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Interview with UN Human Rights office chief

[Iraq] John Pace, Chief of the Human Rights office for Iraq. IRIN
John Pace, Chief of the Human Rights office for Iraq.
The UN human rights office, which covers both the humanitarian and political sectors, is working closely with various parts of Iraqi society, including the interim government, the Ministries of Human Rights, Justice, Women's Affairs, Migration and Displacement, along with civil society groups and NGOs. The mandate is to look at past violations of human rights as well as present conditions. In an interview with IRIN in the Jordanian capital Amman, John Pace, Chief of the Human Rights office for Iraq, said there was still a very long way to go before human rights were a reality in Iraq, according to international standards. QUESTION: How would you describe the situation of human rights in Iraq today? ANSWER: I would say it is complex, negative and very worrisome because the average citizen has very little, if any, protection under the state. As you know, under international human rights standards, the government has, whether they like it or not, the responsibility of protecting [the human rights of] individuals. Many are choosing to take the law into their own hands. So you will find several cases of crime, ranging from murder to kidnapping or harassment to cases of extortion. In this case the structures of the state are still not effective enough. International institutions, because they are unable to be there, are acting through intermediaries and that is not satisfactory, although they are good and brave. We are about to present a major programme projected to extend over two years aimed at the establishment of the rule of law. That means, among other things, helping the court system to find its normal place in the institutions of the state, training of judges and strengthening infrastructure in all aspects and equipping them with necessary materials. Q: What progress is being made to bring to justice those who committed past violations of human rights? A: Well, at the moment, apart from the Iraqi Special Tribunal (IST), there is no mechanism to deal with violations of the past. In our programme, one of the projects is to assist the Ministry of Human Rights to establish a centre where these violations can be catalogued in a systematic way to enable them to follow up on them, and this is a priority area. There is a consideration one should make. Iraq has a very fine tradition in the existence of trained people. They don't need to be taught about human rights, they know perhaps better than anyone else, sometimes bitterly, the value of human rights standards. The Law of Transition, which is the current law governing Iraq during this interim period, provides a solid bill of rights that guarantees the protection of these rights. I believe that the authorities will be considering various forms of transitional justice institutions to deal with some of these cases, but that needs preparation, and above all, the right climate. What is necessary in the immediate future is to top up this hierarchy that exists there by bringing it back up to speed. They have been cut off and deprived for the past 25 years in keeping up to date with modern management techniques. This also means to address and redress the problem of corruption with restructuring of the institutions. It is a tall order but refreshing to see that the ministries, old and new, share a common desire to strengthen the value or appreciation of which the rule of law is held in the country. We have defined 10 priority areas with the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights. Q: Are you involved in helping the authorities deal with the ongoing kidnappings, condemned by Secretary-General Kofi Annan on several occasions? A: Our activities are somewhat limited. We try and reconstruct as closely as possible the circumstances in which such kidnappings take place and try to pin down, as close as possible, various human rights aspects, whether they affect certain groups and what their motivation is. But at the moment we are severely limited by the security situation and the apparent inability of the authorities to cope with the current situation. Q: What is your assessment of prisoners' rights? A: The Ministry of Human Rights is consistently dedicating attention to the plight of prisoners. So has the Ministry of Justice. They have told us to prioritise the training of prison staff. The problem is that the prison system, as is the case in most countries, is the most difficult to train, because it has been neglected, or because prisoners do not have votes in many counties and so politicians do not give them the priority they need. The result is that these prisons turn out more criminals than they take in. With Iraq, the plight of the prisoner during the regime of Saddam Hussein, especially those who belonged to groups that the regime did not sympathise with, had their right to freedom constantly jeopardised. There was a lot of arbitrary detention. Conditions of detentions were extremely serious and have been reflected in reports by the UN Special Rapporteur on the Commission of Human Rights since the early 1990s. There are several layers that need to be addressed. First of all, that these people do not continue to be in that same situation and there is some degree of security for them. Secondly, to reverse the culture which had developed, according to which the right of the individual is not applied. The current situation does not reveal a marked improvement from that which prevailed in the past. But changing a culture is a huge and very difficult task, which you cannot do unless you create conditions for Iraqis to do this themselves. Q: What is the situation regarding mass graves? A: At the moment there are 262 mass graves identified. The Ministry of Human Rights wants to establish an agency for registering and recording the contents