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John JenkinsAmbassador, Baghdad
Guest blog from Chris Bowers, Consul General in Erbil.
Psalm 137 is one of the most vivid and familiar poems in the Bible, capturing the pain, grief and confusion of conquest and exile. The exiles, transplanted to Mesopotamia, the birthplace of the Patriarch Abraham, but for centuries used to praying in Jerusalem, felt cut off from their spiritual roots - hence: “How shall we sing the Lord's song in a strange land?” Then at some stage during the pain of exile, a transition was made from a God that could only be worshipped in one fixed place to a God that could be prayed to anywhere: God was globalised.
Issues of Diaspora, return and learning are central here in the KRG, the northern part of Iraq. Scores of thousands of Iraqi Kurds fled Saddam’s barbarity from the 70s onwards. I am proud to say that UK took many of them in and they made their homes and livelihoods with us. Such forced movements of people are sadly not new. There is an excellent book by Bruce Clark about the forced population exchanges between Greece and Turkey in the 1920s. The title: “Twice a Stranger” sums up the fate of individuals who become ‘strangers’ in the land they move to and also ‘strangers’ when they return changed to their homeland. Raja Shehadeh, a distinguished lawyer, novelist and playwright, has written memorably about the Palestinian experience.
But that is not the whole story; there can be a richness as well as anguish in the story. I was reminded of that recently when I had dinner with an Iraqi Kurd I am proud to call a friend. Rizgar Amin is a psychiatrist in north London; the epitome of a successful, educated man making a professional contribution to UK society, and who is as British as I am. But he has a Kurdish hinterland that he can’t forget. And he hasn’t.
Psalm 137 is uncomfortable reading mostly because of the last verse, which speaks shockingly to the rage of exile: “Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.” In Iraqi Kurdistan, the ‘taking’ and ‘dashing’, and the poisoning, gassing, torturing and more besides, was done by Saddam’s forces. The healing of the trauma that many Kurds have gone through is done, in part, by Iraqi and Kurdish psychotherapists.
That is where Rizgar comes in. Through a programme organised by the Royal College of Psychiatrists and supported by some mental health Trusts in the UK Rizgar and his colleagues at Iraq Sub-Committee take time off work to run training courses for Iraqi and Kurdish colleagues, many of whom are only in the last few years catching up with developments in the field as Iraq rejoins the community of nations after years of isolation. Who better to ‘train the trainers’ in latest thinking and approaches to psychiatric theory and practice, new assessment models in psychiatric training, research methodology and cognitive behaviour therapy than a man who with his colleagues understands both worlds, and who rather than twice a stranger is twice at home in two different cultures?
That reinforces my point: human rights matters to everyone and we each have a duty to promote and protect them. That is reflected in this year’s UN motto, “Speak up – Stop discrimination”. To paraphrase the famous poem by the German Lutheran Pastor, Martin Niemoeller, imprisoned by the Nazis, “They came first for all the people I wasn’t, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't one of them./Then they came for me and by that time no one was left to speak up.” That should say it all.
Yesterday the British Embassy in Baghdad held our annual Remembrance Ceremony at which we remembered those who died in the two World Wars and in subsequent conflicts. As an Ambassador I have taken part in many such ceremonies, in the beautifully kept Commonwealth Cemetery in Rangoon in Burma, in the small and tranquil Cemetery in Damascus and at the dramatic Cemetery on Mount Scopus in Jerusalem, looking down on that holy and ancient city from the same site as the Roman General and future Emperor, Titus, or the great warrior of Islam, Umar ibn al Khattab.
These ceremonies are deeply moving: they create a time and a space to reflect on the meaning of conflict and the losses it causes. My own family was directly affected by the conflicts of 1914/18 and 1939/45. I have a great-uncle who died as a soldier in Basra in 1919. Today I also thought of those who lost their lives in the almost continuous conflicts - external and internal - involving Iraq since 1980.
In the end, conflicts have political causes and political solutions. I hope that the political progress towards forming a new government for Iraq that we witnessed last week will bring a permanent end to conflict and violence here. This will need compromises on all sides. But it is through compromise that we reach stability. And stability brings peace, which is what most people desire above all. I was reminded of this again by the events in Rangoon over the weekend, with the release of Daw (the Burmese equivalent of Sayyida) Aung San Suu Kyi. When I was Ambassador there, Suu became a friend. I admire her enormously. She is a powerful advocate of the politics of consent, of non-violence and of national reconciliation. Her message works not just for Burma but for the world.
