Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Human Rights Situation In Iraq Remains Poor

Recently, the United Nations and the State Department issued reports on human rights within Iraq. Both said that the country had a poor record. Freedom of the press, assembly, and expression, along with women and minority rights were all threatened, and the country lacked a functioning justice and prison systems. This was due to not only the on going violence within the country, but corruption and government dysfunction. Both organizations believed that the situation would continue. Not only has the government’s promises of improving its human rights situation proved hollow, but no official has ever been punished for their actions, while insurgents still carry out their daily terrorist attacks. These are all threats to not only the average Iraqi, but to the country’s nascent democracy, because without these basic freedoms, a society will not develop that can sustain its new political system.


Iraq remains one of the deadliest countries in the world, despite the drastic decline in violence. In 2011, the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) recorded 2,771 civilian deaths. That was down from 2,953 in 2010. The Human Rights Ministry counted 2,781 deaths last year, and 10,386 wounded. In comparison, Iraq Body Count had 4,087 casualties in 2011, which was a slight increase from 4,045 in 2010. Both were far below the civil war years when the organization had 15,755 killed in 2005, 28,621 in 2006, and 25,129 in 2007. Despite the decline in attacks, Iraq still ranks as one of the highest civilian casualty counts per capita in the world according to the United Nations. Violence is also not evenly distributed throughout the country. Most attacks occur in the central part of Iraq with Baghdad being the deadliest. The north and south are relatively quiet in comparison. The reason for the continued attacks is that the insurgency has proven to be very resilient. Despite its setbacks, militants have been able to adapt to their losses, and sustain their operations into the present day. With the Americans having withdrawn their military, the Iraqi security forces have also reverted back to more traditional military tactics. They now are mostly reactive, arresting people after an attack hoping to catch the culprits, because they no longer have the support necessary from the U.S. to conduct counterinsurgency operations. That means that security is likely to remain at the current levels into the foreseeable future. The insurgency has learned to operate in their new environment, while the police and army no longer have the means to roll them back. Iraqis will continue to die in the hundreds each year as a result.

Legal System

Another major problem in Iraq is the lack of due process. People are routinely picked up without warrants, held incommunicado, and for long periods without trials or charges, and abused. In January 2011, there were reports that the Defense Ministry was holding suspects in Camp Honor in Baghdad’s Green Zone by the Defense Ministry for over two years without ever being told why. UNAMI found two women in Kirkuk who were detained for a year with no lawyers, and waiting for a court date. Parliament’s human rights committee went to Diyala in March 2011, and discovered three-quarters of the prisoners in a jail were there for two years without going to court. In May and June, over 100 people were picked up by the 2nd Army Division in Mosul, charged with terrorism, but never appeared before an investigative judge, and were never allowed to contact anyone. People have also complained about being arrested for political and sectarian reasons. In September, police in Diyala arrested the head of the Iraqi National Movement, and held him for three months before being released. This was the second time he was detained and released that year. In October, another arrest campaign was conducted by the government with over 900 people being picked up for being alleged Baathists in Baquba, Mosul, Kirkuk, Karbala, Baghdad, Najaf, and Basra. Their family member said that they didn’t know where their relatives were being held, lawyers couldn’t get access to them, and many were forced to sign confessions, without knowledge of what was in them. A third problem was that there were cases of people being detained or held in jail, because the police wanted bribes. Fourth, lawyers have difficulties talking with their clients. There have been court proceedings with no attorneys present. Finally, the justice system is based upon confessions. That leads to abuse to obtain one. UNAMI said this arose from the fact that Iraq had a “culture of abuse” dating back to the Saddam times. Many of Iraq’s leaders grew up under dictatorships either with Saddam or in neighboring countries such as Iran or Syria. They therefore, have no idea what a fair and equal justice system is. The public has grown so use to these events that there is no pressure to change the system form them either. Being treated fairly before the law is the basis of due process. Iraq sorely lacks that with the government having the power to arrest anyone it wants, and holding them for as long as they feel. Not only that, but many innocent people are picked up, and held for extended periods of time simply because the system is so dysfunctional. This undermines a basic tenant of a democratic society.


