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The UN (Back) in Iraq

NPR’s All Things Considered, in a report entitled “U.N. Returns to Baghdad in Force,” provides a welcome look into the hard work undertaken by the hundreds of personnel — both foreign and domestic — serving the United Nations in Iraq. The “return” of the report’s title refers to the aftermath of the August 2003 suicide bombing — one of the first of the insurgency — that destroyed the UN mission’s base and killed 22 of its staff, including the mission’s head, veteran diplomat Sergio Vieira de Mello (about whom Samantha Power has just published an insightful book). NPR correspondent Anne Garrels interviews the Secretary-General’s current Special Representative in Iraq, Staffan de Mistura, and highlights some of the UN’s unheralded successes in Iraq.

These successes include: delaying the referendum on the city of Kirkuk, which, if conducted too early, would likely have only exacerbated volatile ethnic tensions; helping the Iraqi government design the structure with which to use its oil money (a luxury not enjoyed by most countries in which the UN operates); and preparing for the upcoming regional elections, which local Iraqis, largely dissatisfied with their regional governments, are eagerly awaiting.In discussions of Iraq, the UN’s triumphs often fall to the wayside during the protracted skirmishes of American politics: endless debates over troop withdrawal, the effects of “the surge,” or the cost of the U.S. occupation. With the UN mandate set to expire at the end of the year, though, its role in Iraq — operating with relatively few personnel, on a budget dwarfed by that of U.S. forces, and enduring persistently dangerous security conditions — deserves considered appreciation.

The NPR report affirms one of the central benefits of the UN’s presence in Iraq: its neutrality. de Mistura is confident that many Iraqis welcome the UN because they “feel that [it is] neutral and impartial” and “can provide them with advice in areas they are not familiar with or competent [in].” At the same time, he recognizes that this sentiment is not universal among Iraqis, and acknowledges the sobering effect of the 2003 bombing, after which, he says, UN personnel arrived at the stark conclusion that their blue flag of impartiality would not necessarily protect them from the determinedly violent segments of the population.

Nonetheless, the UN has achieved many tangible successes in Iraq. Its neutrality is perhaps even more important, though, as UN staff, even if still constrained by appalling levels of violence, are unhindered by bias or partisan rancor back home, and can work alongside Iraqis to help rebuild their war-shattered country.

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Human Rights and Security in Iraq

A couple of recently released UN reports reveal the lingering security and human rights concerns in Iraq.

In its human rights report, issued on Saturday, the UN mission in Iraq cautioned that, while violent attacks have decreased in Baghdad, the security situation in the rest of the country remains precarious.

In another report, a group of experts established in 2005 to investigate the use of mercenaries found that private military contractors (PMCs) often operate without sufficient accountability, posing yet another danger to human rights in countries like Iraq.

Presenting its report to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, the working group said that private security companies in such conflict-wracked countries as Iraq, Colombia and Afghanistan are recruiting former policemen and members of the military from developing countries as “security guards” in their operations.

Once there, those guards in fact become “militarily armed private soldiers,” which is essentially a new way to describe mercenaries, who are often responsible for serious human rights abuses, the working group stated.

Even without mention of the name Blackwater, the implied subtext of this report remains the incident last September, in which 17 Iraqi civilians were killed by personnel of the infamous U.S. contractor. As voices from The Wall Street Journal to The New Republic have opened their arms to the possibility of using PMCs in places like Darfur, the working group’s report serves as a reminder that contractors can often undermine the very security they are meant to ensure.

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Five Years Later: Remembering the Refugees

UNHCR says (pdf) that a five year decline in applications for asylum in developed countries turned around in 2007 because of Iraqis fleeing violence in their own home country.

The number of Iraqis lodging asylum claims in industrialized countries has almost doubled in 2007 compared to 2006 (from 22,900 to 45,200). The 2007 level was at the same time the fourth highest observed in the industrialized countries since 1990. The numbers have remained high throughout the year with quarterly figures ranging between 10,700 and 12,000.