The great shrines gleamed in the sunlight. The ruins of Ur and Ctesiphon stood out from the surrounding desert as proud monuments of Iraq's long history of civilisation. The earliest photograph dated from 1854. The exhibition as a whole was a reminder of the long ties between our two countries, and of the importance of cultural exchange in celebrating such shared experiences. It was also a reminder of the difference between then and now. The photographs represent an Iraq that was largely agricultural and river-based, with the patterns of the seasons marked by ancient cultural and religious rhythms. Iraq now is a modern oil-producing state recovering from tyranny and destruction.
Religious identities remain strong. And physical reconstruction is under way. But we should remember that the reconstruction of a strong cultural life - something for which Iraq has long been famous - is also important. This is the factor above all else that engenders the sense of a common humanity across national and religious boundaries. The urgent need for this came home to me again after the horrendous terrorist attack on the Church of Our Lady of Salvation on 31 October. We have condemned this attack absolutely. But words alone cannot really express the horror that all good people must feel at such savagery. I am Catholic myself.
The late Yasser Arafat used to tell me in Ramallah how important Palestinian Christians were for the national identity and dignity of all Palestinians. The same applies to Iraq. That was the message of the moving memorial service, attended by dignitaries from all the religions of Iraq. We were then reminded by Tuesday's equally appalling bombings across Baghdad that terror knows no religion, nationality or ethnicity. My sympathies are with all those in Iraq and elsewhere, irrespective of religion, who suffer at the hands of those who wish only evil to others. This has gone on too long.
Today (Friday 15 October) is Blog Action Day (BAD) across the world. In my last blog I highlighted the case of an Iranian blogger, imprisoned for expressing his opinion. Since then there has been another such case in Syria. Blogging is clearly a disturbing activity for some people. And elsewhere, including Iraq, where attacks upon journalists continue, freedom of expression is under constant threat. So today's global effort to promote blogging is a fantastic response to those who would seek to silence opinion and dissent, two keystones of democracy.
On a related subject, al-Arabiya a week ago reported the death of Selma al-Radhi, a distinguished Iraqi architectural historian who spent much of her career in Yemen, and in particular working on the restoration of the wonderful Ameriya Palace mosque in Rada'. Her sister, Nuha, was a noted writer and musician and her brother Abbad an accomplished architect. This sad event has reminded me how deep the cultural influence of Iraq has been over the years, how it was suppressed but how it can rise again. It is apt that one of the most renowned contemporary architects in the world, Zaha Hadid, who has just won the Stirling Prize in London, is Iraqi and, I see from newspaper reports, is about to start her first project in Iraq. Freedom of cultural and freedom of political or social expression can all galvanize, inspire and organize. They are essential to a healthy society.
So is water. The culture and history of Iraq are bound up with its identity as the land of the two rivers. The declining levels of water in the Tigris and the Euphrates are a concern, as Iraq's upstream neighbours seek to use the flow for drinking water, agriculture and electricity production. The low levels of both the Dokan and Darbendikhan lakes mean that they now contribute little or no hydro-electric power to Iraq's electricity grid. Farmers complain of the increasing salinity of groundwater, making it unusable for agriculture. In the south, the low levels of the rivers has meant that sea water encroaches ever further up the Shatt al-Arab, causing problems to agriculture and industries that use water in their processes. People face shortages too - few people here, I believe, have access to piped, drinkable water, and are dependent instead on massive supplies of imported bottled water. There are other concerns - the mountains of unrecycled plastic bottles that one day will have to be dealt with; or the hideous dust storms that never used to happen, Iraqis tell me, when more of the land was irrigated and farmed. Is this a disaster in the making? I hope not, though it will take determination and good management to make the best use of the water that is available. Two pluses are that the Ministry of Water Resources has great professionalism; and Iraq has - or will have - the resources to buy the technology, carry out the repairs and rehabilitate the land.
Water, art, music, architecture and freedom of expression. Life cannot simply be about today; it also has to be about tomorrow.
