The “Right Message” About Democracy in IraqBy Jo Wilding
Freelance Writer – UK April 07, 2005
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Unemployed Iraqi protestors. 70% of Iraq’s workforce is unemployed
(An Nahar photo)
Is democracy taking hold in Iraq? What does that mean? Democracy literally is government or rule (-cracy) by the people (demos). But still, what does that mean? Any government is run by people, even in a dictatorship. The implication is that power is delegated by the people of the country to a representative group, whatever form of representation is chosen. Through the right to lobby, re-elect, or vote out representatives, the population retains control. It might also be assumed that the representative body, the government, would be sovereign within its territory.
As well as representation, a modern idea of democracy ought also to contain a notion of the rule of law—that all individuals are equal before the law, even the rulers, and that people should have a right to fair trial and not to be punished without a trial.
I don’t want to rehearse again the criticisms of Iraq’s January elections. It would be easy to fill the entire article with that discussion. There can be no doubt that some form of representation now exists in Iraq. Massive demonstrations forced the occupying powers to allow elections. Kurds and Shiites in particular voted in government members, albeit mostly unnamed for security reasons and with few published manifestos to inform voters which set of promises they were selecting.
Finally the new assembly has a speaker but it is already bound by decisions made by people who were not elected, before elections were even held. Legally, former US Civil Administrator in Iraq Paul Bremer and the occupying powers had no right to enact laws for Iraq but the fact is, Bremer ruled, and the interim governing council signed into law, that everything in Iraq is to be privatized, open to 100% foreign ownership or at least foreign leasehold for forty years. That includes resources, amenities, and public services.
The new government is already over a barrel.
Let me explain.
Iraq is the most indebted country in the world in terms of its debt-to-export ratio. Loans to Saddam in the 1980s, mainly used to buy weapons to use against Iran and later Kuwait, gathered a massive amount of interest during the years of sanctions, when none of the debt could be repaid at all. Compensation awards against Iraq, many of them to rich Kuwaiti oil companies and such like, added to the bill—now over $180 billion.
The Paris Club, the International Monetary Fund, creditor countries, and others have announced debt relief which, at a glance, might appear extraordinarily generous. 30% of the debt owed to Paris Club members is to be wiped out unconditionally. Another 30% depends on Iraq’s adopting a “standard IMF policy,” and a final 20% hangs on a three-year review of implementation of the IMF policy. Iraq hasn’t got any bargaining power to resist. It cannot possibly repay the debt, even if it spends every single Dinar of its national income on repayments and none on health, education, infrastructure, and so on.
“We are not against elections, but we are against their timing.”
Two of the IMF’s conditions are the “opening up” (read cheap sell off to foreign companies) of the Iraqi oil industry and the rollback of the food ration, currently the only major social welfare program, presumably because it means people with no money get stuff free instead of paying for it. Even then, the debts left over after the conditional debt relief are more than enough to keep Iraq in servitude for many decades to come.
What it means is that, no matter what their own beliefs, no matter what the wishes of the people who elected them, the new Iraqi National Assembly members are bound by the dictatorship of the International Monetary Fund and the Iraqi people have little influence over their decisions.
As an example of the effect of this corporate control, it was recently announced that Iraqi farmers could no longer save seeds. Instead they must buy them from the multi-national, agri-business giant Monsanto, a company which has been at the forefront of the attempt to foist genetically modified foods on the world. Their seeds are engineered to withstand huge doses of pesticides, specifically the brand manufactured by Monsanto.
We have already seen what happened when the occupying powers gave the most lucrative re-construction contracts to companies close to the US government. Halliburton massively overcharged US taxpayers for meals it never provided to soldiers and contractors. Bechtel took a fortune to do nothing at all apart from subcontract jobs to other companies, and the resulting work, much of it on schools, was of poor quality. Companies with no genuine interest in Iraq’s future simply suck out what they can and leave the people to suffer. It means unlivable wages, high unemployment, poor working conditions, and no trade union rights.
The rollback of the food ration is just as much a part of that control of Iraq’s economy. It is to be replaced with a financial payment to the poorest families; but, given that 70% of Iraq’s workforce is unemployed, the majority are still desperate. A financial payment instead of a ration package allows the government to manipulate food prices and wages, forcing families and small businesses to submit to the will of the big corporations and institutions, which really control Iraq, and accept slave wages.
Companies with no interest in Iraq’s future simply suck out what they can and leave the people to suffer.
So Iraq’s new government, no matter what its intentions, is not really sovereign; and though nominally represented at last, Iraq’s Kurds and Shiites, like the rest of the population, still lack any meaningful control over the government.
