ARBIL, Iraq – A United Nations report on Iraq’s human-rights situation has provoked mixed reactions in the northern Kurdistan region. Officials accuse the UN of "exaggeration and inaccuracy" while human rights activists say the "actual extent of violations has been understated by the UN."
The report by the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) covering the first three months of this year has a substantial section on human rights in the Kurdish-controlled north.
Kurdistan has been spared much of the bloody violence in other parts of the country. It is the safest and most prosperous part of Iraq, but the UN report says it suffers from considerable violations of human rights.
The UNAMI report released in late April voiced "serious concern" over freedom of expression, detentions, and conditions for women in Kurdistan.
Kurdish authorities say the UN report lacks firsthand information on many alleged cases of violation.
"This report is not precise in its investigations because in some cases it has relied on media reports or on reports released by other organizations," Dindar Zebari, the Kurdistan regional government’s coordinator for UN Affairs, told IPS.
Zebari said his government has passed new laws and implemented reforms in government institutions in order to improve human-rights conditions in the three provinces (Arbil, Sulaimaniya, and Dohuk) under its control.
"We have exerted a lot of efforts to stop violence against women. For example, people convicted of honor-killing will not be eligible for general amnesties," Zebari said.
But rights activists in Kurdistan hold quite contrary views.
Rebin Rasul Ismael, a human rights activist from Arbil, believes the UN report is inaccurate because "it has failed to mention all the violations in Kurdistan, and has only mentioned the prominent and outstanding ones."
"The current reality shows that human-rights conditions are very bad, and I am not optimistic about the future of human rights in Kurdistan and Iraq," Ismael told IPS.
Honor killings, he said, are no longer a few isolated incidents, "but have reached a level that now women are generally under a big threat in Kurdistan."
The UN figures warn of deteriorating living conditions for women in the north. In Arbil province alone 358 women have burned themselves to death since 2003. Another 218 have tried to do so.
The prime reason is pressure from male members of the family, the report says.
Another cause for concern given in the report is the conditions of prisoners, especially those arrested on suspicion of terrorism. The UN report accuses local authorities of torturing and mistreating detainees. Many have been held for prolonged periods without any charge.
"Many are held in custody only for being considered threats," said Ismael. "You cannot hold people behind bars for a couple of years just on suspicion of posing a threat to the political or social system."
The relative freedom of expression in Kurdistan, for which Kurdish officials have claimed credit over years, is seriously questioned in the UN report.
Several journalists have been arrested by security services over the past few years. Others have been threatened or beaten by unknown persons.
"We have a feeling that sometimes journalists are subjected to the political mood of the security services," Farhad Awni, head of the Kurdistan Journalists’ Syndicate (KJS), told IPS.
The UN report says KJS is not an independent body. Awni denies this, and says a new law drafted by the KJS will provide legal protection for journalists once it is approved by the regional parliament.
Under the draft law, the highest punishment for a journalist for a perceived offense arising from their work will be fines, not imprisonment. Cases involving journalists will be handled by the police and not the security services, who deal with serious crimes.
The gloomy picture the report paints explains why many Iraqis are disillusioned with the country’s new reality.
"Unfortunately, contrary to our initial expectations, post-Saddam Iraq has not become a country that protects and respects human rights," Ismael said. "Iraq is in a catastrophic situation, and the country’s new rulers are responsible for this."