I haven't blogged for a while - since before Eid al Fitr. Partly that was because I was in London for a few days - during which I had good meetings with the Foreign Secretary and senior colleagues about our relations with Iraq. And partly because everyone in Baghdad was saying we would have agreement on a new Iraqi government very soon - and I thought I would wait to see what happened. Well, it's been three weeks now and - although there has been movement, as we saw last Friday - the political situation seems no clearer. The good news for me is that London remain very keen to see our relations with Iraq make positive progress. There is so much to do to strengthen our political, trade and defence relations. That will be easier, I hope, when a new government is in place. It would be good for this to be sooner rather than later. But the fact that this is such an important choice for Iraq as a whole is clearly one of the things that is making agreement so difficult.
In the meantime I am delighted that we have a strong presence this week in Erbil at the latest major trade fair in the KRG. We have plans for more such activity soon. I was also down in Umm Qasr recently to see the excellent work that the joint US/UK naval training and support mission down there is doing with their Iraqi counterparts. This is an important task, especially given that around 80% of Iraq's oil exports go through Basra.
Finally, I was reminded this week how risky blogging can be in some parts of the world. On 27 September, Hossein Derakhshan, described as "the blogfather of Iran", was sentenced to 19 and a half years in prison, banned from political and journalistic activities for a further 5 years, and fined €30,000 for exercising his right to express his opinions. He was one of the first and most active of Iranian bloggers, whose work had a wide readership in Iran and across the globe. He can appeal against the verdict. But I doubt if he will be optimistic about the outcome.
I see that Reporters Without Borders have expressed outrage and called the sentence "unprecedented". Apart from bloggers, 170 Journalists have been arrested in Iran since June 2009. Not a good sign. I should add that there have also been attacks on journalists by armed groups here in Iraq. Press attention and freedom of expression can be uncomfortable for governments. But they are essential parts of a free society. We should all support good independent journalism.
They have shown that they want a responsive and accountable political system that delivers peace, security, stability and prosperity. That requires a response from their politicians. This means not only the party leaderships but each and every one of the elected members who are paid well for representing the people who elected them, but cannot effectively do so as long a government is not formed.
It also requires the most absolute rejection of those criminals seeking to exploit the current political uncertainty by attacking innocent people in the streets of Baghdad, Basra and elsewhere in Iraq. In particular, the recent attacks on members of the Iraqi Security Forces and on judges - all of whom demonstrate enormous courage in doing the jobs they do - show that these people want to undermine confidence in the rule of law and intimidate those who administer it. They must not be allowed to succeed. That makes it even more urgent for the political class in Iraq to find a way to form a properly representative government that can grip the administration of this country. That is a blessing that Iraqis truly deserve
It was a short but memorable occasion. It is fantastic that Iraq has genuine parliamentary politics - and that politicians want to get them right. The downside is that it's taken three months to get to this point. The incessant appeals against the election results, complaints, court cases and so forth delayed final ratification by the Supreme Court until two weeks ago. Talking to my Iraqi colleagues I feel a growing sense of popular frustration with the slowness - and opacity - of this process. That could be damaging. To paraphrase an English expression about justice, democracy delayed is democracy denied. And the appalling attack yesterday on the Central Bank in Baghdad showed the lengths to which terrorists are prepared to go to undermine the civil institutions of the emerging Iraqi state. We rightly remembered the victims of this atrocity - and of other atrocities in Iraq - at this morning's COR ceremony. They include many brave members of the Iraqi police and armed forces who have given their lives in defence of freedom. But the best defence against terror is proper politics - tough but decent debate, a pragmatic commitment to peaceful compromise and a genuine pledge to serve the Iraqi people. That is what parliament represents. And the elections, where Iraqis demonstrated their determination to make their votes count and have their voices heard, put a responsibility on politicians to make this real.