As for the rule of law, successive scandals have cast an intermittent spotlight over events in Iraq’s prisons—the thousands who have been detained indefinitely without charge or trial, the torture, and impunity for the vast majority of those responsible. We now know that General Ricardo Sanchez, for all his official denials, in fact signed his approval of at least three of the common torture techniques, including use of dogs to intimidate prisoners.
Again, corporations were implicated, employees of private contractors being blamed for some of the worst crimes in Abu Ghraib. Because they were not military personnel, they were not subject to military law. Because there was no effective local legal system, they were not made subject to civilian law either.
In recent days the United Nations has finally empowered the International Criminal Court to begin investigating and prosecuting crimes. The spur was criticism over the organization’s inaction in Darfur, Sudan. What held the process up was the United States’ opposition to the court and its demands for exemption for its own citizens.
That means there is one group of people in Iraq, armed and powerful, which is exempt from the rule of law, and another group, the Iraqi population, which lacks any effective legal rights whatsoever. It is fundamental in a democracy that no person should be punished without trial. That trial should be fair and public. A person must be presumed innocent until proven guilty. I do not think that those basic principles can be made subject to “culture” or to restrictions based on a political desire to frighten the population (as in the UK and US).
Take, for example, Fallujah. This time last year I stayed in my apartment in Baghdad. All my Iraqi friends had begged me to have a few quiet days around the April 9 anniversary, to stay indoors and safe. Four mercenaries had just been killed in Fallujah, because several civilians had been shot dead by US forces a few days earlier.
Instead of exerting political pressure on local authorities in Fallujah to identify the individuals responsible for the killings of the mercenaries (let alone identifying those responsible for killing the Fallujans beforehand), US forces besieged the town, cut off electricity and, with it, the water supply, closed down the main hospital, and largely prevented access of medical supplies.
An Iraqi doctor friend, wounded by US bullets while driving an ambulance in Fallujah, thought that, as foreigners, we might be able to get medical supplies into the town. What we found there were civilians trapped in their homes in US-held areas of the town because marine snipers were firing at anyone who came outdoors, even children. People were trapped without food or water. The only hospital left open was cut off because the access road was controlled by US snipers and it was almost out of supplies.
US forces were firing at ambulances. We were able to move about during daylight by holding up our passports and being visibly foreign but, come dusk, our ambulance also came under fire from marine snipers while we were trying to reach a woman giving birth prematurely without electricity or medical help.
People fled to Baghdad to stay with family members or strangers, in mosques, abandoned buildings or building sites, empty bomb shelters, or the Red Crescent tent camp on a dusty football pitch. The second attack, in November last year, was apparently even worse. It appears there were many more civilians killed, homes destroyed, and people driven out of the town. A huge proportion of the population is still unable to go home, either because home is rubble or because they haven’t been allowed back in.
There were thousands of acts committed by US forces which amount to war crimes; and command-level war crimes were perpetrated throughout the US military hierarchy, but the only individual prosecuted for actions in Fallujah was the one caught on television shooting dead an unarmed man in a mosque.
So there is no rule of law. Iraqis are not able to exercise legal rights, even the basic right to a fair trial, while the occupying forces, unless foolish enough to be caught on film or photograph, have complete impunity. Non-military employees, apparently, are safe even when they are caught on camera.
But what about freedom? Where once it was impossible to publicly criticize Saddam, and risky even privately, even implicitly, now there is freedom to call him all the bad things under the sun. Various media outlets discovered, though, that it was not advisable to criticize interim prime-minister Allawi or his government. Reports were to be favorable to the government’s point of view. Al-Jazeera, Al-Arabiya, and an unknown number of smaller outlets fell foul and were closed down or expelled.
Two years ago on April 9, US soldiers wrapped a US flag around the head of the Saddam statue and were then told to remove it because it sent out the wrong message. The right message was that Iraq was liberated, not conquered.
It seems the same is still going on. Iraq’s economy—and with it, its politics—is all wrapped up by the US, the International Monetary Fund, and the favored corporations. But the right message is liberation from debt and liberation of the market. Freedom, you see: freedom of the market, freedom for foreign corporations, but still no democracy for the Iraqi people.
Jo Wilding is a British human rights campaigner, writer and trainee lawyer from Bristol, UK. She went to Iraq several times, where she maintained a daily blog and took part in Circus 2 Iraq, “a small group of circus performers … set up to … perform and give circus skills workshops to children [in Iraq] traumatized by sanctions, war and its aftermath.” Her articles about Iraq and ordinary Iraqis were published Guardian, New Zealand Herald, and Counterpunch.