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Human Rights in Iraq: When a Constitution Is Not Enough

Human Rights Iraq Islamic State Constitution
Iraqi security forces at the site of a mass grave containing the bodies of dozens of men, women and children killed by the Islamic State, in Ramadi, Iraq, 19 April 2016. Photo AP

Human rights in Iraq are primarily addressed in Section Two of the permanent constitution, which was enacted following the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003 and the establishment of the first elected government in late 2005. Articles 14-36 of Chapter One (Rights) guarantee the right to equality, regardless of race, religion and other factors. These articles also emphasize the right to life, security, freedom, equal opportunities, a fair trial, work and ownership. In addition, the constitution covers the right to education, health, housing, employment and social security so as to guarantee a dignified life.

Articles 37-46 of Chapter Two (Liberties) prohibit all types of psychological and physical torture and inhumane treatment. In addition, the constitution considers that any confession made under duress shall not be relied on; that the state shall guarantee the protection of individuals from intellectual, political and religious coercion, and that forced labour, slavery, slave trade, trafficking in women or children, and the sex trade shall be prohibited. Moreover, the constitution ensures freedom of speech, freedom of press, peaceful assembly, the freedom to form or join associations and political parties, and the freedom of thought, conscience and belief.

Role of Governmental and National Institutions

A large number of texts in the constitution address human rights, but governmental and national institutions entrusted with enforcing the constitution, ensuring the implementation of its provisions, protecting human rights and promoting a culture of human rights have been accused by local and international human rights organizations of delinquency, infringement and non-compliance with these provisions or with international agreements of which Iraq is a signatory.

In 2015, a report addressing the special Sub-Committee on Accreditation (SCA) of the International Coordinating Committee of National Institutions for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights (ICC-NHRI) described the Iraqi High Commission for Human Rights (IHCHR) as ‘an empty box’. Upon the establishment of the IHCHR in 2012, political parties and blocs interfered flagrantly in the selection of commission members, which led to repeated questioning of its independence. The same report, which was drafted by five Iraqi associations, also accused the IHCHR of lacking transparency in its activities and the reports it issues. Besides, chairmanship of the commission has yet to be agreed although it has been nearly four years since the Iraqi Council of Representatives voted by majority on the commission’s members and the current commission’s term is now coming to a close.

The Ministry of Human Rights was one of the first victims of the reform promised by Prime Minister Haydar al-Abadi, who dissolved it along with the Ministry of Women’s Affairs and three other ministries by a Diwan order on 16 August 2015. Some responsibilities were transferred to the Foreign Ministry, IHCHR and others. Employees were also transferred to different institutions. The process is not clear to the Iraqi people.

The Ministry of Human Rights had long been accused of failing in its duty to protect human rights, whether against violations committed during the US occupation or those committed in Iraqi cities or government-run prisons, as revealed in reports issued by local and international human rights organizations. It is noteworthy that the last minister of human rights was Ali al-Bayati, who is a leader in the Shiite Badr Organization that runs a number of militias accused of committing criminal acts.

Neither have Iraqi courts been immune to the accusations levelled by international organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch as well as the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) and the Office of the High Commissioner of the United Nations for Human Rights (OHCHR). A joint report issued by UNAMI and OHCHR claimed that Iraqi judges have systematically ignored more than half of the trials, including death penalties, and defendants’ claims that they were tortured and forced to make confessions. The report also said that the judges took insufficient or no action at all regarding the remaining cases, such as in the Camp Speicher massacre, knowing that the majority of the defendants are Sunnis.

The report added that the judges convicted the defendants they did try and even sentenced them to death by relying exclusively or primarily on doubtful confessions or testimonies made by informants. It is noteworthy that most defendants, according to the report, were brought before courts without having legal representation, and even ‘in the cases where the courts appointed lawyers for them, the defendants were not given enough time to prepare their defense in an appropriate way’. Accordingly, UNAMI and OHCHR expressed their concern about weaknesses in the Iraqi judicial system, claiming that criminal investigations and judicial proceedings do not meet international or constitutional guarantees related to the fair trial standards applicable in the cases of death penalties.