I do not underestimate the difficulties facing Iraqi politicians as they seek to find a path through the uncertainties involved in creating a new state. Politics here is serious in a way that is not always the case elsewhere: it is still about life and death and about building a new state from the foundations upwards after 30 years of tyranny. And the opening session of this second independent parliament of the new Iraq, simply by the fact of its happening, embodies this seriousness. I feel privileged to be present - if not at the creation then at the consolidation of a serious new democratic politics. But I and my diplomatic colleagues are simply observers. The people who will make democratic and inclusive politics real and sustainable are the politicians. And the people who sustain the politicians are the people. That is the contract between any governing class and the governed. Politicians need success. They also need wisdom and moderation. I wish Iraqi politicians, and the Iraqi people, all three.
I spent yesterday in Basra - my fourth visit in six months - in the company of my US, Italian, Japanese and Dutch colleagues, all representing countries which provide bases for major oil companies now operating in Iraq. These companies are doing so following the two oil licensing rounds conducted successfully last year by the Iraqi Oil Ministry. As a result of the service contracts they signed, they are now in Basra working very closely with the very committed staff of the Southern Oil Company. And together they are starting to remobilise the country's huge oil wealth in the service of Iraq and all its people. Mineral wealth is such an asset for Iraqis. Having access to the most modern production technology and reservoir management techniques will maximise its value for them and,
I very much hope, the economic and social benefits that will flow to the whole country as a result. We had the chance to witness at first hand some at least of what is happening - out in the giant Rumeilah field, where new wells are being drilled with great skill and speed. I was impressed by the Iraqi oilmen I met there and talked with, as well as over lunch later in our Consulate-General. This country has a long and proud history of oil. And I know from my experience elsewhere in the Middle East how highly Iraqi petroleum engineers and managers are valued around the region. This is a great example of effective and practical cooperation and our visit symbolised this.
We also had a chance to meet General Mohammad, the Basra Operations Commander - a brave and committed soldier, senior Iraqi officials and representatives of some major Iraqi businesses from Basra keen to attract foreign investment into the area. We are keen too. There are already British companies operating down there - apart from those in oil and security, Mott McDonald and Inchcape Shipping for example. I'd like to see more. There was a UK Trade Mission in Basra recently led by Emma Nicholson, who has a long history of supporting the Iraqi people.
The Basra Investment Commission is an ally for us all in promoting more and stronger links. Our Consulate-General in Basra, under the energetic leadership of Alice Walpole, is active in promoting business. There are also some relatively simple things that the Iraqi government can do to help, for example clarifying, simplifying and standardising immigration procedures, making market entry simpler and easier. If we all work on this together in the true spirit of cooperation, Basra and Basrawis will be the ones to benefit.
This has been an extraordinary month politically in both Iraq and the UK. I was back in London on 6 May to vote in the British General Election. The election campaign in Britain had been unique, with party leaders for the first time speaking directly to the British electorate through televised debates. That had in turn sparked a new level of interest and discussion about the strategic direction of British politics - and also, given the closeness of the contest, renewed competition for every single vote. So as I placed my own (secret!) vote in the ballot box in Wandsworth, I thought about the fundamental importance of that simple act and how clearly Iraqi voters in March had shown their desire to exercise the same democratic right. It took us in Britain a few days to sort out the result.
We now have a new government - a coalition for the first time in 70 years. And the debates continue. Here in Iraq we are still waiting for a government. Everyone I have met since I returned from London has compared the British experience with the Iraqi one. There are points of similarity and points of difference. The fierceness of the contest and the closeness of the result are similarities. The length of time it is taking to sort out an Iraqi government is a big difference. One of the things that people here have said to me is that our experience in Britain shows the overriding importance of strong democratic institutions, parliament, the judiciary, the press, the civil service, the voluntary sector, NGOs. That is what guarantees the orderly and democratic transfer of power in accordance with the wishes of an electorate.
These institutions do not appear overnight. It took us a long time to evolve what we have today. But the highly professional work of the Iraqi Elections Commission, for example, has shown what is possible, even in far more difficult circumstances than we have ever experienced in modern Britain. The Iraqi press too is vocal and engaged. We are all still watching to see what the political negotiations will produce. In the end, as with us or any other democracy, it is important that that result reflects what electors want, responds to their needs and is widely accepted as fair and legitimate. The proper concern of governments is the national interest, not that of other countries. They need to lead. But fundamentally they serve their people not the reverse. And if the Iraqi people were to decide after another 4 years that they wanted something different, that is their right too, as it is ours in Britain.
