Do Women Face Human Rights Problems in These Elections?

Sunday, January 23, 2005
Western Asia

Report, Human Rights Watch, 23 January 2005

Questions and Answers from Human Rights Watch

On January 30, 2005, Iraq is scheduled to hold elections for twenty government bodies, including a Transitional National Assembly. But the U.N.-assisted elections are taking place under conditions of extreme insecurity and political turmoil that will make it all but impossible for every eligible voter to freely make a choice. In human rights terms, voters in many areas face a quandary: they must risk their lives to participate in the elections, or forgo the historic chance to cast their ballot.

This Question and Answer highlights the serious human rights concerns around the elections, ranging from problems with voter registration to attacks on election officials to the security of voters. It also presents important facts about the process -- how the elections are organized, who is organizing them and what purpose they are meant to serve.

While the U.S. and the Interim Iraqi governments are determined to hold to schedule with the elections, others have urged they be postponed. Some, including influential Sunni Arab leaders, have called for a boycott on security and political grounds. Intermediary solutions, from holding rolling elections, to having a set-aside proportion of seats for Sunni representatives have been proposed, but so far not adopted.

Even were the elections postponed, there is no guarantee that security conditions would improve. On the contrary, given the growing strength of the insurgency and the inability of the Iraqi government and Multinational Force to control large swaths of the country, it is just as likely that security will only get worse. Under any scenario, the loser is likely to be the Iraqi people's right to freely choose their leaders, without fear and with full information.

What makes an election "free and fair"?

An election is "free" when it reflects the full expression of the political will of the people concerned. Freedom in this sense involves the ability to participate in the political process without intimidation, coercion, discrimination, or the abridgment of the rights to associate with others, to assemble, and to receive or impart information. The "fairness" of an election refers to the right to vote on the basis of equality, non-discrimination, and universality. No portion of the electorate should be arbitrarily disqualified, or have their votes given extra weight.

Will the Iraqi elections be free and fair?

The security situation in Iraq has overshadowed every aspect of the elections. The violence and threats of attacks by insurgent groups have severely restricted Iraqi citizens' rights to assembly, association, movement, and expression. Significant parts of the electorate will be unable to participate because of violence and intimidation. Given that many political entities cannot campaign freely and many voters are afraid or unable to register or vote, these elections may not accurately express the political will of the people concerned.

Should the elections be postponed?

There is no clear answer to this question in human rights terms. Iraqis are caught in a tragic dilemma. They have a right to a representative government that can run daily affairs and tend to the important need for a constitution. But to choose such a government, they may have to risk their lives. The terrible security conditions that make daily life dangerous also compromise every component of a free and fair election: the ability to campaign, to receive and impart information about the candidates and the election, and the ability to associate with others, publicly or privately. Postponing the elections cannot guarantee a solution. Given the trajectory of the insurgency, with more brazen and violent attacks every day, it is as likely that the security situation will worsen as that it will improve.

What are the Iraqi people voting for?

On January 30, 2005, Iraqis will vote in three elections: for a Transitional National Assembly, eighteen district councils and, for voters in the three semi-autonomous Kurdish provinces in the north, an Iraqi Kurdistan National Assembly.

How is the Transitional National Assembly organized?

According to Iraq's Transitional Administrative Law (TAL), enacted in March 2004, when the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) was running Iraq, the Transitional National Assembly will have 275 seats.1 Under Iraqi electoral law enacted three months later, Iraq is a single electoral constituency. 2 Iraqis will vote on a national ballot for one slate, or list, of candidates. A slate is a political party or association with a common agenda, or a coalition of such groups. Individuals may also stand for office, either on their own or in a coalition. The slates will win seats in the assembly based on the percentage of the national vote they receive, and candidates on the slates will be appointed based on their position on the lists. Currently, there are one hundred eleven political entities vying to elect their candidates to the Transitional Assembly.

What is the role of the Transitional National Assembly?

The Transitional National Assembly will elect a president and two deputy presidents. These three officials will then choose a prime minister and Cabinet. But the Assembly's main task is to draft a new constitution, which Iraqis will vote on by October 2005. If the constitution is accepted by more than 50 percent of voters, elections for a new Assembly will be held within two months. If the constitution is rejected, the Transitional Assembly will be dissolved and Iraqis will elect a second Transitional Assembly to redraft the constitution. The permanent constitution also will fail if rejected by two-thirds of the voters of any three provinces.3

Who is organizing the elections?

