Select Committee on International Development Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by Minority Rights Group International


  This submission from Minority Rights Group International considers in particular the issue identified by the International Development Committee as "the risk of large scale ethnic fighting leading to humanitarian disaster".

  Information in the submission is largely drawn from the MRG report "Building Democracy in Iraq", published on 12 February 2003. This report examines the conditions under which Iraq could effect a transition to democracy. In so doing, it considers not just the formal absence of dictatorship, but also the need to establish those features which are essential to a genuinely democratic society, including fair representation, cooperation between communities, the rule of law, personal security and respect for human rights. The report is based on detailed interviews with, and analysis from, internationally-renowned experts in conflict prevention, transitional administration, human rights and international and comparative constitutional law, including Yash Ghai (Professor of Public Law at the University of Hong Kong and until recently Chair of the Kenyan Constitutional Review Commission), Max van der Stoel (UN Special Rapporteur on Iraq 1991-99, and former Dutch Foreign Minister and OSCE High Commissioner for National Minorities 1992-2001), Asma Jahangir (UN Special Rapporteur on Extra-judicial, summary and arbitrary executions, co-founder of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan and Millennium Peace Prize laureate) and Donald Horowitz (Professor of Law and Politics at Duke University School of Law, USA, and global authority on inter-ethnic issues).

  This submission considers the potential risk posed by inter-ethnic and inter-confessional conflict and the action necessary to try and avoid it. On the one hand, Iraq has a recent history of systematic discrimination and violent repression targeted at particular ethnic and religious groups; on the other, it has traditionally been a relatively well-integrated society. However, major political change and international intervention pursued in Iraq, if not properly informed, may together risk exacerbating the potential for division.

  It should be noted that Minority Rights Group International takes no position on the legitimacy of the use of force against Iraq. However, it considers it important that given the likelihood of major political change in Iraq in the near future, steps are taken to protect minority rights and safeguard democratic development.


  A brief guide to Iraq's different peoples follows:


  Note: The 1997 census recorded a population of just over 22 million, although the current population is more credibly estimated at around 26 million. Due to the lack of credible census information, the political sensitivity of population estimates and the tendency of particular communities to exaggerate their numbers, the figures quoted below are necessarily approximate.

Sunni Arabs

  A dominant minority, the Sunni Arabs have constituted most of Iraq's ruling class from the time of the Hashemite monarchy onwards. Making up approximately 17% of the population, the Sunni, particularly those from the north-west, dominate the government, the Ba'ath Party and the armed forces. They form the majority in many areas of central and western Iraq.

Shi'a Arabs

  The Shi'a form an overall majority in Iraq, constituting about 55% of the population, but have historically been marginalized in terms of political and military influence and have long suffered from discrimination. The Shi'a are most concentrated in the south and south-east, but also now are a majority in Baghdad. The Shi'a include the Mada'in, the so-called "Marsh Arabs", who before the government campaign of repression following the 1991 Gulf War inhabited the extensive marshlands at the confluence of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers.


  The Kurds form some 15-22% of Iraq's population, concentrated overwhelmingly in the Kurdish autonomous region in the north and north-east of the country, bordering Turkey and Iran. They constitute a linguistic as well as ethnic minority, speaking Kurdish rather than Arabic, but are nearly all Sunni Muslims. The small remaining population of Feili Kurds are, however, Shi'a, and live in Baghdad and the south-east. The Yezidis speak Kurdish but observe their own religion.


  Making up about 3-4% of Iraq's population, most of the Turkoman live in the north. They are split between Sunni and Shi'a Muslim, with only the former generally looking to Turkey for support.

Assyrians and other Christian minorities

  Christian confessions constitute another 3-4% of Iraqis. Many Assyrians, members of the Nestorian Church, still live in the north, where they suffered in the Iraqi government's Anfal campaign. There is also an Assyrian community in Baghdad. The Chaldeans and smaller groups of Syrian Orthodox, Armenians and Catholics live mainly in Baghdad.


