Iraq and Gulf Analysis

As Paul Bremer Wanted Them To Be

Posted by Reidar Visser on Friday, 13 April 2012 14:17

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.

19 Responses to “As Paul Bremer Wanted Them To Be”

  1. faisalkadri said

    “In other words, not all of the new commissioners come from politicized or ethni-sectarian activist backgrounds, and this in itself could be a sign of good news.”
    You see it as good news, I see it as bad. For a chair at the human rights commission you need people with spine and known background in defending human rights, like Hanaa Edward. I would save my judgment till the dust settles.

  2. Reidar Visser said

    Oh, I just meant you’re not necessarily spineless even if you don’t have a political or sectarian activist background!

  3. bb said

    Ah, don’t you think it is a tad impressive for Iraq that 11 new commissioners who have who have “legal expertise”, “worked within the field of human rights for many years ” and come from – “NGOs, government or academia”, lawyers by training and a few medical doctors “who have made careers within the field of human rights” – can be drawn from the broad Iraqi polity – shiites, sunnis, yazidi, arabs, kurds, turkmen, women?

    Who makes the appointments to similar bodies in your Norwegian paragon of democracy, Reidar? Who decides the “high quality” there? Not your government by any chance?

  4. Reidar Visser said

    We don’t even have anything similar. Look, I’m just asking why should there be proportional representation when human rights issues are universal in character anyway? Why does the commission absolutely have to be headed by a Shiite??

  5. bb said

    By “similar” I mean.government/taxpayer funded bodies as ( presumeably) is Iraq’s human rights commission. In my experience appointments made to such bodies rest with the government of the day. As such the appointees tend to reflect the political persuasion of the govt doing the appointing. In the case of Iraq it would seem the appointments were made from a list of qualified persons after discussion between all the parties, as one would expect of a coalition. But perhaps someone like Kofi Annan should have been brought in to over-ride Iraqi sovereignity on this question if the Iraqis are incapable of assessing the qualifications of the candidates?

    So Norway does not have a government financed body empowered to refer human rights complaints from its citizens to the judiciary? But Iraq does? Interesting. Do you think Norway should emulate Iraq’s example, and if it did, how and who would ensure commissioners appointed were unrepresentative of the Norwegian population because they were of high quality?

  6. Observer said

    Rv. The continuation of muhasasa can only be blamed on those who are in power and whose continuation in power requires that sectarian and racial divides are deepened. Exclude no one from this accusation.

    Furthermore, this commision, as all other commissions, will be ineffective and will eventually be rorting to th PM office.. Why should it be any different from all other “independent commisions”?

  7. Reidar Visser said

    Bb, you seem to imply that I am using Norway as some kind of standard against which to discuss the Iraqi experience. I am not. I am raising these issues from the point of view of democratic theory more generally, in which quota arrangements are always problematic.

    Of course, in very few places does ability alone decide everything, but in Iraq the compulsive designation of Shiite committee heads and Shiite majorities for absolutely everything comes across as a particularly unsavoury incarnation of the consociational democracy model.

  8. Ali W said

    ” Why does the commission absolutely have to be headed by a Shiite??” Completely agree, the whole thing is becoming a joke. Reidar, do you still see the survival of Iraq as a state similar to Lebanon or an eventual breakup?

  9. bb said

    Not at all, Reidar. You are clearly NOT using Norway as some kind of standard, otherwise this fallacious argument would not have been used in the first place. If the Iraqi human rights commission is a statutory body then its members would be appointed by and accountable to the government of the day. As Iraq has a coalition government just as Norway does then it is not surprising or improper if its appointments reflect that fact; just as it would in Norway or any other democracy including here in Australia. Indeed, it would be open to question were it otherwise.

    As it is, the only question to be asked is: are the appointees qualified for the job? By your own account, the answer is yes, is it not? If that is the case why deride the democratic process?

  10. Salah said

    the Iraqi population simply because of the high quality of its members will they truly liberate themselves from both Saddam Hussein and Paul Bremer.

    What you mean by “liberate themselves from Paul Bremer”?

    Bremer left before 8 years, Iraqis having sectarian status politic regime, not real reflection of very basic democratic standard or regime were stated “from the people to the people” and regardless of their colour ethics and religion or believe.

    So to be fair you should spell it out to say clear in plain English:
    the Iraqi population simply because of the high quality of its members will they truly liberate themselves from both Saddam Hussein and all sectarians parties control power in Iraq today

  11. Ansam Abayechi said

    It might not easy for a foreigner to link those commissioners to their political affiliation as easy as knowing their religion ,ethnic or sect. However, it was clear for us who works in the field of human rights in Iraq to know in details . For instance Mr. Ahmed Al-Attar was the deputy of Al-shehristani when he was (or still) the head of Political Prisoners Association (an NGO) besides he was a GD at ministry of Human rights during the previous cabinet and GD of NGO registration center at the Secretariat of Ministers’ Cabinet .It became more than Muhasasa, it is about the support that each candidate may get by his or her party.
    I do agree that some positives this commission are enjoying due to the long process of selection where experts from UN have a role by which we witness some people with proper education holding real degrees not forged ones at the commission, but still it is highly influenced by political parties at power.