Iraq’s prisons are in poor condition as well. They are often overcrowded, unsanitary, and dens of disease and sickness. Several different groups run the facilities including Defense, Interior, Justice, and the Kurdish Labor Ministry. The Interior and Defense Ministries have admitted that their prisons are bad. UNAMI found the counterterrorism force in Diyala holding 500 people in three rooms with no water, and only two bathrooms. Abuse and torture in them were common, and pre-trial and convicted prisoners were usually mixed together. The central government said that it held 35,653 prisoners in 2010. That didn’t change much in 2011 with 35,205. The Justice Ministry had the majority with around 26,000 detainees. Their facilities were better than the rest, but still suffered from overcrowding. That’s not to say that all of Iraq’s prisons were the same. There were some modern ones in Nasiriyah, Basra, Susa, and Chamchamal that were in a good state. These problems were all well known, but there was no evidence that the government was trying to solve them. In early 2011 for instance, the Defense Ministry claimed that it would no longer hold civilians, but it didn’t stop. In December 2010, UNAMI halted its inspections of Interior and Defense Ministry run prisons, because they heard that the authorities were threatening and abusing prisoners who talked with U.N. personnel. The Interior Ministry also often turned down inspections by international and domestic organizations. With no internal impetus to reform, and human rights groups only being able to gain limited access made this another institutional problem that was likely to fester.

There were also a series of secret prisons run by the government. There were stories of at least 10 such facilities in the Green Zone alone. In February 2011, Human Rights Watch found one in Baghdad, but the authorities denied that it existed. In April, human rights groups reported a secret prison in the Green Zone where 400 Sunni prisoners were being held, 100 of which said they were tortured. The government later said it would close the facility, but it never did. Human Rights Watch found another prison in northwest Baghdad later in the year as well. These facilities were another sign of the lack of due process in Iraq. Secret detention centers are a way to keep prisoners out of the legal system, and provide ample opportunities to abuse them. They were another sign that the government was following the practices of Saddam rather than a democracy.

Prisoners have not always accepted their situation. There have been several escapes, riots, and hunger strikes in the last year. In January 2011, twelve Al Qaeda members on death row got out of a prison in Basra. The next month, prisoners at Rusafa prison in Baghdad went on a hunger strike over their conditions. Others in Hillah and Mosul started supporting strikes. In the former, 1,500 people were being held in a facility meant for only 750. Lawmakers from the human rights committee tried to visit the prison, but were not allowed in. In February and March there were separate strikes at Taji and Rusafa with a riot at the latter. There were also uprisings in Tikrit in March and in Hillah in August. In September 35 prisoners escaped from Mosul, with 2 being killed, 21 being caught, and 12 remaining free. The escapes point to the corruption in Iraq, because in each case, prison officials were implicated. The hunger strikes and riots showed that the conditions were so poor within many of Iraq’s facilities that the prisoners wouldn’t put up with them.

Kurdistan was an exception. There the United Nations found that prisoners were generally better off. Some people were held for long periods, but that was usually because of a lack of judges or interpreters. There was still overcrowding however in Irbil and Sulaymaniya provinces. Most importantly, torture was rare in the north, and the authorities actually followed up on cases that did come to light. That being said, the Asayesh and the intelligence services of the two ruling parties in Kurdistan were known for abusing people when they picked them up.

Freedom Of Assembly

Protesters, human rights groups, and non-government organizations were all mistreated by the security forces. At the beginning of last year, Iraq was struck by a wave of protests that affected just about every major city in the country. The government cracked down on the demonstrators. In February, the National Police killed six protesters and wounded ten in Kirkuk and Hawija. That same month, thugs attacked people in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square who were holding a sit in. The police withdrew from the area during the attack showing official complicity. The security forces also went after the Iraqi Communist Party and the Iraqi Nation Party for supporting and organizing demonstrations by confiscating their offices. Activists from the Federation of Workers’ Councils and Unions in Iraq were detained in April by the Baghdad Operations Command, and members of the Where Is My Right were arrested in May. The government also tried to set up restrictions to shut down the protests. By the middle of the year they were successful as the daily marches disappeared. The Iraqi constitution guarantees the right to assemble, but the government was only willing to grant that freedom so much. The authorities carried out the exact same set of tactics in 2010 when people’s anger swelled up, and they took to the streets over the lack of electricity. The squelching of the 2011 protest movement was just the most public expression of the limits that the Iraqi government placed on people’s rights.

Freedom Of The Press

The media has come under pressure from both militants and the government. Journalists said that they were pressured by politicians, officials, the security forces, tribes, and businesses to stop reporting on certain issues. Many media outlets were sued for libel to stop their work. In August, the founder and editor of an independent newspaper was beaten in Sulaymaniya. That same month, authorities banned reporters in Kirkuk from talking about schools after a documentary was released criticizing the Ministry of Education’s work there. During the protests, government forces tried to block coverage of them. In February, the TV station Diyar was raided, its employees were beaten, and its offices were shut down by the security forces after it showed a demonstration in Tahrir Square. The next month, the Kurdish Asayesh kidnapped two TV reporters for their coverage of the protests in Sulaymaniya. The press was also under attack with eight journalists killed last year. Insurgents were the most likely culprits. There were reports of possible political killings as well. In February, a reporter who wrote about corruption and the lack of services in Mosul was shot and killed outside his house. The end of Saddam Hussein’s regime opened the door to dozens of new papers and magazines being started in Iraq. At the same time, officials have not adapted to this plethora of media outlets, hence their lawsuits and use of the security forces against ones they didn’t like.