The elections are organized by the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq (IECI), established by thef U.S.-run Coalition Provisional Authority in May 2004.4 The Commission is run by a nine-member Board of Commissioners, which includes seven voting members who are Iraqi citizens, and two non-voting members.5 The two non-voting members are the chief electoral officer, an Iraqi, and an international expert appointed by the United Nations (U.N.).6 Thirty other U.N. election specialists are providing technical expertise.

Has the electoral commission and its staff been free to work?

The electoral commission has approximately 6,000 employees. They have been the regular target of threats, harassment and violence by insurgents, which has severely impeded their ability to work. The most serious incident took place on December 19 in central Baghdad, where gunmen pulled five election workers from a car, shooting three.

As election day approaches, more election workers are quitting their jobs due to threats. According to press reports, twenty-four members of the electoral commission in Mosul and some 700 of their employees resigned in late December due to threats, as well as the withdrawal from the elections of the Iraqi Islamic Party.7 Dr. Farid `Ayyar, spokesperson for the Iraqi electoral commission, denied the reports, calling them "one of the biggest media lies." One or two election workers resigned, he said, and they told the media they had been joined by the entire group.8

Other resignations have been reported, like in the town of Baiji, home of Iraq's largest oil refinery, where all twelve members of the electoral commission reportedly quit on January 2 after receiving death threats.9 In one reported example, which sheds light on the type of threats election workers get, a Baghdad resident was distributing voter registration papers in his al-Bayya`a neighborhood until he got a letter in the mail. "The sword has become very near to your neck," the letter said. "Leave any work that relates to the elections and stay safe."10

On or around January 8, the entire thirteen-member electoral commission from al-Anbar province, where al-Falluja and al-Ramadi are located, reportedly resigned after receiving threats from unidentified insurgents. Sa`d `Abd al-`Aziz al-Rawi, head of the commission, told an al-Anbar newspaper that it was "impossible to hold elections" in the province.11 Dr. `Ayyar also denied the reports from Baiji and al-Anbar, calling them "part of the campaign against the election." He added: "We don't know how many people have resigned. Some resign privately."12

Who is voting?

The most recent estimate of Iraq's population is 24.5 million. 13 Approximately 41 percent of these people are below the age of fifteen. Fifteen to 20 percent of the population is Kurdish, and 75 to 80 percent is Arab.14 Among the Arabs, 60 percent is Shi`a Muslim and 32 to 37 percent is Sunni.15

According to the Iraqi Electoral Commission, fourteen to fifteen million Iraqis are eligible to vote.16 This includes an estimated one million Iraqis who live abroad.

How was voter registration conducted?

An individual can vote if he or she is an Iraqi citizen (or is entitled to reclaim Iraqi citizenship17 ), was born on or before December 31, 1986, and is registered to vote.18 To prove that these requirements have been met, a voter must produce two officially accepted documents, including a photo identification card. Voters for the Iraqi Kurdistan National Assembly must also provide proof of residence in one of Iraq's three northern provinces.

To prepare the voter registration lists, the Electoral Commission used the database from the U.N.'s Oil-for-Food Program. Beginning in early November, families went to their local food distribution center to verify that all eligible family members were on the list. If family members noted mistakes, they were to submit a corrected form at one of more than 450 voter registration centers across the country.

To date, Iraqi election officials have not provided information about the number of Iraqis registered to vote, in part because voters in Nineveh and al-Anbar provinces are allowed to register and vote on the same day.

Were there problems with voter registration?

