The UN Security Council, UNAMI and the Yazidi Paradigm in Iraq
August 4, 2010Over the past week, the Iraqi press has accorded a hilarious amount of attention to today’s meeting in the UN Security Council devoted to Iraq. The basic purpose of the meeting is to renew the mandate for the UN assistance mission to Iraq, UNAMI, which expires in a few days; this limited objective notwithstanding Iraqi journalists and politicians have conjured up a lively scenario of some kind of concerted international action to install a whole new government for Iraq to end the current deadlock. Beyond their regrettable effect of giving Iraqi politicians an excuse for further postponing government-formation, maybe until after Ramadan in mid-September, there seems to be little substance to these reports apart for their obvious entertainment value – how about a scenario in which Russia and China slug it out over whether Maliki or Allawi should have the PM position; Brazil intervenes to suggest Ibrahim Bahr al-Ulum as a compromise candidate!
Far more serious matter can be found in the small print of the report of the UNAMI special representative of the secretary-general in Iraq. The main part of the report is unremarkable: In predictable fashion it glosses over several of the shortcomings of the 7 March elections and ends up recommending an "inclusive and broadly participatory" government-formation process. But the section on "human rights" has flagged some interesting items that should serve as an indication to the Iraqis about what sort of assistance they can really hope to get from the international community. This part of the report contains several striking items, among them a congratulation to the Kurdish regional authorities for establishing an "independent board of human rights" coupled with a failure to elaborate on why the local elections in that region that were supposed to take place in 2009 have just been postponed until 2011. But by far the most remarkable entry is the following one: "In a further positive development, on 14 June the Iraqi Federal Court passed a ruling increasing the number of seats in the Council of Representatives for the Yezidi minority group in proportion to their population in accordance with the figures from the last national census".
Many Iraqis will fail to see the positive aspect of this much-overlooked ruling by the federal supreme council. For one thing, it is the latest in a string of partially contradictive rulings by the court on the use of minority quotas in the Iraqi political system. First, in a ruling on 20 July 2009 the court (wisely) struck down a proposal to subdivide the electoral constituency of Kirkuk in ethnic districts (Arab, Turkmen, Kurds) on the grounds that it would constitute racism and that the constitutional requirement of 1 parliamentary representative for 100,000 Iraqis was geographically based and had nothing to do with ethno-sectarian subdivisions:
But the latest rulings made on 14 June include firstly a radical interpretation of the principle of proportional representation that threatens a return to the hated single-constituency arrangements of January 2005, and secondly – the "milestone" flagged by UNAMI – instructions to the Iraqi parliament to adjust upwards the number of seats for the Yazidis ahead of the 2014 elections with a reference to population data that show some 200,000 Yazidis already back at the time of the previous census (1997).
This will play well in the international community, where typically the situation of minorities attracts headlines far more easily than less dramatic bread and butter issues. But what are the consequences for Iraq? As is well known, the demarcation of ethno-sectarian groups in northern Iraq is a messy business, with the groups themselves often disagreeing on the criteria for self-definition. For example, some Christians believe they are a religious minority whereas other think they are "ethnic Assyrians"; similarly the Kurds try to convince Yazidis and Shabak that they are Kurds whereas many members of these groups virulently oppose Kurdish overlordship, partly on the basis of religious tenets (the Yazidis have their own religion and the Shabak are Shiites) and partially with reference to language. Ironically, because of the Kurdish attempts to dominate these groups indirectly by installing pro-Kurdish leaders among them, it is the Kurds and their clients that have spearheaded the quest for more "minority seats" in order to populate them with pro-Kurdish placemen – the very demand to which the federal supreme court has now yielded, and which UNAMI applauds before the Security Council. (It deserves mention that UNAMI and the Kurds and ISCI tried the same trick during the revision of the election law in 2008 but were trumped by what was then known as the 22 July group of Iraqi nationalist parties.) So the question is what will follow next. By linking the criteria of numerical representation (1 to 100,000) to the level of minority groups for the first time (previously minority representation had a less mathematical, negotiated basis), the federal court, with the support of UNAMI, could be opening a can of worms where a far greater number of Iraqis may feel tempted to be defined according to ethno-religious criteria. If the Yazidis can, why not the Turkmens or the Kurds?
This, in other words, is what the UN Security Council has in store for the Iraqis: More Paul Bremer logics, where the Iraqi population is carefully calculated according to ethno-sectarian criteria and then given their proper share. It is the perfect way of legitimising and perpetuating a neo-imperial approach: The Iraqis are seen as a primitive people forever locked in ancient communitarian hatreds above which they can rise only with the benevolent assistance of Western diplomats. It is a kind of epistemology that went out of fashion in academia somewhere in the early twentieth century, but in the UN Security Council it is apparently still taken seriously. Tomorrow, after the ongoing consultations, UNAMI is likely to have its mandate renewed for another year. That will probably not include installing a "salvation government", as some Iraqi newspapers had speculated, but the Yazidi paradigm will remain, almost unnoticed.