Labor Rights

Collective bargaining and union rights are not protected by law, and therefore have struggled to establish themselves in the new Iraq. There have been cases where the government has tried to interfere in labor groups. In April 2011, Baghdad tried to take over the General Federation of Iraqi Workers. First, it tried to influence the union’s election, and when that failed, the authorities derecognized it. Ministries and state-run companies have used fines and transfers to punish union members as well. In one case, a labor organization claimed that the Interior Ministry threatened to arrest its members for terrorism if it wen on strike. Some union leaders have accused the government of attempting to kill them also. Unions in Iraq are small, and suffer from a lack of legislation to regulate them. The working class was devastated by the destruction of most of its industry after the 2003 invasion as well. Together that has left Iraq’s labor organizations to be at the whim of others.


Iraq’s diverse population was put at risk by the violence that consumed the nation when the old regime fell. During the heyday of the country’s civil war, militants routinely targeted minorities. Those days are over, but attacks continue. The Ministry of Human Rights recorded 16 Yazidis, 14 Christians, 12 Shabaks, and 2 Sabeans killed last year. Minorities were also victims of kidnappings where they were held for ransom. In September, three Christians and a Turkmen were taken in Kirkuk, and their families had to pay $150,000 to obtain their release. These incidents were far below previous levels, but were still unacceptable. There were repeated reports of the Kurds discriminating against Turkmen, Yazidis, and Christians in the disputed territories that cross Ninewa, Salahaddin, Tamim, and Diyala provinces. They cut services, arrested people, held them in secret prisons, and pressured minority schools to teach Kurdish. Islamists have gone after minorities, because they are not Muslims, and in some cases, such as for Christians, are seen as being allies of the West. Al Qaeda in Iraq has specifically gone after that community, because it gains international press coverage, which they then use for fund raising. Minorities in the disputed territories on the other hand, find themselves pawns in the conflict between Kurdistan and the central government for control of those areas. The pressure that the Kurds have imposed on them is an effort to get minorities to side with them. Both of these situations are going to continue into the future since their causes are not going to be solved any time soon.

Women’s Rights

Women in Iraq are constrained by traditions that place them as secondary citizens. Rape and domestic abuse were serious problems in both reports, which the government was doing little about. Most cases were never reported, because of the culture and the shame it might bring to the family. Female genital mutilation was still common in both Kurdistan and southern Iraq. Honor killings were also an issue with relatives murdering female relatives who they think had acted dishonorably. When it came to day-to-day activities, conservatives  tried to pressure women to wear headscarves. Female students reported that they were questioned about why they did not have their heads covered at Baghdad University for instance. Women who worked for the government were criticized for their dress. This was another issue that will not be solved soon. Neither the government nor society feels that it is a problem, and it is compounded by the fact that there are many Islamic parties in the ruling coalition who are pushing these ideas.

The major problem facing Iraq is that it lacks rule of law. Freedom of the press and assembly might be protected, but if the government doesn’t want to enforce those rights there’s nothing for people to do. That doesn’t mean that the independent media is about to be shut down in the country, but they work within defined limits set by the powerful. If they ever cross those lines, they know that they can expect a visit by the security forces. Many of these boundaries are shaped by the fact that the country’s politicians grew up under the dictatorship of Saddam, and have not freed themselves from that mindset. The fact that Iraq is an oil rich country also makes leaders unresponsive to the needs and demands of the public. With almost all of the nation’s income coming from petroleum, the elites only need the people for their votes. That doesn’t mean they don’t try to improve the country, but when it comes down to it, the ruling class will serve its own interests first. That’s what’s led to the constant abuses of the judicial system, the prisons, the media, etc. It’s for all of these reasons that Iraq is not yet a full democracy.


Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2011,” State Department, 2012

Iraq Body Count

Knights, Michael, “Iraq – The Past, The Future, And Why it Matters To You,” London Business School Energy Club, 4/24/12

UNAMI Human Rights Office and Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, “Report on Human Rights in Iraq: 2011,” May 2012

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