Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Iraq’s Human Rights Committee, An Example of Parliament’s Inability To Oversee The Government

Iraq’s constitution gives wide-ranging powers to the parliament to oversee the government. It can investigate public offices, question ministers, and remove them through no confidence votes. The problem is the executive branch has largely refused to cooperate. A perfect example of that is the relationship between the human rights committee and the Justice Ministry. The committee wants to question the Justice Minister, but he refuses. The committee wants to inspect prisons, but has recently been barred by the ministry. This shows the difference between what Iraqi law says and how it is actually practiced. The executive branch usually acts with impunity with little interference from the legislature, and when lawmakers do ask questions like the human rights committee has, they can easily be ignored.

Iraq’s Justice Minister Shammari has refused to be questioned by the human rights committee

In March 2013, the parliamentary human rights committee complained about the Justice Ministry. The committee said that two of its members were stopped from making an unannounced visit to a prison in Baghdad in December 2012. It blamed the Justice Minister Hassan Shammari, who in turn threatened to prosecute them for trying to enter a security facility without permission. The committee claimed that Shammari held a grudge against it for discovering a secret prison at Camp Honor in the Green Zone back in March 2011. One committee member stated that it could not do its work, because the government would not cooperate with it. Another said that no minister had ever agreed to be questioned about human rights issues, and that Minister Shammari even refused to be questioned at his offices within the ministry. Finally, a third told the press that government officials were harassing committee members for trying to do their work. The Iraqi constitution gives parliament the right to oversee the government, including questioning ministers. The problem has been the legislature has often neglected its duties, members have attempted to block its work, and the executive has refused to cooperate. The human rights committee has actually attempted to do its job by inspecting various prisons across the country, and requesting that Minister Shammari appear before it. He has simply refused, and there is nothing the committee can do to make him comply. That highlights a major flaw with the workings of the government, namely that the checks and balances included in the constitution are not complied with allowing the executive to do what it wants.

In this case, what the government is getting away with is torture, abuse, and ignoring due process at its detention facilities. In February, the Justice Ministry hosted a delegation from Britain’s parliament, and told them that there was no torture or human rights violations in Iraqi prisons. The human rights committee is one of many that have proven that false. In March 2011, after it found the secret prison at Camp Honor, the Human Rights Ministry claimed that it was closed down. The committee claimed that people were still being held there however. That same month, lawmakers went to Diyala where they discovered a prison where three-quarters of the prisoners had been held for up to two years with no trials. In August, the Justice Ministry turned it away from a prison in Hillah, Babil. A few days afterward a riot broke out there over mistreatment. In June 2012, it noted cases of torture at Taji prison in Salahaddin, blaming the judicial system. It claimed detainees were held there for up to eight years with no court date, that the prison had lost files on its wards, people who were supposed to have been released were still being held, and a lack of medical care. The United Nations, Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch have made similar findings. The government usually disregards their reports saying that they are exaggerating or making unsubstantiated claims. The work of the human rights committee is important, because it is an official Iraqi source reporting on abuses. It has proven its worth through its inspections of Iraqi facilities. While the Justice Ministry has had no problem with some of its visits, others are obviously considered problematic, and hence they are denied access from time to time. Unfortunately, the committee has not been able to stop human rights violations in Iraq, which are deeply imbedded in the culture of the security forces, but it has helped to expose some of them, which is an important job for the legislature.

Parliament’s human rights committee is an exception to the rule in Iraq’s government. It is a legislative group who has tried to oversee the government through going out into the field, and requesting ministers appear before it. It has done important work finding cases of abuse in Iraq’s detention facilities. Unfortunately, it has often been stopped from completing its duties by the government. The Justice Ministry has blocked its visits several times, and Minister Shammari has refused to answer its questions. Usually, Iraq’s parliament is more compliant with the executive, because the same parties that run it control the ministries. There is no reason to inquire about the government’s actions, because that would open up all the ruling coalition members to investigation. The human rights committee shows that those lawmakers that are concerned about carrying out their duties can only go so far, because those in power do not want to be scrutinized, and have the ability to ignore the constitution when it suits them.


AIN, “Justice Ministry denies existence of torture, violations in Iraqi prisons,” 2/25/13
- “PHRC reveals “torture cases” against Taji Jail prisoners,” 6/27/12

Amnesty International, “Iraq: A Decade of Abuses,” 3/11/13

Brosk, Raman, “Torture against prisoners cannot be proven through claims, says Human Rights Ministry,” AK News, 6/27/12

Human Rights Watch, “Iraq: Mass Arrests, Incommunicado Detentions,” 5/15/12

International Crisis Group, “Failing Oversight: Iraq’s Unchecked Government,” 9/26/11

Al-Mada, “Parliamentary Human Rights: uncovered secret detainees in green zone visit prisons,” 3/23/13

Parker, Ned, “Elite units under an office of Maliki’s linked to secret jail where detainees face torture, Iraq officials say,” Los Angeles Times, 7/14/11

Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, “Quarterly Report to the United States Congress,” 4/30/11

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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