  12. Salah said

    Let say human rights in Iraq commission its one step in the right direction in today “democratic” Iraq.

    But what this commission gave to Iraqis from Paul Bremer time till now, Iraqis went through many and serious case of human right abuses from Abu Garib till today they still having problems.
    If Human Rights Commission in Iraq not functioning to the degree of its creation so what tools or steeps taken by international brethren to make it work? This is the real question, international responsibilities or those western keep telling yes its positive singe and direction, but it’s not working as should be?

    Today may be reading these two bits of news which telling there is daily violations of human right of people of Iraq

    First one secret dentation centre hold 550 Iraqis for the last 4 months no one allowed to visit even parliament agencies or members.

    Let read the details (Arabic)

    Secondly, one of local member in Dhi Qar city council threaten journalist after news of corruption in newspaper

    Let read more:

    So if there are real rules of law this member should be suspended for city council for his behaviour with the public


    I don’t think the westerns don’t know what happing inside Iraq, most Iraqis if not all they knew what the problems on the ground its not hard for any westerns to find the truth, but the question is are they interested in this matters?

  13. Salah said

    In an interview with Today’s Zaman a Turkish newspaper US Ambassador Crocker telling this:

    So no, I don’t think the Iranians are the strategic winners here. You know better than anyone, Turkey knows better than anyone the deep divisions between Iraq and Iran in the aftermath of that awful eight-year ground war. Again, you understand that, as many in my country do not, that simply because the government is now led by a Shiite prime minister does not mean that he takes his direction from Tehran — quite the opposite. He is a very proud Arab and a proud Iraqi nationalist.

    To follow up with Ansam point rose about understanding Iraq or who are not familiar with Iraq but :

    Dose Crocker not familiar with Iraqis politicians those supported by US?

    dose Crocker knew Malik “during the Iran-Iraq War and the group still receives financial support from Tehran despite ideological differences with the Islamic Republic.[1]”

    Crocker version don’t know Maliki spent most of the eight years of the Iraq-Iran war in exile in Iran, not just that he was one of those supervised those “Iraqis/Iranians” who fought with Iran’s forces against Iraqi troop during 8 years of war.

    Dose Crocker knew the party is led by Nouri al-Maliki, who is also the current Prime Minister of Iraq. The party backed the Iranian Revolution and also Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini
    Did Crocker forgot Maliki gained a second term in 2010, after nine months of political struggle following the inconclusive results of parliamentary elections.

    Turkey I think is a great example of a sustained institutionalized democracy in a Muslim country. I think therefore Turkey is a great example for these new orders that are emerging in parts of the Arab world as well as here in Afghanistan.

    Surprisingly I met a US man while working in the university after 9/11, both we had a lot of discussions, but he stated to me exactly what Crocker’s version about Turkey as example of Islamic world….however I just highlights this point about PM of turkey in one of his interviews stated that he send his own two daughters to US to study there because his country restricted wearing head scarf so he sent them there they can wear what they like and study.

    Is this your example for Islamic world Mr Crocker?

  14. Santana said

    I think Brett McGurk can forget about being the next Ambassador to Iraq…..hope the “service” he got on the roof of the palace was worth it………..

  15. Reidar Visser said

    Santana, is there any indication these allegations are having an impact at the level of Congress?

  16. faisalkadri said

    If Bill Clinton can get away with it then why not Brett McGurk?
    I have an irrational faith that McGurk may be a good choice for ambassador in Baghdad, Maliki can’t claim that he didn’t get a sympathetic US ambassador.

  17. Santana said


    The State dept and NSC don’t wanna talk about it….the hawks are having multiple orgasms over thisright now….(McCain and co….

    Faisal- this is not the same as Clinton’s cigar thing…this is in a muslim country and a married man having an affair and his ethics are now in question ……it is so easy to pick someone else for ambassador…much easier than picking a new commander in chief.

  18. Ansam Abayechi said

    Mr. Salah, my point was about, sometimes, foreigners or what you called westerns do not know the link or the background of the people particularly those who have low profile and cannot find online records on them while a local observer can easily find out.
    This point was not away from the mind of the international experts who supported the selection process, based on Chief of Human Rights office in 2006 insisted to have local staff to be members in the experts committee, however later these local staff role was limited to observe and help the international observers. Up to my knowledge, there was a list of suggested commissioners prepared by the international experts after attending all the interviews of the candidates, only five of them were among the selected ones.

  19. Salah said

    You can read more about US VIP “SEX” on the tope “بالسطح” of Iraqi republican palace.
    Read more here & here

    Thanks for your thoughts.

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