Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Iraq: Feb/Mar '11 Part II

IWPR human rights conference links journalists, activists, lawyers and officials.

A landmark IWPR human rights conference brought together 100 journalists, lawyers, civil society activists and top officials in Baghdad who agreed to build a stronger advocacy network for rights issues.

The conference, Human Rights, Law and Media: A Necessary Partnership, held together with the International Research & Exchanges Bureau, IREX, and the Iraq Foundation, was the first event focused on connecting Iraq’s NGOs, lawyers, journalists and officials, including members of parliament.

The conference included expert-led panel discussions and workshops for participants on how NGOs, the media and activists can better address the challenges faced by Iraq’s young human rights movement.

Participants agreed that human rights issues are critical in Iraq today but do not receive enough media coverage or attention from the authorities. They determined that in order to bolster advocacy efforts and raise awareness on human rights issues, NGOs, the media and lawyers should build their ties and communication, and push to strengthen human rights laws.

Journalists need to promote investigate journalism to document violations, build public understanding of human rights issues and advocate for an independent press that can effectively monitor human rights, participants said. The media and civil society organisations also should build better relationships to effectively address human rights concerns, they said.

In workshops, activists, journalists and lawyers identified several pressing human rights issues in Iraq, including children and women’s rights, freedom of expression and the right to live in dignity.

“Media and rights groups in Iraq usually only talk about human rights violations, but do not address how they can effectively campaign for and raise awareness on rights issues,” Ammar al-Shahbander, IWPR Iraq’s Chief of Mission, said. “Cooperation between human rights activists, media and legal experts will help identify and highlight the most pressing issues and then bring in the force of the law to solve these issues.”

“The right to access information and the right to freedom of expression are considered cornerstones of human rights and yet they are often only considered in the context of the media. This conference was an important initiative to stress that human rights pertain to all people, not just certain groups in society,” IREX Country Director Jacky Sutton said.

Earlier in the conference, experts and participants discussed challenges to human rights in Iraq and the roles that NGOs and the media can play to better promote and report on human rights issues.

Iraqi legislator Safia al-Suhail, who was a prominent human rights activist before entering politics, maintained that Iraqi journalists need to produce more in-depth reports on rights issues, and that civil society and the media need to work more closely to raise public awareness on human rights.

Baath-era laws that are still in effect and hinder human rights were also raised as a key concern, as was the independence of Iraq’s institutions. Several experts including former human rights minister Bakhtyar Amin pushed for the creation of an independent human rights commission to monitor human rights violations. Iraq’s ministries are part of the government, while commissions officially enjoy independence from the authorities.

Amin, a veteran human rights campaigner who gave the keynote speech, said the opposition plays an important role in “talking about human rights, but when people come to power they forget about human rights”.

Prominent activist Hana Edwar argued that civil society can be a powerful player in Iraq, pointing out that a lawsuit filed by NGOs forced parliament to convene following a lengthy political deadlock that angered the Iraqi public. The Supreme Court ruled in December that parliament, which had not convened since before the March 7, 2010 election, was in violation of the constitution and ordered it to hold its first session.

However, NGOs still face an uphill battle in raising funds and maintaining their independence from political parties, undermining their ability to advocate for human rights, experts said.

“When there are powerful NGOs in a country, it means democracy is powerful in that country,” said Shatha al-Abusi, a civil society activist and former vice-chair of parliament’s human rights committee.