Geneva - Reactions varied to the election of Mohammed Shia al-Sudani as Prime Minister of Iraq on 27 October, after a year of political stalemate, disagreements, and partisan protests that sometimes erupted into armed conflict. Though the new prime minister has pledged to address several issues, it is notable that he has not devoted adequate attention to pressing human rights issues, while the victims of these rights violations have been waiting many years for justice.

Aside from political conflicts, Iraq’s human rights situation has deteriorated dramatically with a near-complete lack of clear strategy to promote human rights in the country and provide redress to victims of violations and events that have occurred in recent years. The new prime minister was expected to begin his term with a coherent pledge to prioritise addressing issues that hundreds of thousands of Iraqis are still affected by, the most prominent of which are the return and compensation of displaced people, lack of accountability of those involved in the killing and torture of demonstrators, particularly during the October 2019 protests, and torture in prisons.

   The new Iraqi government cannot demonstrate its good intentions regarding human rights and the pursuit of justice without working to address these specific issues in accordance with the relevant legal requirements   

The new Iraqi government cannot demonstrate its good intentions regarding human rights and the pursuit of justice without working to address these specific issues in accordance with the relevant legal requirements.

Internally displaced Persons (IDPs)

Over the past eight years, more than 1.2 million Iraqis have been displaced as a result of military operations against ISIL. The majority of those displaced live in haphazard camps devoid of life’s basic necessities, while a minority live in official camps—and the number is steadily decreasing. Down from 120 camps in 2017, there are now 12 camps, 10 of which are in the Kurdistan region.

Although official camps lack the needed humanitarian support and their residents live in degraded tents that do not protect them from the cold of winter or the heat of summer, they are still better than the haphazard displacement camps.

In the face of this ongoing suffering, successive governments took no effective steps to address the issue; instead, they contributed to doubling the suffering of IDPs by closing official camps and ultimately reducing services to today’s existing camps. Governments have justified their actions by citing the instability of the security situation in Iraq as an argument against allowing the return of thousands of displaced people, while simultaneously refusing to take decisive action to address the issue radically—by rehabilitating victims’ homes and returning them to their areas of origin so they can resume their normal lives, for example.

This problem has been left unresolved by successive governments, but the neglect should not extend to the new government, which is obligated to provide security, prosperity, and stability to all Iraqis. To accomplish this goal, al-Sudani’s government must announce a real action plan within a specific time frame to rehabilitate and compensate IDPs for the damages they have suffered, as well as stop using the state’s security situation as an excuse to prevent IDPs from returning home voluntarily.

Accountability for those who committed crimes against demonstrators

This problem is no less important than the problem of displaced individuals. Security forces and armed militias killed approximately 730 Iraqis, injured over 25,000 others, and forcibly disappeared dozens of peaceful demonstrators during the October 2019 protests, which lasted for about six months.

Despite the passage of three years since these crimes were committed and the formation of four government and parliamentary inquiry commissions, Iraqi authorities have failed to hold any perpetrators criminally accountable. Successive governments and inquiry commissions have not taken a serious approach to holding those involved accountable, as some commissions have had members affiliated with militias accused of killing protesters, while others lacked effective legal status; the findings of the investigations have not been revealed to date.

Given the previous failures on this issue, Iraq’s new prime minister has a real opportunity to demonstrate his government’s commitment to establishing the principles of justice and the rule of law by immediately and without delay criminally prosecuting those involved in violations against protesters and revealing the fate of those who were forcibly disappeared.

Since the reasons for previous inquiry commissions’ failures are known, it would be illogical for al-Sudani to make the same mistakes. Thus, the first step in demonstrating his good intentions in this realm is to avoid mistakes made by previous commissions, such as lack of impartiality, the formation of non-judicial committees, and other factors. Out of concern for the investigation’s independence and full transparency, al-Sudani should consider involving relevant UN bodies in the process to ensure that results are independent, impartial, and free from the influence of political parties and currents.

Torture in prisons

In addition to the aforementioned, grave issues, torture in official Iraqi prisons is a systematic practice used to force confessions from detainees or exact revenge on them and compound their suffering. This practice has resulted in the deaths of dozens of detainees, some of whom were apprehended by mistake due to a similarity of names.

Although al-Sudani’s media office created a designated email address solely to receive complaints from those subjected to torture or coerced confessions on 11 November, it is feared that this procedure is merely a formality in preparation for an upcoming visit by United Nations committees to follow up on the issues of torture in prisons and enforced disappearance; this theory is supported by the fact that the prime minister did not respond to human rights calls to address these issues when he previously served as Iraq’s minister of human rights.

The now Prime Minister al-Sudani has broad powers that enable him to take concrete steps to release wrongfully imprisoned detainees, put an end to all forms of torture and ill-treatment in prisons, compensate torture victims’ families, hold perpetrators of atrocities accountable, and provide psychological and material support to torture victims. The new government must demonstrate its sincerity by taking initiative in dealing with these issues, away from political considerations and without jeopardising citizens’ basic rights.

Hopefully, the rapidity with which al-Sudani and his government address the aforementioned issues will contribute to shutting the door on this bleak chapter of history and ushering in a new era of respect for the life and dignity of the Iraqi citizen. Otherwise, the crises will worsen, and the human rights situation in Iraq will deteriorate even further. Taking the steps to deal with these urgent issues is not a luxury; rather, it is an absolute necessity in order to restore the values of justice and the rule of law.