The Iraqi Constitution and Democracy: Issues and Challenges

Minister Falah Mustafa Bakir delivered this lecture at Coventry University on

 4 July 2012.

Greeting & Introduction

Professors, ladies, gentlemen and distinguished guests,

Good morning and thank you for having me here to speak with you today.

It is a privilege for me to stand before you at this prestigious institution which promotes such noble values and goals and equips its students to help resolve difficult political and social issues all around the world.

As you all know, Iraq is in the midst of a critical time in its history right now. The question of whether it is possible for a federal, democratic and pluralistic government to truly exist in Iraq is being talked about by experts all around the world; and the truth is, no one has the answer.

The unnatural combination of incompatible groups into the modern state of Iraq after the First World War has plagued the country with violence, fear and disunity for the better part of a century now.

We have seen many governments come and go in this short time, and the only moments of stability that the country has seen as a whole have come as a benefit to the members of one privileged group while the others were largely excluded or actively oppressed.

As you study and teach the art of peace building and conflict resolution, I would encourage you to look carefully at the history of the Kurdish peoples in the 19th and 20th centuries, for in our history you will see many examples of large-power diplomacy which has failed to protect and preserve the rights of an important group of people.

I will go further and suggest that many of you and your students would find our Region a fascinating contemporary case study. Such a study would give a much needed alternative view from the recorded histories of the big powers, as ours comes from the perspective of those who have lived on the fringes of those powers for many centuries. Scholars have already come from Harvard, Cambridge and other leading universities to conduct research in our Region, but the story of our past and our current dynamic emergence is only beginning to be understood.

Today we find ourselves in relatively optimistic circumstances, but for most of our past we have been the victims of policies and strategies which have nearly cost us our existence as a people.

A History of Repression

I’m sure many of you are aware that the Kurdish people in Iraq suffered from political and societal repression long before the Ba’athist regime of Saddam Hussein. We were sidelined and oppressed, and the right to self-determination has continuously been withheld from us.

The people of greater Kurdistan have long lived along a fault line of competing empires, and this ever-changing political landscape has made our people the pawns in greater regional games, becoming hostage to larger powers who have long dominated regional politics.

We are still largely forced into this role, in spite of the fact that we have tried many times to take ownership of the universal rights of life and liberty, especially in the past 100 years.

Crushed Hopes

In 1920, the Treaty of Sevres included promises that would have enabled the Kurds to have their own state,

  1. Article 64 of the treaty even gave Kurds living in the Mosul wilayat the option of joining a future independent Kurdistan.

However, these early hopes were crushed when it was replaced by the Treaty of Lausanne less than 3 years after it had been signed, and in Iraq, the British arranged coronation of the Pan-Arab Nationalist Emir Faisal as King began a long line of successive Iraqi governments which generally denied the Kurds their identity and refused them their rights.

Betrayal & Genocide in Iraq

Following 12 years of exile for participating in the establishment of the Kurdistan Republic of Mahabad in 1946, one of our greatest national heroes, General Mustafa Barzani, returned to Iraqi Kurdistan after the overthrow of the Iraqi monarchy in 1958, and a long series of promises and betrayals for recognition of Kurdish rights began.

Iraqi leader Abdul Karim Qassim tried to strengthen the weak Iraqi government through Kurdish support. However, his government soon gave way to Ba’athist control in the first coup of 1963 after the Kurds withdrew their support due to their agreements not being met.

After a number of political and military battles in the following years, leaders in Baghdad and Kurdistan arrived at the Autonomy Agreement on 11 March 1970 that provided broader Kurdish freedom and allowed for Kurdish participation in government.

However, fighting again resumed in 1974 because the agreement had still not been implemented, and we were again betrayed and left to fend for ourselves when Saddam convinced the Shah of Iran to stop supporting the Kurdish movement through giving away half of the strategically significant Shat-al-Arab river in the Algiers Agreement of 1975.