of these graves and we shall assist them with this. This is to enable families and loved ones to be able to identify whether they have any relatives there and at least give them that comfort and consolation as to the fate of their dear ones. It is difficult to tell when graves were exhumed and which period they are from. A group of forensic specialists and pathologists will be helping to determine a profile for the type of database the ministry wants. It is a very delicate process and we have had mixed experiences in different missions in the past, so we have to be careful. It will take more time and this is also a problem because there is a need to have urgency on this matter. Q: What is the status of rights for minorities in Iraq? We heard recently about the displacement of Arabs from the north of Iraq as Kurds return to areas they were originally forced out of. What about other minorities, such as the Turkomens and Christians? A: Most of the information we get, whether it is true or not, indicates that there had been some degree of non-violent coexistence in the past between minorities. There has been, since the end of the recent US-led war, an emergence of ethnic tension. But it is not clear whether these tensions arose because they were suppressed before and once the cover was pulled off they came out and would have been festering as it were over decades before, or whether it is because the invasion and the toppling of Saddam Hussein has split the country between those who identify with the occupation and those who are keen to rid themselves of foreign domination. Q: How about women. Are they better off than before? A: It is difficult to judge. One should not make general sweeping statements and I think that, in a sense, under Saddam Hussein, women's rights were more protected than they are now, but it is not fair to leave it said that way. Women have to fight harder now, but it is their own victory as it were, It is not something imposed from above. I think what we will see in the coming years is a stronger sense of freedom by Iraqi women, but it will probably be one hard battle after another because it has to go through spontaneous interaction among various cultures, those who are conservative and those who are modern. However, they have managed to get a few points in already with regard to the approach to the constitution and voting rights and so on. But still there is a long way to go and gender rights is a large component of our programme. Q: How can you ensure that the local human rights organisations you are working with are credible and not promoting their own interests, given the complex situation? A: There is always a bit of that, but I think we are here because we have had some experience before. Most of the dud organisations are not difficult to pick out. Having said that, you have to bear in mind that regardless of the agenda of the organisation, if they have access to first hand information and even if they chose to taint that information when communicating it to you, it is better for us to be inclusive and assess it, rather than exclude it a priority. There are of course people who say that there are former secret service informants who form NGOs, others form NGOs for money. But that happens everywhere really. However, our experience in working in various parts of the world puts us in a good position to assess and pick out the serious ones. Gathering information about human rights is a long and difficult process, but you have to pay attention to everybody and from that you are able to reconstruct facts and trends fairly accurately. I do believe that one must pay tribute to the excellent work done by our friends, the Iraqi human rights organisations and human rights activists in the country, whose work is little known, but very much appreciated by us in our work. Also, the role of the international NGOs in Iraq needs to be recognised - thanks to them it has been possible, in spite of the difficulties that we all know about, to maintain the humanitarian effort in support of the people of Iraq. The dedication and effort of these colleagues, and the valuable work they do, helps us maintain our perspectives - vis-à-vis the "dud" organisations. Q: Do you think that the human rights situation in Iraq is better now than under Saddam Hussein? A: In some respects it is, in some respects it is not. If you take it from the point of view of the individual, it is very very bad, if you belong to one group or another. The absence of protection of the individual, and the state of near anarchy in some areas reflect a negative human rights situation. Under Saddam certain groups were favoured, others were not. So those who were favoured are now suffering. And those who were not also do not have protection of their rights. The change of regime must be presumed to be for the better, and indeed there is no evidence of the institutionalised abuse of human rights of the past. To their credit, some ministers and ministries are clearly doing their best, but the situation as we see it today is far from the provisions of human rights guarantees as we read in the Transitional Law. My concern is that there has been too much priority given to the immediate need to have a physical military superiority and not enough importance and effort given to actually getting the Iraqis to develop their own society. The situation of human rights today, in general, is not better than before. But we look forward to the time when our efforts are able to assist, through the Secretary-General and the Security Council Resolution 1546, the rule of law in the country, to restore that culture whereby international human rights stand a chance of being acknowledged and applied. But at the moment the average individual in Iraq, especially in areas of conflict, is very far from benefiting from those international standards.

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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