I watched on Al Arabiyya satellite channel as the Elections Commission announced the headline results of the Iraqi elections Friday night. Election day had been impressive and moving - Iraqis determined to turn out and vote in spite of threats of violence and all the difficulties of their daily lives. The announcement of the results two weeks later had real drama.
First, the delay had heightened political tensions. But it was amply justified by the need to ensure the absolute integrity and transparency of the vote count. Ad Melkert, the UN Representative in Iraq, who speaks for the international community, outlined the extensive checks that took place in the counting process to ensure transparency. That in itself is a message that will resonate in the region.
Second, the race between the two frontrunners, Al Iraqiyya and State of Law, went down to the wire. And the Iraqi National Alliance ran them a close third. This is real politics and real democracy, reflecting real choices made by ordinary Iraqis. They deserve a government that delivers for them all.
Third, there has been enormous and continuing media interest in these elections. This was reflected in the banks of cameras and microphones at Friday's press conference. And Iraq is leading the news not just on the major Arab satellite channels but globally. These things tell me what a successful election and new government in Iraq means around the world.
There's now a flurry of meetings between the various blocs, to sound out positions and assess the possibility of negotiating new coalitions. Clearly the quicker an effective new government is formed, the better able it will be to respond to what Iraqis want. This morning - Sunday - in a round of voxpops on the TV channels, people seemed still elated by the fact of elections but refocusing on what they might mean in terms of delivering improved security, services and jobs. That is always the real test of democratic politics. It's a good test to have.
The section of the report on Iraq shows real progress in some areas over the last year, like improving security and the rule of law, the consolidation of democracy, most recently in the recent elections (I will say more on those when the final results are announced) and the maturing of a relatively free media.
But there are also big challenges to push forward in all these areas. And there are also some black spots, such as the treatment of detainees. And a fundamental issue for Iraq and many other societies in the region, to ensure that women's rights are protected and promoted. Behind this lies an important truth: no society's full strength can be built on the basis of less than half its population (ie men).
Britain will continue to be active on Human Rights in Iraq. Since 2003 our work has been boosted by Ann Clwyd, MP, the Prime Minister's Special Envoy on Human Rights In Iraq. Last year Ann chaired working groups made up of Iraqi officials, human rights activists and British MPs focused on women's rights, rule of law and civil society. Our Embassy in Baghdad and our diplomatic missions in Erbil and Basra regularly raise human rights issues with the Iraqi authorities, including reaffirming our opposition to the death penalty, avoiding a violent resolution of the issue of the Mujahideen al-Khalq (MeK) presence in Camp Ashraf and ensuring respect for minority rights.
I spend a lot of my time working on issues related to Human Rights, both in terms of sustaining a democratic political process in Iraq, but also strengthening the institutions of the Rule of Law. I have a colleague working specifically on human rights issues, but also a UK police team building the forensic capabilities of the Iraqi police and consultants funded by our Department for International Development (DfID) working on building Iraq's political and economic institutions. Co-located with us is also an EU Rule of Law mission, including a strong British component, which implements programmes to train Iraqi judges, policemen and others. We will be working with Iraq next year on ensuring the setting up of a Independent Human Rights Commission and promoting greater use of forensic evidence. We will also work on areas such as the implementation of legislation that will encourage the development and protection a strong NGO sector as well as help Iraq work towards a just, fair and ILO-compliant trade union law and promoting greater freedom of the media.
Sometimes in political debate in the region, Human Rights is criticised as a Western agenda being imposed on the Middle East. I believe that is completely wrong. If you look at how the ideas and institutions developed to promote and protect Human Rights, you see two major trends:
i) an understanding that all human beings deserve respect as human beings. That idea is as strong in Islam as Christianity and other religions;
ii) to ensure justice for ordinary people, they need to be protected from abuse by the powerful and the rich. The vast majority of Iraqis have at some stage in their lives suffered in this way and as part of a better future for Iraq, they deserve to have their rights protected effectively by their law and their institutions.
Britain has contributed to the development of these ideas and institutions over many centuries. We are proud of that. But we are also committed to helping others achieve what we take for granted. Life and liberty under law. As far as I can see, there is no more important cause for me and my colleagues to work for in Iraq in coming years.