In many parts of the country the process has gone smoothly given the limited time, although citizens born in 1986 were accidentally left off the preliminary lists. In cities like Baghdad, Mosul, al-Falluja, and al-Ramadi, however, threats and violence by insurgents have made verification of the voter lists virtually impossible. In November, insurgents set fire to a Mosul warehouse with election registration papers. On January 2 unknown assailants destroyed two registration centers in eastern Tikrit with mortar fire. As Iraq's interim president Ghazi al-Yawir explained: "There are areas where no one has been able to give out even one voter registration sheet."19

In response, the Commission has decided to allow voters in Nineveh province, where Mosul is located, and in al-Anbar province, both to register and vote on election day. According to commission spokesman `Ayyar, the more than 200,000 residents of al-Falluja who were displaced during the U.S. offensive in November will be allowed to register and vote at special polling places established near the displacement camps and villages where many of them currently live. As of January 12, approximately 6,000 al-Falluja residents had returned to the town20 and, according to a U.S. general, they will be able to vote there.21

In Kurdish areas, the registration process has gone peacefully, but not without confusion. Voters and local officials complained that up to 90 percent of the voter registration forms in Arbil province had mistakes that needed correction.22 Head of the electoral commission in the province, Kamal Khambar, said that as many as 70,000 people in his area may not be able to vote because of problems with the voter lists.23

Are Iraqis abroad allowed to vote?

After pressure from Iraq's former émigré political parties, like Ahmed Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress and Interim Prime Minister Iyyad `Allawi's Iraqi National Accord, the electoral commission decided in November to let people outside Iraq participate in the elections, so long as they can prove Iraqi nationality. To do this, a person must present a document or documents issued by a state, state agency of major international institution that demonstrates birth in Iraq, current or previous citizenship of Iraq or birth to a father of Iraqi nationality.24

In cooperation with the International Organization of Migration (IOM), polling places will be available in fourteen countries for the estimated one million eligible Iraqi voters who live abroad. Expatriate Iraqis around the world can vote in any of these countries, but they must travel at their own expense. Moreover, they must register between January 17 and 23, and they can only vote in the country in which they registered, even if they live somewhere else. This will require émigré voters to either travel two times or to stay in the country where they registered for one week or more.25

Who can run in the elections?

To run in the elections, a political entity must register with the electoral commission. A political entity is defined as a political party, an association or a group of people with a common political agenda (for example, women's groups, human rights groups and youth groups) that submits candidates. Individuals can also apply and, if certified, they can run alone or form a coalition with other certified political entities.26

To be certified by the Electoral Commission, a political entity had to provide at least 500 signatures of eligible voters in support of its application. It had to submit the names of at least twelve candidates, one-third of whom had to be women.27 They also had to pledge to respect a set of common principles. Most important among these is not to be funded by or associated with any armed force or militia.28 The two exceptions are the Kurdish Peshmerga and the Badr militia, connected with the political parties the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and Kurdish Democratic Party (DPK) and SCIRI. Both militias are legal under Iraq's Transitional Administration Law (TAL). 29

How many political entities are running for seats in the Transitional National Assembly?

One hundred eleven political entities appear on the ballot for the Transitional National Assembly. All the political entities that applied to the Electoral Commission were certified.

Are there conditions for being an Assembly candidate?

According to Article 31 of the TAL, a candidate for the Assembly must be more than thirty years of age, have at least a secondary school education and not be a member of the armed forces at the time of his or her nomination. A candidate must also meet certain criteria regarding past affiliations and behavior. In particular, the candidate:30

1. Shall not have been a member of the Ba`th Party with the rank of Division Member or higher unless exempted pursuant to applicable rules.

2. Shall be required to renounce the Ba`th Party and disavow all past links if he or she was a member of the party with the rank of Full Member.

3. Shall not have been a member of the "former agencies of repression" and shall not have "contributed to or participated in the persecution of citizens."

4. Shall not have enriched himself or herself in an "illegitimate manner."

5. Shall not have been convicted of a crime involving "moral turpitude" and shall have "a good reputation."

These terms have not been defined by law, and are therefore open to various interpretations. According to Electoral Commission Spokesperson Dr. Farid `Ayyar, the conditions are not the responsibility of the Electoral Commission because they are listed in the TAL, as opposed to electoral law. The new Assembly will determine whether all of its new members meet the above conditions, he said, and it will take appropriate action if they do not.

Have any candidates been rejected based on the above criteria?

According to `Ayyar, the Electoral Commission has rejected one candidate, although it is not clear if this person had applied as an individual political entity or as a candidate on an entity's list. The Commission asked the person, whose name was not provided to Human Rights Watch, to provide a letter of clearance from the government's De-Ba`thification Committee, which, as of January 7, he had not yet done.31

Are political entities and candidates free to campaign?