  Once numbering over 150,000, the Jews of Iraq have nearly all left or been forced out. Following a major exodus in the 1960s and 1970s, small communities numbering no more than a few hundred now remain in Baghdad and the north.

  It should be noted, however, that to assert that present-day Iraq is ruled by Sunni Arabs is a somewhat misleading statement, both because it implies a level of confessional exclusivity in an administration in which many Shi'a and some non-Muslims hold prominent positions, and also because it suggests that Sunnis as a whole enjoy political dominance when in practice the power is held by very few. In reality, Iraq's leadership has traditionally been dominated by a small number of Sunni tribes from North-Western Iraq, and Saddam Hussein's use of kin networks and patronage to entrench his personal power has made this factor even more marked.


  The ethnic and religious diversity of Iraq, envisaged as a series of divisions or fault lines, has led many commentators to predict a future of civil conflict for Iraq. The leading report in the Wall Street Journal on 11 December 2002 began, for example: "If a US-led force succeeds in ousting Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, the victors would inherit a traumatized society full of festering conflicts that didn't start with him and wouldn't suddenly fade with his departure . . . How can the nation avoid being dismembered by its neighbours or breaking up in spasms of violence like the former Yugoslavia?" 1

  It is notable, however, that ethnically or religiously homogenous states are rare, and those that are homogenous are not markedly more stable than those that are not. In Iraq, while there is a long history of conflict particularly over relations between the Kurdish region and the central government, there is also a longstanding practice of cross-community integration, with members of the Shi'a and of Christian minorities working in state institutions, including taking prominent positions in authority. In many important respects, ethnic and confessional distinctions do not coincide (most Kurds are Sunni Muslims, for example, sharing a confessional identity with the Sunni Arabs predominant in Iraq's government).

  This also has an important international dimension. For example, although southern Iraq is the historical centre of Shi'a Islam, and many groups of Shi'a believed to be of "Persian" origin were expelled to Shi'a Iran by the Iraqi government from the 1970s onwards, the Iraqi Shi'a are mainly Arabs, and see themselves as distinct from the Farsi-speaking Iranians. There was no significant rebellion of Iraqi Shi'a during the Iran-Iraq War and only a minority of Shi'a appear to support the Iranian revolutionary concept of the velayat i-faqih ("guardianship of the jurist") or clerical rule.

  All these factors work against ethnic or confessional identities operating as overriding factors in Iraqi politics. Similarly, the renewed importance of tribal networks, while making future constitutional arrangements in Iraq yet more complex, also works against ethnic or religious groups being seen as monolithic blocks.

  A post-totalitarian Iraq will nonetheless have to deal with the legacy of extreme repression and grave violations of the rights of minorities. The fact that such violations were in many cases targeted at specific ethnic or religious groups (including the genocidal al-Anfal campaign against the Kurds in 1988) will have increased the chance of future division in the country.

  Human rights violations have continued on an appalling scale to this day. In the north, outside the Kurdish autonomous area, the Iraqi government has pursued a policy of "Arabization", forcibly expelling ethnic Kurds or Turkomans from key areas particularly in and around the oil centre of Kirkuk, or coercing people into registering themselves as Arab. Periodic reports of the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iraq, first appointed in 1991, now comprise over a thousand pages of reporting revealing a pattern of systematic gross violations. 2 In April 2001 the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, the UN body that monitors compliance under the International Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, expressed further concern over allegations that "the non-Arab population living in the Kirkuk and Khanaquin areas, especially the Kurds, Turkmen and Assyrians, have been subjected by local Iraqi authorities to measures such as forced relocation, denial of equal access to employment and educational opportunities and limitations in the exercise of their rights linked to the ownership of real estate".3


  Perhaps the most immediate danger following the initiation of an international armed conflict in Iraq would be action taken by Iraqi security forces against communities perceived by the regime as constituting a threat. This is exactly what happened during the 1991 Gulf War, when massive campaigns of repression particularly in the north and south of the country led to mass refugee movements and the passing of UN Security Council Resolution 688.