This amounts to only about 1 percent of the total estimated number of Iraqis uprooted by violence–most are either internally displaced or in Syria and Jordan. Still, this increase in asylum applications is notable because most of the destination countries are in Europe, principally Sweden, France, the UK and Greece, where asylum is a hot-button political issue that is often lumped together with immigration controversies. If this trend continues, Iraqis fleeing for their lives may find little respite in Europe. They are already finding it difficult to come to the United States.

Five years on, the Iraqi refugee crisis remains one of the most critical humanitarian situations in the world.

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Wednesday Morning Coffee

Barak Obama takes on race in America.

Top Stories

>>Iraq – The Iraq war has now entered its sixth year. The New York Times is providing a series of stories looking back at various aspects of the last five years including an interactive timeline of important events, an analysis of how cost estimates got so off track, and insight into the war’s role in the 2008 presidential campaign. The Guardian probes the true death toll. Meanwhile, the “Reconciliation Conference” intended to bring Iraq’s factions together is instead highlighting their differences.

>>Kuwait – Kuwait’s ruler,
Sheikh Sabah, dissolved parliament today after the cabinet quit on Monday amid complaints about the lack of parliamentary cooperation on an agenda to diversify the economy. New elections will be called in less than two months.

>>Tibet – The Chinese state media has announced that 100 Tibetan protestors have turned themselves in. Meanwhile, Tibetans on horseback raided government offices in Gansu. China has also said that the Olympic torch will travel through Tibet (and summit Mt. Everest) as planned.

Yesterday in UN Dispatch

The Rest of the Story


  • href="">Kenyans
    hail power-sharing laws, see problems ahead
  • href="">Zimbabwe
    election run-up ‘flawed’
  • href="">Morocco
    journalist to go on trial
  • href="">Somali
    UN peace force considered
  • href="">Botswana
    gems to sparkle at homeYemen: Police Officer Killed in Blasts Near U.S.
  • href="">Zimbabwe
    exodus helps prop up Mugabe
  • href="">Austria
    in contact with al Qaeda hostages in Mali
  • href="">Panel
    alleges Nigeria corruption


  • href="">E
    Timorese leader out of hospital
  • href="">Khamenei
    emerges as supreme poll victor
  • href="">Old
    guard absent in new Malaysia cabinet
  • href="">Weak
    dollar troubles Beijing
  • href="">U.N.
    Envoy Disappointed by Myanmar Visit
  • href="">Russia
    rearms former rebels to patrol Chechnya
  • href="">Shooting
    rocks main Afghan prison
  • href="">US
    and Russia missile talks fail
  • href="">Illicit
    India ‘blood farm’ raided
  • href="">In
    India, Balancing Refugee Care and Relations With China
  • href="">Tibetans
    in India Enraged by Details of Crackdown


  • href="">Kosovo:
    U.N. Blames Serbia in Clashes
  • href="">Albania:
    Three Arrested After Explosions
  • href="">Belgium:
    Long Deadlock Ends
  • href="">Ex-Gurkhas
    seek equal UK rights
  • href="">Merkel
    Says Holocaust Fills Germans ‘With Shame’
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Samantha Power on Colbert

Only the first few minutes were devoted to the “monster” incident. For the most part, Power talks smartly about her new book and the future of the U.S. in Iraq. Money quote: “What Sergio’s life underscores is the degree to which in the 21st century to deal with global challenges…you gotta have people by your side and you have to have international wind at your back.”

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Devil in the details?