Political parties and individual candidates have been severely restricted in their ability to campaign by the violence and lack of security across Iraq. Due to threats and violent attacks, very few groups have had public meetings, and most have not released the names of candidates on their lists.

Most recently, on January 18, gunmen reportedly shot and killed two candidates from the Iraqi National Accord, Riad Radi and `Ala' Hamid, in Basra. The day before in Baghdad, gunmen killed Shakir Jabir Sahla, who was a candidate for the Constitutional Monarchy Movement.32

The list of other attacks is long. On January 12, gunmen killed two aides to Iraq's top Shi`ite leader Ayatollah `Ali al-Sistani in Salman Pak and al-Najaf.33 On January 5, the Iraqi Communist Party, the first party to organize a public rally, announced that gunmen had killed one of its party leaders, Hadi Salih.34 Ten days before, another communist party leader, Sa`di `Abd al-Jabbar al-Bayyati, was killed south of Baghdad.35 On January 4 gunmen killed the governor of Baghdad province, `Ali al-Haidari, and six of his bodyguards. On January 3 a car-bomb killed three people outside the office of the Iraqi National Accord. One week before, a car bomb killed fifteen people near the Baghdad home of `Abd al-`Aziz al-Hakim, a top candidate of the United Iraqi Alliance, and a likely candidate for prime minister.

Have there been any instances of interference with candidates by the Multinational Forces?

There is one reported case of an arrest by U.S. soldiers of a political entity head, although the details remain unclear. According to the National Front for Iraqi Unity, the political entity registered with the Electoral Commission to represent the National Front for Iraqi Tribes, U.S. troops arrested its secretary general, Shaykh Hassan Zaydan al-Lihaybi, in Mosul on December 31.36 Electoral Commission Spokesman `Ayyar had no official information about the arrest on January 7, but had heard reports that al-Lihaybi was arrested for relations with armed insurgent groups.37 The National Front for Iraqi Unity announced on January 12 that, due to the arrest, it would boycott the vote.

Is the media free to cover the elections?

The security situation significantly constrains the media's ability to cover the elections. In the past year, twenty-three journalists have been killed in Iraq, five of them foreigners, by both Iraqi insurgents and the U.S. military.38 "We face different dangers now and there is no law to protect journalists in Iraq," explained Hussain Muhammad al-`Ajil, the head of investigative reporting at al-Mada, a new Baghdad daily. "There are threats from three sides: the Americans might shoot you if they're ambushed; the Iraqi security forces might stop you or beat you if they suspect you're with the resistance; and the resistance might kill you if they think you're a spy."39

The most direct restriction on the media is the Iraqi government's ban on the Qatar-based television station al-Jazeera. Since August 2004, the Interim Iraqi Government has banned the station from collecting news in Iraq because of reporting the government considered an incitement to violence. According to press freedom groups monitoring the case, government officials said that al-Jazeera's reporting on kidnappings had encouraged Iraqi militants. Other officials accused the station of being a mouthpiece for terrorist groups, creating a negative picture of Iraq, and contributing to instability. The ban was reportedly implemented without due process, and Iraqi officials provided no specifics to support their allegations.40

On March 28, 2004, U.S. soldiers stormed and closed the offices of al-Hawza newspaper, a Baghdad weekly affiliated with the Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. The CPA ordered the paper shut because it had allegedly incited violence against coalition forces. The Interim Iraqi Government lifted the ban on July 18.

In contrast, two U.S.-funded television stations are allowed to operate freely and are reporting with a pro-government slant. Al-Hurra Television is financed by the U.S. government and operates from studios outside Washington DC. Al-`Iraqiyya Television is run with U.S. government funds but is supervised by outside consultants and staffed by Iraqis. Both stations, widely recognized in Iraq as U.S.-run, regularly praise the elections and present Iraqi voices that do the same.

News channels with critical reporting of the U.S. government and the occupation are allowed to gather news and broadcast from Iraq. Hezbollah's satellite channel al-Manar, for example, has correspondents on the ground, as does al-`Alam, an Iranian channel that is highly critical of the U. S. government. The other main Arab satellite television station, al-Arabiyya, also operates freely in Iraq.

