On March 7, Iraq's voters will head to the polls nationwide to select all 325 members of parliament. The election will be a key indicator on whether the country is moving toward greater political stability and respect for human rights and away from the sectarian violence that plagued Iraq after the last election, in 2005.

Over the past two years, the violence that devastated Sunni and Shia Arab communities in central and southern Iraq has, at least for the time being, greatly reduced. Overall, however, human rights conditions in Iraq remain poor, especially for displaced persons, detainees, journalists, religious and ethnic minorities, and vulnerable groups such as women and girls, as well as men suspected of homosexual conduct.

Iraqi voters deserve a substantive debate about issues that affect them, particularly with respect to candidates' platforms to ensure respect for human rights in Iraq.  Human Rights Watch urges the political coalitions, parties and candidates, to adopt the recommendations below as part of their platforms and work to ensure that the next parliament and government takes them up and implements them.

1. Sectarianism, Electoral Exclusion, and Lack of Due Process

In a significant blow to the election's credibility, Iraq's election commission announced on February 13 that hundreds of candidates -- including several prominent Sunni and secular-minded Shia politicians expected to fare well in the election - would remain off the ballot. This followed a January decision by the Supreme National Commission for Accountability and Justice to disqualify more than 500 candidates because of alleged links to the Ba'ath party.

The Commission, headed by Ahmed Chalabi, did not provide even a minimal level of transparency about its decision-making process, most significantly the evidence on which it has disqualified candidates. On February 3, an Iraqi appeals court postponed all the disqualifications, stating there was not enough time to review the evidence against the candidates, but two days later it resumed hearing the appeals. The appeals court then reversed the disqualification of only 26 candidates; another 145 were rejected; the rest did not appeal or their parties replaced them with other candidates.

As with previous de-Ba'athification procedures since 2003, the 2008 law that authorizes the Commission maintains the principle of punishment on the basis of alleged group affiliation, rather than individual wrongdoing or lack of qualifications. The law fails to provide those dismissed the right to see and challenge the evidence against them.

Human Rights Watch urges candidates and parties to include as part of their platform a commitment to:

  • Revamp the 2008 law creating the Supreme National Commission for Accountability and Justice to ensure that it does not exclude candidates unfairly or arbitrarily and to establish clear standards, based on individual accountability, for disqualifying candidates.
  • Revise the law to require that the Commission make available evidence against those it seeks to ban, so they can challenge its decisions.
  • Ensure that appointees to the Commission are selected based on competence and professional integrity, rather than political loyalty or sectarian affiliation.

2. Freedom of expression

Working in Iraq as a local journalist can be dangerous; 20 Iraqi media workers were killed in the past two years alone.  Insurgents have targeted journalists for assassination, kidnapping and other abuse. Iraq is still one of the world's deadliest countries for reporters. As the security situation improves, journalists are encountering new risks to their work -- harassment and legal action from government officials. 

Instead of increasing speech protections, as guaranteed by the 2005 Constitution, the government has clamped down on negative scrutiny of public officials. Authorities have denied media accreditation to critical journalists, and have used the country's broad libel laws to sue commentators who have criticized their performance in government. In recent months, officials initiated a series of legal proceedings against publishers and media and blocked access to government functions.

During the January 2009 provincial elections, police and security forces harassed, arrested or assaulted numerous journalists, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, a US-based international press freedom watchdog.   Some were detained for hours while others were beaten or had their equipment destroyed and were prevented from entering polling stations.

More recently, Iraq's Communications and Media Commission issued new regulations ahead of the March 7 elections which prohibit broadcasters from "inciting violence or sectarianism" without giving any clear guidelines as to what that encompasses. The regulations also stipulate that all broadcasters and their journalists must seek permission from the Commission to operate in Iraq but provide little information on the criteria the government would use in issuing licenses. Media organizations found in violation of the regulations risk closure, suspensions, fines, and equipment confiscation.  The vagueness of the regulations will give government authorities space to engage in arbitrary censorship and restrict the freedom of the media.

A draft media law for the "protection" of journalists currently before parliament raises concerns because it narrowly defines a "journalist" as someone who is both working for an established news outlet and is affiliated with the Iraqi Journalists' Syndicate.

Human Rights Watch urges candidates and parties to include, as part of their platforms, a commitment to:

  • Urge the government to investigate and prosecute assaults by security forces and others against journalists.
  • Amend regulations issued by the Communications and Media Commission and other Iraqi laws to remove or precisely define, in line with international standards of freedom of expression, any vaguely expressed content-based restrictions including "incitement of sectarianism."
  • Amend regulations issued by the Communications and Media Commission and other Iraqi laws to remove excessive penalties on media outlets, including temporary and permanent suspensions, excessive fines and equipment confiscation, especially for minor infractions.

3. Detention Conditions and Torture

Torture and ill-treatment remain a serious problem in Iraqi detention facilities and jails. According to Iraq's Ministry of Human Rights, more than 40,000 individuals remain in detention under the custody of the Ministry of Interior, Ministry of Justice, Ministry of Defense, Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs, and US forces. Government-run detention facilities struggle to accommodate the large number of detainees, and serious delays in the judicial review of detention has exacerbated overcrowding. Some detainees have spent years in custody without charge or trial.