Most of you know about the aggressive Arabization and genocide campaigns which then began and ultimately threatened our very existence in Iraq.

By the end of the Iran-Iraq War and the notorious Anfal operations, 4,500 villages had been destroyed, 180 thousand killed, well over a million displaced, and the largest series of chemical weapons attacks on a civilian population in history had been carried out—namely in: Halabja, Sheikh Wasan, Balisan, Badinan and other places.

Added to these unimaginable losses are the countless men, women and children who spent years being starved, raped, beaten and tortured in Saddam’s prisons; many whose only crime had been to make a negative comment about the central government in Baghdad.

The horror and the systematic and calculated nature of these attacks has driven us to undertake an international campaign to recognize them for the genocide that they were in order to ensure that this will never happen against us again.

Saddam’s forces exercised their final murderous assault on our people in 1991 after the Desert Storm coalition forces initiated a cease-fire agreement with the regime only days after our people took their advice and rose up to push the Regime’s forces out of our cities.

A Human Rights Watch report from the time describes Saddam’s reprisals in this way:

“In their attempts to retake cities, and after consolidating control, loyalist forces killed thousands of anyone who opposed them whether a rebel or a civilian by firing indiscriminately into the opposing areas; executing them on the streets, in homes and in hospitals; rounding up suspects, especially young men, during house-to-house searches, and arresting them with or without charge or shooting them en masse; and using helicopters to attack those who try to flee the cities.”

And this was only days after our people had granted amnesty to, and released, thousands of Iraqi soldiers that were captured during the uprising.

In this context, there should be no question why returning to a position of being subject to the whims and control of an authoritarian or dictatorial regime in Baghdad is a condition that we will never accept again.

An Iraqi Success Story

Following the passage of UN Security Council Resolution 688 and the implementation of the no-fly-zone through Operation Provide comfort, we began the transition to a democratic government and a free market economy.

Saddam’s retreating forces emptied the banks, cut off all food, fuel supplies and funding for civil institutions, disconnected the region from the national power grid and prevented students from returning to their schools or patients from receiving specialized medical care outside of the Region.

Our people responded by working for months without compensation and by holding a Regional election to establish the Kurdistan Parliament and begin to form the Kurdistan Regional Government that exists today.

We have seen tremendous progress, and this combined with our national values make us confident of a bright and promising future for our people.

  1. We have enjoyed security and stability thanks to the efforts of our very capable security forces, and the grateful cooperation of our people.
    1. There has not been a single western fatality from war or terrorism in Kurdistan since well before the fall of the former regime in 2003.
  2. We have built a strong, stable and democratic government.
    1. We have a functioning opposition, which we hope will learn to play a positive role in helping to ensure the accountability of our system.
    2. We have begun working to address government effectiveness and efficiency through implementing a Quality Assurance program with the UK National School of Government (NSG) and through working with the well known firm PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC).
  3. We have seen tremendous year-on-year growth as we develop and rebuild from our repressive past, bringing unprecedented numbers of new companies, new technologies and new goods and services to our Region.
  4. We have made immense progress in the delivery of basic services, especially when compared to the rest of Iraq.
  5. We are a tolerant and friendly Region, blessed with many cultures, religious groups, and social organizations that live peacefully together.
    1. The ethnic and religious-based violence that has plagued the rest of Iraq has not, and will not take hold in our Region.
    2. Kurdistan is a refuge for many, as we have received tens of thousands of IDPs fleeing violence in other parts of Iraq in addition to increasing numbers of refugees fleeing the ongoing instability in Syria.
      1. This is not only true now, but we provided a refuge for those in need of protection before the fall of the regime as well—many have benefited from the protection of our mountains.

Commitment to a Federal Iraq

In spite of these tremendous achievements in self-governance and the acute pain of our recent past, we voluntarily embraced the hope of a new Iraq and committed ourselves to the federal system.