  A legacy of both that conflict and ongoing repression in Iraq is the large number of internally displaced persons (IDPs). In 2002 the US Committee for Refugees placed Iraq among the 10 countries with the highest number of internally displaced people, estimated at between 700,000 and 900,000. A mass movement of IDPs following the initiation of international armed conflict would have grave consequences for the personal and food security of large sections of the Iraqi population, which is highly dependent on state assistance under the "oil-for-food" programme.

  Beyond specific campaigns of repression by the Iraqi government, there are, as noted above, both positive and negative indicators for more widespread ethnic or religious conflict in Iraq. During the largely spontaneous Shi'a uprising in 1991, there were terrible revenge killings of those who were seen as representatives or agents of the government, but the reports indicate that the attacks were perpetrated regardless of confessional or ethnic affiliation. That is to say they appeared political, rather than sectarian, in character. Political parties representing both Kurds and Turkomans have resolved to reverse the forced displacement that in recent years has been committed in the region of Kirkuk (a town to which both groups historically lay claim), but the record of relative ethnic and religious tolerance in the Kurdish autonomous region suggests that this could be achieved without violations of the rights of Arabs and bodes well for future ethnic relations. Recent history suggests that perhaps the greatest danger comes from in-fighting between Kurdish parties, although the two main parties committed themselves to power-sharing in the Washington agreement in September 1998.

  International experts interviewed for the MRG report did not wish to exaggerate the risk of a widespread sectarian conflict in Iraq, although they all agreed the likelihood of revenge killings taking place and some noted that the risk of a wider civil war would increase if international actors had their proxies in the theatre, a reference in part to the support of armed groups by neighbouring states.

  The interviewees all generally agreed that if there were an international peace-keeping or administrative presence in Iraq during a transition phase, it would be preferable if it was a neutral UN force. It is important to note that this is a separate question from the identity of, or mandate for, international belligerents in any war with Iraq, although the two are obviously connected, as Mr van der Stoel pointed out: "The USA will be less inclined to share influence if only very few countries, perhaps only Britain, really contribute to the second war against Iraq". This caution has also been voiced by Chris Patten, the EU Commissioner for External Relations, who has drawn attention to the fact that UN involvement will make it much easier to get reconstruction aid from the EU, the world's largest development donor. He said on 13 January: "I would find it much more difficult to get the approval of member states and the European Parliament if the military intervention that had occasioned the need for development aid did not have a UN mandate." 4

  When Mr van der Stoel was UN Special Rapporteur on Iraq, he called for the deployment of human rights monitors in the country. The role of human rights monitors is essentially to observe and report on human rights violations—they are not peace-keeping forces—but the presence of monitors can itself function as a deterrent to the commission of violations and build confidence, as was demonstrated in El Salvador. A prominent group of Arab academics, lawyers and journalists from a number of Middle-Eastern states also called in January 2003 for "the stationing across Iraq of human rights monitors from the United Nations and the Arab League, to oversee the peaceful transition of power in the country".5


  There has already been considerable debate about the basic elements of the constitutional order in a post-totalitarian Iraq, including the desirability of a federal or unitary structure for the state, possible elements of a federation, the extent of regional or ethnic autonomy, and priorities for institutional reform. The US State Department has sponsored conferences of Iraqi opposition groups in exile, although agreement on detailed proposals has proved elusive.

  However, many of the current proposals being debated in the US and UK governments appear to ignore issues which are central to the construction of long-term inter-ethnic and inter-confessional harmony, including: the danger of dividing the country into ethnic or religious "cantons"; the protection of regional minorities in the constituent parts of any new Iraqi federation; the likely tendency for political parties to be constituted along communal lines in the early phase of a transition; and the all-important issue of the appropriate representation of all Iraq's communities in central government and administration. The recent international experience of constitution-building in post-conflict societies, from Lebanon to Bosnia and Herzegovina, has shown how in many situations the crude formulae for power-sharing adopted can have the effect of exacerbating and entrenching ethnic or confessional differences.

  In order to avoid these dangers and create conditions for a peaceful transition after any conflict, Minority Rights Group International has drawn up seven ground rules for building democracy in Iraq (see below). A vital role for the international community in a transitional phase would be to provide technical support in constitutional design aimed at promoting cooperation between communities while allowing strongly-felt identities to be expressed and protected.