One troubling development was the government's November 9, 2004 directive, issued by the regulatory Media High Commission, which ordered news media to reflect the government's positions in their reports. Citing the recently imposed 60-day state of emergency due to the offensive in al-Falluja, the directive instructed journalists not to attach "patriotic descriptions to groups of killers and criminals," and asked the media to "set aside space in news coverage to make the position of the Iraqi government, which expresses the aspirations of most Iraqis, clear." If media do not comply, the directive said, the Commission "will be forced to take all the legal measures to guarantee higher national interests."41 Thus far, there have been no reports of the government taking action against media based on the directive.

Are voters well educated about the elections?

Despite education campaigns by the Electoral Commission and nongovernmental organizations, press reports suggest a mixed level of understanding among Iraqis about the elections. According to one poll conducted by the International Republican Institute, a U.S. Congress-funded group, forty-one percent of respondents in November-December 2004 said the elections were for a president, compared to twenty-eight percent who properly said it was for the Transitional National Assembly. Thirteen percent of the respondents did not know what the election was for at all.42

Poor security compounds the problem. Most political parties and coalitions have not announced the names of candidates, except for the prominent individuals on the top of their lists. Voters are therefore obliged to vote for parties and other groups without knowing the people who will fill the assembly seats.

Who will participate in the election?

Iraqis have widely divergent views on the elections and their willingness to participate. The influential Muslim Scholars Association, an alliance of some 3,000 Sunni clerics, has called for an election boycott to protest the November assault on Falluja and the continued U.S. occupation of Iraq. In contrast, the leading Shi`a cleric, Grand Ayatollah `Ali al-Sistani, issued an edict that called voting a "religious duty."

Although insecurity is an issue throughout most of Iraq, the predominantly Sunni areas have been the most affected by the ongoing conflict. However, insecurity also pervades predominantly Shi`a areas of the country. Previously secure cities such as Mosul have become increasing dangerous.

The moderate Iraqi Islamic Party, the main Sunni faction in postwar governments, at first agreed to participate in the elections but then withdrew, citing security concerns. Iraq's Interim President Ghazi al-Yawir and `Adnan al-Pachachi, head of the Independent Democrats, are among the few Sunni Arab politicians still participating in the elections. However, al- Yawir has urged the U.N. to consider postponing the elections43 and al-Pachachi has called for the vote to be postponed.

Some Sunni groups also have expressed political concerns; namely that the elections are a ploy to prolong the U.S. occupation. They see the vote as a way to ensure that U.S.-supported Iraqi émigré parties, which have dominated Iraqi politics since the occupation, are put in power. "I'm not going anywhere near this election -- it's clearly dishonest," one Sunni man in Baghdad told the press. "The American forces have prepared the electoral lists so that their candidates will win." 44

Is there a special issue with elections in Kirkuk?

Yes. Until mid-January, Kurdish political parties were threatening to boycott the elections because Kurdish residents of Kirkuk who had been expelled from the area during Saddam Hussein's "Arabization" program in the 1980s and 1990s were forbidden to vote in the provincial election. On January 14 the Electoral Commission announced that displaced Kurds from the area could vote locally. The decision allows an estimated 100,000 Kurds to vote for the al-Tamim provincial government.45

Arab and Turkmen leaders in Kirkuk condemned the decision, and one of the main Turkmen parties, the Iraqi Turkmen Front, threatened to boycott the elections. The decision, they say, will put Kurds in charge of the al-Tamim government during the coming year, when Kirkuk's territorial status in Iraq is scheduled to be determined.46

Lack of participation by any group would make it extremely difficult for the Assembly to prepare a constitution that would receive the widespread endorsement necessary for its adoption.

Do women face human rights problems in these elections?

According to Iraqi law, women are guaranteed a role in the political process. They are officially encouraged to vote, and one in three of every political entity's candidates must be a women. The goal is for the 275-seat assembly to be twenty-five percent women.

Despite these guarantees, women face many barriers to active participation in politics. Although insurgents have attacked all candidates, male and female, women are vulnerable to additional pressure by those who do not think they should play a role in public life. On January 16, gunmen ambushed a car carrying a prominent Shi`ite activist and candidate, Salama al-Khafaji, in Baghdad. She escaped unharmed. In May, gunmen attacked her convoy while driving to Baghdad from al-Najaf, killing her bodyguard and seventeen-year-old son. In late December, gunmen abducted, tortured and killed another female candidate, Wijdan al-Khuzai, leaving her body on the Baghdad airport road.