The fall of the Ba’athist regime in 2003 brought an end to the darkest days of our history, finally giving Kurds the hope of a future and giving all Iraqis the opportunity to build a new social and political structure.

I want to be clear here – especially to those who often refer to Kurds as “separatists.”  We had a choice in 1991, in 2003, and in the height of the Sunni-Shi’a struggle in 2006 & 2007. There were many among us who wanted to take these moments to declare our independence.  But our leadership believed that our most reasonable course was to remain part of a new democratic and federal Iraq.

That commitment still exists today, but it depends completely on the character of the new Iraq, and whether our constitutional rights and freedoms are respected by the Iraqi government.

For the past nine years, our leadership has been at the forefront of the process of building a new democratic Iraq, and we have worked diligently to build a federal government which respects the freedoms of its people and which could provide a better life for all of us:

  1. We actively participated in the writing of a constitution which would guarantee the freedoms of all Iraq’s people, and provide a level of political and economic autonomy which would enable us all to build a stable and prosperous future.
  2. We have supported the formation of three separate Iraqi cabinets with our votes in Parliament—the interim, transitional and current governments.
  3. We have provided dozens of our most talented public servants to serve in the Iraqi government.
  4. We contributed 3 brigades of our professional armed forces – the Peshmerga – to help in the original formation of the Iraqi Army, when other groups would not join.
  5. We cooperated with Iraq and the international coalition by providing servicemen to maintain security throughout many parts of Iraq—and we have lost many of our sons in doing so.
  6. We have hosted national meetings of all Iraqi groups in Erbil to negotiate key issues regarding Iraq’s future.
    1. Kurdistan Region President Masoud Barzani voluntarily played a vital role in negotiating the agreement which finally led to the formation of the current government almost 10 months after the elections.
  7. And finally, we have provided 83% of the revenues of oil produced in our Region to the federal government in Baghdad.

By any and every standard, we have lived up to the agreements and expectations of a federal, democratic, and pluralistic Iraq.  No one can reasonably accuse us of failing to live up to our obligations.  We have tried, and will continue to try to make the state of Iraq work.

The Constitution

However, true partnership in the new Iraqi government and the guarantee of the rule of law through the constitution are the only hope of maintaining a unified Iraq and protecting the rights of its people.

There are a number of areas in the constitution that could and should be improved to allow for greater democracy, freedom, clarity and transparency. But, the constitution itself lays out the framework for how these changes should be made.

In short, pluralism and the Rule of Law must be the foundation on which the federal government is built. The power of a central government has too often been abused and manipulated for our people to trust in its good will toward them.

We will continue to utilize every political tool at our disposal to achieve a federal government of true partnership that is based on the federal constitution. However, we will not become a part of a return to the old Iraqi traditions of centralized power and authoritarianism.  We in the Kurdistan Region have come too far, and suffered for too long to allow this to happen.

A Bright Future

As our flag so appropriately depicts, the sun is rising in Kurdistan.

Since the formation of our regional government, and especially since the fall of the dictatorship, we have seen progress in all aspects of our daily life. Health care, education, electricity, agriculture, roads, housing, tourism, and general infrastructure have been dramatically improved, and continue to be developed.

More than these, we have made progress with important social issues, such as the empowerment of women, greater attention to human rights, greater governmental transparency, and an open democracy with genuine political choices and an active civil society and opposition.

We have of course made many mistakes, and we will make many more. Having suffered so much, and having come so far, our people are impatient, but we must be judged by where we have come from. We are in a transitional phase, but our significant accomplishments confirm that we are on a genuine path toward democracy, and we believe it is clear that we are on the right track.

We want to continue to build our capacity, and we remain committed to enhancing our relations with the international community in order to pursue this goal and to ensure that the horrors of our past will never be repeated.

I am confident that our people will continue to triumph over our painful history and that our forward looking Regional government, committed to good governance, transparency and the rule of law, will help us fully emerge into a bright new future.

Thank you.

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