It’s Human Rights Day – but what about human rights in Iraq?

Iraq WP Human Rights

“Where does the thought go when it is forgotten?”

Whilst I read this line, I already capture myself overthinking; I immediately feel a sense of loss, and an inner urge to recall all of my previous thoughts, I feel violated by my own memory loss – of never having actively traced back these steps of forgotten thoughts. “Where does the thought go when it is forgotten?”, asks Ali Eyal when he tries to revise his memories of what it means to have grown up in Iraq. The result is an intricate narrative on the cultural visibility of Iraqis under decades of violence, loss, and exile in the New York MOMA. 

On Human Rights Day, I ask myself the same question, as I try to retrace the steps of my own human rights consciousness, and my own journey to adjusting to the intergenerational trauma methodology of normalising the violence against Iraqis. I unlearned to grieve every time I heard about killings and abductions of family members, but most importantly when I realised that the human right to life, liberty and security, as stipulated under Article 3 of the UNHRC, did not emerge to protect brown, Iraqi bodies like mine.

Twenty minutes away from Ali Eyal’s exhibition, Iraqi Archbishop Warda warns the UN Security Council on the 3rd December 2019 about possible repercussions, such as another civil war, if the international community remains silent whilst protesters at the ongoing Iraqi revolution are being violently murdered.

On 1 October this year, Iraqis came together in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square to assert themselves against multiple local, regional, and global forces of oppression. Not only did this quickly come to prove itself as one of the largest protests since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, but it soon blossomed into a revolutionary movement that has led to the resignation of Prime Minister Adil Abdul Mahdi.

Protests in Iraq have been an annual occurrence, which would usually emerge in the heat of the summer in Southern Iraq – which is also the country’s oil-richest area and thus makes Iraq OPEC’s second largest crude oil provider. Iraq’s youth, constituting 60% of the Iraqi population, has been protesting against lack of clean water, public services, and consequential cholera outbreaks – which constitute a clear contestation of Article 21(2) of the Human Rights Convention.

The human right to life (Article 3) is routinely violated in Iraq. ISIL and Abu Ghraib contributed to political, social, and murderous hostilities exacerbated by the environmental consequences of the seven-year war. Iraq’s radiation could be ten times higher than that of Chernobyl.

One of the major demands of Iraq’s revolutionary movement today is the revision of the 2005 Iraqi Constitution, which was drafted under the US-led coalition forces, and has divided Iraq according to ethno-sectarian quota systems. It has thus legitimised the abduction of almost 30,000 Sunni Iraqis as a provisional measurement against terrorism; and, furthermore, allowed personal status issues to be determined according to religious affiliations, contributing to the deterioration of women’s rights.

The imposition of neoliberal doctrines, leading to a deeply intertwined debt relation with the International Monetary Fund, has also reinforced western investors’ preferential treatment through tax-free exports. As a result, protesters are demanding an end to corruption and the patronage system as fostered by the current Iraqi constitution – it is estimated that since 2003, $459 million has been stolen.

The UN Human Rights Review published a report in 2019 on the situation of Iraq. It documents that the Iraqi government abolished the Ministry of Human Rights in 2015, similarly as it briefly mentions that the Iraqi constitution is incompatible with Article 18 of UDHR (Freedom of Religion).

It further enlists the estimated killing of 200 people on grounds of their sexual identity, and condemns that hate speech is not criminalised in Iraq. Yet it fails to draw analogies to the current uprisings in Iraq.

After 16 years of an enduring, corrupt regime, triggered by the lack of opportunities and anger with the systematic discrimination, Iraqis have taken to the streets. There have since been more than 400 deaths, and 2000 abductions. Suffice it to say that the Freedom of Assembly (Article 20) has been violently breached not only by the Internet blackout, but also by targeting protesters’ heads with gas canisters and snipers.

The Iraqi Human Rights Commission stipulated a warning of a security escalation in Baghdad, which will further put the life of protesters at risk, now constantly attacked by unknown assailants. The world remains silent. 

Is the visual imagination of an armed group who opened fire on protesters in Baghdad this Friday – where 15 young people died and 60 were wounded – not scenic enough to constitute a clear enough violation of Article 30 UNHRC in order to be featured in popular media?

I wonder about where the forgotten thought went when the UN Human Rights review analysed Iraq in 2019 – was there a sudden inertia that Iraq is still a signatory to the Covenant of Civil & Political Rights, or is it acceptable to undermine Iraqi protesters’ compliance with Article 19 (Freedom of Expression and Article 20 (Freedom of Peaceful Assembly), because the weapons used against protesters contribute to the US economy?

I wonder what happens when the aspirations of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are being forgotten in today’s post-Saddam Hussein Iraq. One may hope it will not reproduce a history of blood to be solely hung on the walls of the New York Museum Of Modern Art.

On Human Rights Day, it is important to be mindful of our own stance when replicating media narratives. I suggest this moment to be utmost crucial – not just for Iraqi history, but also to our international community – to speak openly about the occurrences in Iraq.

To speak from an emic narrative perspective, which puts the protester’s individual journey and motivations before the popular portrayal of bloodshed and ‘vulnerabilisation’ of Iraqis. By doing so, we understand Iraqi youth as self-determined agents, capable of hindering the loss of a thought before it can manifest itself into a more suitable legal framework respecting human rights.

  • Koko Alhusainy is a student currently studying the LLM in Law and Gender, and has experience researching about the role of international law in the ethno-sectarian tensions in Iraq.

Image credit: Rashad Mammadov

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