Last Updated: Friday, 24 October 2014, 15:39 GMT

The tough road ahead for Iraq's election victors

Publisher Human Rights Watch
Publication Date 12 March 2010
Cite as Human Rights Watch, The tough road ahead for Iraq's election victors, 12 March 2010, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4ba0a4efc.html [accessed 24 October 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Whoever ends up the winner in Iraq's hotly contested parliamentary election, the key priorities for the newly elected government should be the same: prevent another catastrophic civil war and ensure respect for the rights of all Iraqis.

On March 7, millions of Iraqis from every city and faction defied a volley of mortars and rockets to embrace of the country's nascent democratic process. Iraq's electorate has done its part. Now the country's newly elected politicians need to do theirs: adopt a human rights agenda to move their embattled country toward national reconciliation and away from the horrific sectarian violence that followed the last national election in 2005.

While there is much that may be outside the government's control, much also remains within its reach. It can reform or abolish its politicized de-Baathification commission; prosecute attacks against minority communities; revamp media laws that restrict speech, end torture in detention facilities; and provide returning refugees with the support they need to re-establish their lives.

No doubt, Iraq's politicians will have their work cut out for them. While Iraq has made considerable progress on security over the past year, similar gains have remained elusive for other human rights. That is especially true for displaced persons, detainees, journalists, religious and ethnic minorities, and vulnerable groups such as women and girls, as well as men suspected of homosexual conduct.

As a first step, the incoming government should immediately reform its de-Baathification policies to douse the sectarian tensions inflamed by the latest election. In a significant blow to the election's credibility, the Supreme National Commission for Accountability and Justice disqualified more than 500 candidates because of alleged Baath party links -- including several prominent Sunni and secular-minded Shia politicians who were expected to do well in the election.  

Iraq has the right to prosecute former Baathist officials for the atrocities committed under Saddam Hussein. But the new government should stop using its de-Baathification commission as a pretext to keep political opponents at bay. The incoming government needs to end punishment on the basis of alleged group affiliation, rather than individual wrong-doing. And anyone accused should be able to see and challenge the evidence against them.

Second, Iraq's new government needs to protect its embattled religious and ethnic minorities and other vulnerable groups by bolstering security in their communities and investigating and prosecuting attacks against them. In the weeks preceding the election, assailants went on what appeared to be a politically motivated killing spree against Christians in Mosul. The pattern of violence was similar to the 2008 campaign of targeted killings that left 40 Chaldo-Assyrians dead and 12,000 displaced. Armed groups continue to persecute other minorities with impunity.  As the conflict intensifies between the Arab-dominated central government and the Kurdistan Regional Government over control of disputed territories that are home to a number of Iraq's minorities, these beleaguered communities are finding themselves in an increasingly precarious position. When the forces of law and order do not investigate and prosecute those responsible for the killings, such abuses are bound to continue.

Third, the government needs to stop its repression of Iraqi journalists. Working as a journalist in Iraq is dangerous: 20 were killed in the past two years alone; many others were kidnapped or targeted for abuse and intimidation by insurgent groups. But as the security situation improves, journalists who dare to criticize public officials increasingly face a multi-pronged assault on their freedom and independence.

Authorities have denied media accreditation and have used the country's broad libel laws to sue commentators who have criticized officials. During provincial elections last year, police and security forces harassed, arrested and assaulted numerous journalists. The incoming government needs to prosecute and investigate assaults against journalists, but it also needs to limit and define vague regulations restricting speech, including "incitement of sectarianism." An environment that promotes free speech and public debate is critical to the success of the democratic experiment in Iraq.

Fourth, the new government needs to stop the torture and ill-treatment that remains routine in Iraq's jails, investigate all allegations of such treatment and prosecute those responsible. Government-run detention facilities struggle to accommodate more than 40,000 detainees and serious delays in the judicial review of detention has exacerbated overcrowding. Some detainees have spent years in custody without charge or trial. Once released, the physical and emotional scars from abuse in incarceration make their reintegration into society more difficult.  

Fifth, the new government needs to develop a national plan to facilitate the voluntary return of refugees and internally displaced persons. Displaced Iraqis constitute one of the largest humanitarian and displacement crises in the world, but the government has utterly failed to tackle the problem. An astonishing 1.5 million Iraqis still live outside the country, and there are 2 million more internally displaced persons. While economic pressures and difficulties maintaining legal status in Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon are inducing Iraqi refugees to return, they are seldom able to reclaim their former homes in cities. In rural communities many find their houses destroyed or in disrepair, and they lack a way to earn a living and access basic services, including, water, electricity, and health care. The government needs to help those who return to do so with safety and dignity and to provide financial assistance for reintegration.

Over the next few months, Iraq's politicians will face enormous challenges in forming a new coalition government. Once it is in place, though, it will need to make Iraq's myriad human rights problems a priority, to prevent the country from further fracturing along ethnic and sectarian lines.

Samer Muscati is a Middle East researcher for Human Rights Watch

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