Reports of torture and other detainee abuse in facilities run by Iraq's defense and interior ministries and police continue. Detainees interviewed by Human Rights Watch at Iraq's Central Criminal Court in 2008 recounted abuse by police and military personnel during their initial detention. The United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI), in its most recent human rights report covering the first six months of 2009, wrote that the mission received widespread allegations of abuse in pretrial detention. UNAMI has also documented claims of serious detainee abuses by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), including beatings during interrogation, torture by electric shocks, forced confessions, secret detention facilities, and lack of medical attention.

In June 2009 Prime Minister al-Maliki set up an eight-member special committee, composed of representatives from the government's security ministries as well as human rights and judicial agencies, to investigate allegations of torture in Iraq's prisons. The government has not provided any information about the progress of any investigation or its results.

Human Rights Watch urges candidates and parties to include, as part of their platforms, a commitment to:

  • Urge the government to promptly investigate all allegations of torture and ill-treatment, and institute disciplinary measures or criminal prosecution, as appropriate, against officials who are responsible for the abuse of detainees.
  • Revise the Criminal Code and Criminal Procedure Code to ensure that the rights of defendants meet international standards, notably by prohibiting the use of coerced confessions and any use of evidence obtained by torture.
  • Publicly condemn any use of torture or other mistreatment in pretrial detention, including during interrogation with the aim of eliciting confessions.
  • Urge the government to implement the general recommendations of the UN Committee Against Torture and the UN special rapporteur on torture to establish a fully independent complaints mechanism for persons who are held in state custody.

4. Vulnerable Groups

Human rights conditions across Iraq remain extremely poor for vulnerable groups, particularly women, minorities, and men suspected of homosexual conduct.

Violence against women and girls continues to be a serious problem, with insurgent groups and militias, soldiers, and police among the perpetrators. Even in high-profile cases involving police or security forces, prosecutions are rare. Insurgent groups have targeted women who are politicians, civil servants, journalists, and women's rights activists, and also attacked women on the street for what they consider "immoral" or "un-Islamic" behavior or dress. "Honor" killings by family members remain a threat to women and girls in Kurdish areas as well as elsewhere in Iraq.  Sixty percent of Kurdish women have reportedly undergone female genital mutilation in the Kurdish areas of Iraq.

Armed groups continue to persecute minorities with impunity, particularly in the disputed territories in northern Iraq. Since June, 2009, assailants have launched horrific attacks against minority groups: in Nineveh province alone, a series of bombings in four towns and cities killed more than 137 and injured almost 500 from the Yazidi, Shabak and Turkmen communities.

In February 2010, eight Christians were killed in Mosul over a ten-day period. The attacks appear to be politically motivated, given the country's looming national election. While the identities of the perpetrators remain unknown, the spike in attacks against Christians comes only days ahead of Iraq's March 7 vote, and recalls the orchestrated campaign of targeted killings against Christians in Mosul in late 2008 that left 40 dead and caused more than 12,000 to flee their homes in Mosul.

As the conflict intensifies between the Arab-dominated central government and the KRG over control of the disputed territories, minorities find themselves in an increasingly precarious position. In meetings with Human Rights Watch in 2009, members of minority communities complained of heavy-handed tactics of KRG authorities in Nineveh province, where security forces have engaged in arbitrary arrests and detentions, intimidation, and in some cases violence, against those in minority communities who challenge KRG control of the disputed territories.

A killing campaign against men suspected of being gay, or of not being sufficiently "masculine," spread across much of Iraq in 2009. Armed gangs kidnapped men and left their mutilated bodies in garbage dumps or in front of morgues. The campaign was most intense in Baghdad, but left bloody tracks in other cities as well, including Kirkuk, Najaf, and Basra. While there is no accurate tally of the victims, the numbers may be in the hundreds. Iraqi police and security forces did little to investigate or halt the killings. Authorities have announced no arrests or prosecutions.

Human Rights Watch calls on candidates and parties to adopt, as part of their platforms, a commitment to:

  • Publicly condemn violence against civilians, in particular vulnerable groups including women, minorities, and men suspected of homosexual activity.  Conduct inquiries into reports of such violence by security forces or militias, and call for those found responsible to be held accountable.
  • Repeal article 128 of the Criminal Code, which identifies "The commission of an offence with honorable motives" as a "mitigating excuse."
  • Conduct inquiries into gender-based violence, in particular "honor crimes" perpetrated against women, take measures to ensure that those responsible for committing these crimes are held accountable, and legislate effective remedies for female victims of violence.

5. Refugees and internally displaced persons

Economic pressures and difficulties maintaining legal status in Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon, along with an improved security situation in Iraq, have induced Iraqi refugees to return. However, the UNHCR estimates that 1.5 million Iraqis still live outside the country, mostly in Syria and Jordan, and that there are an additional 2 million IDPs. 

The government remains without a workable plan for the return of Iraqis displaced internally or who had fled to neighboring countries. In Baghdad returnees are seldom able to reclaim their former homes. In rural communities many find their houses destroyed or in disrepair, and they lack access to income and basic services including, water, electricity, and health care. People mostly returned to neighborhoods or districts under the control of members of their sect; very few families returned to former home areas where they would be in a minority.

Human Rights Watch urges candidates and parties to include, as part of their platforms, a commitment to:

  • Develop a national plan to facilitate the voluntary return of internally displaced persons and refugees in safety and dignity. This plan should also provide compensation for loss of property as well as assistance for returnees to reintegrate and for those who are still displaced, in accordance with the UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement and international refugee law.