq, Monday, Jan. 6, 2020. (Iraqi Prime Minister Media Office, via AP)
Acting Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi meeting the UN Special Representative to Iraq Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert at the prime minister's office in Baghdad on January 6, 2020. Iraqi Prime Minister Media Office, via AP

She met Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the most influential Shiite religious authority in the country, at the start of the protest movement but declined to disclose details of that meeting.

“If you look at his sermons, not only in the past few months but for a long period of time, His Eminence addresses, time and again, the many outstanding needs and socio-economic grievances. And right now, his voice of wisdom and reason is much needed. The urgency to press ahead with reforms is clear, but we have seen precious little in terms of implementation. This is of great concern. To strengthen yourself for all kind of challenges and elements which actively seek to hinder Iraq’s stability, one needs to get its act together domestically first and foremost."

She added: "Iraq’s interests should be prioritised above all else. But right now, we see too many private networks pursuing their own objectives."

There are fears that developments within Iraq will be overshadowed by regional tensions, especially after the killing of Quds Force commander Qassem Suleimani and Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi Al Muhandis by the United States on January 3. Ms Hennis-Plasschaert noted, “the rules of engagement have changed and we don’t know yet what the new modus operandi will look like”. Her prediction? “We have not seen the end of it yet.

“Unfortunately, Iraqi authorities will have to continue their nonstop balancing act to prevent the country from becoming, yet again, a theatre for different competitions or a battleground for external conflict. This distracts much of their precious time and energy, which is very much needed to address the very urgent needs of the Iraqi people and their rightful demands.

“For good reasons, the Iraqi people are in the streets for over four months in a row, many people have been killed and others seriously injured. Iraq will have to build resilience at the state and societal level, and they can only do so by actively addressing the many socio-economic grievances, by fighting corruption, by providing accountability and justice, employment, electoral reform and so on. By building a country that is able to move away from crisis containment to a more structural and long-term approach.

"I do not have a crystal ball but if you would ask me what the first priority for Iraqi authorities should be, I would say that regional and geopolitical tensions understandably take much time and energy but it cannot and should not eclipse unfinished, urgent, domestic business”.

Updated: January 27, 2020 11:35 AM

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