My concern really would be with how deeply will the cultural, regional sub-context be taken in to account while implementing the PEPFAR Bill. The way it looks to me with so many clauses and sub-clauses it appears already to have a target group in mind at the cost of keeping certain groups beyond its reach as a form of ‘disciplining’ for not adhering in the first place (in the last five years!). And what worries me is that such a huge amount of money will go in to sticking to the “dos and don’ts” of the Bill rather than reaching substantially larger groups of people. Haven’t we already seen this before? In conflict zones like Afghanistan … in Iraq … where so much money has gone yet women live lives not very different from the previous decade; and of course much too often also reflected in policies taken up by each of our own governments?

Countries in Asia and Africa already suffer from the burden of too many cultural practices and unfair, gender imbalanced value systems (the experience of development workers will show) which cannot be challenged but have to be worked around slowly and deliberately. When one invokes the prostitution pledge I wonder what happens to girls who have been unwittingly lured in to the sex trade in the first place and are unable to return back to their own communities (even when rescued) out of fear of ostracism or the ‘shame’ that they bring to the family. Thus, they are often compelled to return to the very life they fight to leave. These are common narratives for almost every girl in the business and it is these narratives that make up the bulk of the sex workers in these countries. So are these young lives to be deprived of medical care and attention and continue to face persistent stigma and discrimination, (apart from the violence they endure) simply because they reconciled to sex work being the only economically viable means of survival. Even as local groups and communities fight social values to allow some sense of respect to these women in introducing this clause what in effect is being communicated is that they women do not deserve care and support because of the work they do. If that is not discriminatory behaviour then what is? What about men who might contract the virus from the sex worker? Are they also to be denied the aid? And finally down the same chain what about the spouse who contracts it from the husband? In countries like India and patriarchal set-ups such blanket bans only help to perpetuate the practices (which groups have spent years fighting) that while a woman (in this case a sex worker) can be punished for her trade (by limiting her accessibility to medical relief) men correspondingly do not have to bear that burden. So in condemning it for women it carries legitimacy for men — an extremely disastrous situation in societies where women are socially and politically disenfranchised.

Married women form a very large component of the HIV infected population mainly because of the fact that girls are married very early to men much older to them (and often already sexually active). In the absence of information on the subject — since sex itself is a taboo subject as is the use of contraceptives in such traditional, patriarchal set-ups where the value of women is judged by the number of male children they bear — they very rarely are equipped to protect themselves from infections.

More often than not since women in such set ups have very little access to information, groups working on contraception are also the information providers on HIV/AIDS especially since these are subjects that women themselves are hesitant to talk about. Pre- and post-natal care become the entry points to discuss other issues like reproductive and sexual health, HIV/AIDS within these communities and even abortion as an Family Planning tool is commonly used especially in countries like India where it has been legalized for long.

What would be the implications of the Global Gag Rule here? For many women in the lack of any other access to information on family planning (since many traditional families even condemn the idea) it is very often midwives who also act as the carriers of information on various issues like HIV. Again with women contracting the virus so often from their spouses and coming to know of it during a pregnancy the GGR in effect is snatching from them their only access to information and help on the subject, especially since they are often better positioned to prevent new infections among women and youth – the two most vulnerable groups currently.

Besides, to me the hypocrisy of it all lies in the fact that how can something that can not be implemented in the host country (as the GGR can not be applied to US organizations as it raises the issue of unconstitutionality) be force-fed to other nations and yet be used as a position to prevent funding abroad? Is there really no underlying conscientious compulsion to link domestic policies and their enforcement with the moral position beyond the national borders — particularly since morality has such an important role to play by way of ‘abstinence’ earlier and the continuing ‘anti-prostitution pledge.’

My concern is that clauses and sub-clauses in programmes that fail to take in to account the specifics of the cultural and social milieu where they need to be implemented is a way of ensuring their failure. Flexibility needs to be at the core of these programmes. But then whom are we attempting to impact ultimately? All those who require this care or simply those (women specifically) who have made morally correct choices. And where are the definitions of these morally correct choices emanating from?

And this is what makes it imperative that the language of aid does not enjoy such ambiguity that it becomes more a tool to deny groups rather than be more inclusive.

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