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Q&A: UN Chief in Iraq Cautiously Optimistic About Elections

Mohammed A. Salih interviews AD MELKERT, Head of the U.N. Mission in Iraq

WASHINGTON, Feb 19 2010 (IPS) - The improving security situation in Iraq in the recent years has meant more space for the United Nations to play an active role in the country’s development in various sectors.

Ad Melkert Credit: UN Photo/Evan Schneider

Ad Melkert Credit: UN Photo/Evan Schneider

Top on the list of U.N. priorities has been helping with Iraq’s political development and, within that context, conflict resolution. With Iraqis preparing for parliamentary elections next month, the U.N. has been deeply engaged in helping Iraqis to organise successful elections, given its experience in arranging such elections in many other post-conflict countries.

As ethnic tensions persist between various groups, especially Kurds and Arabs in the northern part of the country, many are also closely watching the role the U.N. is playing on that front.

IPS correspondent Mohammed A. Salih sat down with Ad Melkert, the head of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI), in Washington to discuss the country’s situation with regard to the upcoming elections and resolution of ethnic disputes.

Melkert has held senior positions in the U.N. such as under-secretary-general, and has also served as a member of the World Bank’s Board of Directors. Before joining the U.N., he was a member of the Dutch parliament and minister of social affairs and employment, and became the head of the Dutch Labour Party in 2001. He was appointed the U.N. Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Iraq in July 2009.

Excerpts from the interview follow.

Q: Do you think that we have the right kind of circumstances available in Iraq in order to have fair and free elections? A: Well, I mean there are a number of important conditions in place. There is an election law. There is the technical organisation that we think is at a higher level than before. It doesn’t mean that it will be perfect, but it is there and there is quite some substance and resources to that.

There is also a genuine interest among Iraqi people to participate in the elections. Time will tell how that will work out on the election day. So, nothing is guaranteed, but I think there is reason for cautious optimism about the run-up to the elections and the election day

And then, of course, the big challenge to all candidates is what to do with the results and that’s another important phase, in fact, for the consolidation of democracy in Iraq.

Q: What about the role of the U.N. Assistance Mission for Iraq? In what ways is UNAMI assisting Iraqis to make sure that the elections can be as free and fair as possible? A: There is the responsibility of the Iraqi sides, and particularly the independent high electoral commission. The U.N. is there as an advisor and, say, provides technical support. That is an important role. But the U.N. acts at the request of the Iraqi government. And it is also important to distinguish responsibilities in that regard.

Q: What about the ban on the 145 candidates? How do you think that will perhaps affect people’s perception, whether inside Iraq or outside, in terms of the legitimacy and fairness of the upcoming elections? A: We have always said as the U.N. that we can understand; or let me say it is the legitimate right of the Iraqi parliament to adopt a law as they did to exclude people with a Baath past from holding public office.

But having said that it is very vital that in the application of that law, a process is followed that is transparent and consistent and respects also the rights of the individual candidates. And there we have concerns and we have kept concerns that transparency has not been part of the process. So it’s hard to verify actually.

That could also be a concern to Iraqi voters. However, they will have chance to vote for members of the same party of those candidates who have been excluded, which is different than what was the original idea. But on that point, we have made clear we thought that was not in accordance with international standards and I was happy to see that that point and the case has been withdrawn.

Q: So in terms of how this ban affair was handled by the Iraqi authorities, you think there was not indeed due process and probably, as some have charged, it was an act of political score-settling on the part of some groups? A: No, I cannot say it from my perspective in that fashion. I can just say because it’s difficult to verify, it leaves questions open that actually should not be open questions.

Q: Let’s move to the issue of disputed territories. What has UNAMI done to address and resolve the problems and tensions along the so-called trigger line between the Kurds and Arabs and other ethnic groups as well? A: Well, in the recent months, we have been working with both the Kurdish, the Arab and Turkoman communities to start to address issues with regard to property, education and language rights, missing persons and detainees, which is all still, say, in an initial stage.

But what we see is an increasing willingness of parties to look for constructive ways forward. And we hope that we can accelerate that process and also bring it to the political level of the key issues that must be addressed sooner or later – and rather sooner than later in order to enhance stability in that particular part of Iraq.

Q: What is your biggest concern, as the U.N. head in Iraq, when it comes to the issue of the disputed territories? I mean, what is the worst fear that the U.N. has that could probably come true in that part of the country? A: Well, my concern would be that people might find it, say, easier, so to speak, to have the open issues pending for a long period of time. I think that there are many examples in history that when you don’t arrange an intrinsic conflict properly and timely, then you will run into issues at a bad day and relatively small incidents can suddenly explode into something much bigger. And that’s what we have to prevent. And we hope that politicians in Irbil and in Baghdad will be very much aware of that and help to avoid that from happening.

Q: Your predecessor, the former head of the U.N. in Iraq, Stephan De Mistura, apparently drafted a report on how the issue of the disputed territories could be resolved but never released that report. Do you intend to release that report to the public in Iraq in order to bring another aspect to the public debate in that country on the issue? A: Well, these reports were draft reports really meant to open up a dialogue and I believe that they are still in the draft stage and we should not concentrate our efforts in completing or perfecting those reports. But rather on the basis of what we have learned, say, from collecting historical evidence and interpretation, look to the future and try to establish an agenda for the future. And that will be the emphasis we will give to it.

Q: Is there any particular suggestion in that report that you would perhaps like to share here? Anything about how the U.N. thinks that problem could be solved? A: Well, not now!

Q: On Wednesday, the U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, Christopher Hill, said that the U.S. believes the solution for the disputed territories should be a “negotiated solution.” However, you know that in Iraq, Kurds are particularly keen that the solution should come through the constitution’s article 140. What is the vision that the U.N. has on that? A: I think this is also very good example where it would be important to listen to parties and to try to find common ground. I am sure that around the article 140, it is possible to find common ground. We will try to advise accordingly, but let me not anticipate how that advice will be.

Q: A lot of people, especially the Americans, have been complaining about what they say is the negative role that some of Iraq’s neighbours play in that country. As the head of U.N. mission in Iraq, do you also share those views? Have you also observed any negative role played by any neighbours? A: I have observed the need for Iraq to have the space. That it is important for the future to have the space to the route to an autonomous development, for Iraqis to decide about the Iraqi future. And I think that will be something that is relevant in the interaction with many partners.

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