The insecurity and violence in Iraq may also keep some women from going to the polls on election day. Although all citizens will take a risk by exercising their right to vote, women are particularly vulnerable to attacks, abductions and sexual violence.47

Who are the major candidates?

The main Shi`a political parties, including the Islamic Da`wa Party and SCIRI, have formed a coalition called the United Iraqi Alliance with 228 candidates. Ahmad Chalabi's Iraqi National Accord has also joined the alliance. Shi`a Arabs, who comprise approximately sixty percent of the population, are likely to win the highest percentage of seats in the new assembly. This would represent a shift in power after decades of Sunni control in Iraq.

The two main Kurdish parties, the Kurdish Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, are running on a joint ticket and, with strong representation, they might influence the new constitution to reflect their desire for regional autonomy, if not independence. Kurds are predominantly Sunni and comprise 15 to 20 percent of Iraq's population.

Although most Sunni political parties are not running, some individual Sunni candidates are standing for office, most notably Iraq's Interim President Ghazi al-Yawir and `Adnan al-Pachachi, head of the Independent Democrats.

What happens on election day?

Voting on January 30 will take place over ten hours, from 7 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. local time. There will be 5,220 polling centers across Iraq, excluding al-Anbar province, comprising 29,000 polling stations.48 When a voter has cast his or her ballot, election officials will cross the person's name off the voter list and mark the thumb with indelible ink. Due to security concerns, ballots will be counted in the polling places where they are submitted, rather than gathered in a central spot.

Can voters in violent areas vote someplace else?

No. On January 15 the electoral commission announced that voters must vote in the province where they are registered.49 The one exception is the estimated 200,000 al-Falluja residents who were expelled from the town before and during the U.S. assault in November 2004. For them, the electoral commission is setting up special polling places in the villages and displacement camps where many of them live, such as in Abu Ghraib and al-`Amiriyya.

What preparations are there for security on election day?

In coordination with the Electoral Commission, the Iraqi police and National Guard will deploy more than 100,000 troops to guard polling stations. On January 6, the government extended for another thirty days the state of emergency that it first imposed in November during the U.S. offensive on al-Falluja.

On January 18, the Interim Iraqi government announced additional security measures for the days leading up to the elections. Authorities will close Iraq's land borders from January 29-31; only pilgrims returning from the Hajj in Saudi Arabia will be allowed to enter the country. Shops and offices will be closed those days and only cars with official permits may travel the roads to minimize the risk of car bombs. The ban on car travel may make it difficult for some voters to reach the polls, especially if they have moved from the neighborhood where they are registered.

The United States military is raising troop levels to about 150,000, which is more than the number of soldiers that invaded Iraq in March 2003. Multinational Forces will provide assistance to Iraqi troops as requested, but they will keep their distance from polling places unless needed, wary of presenting the image of an election under occupation.

It remains to be seen whether increased security will be enough to protect polling places and the130,000 Iraqis who will run them, let alone the voters who may have to wait in lines where they are susceptible to attack. As the number two general for U.S. forces in Iraq said in early January, the U.S. military would help Iraqis safeguard the elections but it could not "put a bubble around every person going out to vote."50

Radical Islamic groups like the al-Qaeda linked Ansar al-Sunna have warned that the elections are "farcical and un-Islamic" and that those who participate will "not be sheltered from the blows of the mujahidin."51 Iraqi Interim Prime Minister Ayad `Allawi has said that violence will prevent "some pockets" in Iraq from voting.52 On January 6, the U.S. commander of ground forces in Iraq said that significant areas in four of Iraq's eighteen provinces were too insecure for citizens to safely vote.53 The four provinces -- Nineveh, al-Anbar, Salahadin and Baghdad -- have an estimated 42.5% of Iraq's population.54

Who will monitor the election?

According to Electoral Commission Spokesman `Ayyar, "hundreds of organizations" have been registered to monitor the elections, almost all of them from Iraq rather than international organizations due to security concerns. Certified political entities also have the right to monitor all aspects of the electoral process.