The Secretary-General of the UN, António Guterres, is in Iraq for the first time in six years, expressing support for the country’s people, the new Government and its ambitious reform agenda.
I am here in a visit of solidarity to underscore the commitment of the United Nations to support Iraq in the consolidation of its democratic institutions and advancing peace, sustainable development and human rights for all Iraqis,” Mr. Guterres told journalists in Baghdad, after touching down late on Tuesday.
After “decades of oppression, war, terrorism, sectarianism and foreign interference” in Iraq’s affairs – just days ahead of the 20th anniversary of the 2003 invasion – Mr. Guterres acknowledged that the challenges the country faces could not be brushed aside.
And amid reports that Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani continues to face potential political obstacles in reviving national fortunes, the UN chief, in a joint press encounter with Mr. Al-Sudani, expressed his hope that Iraq “can break cycles of instability and fragility”.
He added: “I applaud the Prime Minister for his commitment to address the most pressing challenges facing the country head on – including combatting corruption, improving public services, and diversifying the economy to reduce unemployment and create opportunities, especially for young people.
“Such structural change requires systemic reform, stronger institutions, greater accountability and better governance at all levels – and the United Nations stands ready to support these important efforts.”
Referencing reported divisions over the sharing of Iraqi oil revenues between central government in the capital and provincial government in the north, Mr. Guterres encouraged all parties to build on “recent positive steps” between Baghdad and Erbil. “Sustainable agreements” and dialogue should be the long-term objective the UN Secretary-General said.
Dignity of Iraq’s displaced
In earlier comments just after touching down, Mr. Guterres also spoke of his “enormous admiration” for the Iraqi people, highlighting how he had witnessed the courage of those displaced inside the country several times, on previous visits.
The UN Secretary-General also highlighted how Iraqi refugees in Jordan and in Syria had shown that they were able “to live in solidarity with each other, to help each other in the spirit that, in my opinion, is the best hope for the future of the country”.
Iraq’s efforts to repatriate its citizens from northeast Syria – including from the infamous Al Hol camp – had been “exemplary”, Mr. Guterres said, before noting Prime Minister Al-Sudani’s commitment to allowing the safe and dignified return of ethnic Yazidis to their homes in northern Iraq, after suffering genocide at the hands of Daesh in 2014.
Addressing another key challenge for Iraq, namely water scarcity, Mr. Guterres noted that the issue required international attention, before flagging the UN 2023 Water Conference from 22-24 March in New York.
The mighty Tigris and the Euphrates rivers were now running dry and the impact on agriculture has been dramatic, the UN chief said, adding that “it breaks my heart” to see farmers who have been forced to abandon lands where crops have been grown for thousands of years.
Iraq is one of the countries worst hit by climate change, which has driven displacement, threatened food security, destroyed livelihoods, fuelled conflict and undermined human rights, Mr. Guterres maintained.
When coupled with a volatile security situation and governance challenges, “it can put stability at risk… so now is the time for the international community to support Iraq in tackling its environmental challenges, diversifying its economy, and harnessing its potential for sustainable growth,” the Secretary-General insisted.
Then and now
Later in the day, the UN chief held a press conference where he contrasted his visit six years ago amidst the existential threat posed by the war against terrorist group Da’esh, or ISIL, with Iraq now.
His visit then was “one of solidarity in a moment of urgency. Today it is a visit of solidarity and hope for the future of Iraq. With a new Government in place, there is a window of opportunity for progress”, he said.
The Secretary-General on Wednesday also heard from representatives from women’s groups and youth, who voiced their views on the need for further opening up of civic spaces and expressed concern over unemployment and climate change.
He noted with interest, the increasing awareness of climate change issues both from the Government side and among civil society. He encouraged activists and civil society groups to mobilize and lobby authorities for further action on adaptation and climate resilience.
The Secretary-General also held a townhall meeting with UN personnel based in Iraq, including the assistance mission UNAMI, the Country Team and the UN Investigative Team bring Da’esh terrorists to account (UNITAD).
He also visited the National Museum of Iraq, where he voiced appreciation for the immense contribution made by Iraq to world history.
“The contribution of Iraq to world civilization, to world culture, is absolutely outstanding”, he said reflecting on the fact that the Abbasid Caliphate flourished, while Europe was still a “barbarian area”.
“So, I’m here to pay tribute to all those that are working in this museum, preserving it in the difficult times that Iraq has faced some years ago, which allow us to be able to contemplate the magnificent culture and history of this wonderful country.”
On Thursday, the Secretary-General is due to visit a camp for displaced people in the northern part of Iraq.
He plans to meet residents and have a first-hand look at the work that UN agencies are doing there, serving those forced to leave their homes. In the afternoon he will head to Erbil and meet various officials from the Kurdistan Regional Government.