  Minority Rights Group International recommends:

  1.  The people of Iraq must be central to the determination of the form and process for constructing democracy in Iraq, including decisions over the structure of any transitional administration, the choice of representatives, the design of a constitutional process, and the form and content of a new constitution. The self-determination of the Iraqi people is the overriding criterion for creating democracy in Iraq.

  2.  A constitution-making process should be designed, based on a wide-ranging consultation with the people of Iraq, in which all Iraq's ethnic and religious communities are represented. The process should consider constitutional options which facilitate cooperation between communities, including:

    —  electoral laws which encourage political parties to appeal across sectarian lines, for example requiring them to nominate a proportion of candidates from minority communities;

    —  an electoral system which requires parties or candidates for federal office to secure a minimum distribution of votes in addition to number of votes;

    —  the devolution of power to enable regional self-governance where it is desired by the local population, with regional autonomy based on territorial rather than ethnic or confessional lines; and

    —  the establishment of a federal structure for Iraq, taking into account particularly the long-held aspirations of the Kurds for self-government, while ensuring the protection of the rights of regional minorities within each of the constituent parts of the federation.

  In addition to drafting a constitution, the constitutional process should have as explicit aims the development of education in democracy and the promotion of public knowledge about the constitution to facilitate its implementation and protection.

  3.  A new constitution should conform to international standards on human rights, including minority rights. It should establish equality for all before the law, incorporate specific protection for the identity of ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities, and establish mechanisms for the protection of the constitution, including an independent judiciary with powers of constitutional review, a national human rights institution, civilian control of the police and armed forces, and dispersal of power.

  4.  Authorities in Iraq should undertake special measures to counteract long-standing discrimination against the Shi'a and against the Kurds and other members of ethnic and religious minorities, and promote their participation in government and other public institutions. A major programme should be implemented to facilitate the return of internally-displaced persons or refugees to their homes, or to resettle them, as determined by the expressed wishes of the persons themselves.

  5.  In the interim period following a conflict, any transitional administration should be sufficiently mandated and equipped to ensure personal security (including food security), human rights and the rule of law. Human rights monitors should be deployed across Iraq to monitor compliance with international human rights and humanitarian law standards and build confidence. Any external forces should have a clear UN mandate and be international in composition to ensure credibility and neutrality in the eyes of the Iraqi people.

  6.  All authorities in Iraq should comply with the international standards to which Iraq is a party, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. UN and international forces that may be present in Iraq should also comply with the full range of international human rights and humanitarian law standards and institute mechanisms for monitoring compliance and dealing with violations.

  7.  Individuals responsible for the commission of war crimes, genocide and other crimes against humanity in Iraq, irrespective of their nationality, should be brought to justice according to international standards for fair trial. The Iraqi people should determine a system of transitional justice to ensure reparation for past crimes and end impunity, including the consideration of mechanisms such as truth commissions, statutory reparation programmes, administrative measures and criminal prosecutions. The constitution of a criminal tribunal with international involvement should also be considered as part of a transitional justice programme, in consultation with the UN.

Minority Rights Group International

10 February 2003


  1.  "Ethnic, Religious, Political Rifts Test U.S. Hopes for a Stable Iraq", Street Journal, 11 December 2002.

  2.  For a useful summary, see the statement of UN Special Rapporteur Max van der Stoel to the 55th session of the UN Commission on Human Rights, 31 March 1999. The Special Rapporteur's latest report was dated 20 August 2002, UN General Assembly A/57/325. Andreas Mavrommatis took over as Special Rapporteur from Max van der Stoel in late 1999.

  3.  Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, Concluding observations: Iraq, 12 April 2001, CERD/C/304/Add.80.

  4.  "Patten warns US over aid for Iraq", Guardian, 14 January 2003.

  5.  Reuters, 2 January 2003; Associated Press, January 2003. The "Arab intellectuals" initiative was principally aimed at avoiding an international armed conflict by calling for the resignation of Saddam Hussein.

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