The KRG doesn't listen and rejects external warnings; people don't believe them and laugh
Instead of listening to external criticism about its human rights record, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has lashed out at its foreign partners. But the people of Kurdistan, who have direct, daily encounters with their government, do not believe the authorities and are mocking the KRG’s responses.
"Meaningless talk, except for those who benefit from it. No one can say that America has lied. We are aware of our surroundings," a young lawyer wrote on Facebook, commenting on the KRG response to a recent human rights report prepared by the US State Department.
He added that, whenever you say something on social media about KDP, they will make apologies for the next day.
The US State Department's human rights report is hardly the first time that Washington or other foreign governments have offered up criticism of the KRG, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). External actors, including governments, international organizations, and human rights groups, have repeatedly warned about violations and disrespect for freedom and democratic principles in the Kurdistan Region, which was once called "the other Iraq" due to its relative openness to the world.
But now, as the Kurdistan Region faces many internal challenges, the people are tired of the government’s weakness and restrictions on freedom of expression. Moreover, they are frustrated with poor governance, youth unemployment, and the failure to supply basic services like drinking water, electricity, fuel, good roads.
Injustice and corruption have increased economic inequality and entrenched a privileged class who live in modern housing developments and whose children study at the best local and foreign universities, while the majority of the community suffer from many deprivations.
The report of the US State Department and the KRG response
Each year, the US State Department prepares human rights reports about a variety of countries around the word. The Iraq report includes information about the situation in both federal Iraq and the Kurdistan Region.
In this year’s edition, as in years past, the report outlined violations of freedom of expression and human rights, corruption, and violence by the security forces, which in the Kurdistan Region are affiliated with the KDP, the PUK, and the KRG.
According to the report, the security forces have attacked demonstrators and activists who are critical of the government, several of whom were arrested without a warrant, particularly during the days around the protests organized by the New Generation Movement last August.
The State Department also addressed the role of the political opposition, media, and civil society, citing several violations of their rights. It says that media outlets affiliated with the KDP and the PUK are able to operate freely in the areas their patron controls, but independent outlets and those linked with the opposition parties are routinely denied access to information.
The report also said the PUK and the KDP operate their own armed forces, Peshmerga units, and intelligence agencies and criticized poor conditions in prisons, which included beatings and torture of detainees. Violators were effectively given impunity.
Corruption and lack of rule of law were also raised in the report, which it argued were obstacles to healthy governance. Bribery, money laundering, nepotism, misuse of public wealth, and partisan influence all affected government decision-making.
"Federal [Iraqi] and KRG officials were often engaged in corruption without being punished," the report said.
Although the Kurdistan Judicial Council is legally, financially, and administratively independent of the KRG's justice ministry, the report found that the Region’s top leaders are able to influence sensitive, political cases and citied several examples where the KDP influenced the appointment of judges and court decisions.
Two days after the US State Department released the report, Dindar Zebari, head of the KRG's Office of International Advocacy, issued a strongly worded response, attacking the US consulate and rejecting the report’s findings.
"The US State Department's report is opaque, inaccurate, and presents a double-standard modality about the realities of the Kurdistan region. The report contains bias and neglects; it fails to mention the Kurdistan Regional Government's efforts to fight terrorism, which is a major challenge for the region," Zebari said in his statement.
"It is worrying that the US Consulate General is in direct contact with several individuals, news outlets, and a number of so-called ‘civil society’ organizations that support certain political agendas and many of those so-called ‘civil society groups’ do not have legal licenses to operate legitimately," he added.
The KRG official insisted that the security and intelligence agencies in the Region "belong to the government" and that the judiciary is "completely independent."
Zebari went on to add that "there is a high degree of freedom of expression and the press, with hundreds of media outlets operating freely, most of which are critical of the official authorities. Nonetheless, the State Department report relies on several unofficial sources and media outlets which have political, rather than human rights-based positions."
The people of Kurdistan laugh at their government
The State Department report and the KRG’s response were both widely covered by media outlets and on social media in Kurdistan Region. Many activists and ordinary citizens expressed support for how the report highlighted rights abuses and compared Zebari to Muhammad Saeed al-Sahhaf, the widely ridiculed Ba’athist minister of information who briefly rose to prominence during the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.
"The US State Department's report has fully addressed violations by the regional authorities within the party and the government. The report appears to be very accurate, as they have created and protected the [Kurdistan Region] for years, and many teams are officially and unofficially in the Region," said Dr. Latif Mustafa, a former judge and a commentator on political affairs.
He went on to say that "unfortunately, instead of voting and trying to prevent violations, the regional authorities have once again ordered their Saeed Sahaf to lie about the report. No one believes the Kurdish Saeed Sahaf and people are mocking his lies."
"We can say that the beginning of the search for a replacement will be on the shoulders of the people of Kurdistan," Mustafa added, arguing that there will be political fallout from the report.
At time of writing, there were seven comments on the Facebook page KRG's Department of Media and Information under the post with the official KRG response to the US report. Only one comment was supportive of the KRG, while the others voiced support for the State Department’s findings. Seventeen out of 71 likes employed the laughter emoji.
Peregraf also reported on the KRG’s response. Sixteen out of 62 likes were the laughter emoji and only two comments supported the government’s statement. One of the comments, from a person named Jaza, said: "Although the KRG is corrupt, I will never betray Kurds for other countries." The other person expressed support for Jaza’s comment.
The other 17 comments under Peregraf’s reporting defended the US report. "The so-called regional government, which I don’t claim as a government, remains based on lies and money," a poster named Sirwan Mohammed said. Someone else, named Hemn, wrote that "until now they have lied, so why they would tell the truth?"
Not doing elections and losing legitimacy
Since they were established 32 years ago, the Kurdistan Region’s political institutions have never held elections on time. In spite of this, senior KRG officials recognize that the failure to do so leads to questions about the legitimacy of the political process in the Kurdistan Region.
Quadrennial elections for the Kurdistan Parliament were supposed to be held last year, but were delayed after the political parties were unable to agree on a new election law.
Controversially, the KDP, the PUK, Gorran, and MPs holding seats reserved for religious and ethnic minorities voted in favor of extending the parliamentary term by a year. The Islamist parties and the New Generation Movement boycotted the vote, while the latter also filed a lawsuit in Baghdad against the extension.
In its report, the US State Department noted this delay, stating that UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Iraq Jeanine Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert had told regional officials that elections should be held on time and that democratic principles should be respected.
Hennis-Plasschaert’s encouragement is part of growing international pressure on the authorities in the Kurdistan Region. She said in a statement on March 8 that she hoped a solution to the election delay would be found soon.
This was echoed by German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock when she met with Kurdistan Region President Nechirvan Barzani the same day in Erbil. KRG Prime Minister Masrour Barzani also met with Baerbock and said that there was no excuse for postponing the election.
On March 26, President Barzani announced a new election date for November 18.
Foreign pressure, and the carelessness of the Kurdistan Region's authorities have also elicited criticism in the international media. A recent article in Foreign Policy, a US-based publication, highlighted corruption, injustice, and the effects of economic inequality and poverty in the Kurdistan Region. It was coincidentally published at around the same time as the US human rights report.
The article argued that foreign governments should continue to pressure the authorities in the Kurdistan Region and make their support for the KRG and the local authorities conditional on reform and respect for freedom and human rights.