Last March, the UN official in charge of international efforts to help rebuild Iraq offered a scathing assessment of the bid to raise the country out of the ashes of the 2003 US-led invasion.
Speaking to an audience that included Iraqi leaders and members of Iraq’s community experts, special representative for Iraq of the UN Secretary-General Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaer painted a grim picture of Iraq’s reality.
Hennis-Plasschaer explained that Iraq remained wretched and unstable more than a decade and a half after the US-led invasion that had toppled former dictator Saddam Hussein because of the failure of its new political elites to deliver on their promised commitments for the country’s recovery.
“One cannot deny that the road for sustainable stability in Iraq will be long and far from easy,” the Dutch politician and former diplomat told the gathering in Iraq’s northern city of Sulaimaniya.
But rather than taking at least partial responsibility for the failure in Iraq, the top UN official resorted to the standard explanation of bad governance, blaming the rot from within for keeping Iraq broken and on the edge.
Since the US occupation of the country that brought to power its own political structures and a friendly political elite, Iraq has struggled to make progress towards stability and national reconciliation, with frequent false starts, renewed violence and lingering political and sectarian divisions.
Many critics, however, blame the UN for much of the impasse, including the fundamental flaws mentioned in Hennis-Plasschaer’s assessment, noting the organisation’s systematic failures to take powerful steps to turn Iraq’s fortunes around.
The problem started with UN Security Council Resolution 1438, which was adopted a few weeks after the US-led invasion and recognised Iraq as an occupied country. It failed to oblige the occupying forces to respect their political, moral and legal duties and responsibilities under international conventions.
Instead of taking responsibility for a transition that would pave the way for a genuine democratic and representative government to emerge in Iraq, the Security Council established the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) in August 2003 to assist a Governing Council, a group of cronies imposed by the US occupation forces to whitewash the invasion.
Under UN Security Council Resolution 1500, the Mission was mandated to provide support in the drafting of Iraq’s post-Saddam’s constitution, assisting elections, coordinating UN humanitarian efforts, securing the financial assistance of the donor community, and providing advisory support to the new regime.
The UNAMI was established for an initial period of 12 months, but it has been active on the ground ever since, with its role greatly expanded in 2007 to operations throughout the country “to support efforts to achieve a peaceful and prosperous future” for the Iraqis.
Today, the UNAMI is one of the largest UN missions in the world, with hundreds of people working in its offices and in other UN agencies in Iraq. Its compound lies in the heavily fortified Green Zone in Baghdad that hosts key government offices and the residences of the Iraqi political elite and is far away from ordinary Iraqis and their aspirations.
Its “resource requirements” of $105.7 million for 2019 are highly costly, with payments to its staff in salaries, various allowances and benefits, travel expenses and housing being among the highest among international civil servants living outside the United States and Europe.
A UN website shows that a member of the UNAMI personnel may earn an average of $149,566, with those in top positions even earning more than $203,217 annually. Members of the UNAMI bureaucracy (about 800 people in 2019) are also exempted from Iraqi national income tax on their UN emoluments. They also receive free medical services.
The UNAMI track record in Iraq, however, shows that it has often dodged key issues and failed to meet basic objectives. On many challenges, it has ended up watching helplessly while crises worsen and conflicts rage.
The failure of the UN is demonstrated in many areas in Iraq, in particular in state-rebuilding efforts and the rehabilitation of Iraqi society. While the US occupation left the Iraqi state and its apparatus in ruins, the UNAMI has failed to help rebuild an honest or functioning state.
Iraq today ranks as one of the world’s most vulnerable countries, according to different indexes of failed states and international reports on poor government performance. Despite its enormous wealth, Iraq ranked 143rd in the overall Prosperity Index in 2018, which included only 149 nations.
Even after the defeat of the Islamic State (IS) terror group in the country, Iraq continues to face political and security challenges, including resolving the political, sectarian and tribal conflicts that fuel extremism.
One abysmal failure of the UNAMI was in the badly needed national reconciliation that the mission was entrusted with by the UN Security Council as part of efforts to fix the fragile nation and end communal fighting over wealth and power.
Though the UNAMI was tasked to help “establish, train and advise” Iraq’s electoral bodies, almost all Iraq’s elections since 2003 have been fraught with allegations of irregularities and marred by accusations of rigging.
Nevertheless, instead of living up to its mission and pushing for probes into these allegations with a view to fixing the elections, the UNAMI has always put its stamp of approval on the disputed results of the ballots.
Consequently, each election in Iraq since 2003 has brought to power the same sectarian and ethnic oligarchy that has dominated the government since Saddam’s fall, turning the country’s democracy into a farce.
The failure of the UNAMI has also been seen in fighting corruption, the abuse of power and mismanagement, some of the most crucial areas that have disrupted state-building in Iraq.
For more than 16 years, international watchdogs and the World Bank have placed Iraq at the bottom of the list of the most corrupt countries in the world, with forms of corruption including graft, bribery, embezzlement and deeply entrenched patronage networks.
More than three years after the UN Development Programme said it would help Iraq to probe the endemic graft eroding its economy and institutions and fuelling terrorism, the agency, which works closely with the UNAMI, has failed to make a public report about its investigations.
Another area of inaction is found in the UN’s failure to come up with a tangible legal strategy to help efforts to hold IS terrorists accountable for their crimes in Iraq.
More than two years after it was set up by the UN Security Council, the UN Investigative Team to Promote Accountability for Crimes Committed by Daesh (UNITAD) has been unable to work out a concrete and practical plan for prosecuting IS members for their crimes.
Many would have hoped that the body would launch the mechanisms needed to gather evidence and prosecute IS terrorists, including the thousands of foreign fighters suspected of committing crimes in Iraq.
The bottom line is that the UNAMI has failed to act to halt Iraq’s drift and to help to steer it away from the cliff it has reached. It has been completely ineffective in foreseeing crises and preventing them, including the Sunni protests against the Shia-led government in Iraq that paved the way for the rise of IS in 2014.
Among its fundamental flaws, the UNAMI has been unable to fix the root causes that brought Iraq to this point, causing critics to ask whether the UN is even relevant in Iraq.
There are now signs that key members of the Security Council are strongly pushing an agenda of structural reform in the UNAMI with a view to improving its efficiency and including its funding and programmes.
In a resolution passed on 21 May, the UN Security Council expressed its intention to review the mandate of the UNAMI through a robust external review of its work by a third party by 31 May 2020 or sooner.
The resolution also requests the UN secretary-general to report to the council every three months on progress made towards the fulfillment of all the UNAMI’s responsibilities.
It is not clear what kinds of reforms the members of the council are seeking, but in the past the mission has been seen to be beholden to foreign policy interests and to backdoor deals by foreign stakeholders.
Any reform of the mission should go beyond tackling its lack of competence, dedication and bureaucratic inefficiencies to make far-reaching changes in the way it works and to help rebuild Iraq as a truly independent, united, democratic, stable and prosperous country.
Hennis-Plasschaer was right to point the finger at Iraq’s ruling elite for squandering opportunities to rebuild Iraq and create a modern state. However, the same should be said about the UNAMI for failing in its responsibilities towards the Iraqis and remaining a cause for frustration for the international community.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 3 October, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the title: How the world has failed Iraq