Security and military institutions have also been accused of killing or assaulting Iraqi citizens, depriving them of their civil rights, infringing on their freedoms through brutal torture and inhumane or degrading treatment, disappearances and abductions.

A 2015 report by the International Coalition for Freedoms and Rights (ICFR) on the human rights situation in Iraq, which took the form of videos posted on YouTube, showed militants dressed in army uniforms torturing prisoners by cutting open their backs and putting salt into their wounds. These forms of torture are coupled with cursing and insulting language to force detainees to confess to crimes they did not commit.

Cases of torture resulting in death have also been confirmed. The report detailed the story of lawyer Udai Taha Kurdi, 33, who was arrested by Interior Ministry forces on 10 June 2014. His family was informed two weeks later that he had died from a serious health condition, but a local human rights organization believes he was probably killed by electrical torture.

On 30 April 2016, a delegation led by Salil Shetty, the eighth secretary general of Amnesty International, visited the counterterrorism centre in al-Anbar where 683 men are being held. Prisoners were piled up in several rooms inside the abandoned warehouses that are used as a detention and interrogation facility. Shetty stated that it “was a really awful scene” and that some detainees had been held for weeks or months without charge.

Women have not escaped the violence of Iraq’s security institutions. In a report based on interviews with incarcerated Sunni and Shiite women and girls as well as with their families and lawyers and providers of medical services in prisons, Human Rights Watch concluded that ‘no one is safe’ in custody. The report said that the Iraqi authorities had detained thousands of women unlawfully and that many of them were subject to torture and ill-treatment, including sexual abuse. Two women reported that they had become pregnant after being sexually assaulted by prison guards.

Iraq at War

With the so-called Islamic State’s (IS) capture of Mosul and large swathes of the Ninawa Plain, religious and ethnic minorities have suffered severely. Christians have been displaced from their homes and villages, and IS militants have seized their property and destroyed churches and silos.

The Yazidi minority has been a particular target. Research conducted by Human Rights Watch in 2015 found a system of organized rape and sexual assault, sexual slavery and forced marriage by IS forces. The extremist group also opened a public market for selling Yazidi women. In one of the most widely documented stories, IS carried out an attack on the predominantly Yazidi village of Kojo in 2014 and executed its men. Some reports say that IS has forced many Yazidis to convert to Islam, in flagrant defiance of the freedom of religion or belief.

IS has committed other atrocities, including the murder in June 2014 of around 1,700 Iraqi Shiite soldiers from the Speicher Air Force Base in Tikrit. Against the backdrop of this bloodshed, the United Nations issued a report describing the killings as war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.

In response to the group’s invasion of Iraq and the collapse of large sectors of the Iraqi army, the government announced a general mobilization, followed by a fatwa issued by the Shiite religious authority Ali al-Sistani. Shiite men were formed into military militias, known as the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF). However, these forces have also committed criminal acts that are tantamount to war crimes, according to a report issued by Amnesty International.

The report, titled Militia Rule in Iraq, documents ‘dozens of cases of kidnapping and unlawful killings at the hands of Shiite militias in Baghdad, Samarra and Kirkuk,’ and holds the government legally responsible for the actions of the PMF members who operated under the command of Iraqi military forces.

The situation is no better when it comes to the other rights guaranteed by the permanent constitution. Many sectors in Iraq, including education and health care, are deteriorating. There is also a significant lack of decent housing., The Ministry of Planning announced in 2014 that 7% of the Iraqi population lives in slums. Furthermore, the amended Social Security Act of 1971 remains in effect despite calls by trade unions and civil society organizations to replace it. The lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community faces extreme difficulties in claiming its rights. Intolerance of those who identify as LGBT is generally high, and the dominance of Islamists in political and social life has forced hundreds to flee or risk being killed, often in horrific circumstances. In 2009, Human Rights Watch released a report shedding light on the atrocities committed by militias against the LGBT community and the unwillingness of the security forces to defend the rights and lives of sexual minorities.

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