The Iraqi parliament marked the 9-year anniversary of the fall of Baghdad this week by approving a human rights commission, made up by 11 members. The legislation relevant to the commission was passed back in 2008, so it has taken a long time to agree on those 11. And, in an indication of continued dissension as to the legacy of the war that unseated Saddam Hussein, Iraqis are already divided regarding the significance of the new commission and the legitimacy of the process by which it emerged.
The concept of a human rights commission is in itself an important innovation, both in Iraq and in the Gulf region more broadly. The idea is that citizens can contact the commission directly whenever they wish to have cases of human rights violations heard. The commission, in turn, can decide to hand over cases to the judiciary. It is however important to note that the commission does not possess any judicial power of its own. Accordingly, it cannot be described as a fully-fledged oversight body vis-à-vis the police and the security forces.
At any rate, while the idea behind the commission may be beautiful, the way the commission emerged has already prompted some criticism among Iraqis. Hardly had the names of the 11 new commissioners been agreed by parliament before angry voices began shouting a well-known term of abuse: muhasasa!
Muhasasa means quota-sharing in Arabic. In the Iraqi context, it has become associated with the particular formula of ethno-sectarian power-sharing government that was established by the US occupation administrator Paul Bremer when he instituted the new Iraqi governing council in 2003. One of Bremer’s key concepts was that national decision-making institutions should reflect Iraq’s ethno-sectarian demographic balance proportionally. Bremer took this imperative quite literally: His memoir recounts how at one point he dismissed a gathering of seven Iraqis for being unrepresentative due to the presence of only a single Sunni Arab, and how he in another context nixed the participation of a Christian representative on the governing council based on the reasoning that the Christian representation on the council would become disproportionally high if there were two Christian members rather than one. Another consequence of Bremer’s thinking is that in most institutions of post-2003 Iraq, there would be a preset Shiite majority, mostly in line with their 60-65% share of the total Iraqi population.
Are the accusations of quota-sharing correct when it comes to the new human rights commission? Yes and no. To take the positives first, most of the new commissioners do have legal expertise and have worked within the field of human rights for many years – in NGOs, government or academia. Many are lawyers by training whereas a few are medical doctors who have made careers within the field of human rights.
But are these therefore the 11 most suitable human rights commissioners in Iraq? Are they the ones that would have prevailed in a competition that was blind to ethnicity and sect? After all, human rights are supposed to be a supremely universal field of practice where such considerations should count for nothing.
This is where the quotas come into the picture. Hardly had the vote in parliament been finished before hardworking AFP reporters had established that the ethno-religious balance of the new committee was 6 Shiites, 4 Sunnis and 1 Yazidi. That would be broadly in tune with the Bremer approach (though he might have insisted on one Christian as well). Ethnically there were 8 Arabs, 2 Kurds and 1 Turkmen, again roughly reflecting Iraqi demographics proportionally. These very predictable findings do suggest that quota factors may have played a stronger role in selecting the 11 than their ability alone. The contrast is another team of eleven – the Iraqi soccer team, which uniquely remains something of a quota-free oasis in the new Iraq.
If we look more closely, it is equally clear that political-party affiliations also played a role. Hayman al-Bajlani has ties to the Kurdish KDP, Bushra al-Ubaydi was once a candidate for the Unity of Iraq list (now part of the secular Iraqiyya), Falah al-Yasiri is connected with the Sadrist movement and Salama Khafaji has links to the Shiite alliance. Among the prominent bureaucrats in the Shiite-majority governorates – examples include Fadil al-Gharawi in Najaf and Maytham al-Ghazzi in Dhi Qar – there are likely some allies of the State of Law alliance of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. But there are also a few representatives who do not lend themselves easily to this kind of neat classification, whether on ethno-religious or political basis. Some quick searching on Fathi al-Hayani and Ahmad Muhammad Baqir al-Attar failed to provide decisive clues about their pasts. In other words, not all of the new commissioners come from politicized or ethno-sectarian activist backgrounds, and this in itself could be a sign of good news.
Importantly, the composition of the human rights committee does not reflect a legal or constitutional imposition – the explicit muhasasa requirement in the Iraqi constitution mainly applies to the military, the security forces and the constitutional review committee. As for the law on the commission from 2008, it is noteworthy that the stipulated female quota – one third of the members – has not been fulfilled (2 women instead of 3). The Yazidi commissioner satisfies the legal requirement of 1 minority representative.
In other words, the proportional representation in this committee is to some extent a Paul Bremer legacy. It is just something Iraqi politicians of the post-2003 generation continue to do, again and again. And it is spreading rather than going away: Lately, the once secular Iraqiyya party has been an ardent supporter of a Kurdish idea of counting Sunnis and Shiites in government ministries in the name of national “balance” (tawazun). What Iraqis should ask themselves is the virtue of continuing to make appointments along these proportional lines. One of the most perfectly proportional institutions in this respect is in fact the Iraqi federal supreme court. Has it not easily succumbed to the dominance of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki despite having been appointed with such Bremerian precision?
Sadly, some of the critics of the appointment procedure are themselves visibly infected by the muhasasa virus. For example, the Kurdish “opposition” parties that are independent of the Kurdistan Alliance in the Iraqi parliament criticized the appointment procedure for being subjected to political pressures. Their main grievance, though, was that their own parties had not been represented!
The United States fought many fights in Iraq – some good and some bad, and with some losses and some victories. The definitional battle of Iraqi politics is perhaps Paul Bremer’s least recognized victory, but a very resounding one. It deserves mention that the US embassy in Baghdad promptly declared the appointment of the human rights commission “historical”.
Only when Iraqis have the courage to come up with a commission that is surprisingly unrepresentative of the Iraqi population simply because of the high quality of its members will they truly liberate themselves from both Saddam Hussein and Paul Bremer.