Practical Federalism in Iraq

Venice Seminar 2-11 July 2006

No Peace Without Justice and the International Alliance for Justice, with financial support from the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, organised a seminar on Practical Federalism in Iraq, held in the Lido di Venezia, from 18-26 July 2006. The seminar was attended by prominent members of the Iraqi Parliament, former Ministers, distinguished writers, civil society activists and journalists from across Iraq; approximately 50 participants took part in the seminar. Visiting experts from diverse federalist countries such as Canada, Egypt, Germany, India, Ireland, South Africa, Spain, Turkey and the United States of America led discussions on a variety of topics such as justice systems, criminal law and liberties; management and sharing of water, oil, gas and other natural resources; fiscal arrangements and public spending; representation; language, education, culture and religion; distribution of powers; and conditions for successful federalism and national unity in Iraq. The Venetian authorities also contributed to the seminar in explaining how the region is governed. The seminar was an occasion for an exchange of experiences and a general overview of federalism around the world, with fruitful and extensive discussions on the above-mentioned topics, particularly on how they may apply in the Iraqi context. Concerns and suggestions that were most commonly voiced related mainly to the distribution of powers, the protection of rights and the management of resources and revenues.
A predominant concern raised is that many Iraqis may have the perception that under a federal system, Iraq would be divided. Raising awareness about federalism must, therefore, be a priority. In addition, many Iraqis may fear that central government planning and management and the subsequent collection of riches could lead to a dictatorship. It was considered necessary to empower the central government to allow Iraq to preserve central will and protect federalism, but at the same time a parliament or second chamber is needed to provide a check and balance system to ensure the government is responsive to local needs and does not become disproportionately powerful. Mechanisms must be in place to prevent the central government from exploiting Iraq’s wealth and natural resources and to prevent division amongst the regions. In addition, a Supreme Court is essential to act as an effective ‘umpire’ to settle issues that cannot be resolved amongst the various levels of government. A significant point, recurring throughout the seminar, was that mechanisms must be devised and implemented to ensure that minorities’ rights are protected. It was agreed that the law should not be contradictory to the foundations of Islam, but in addition it must not be contrary to democracy and human rights.
Some areas of the Constitution must be clarified, such as the article pertaining to ownership of oil and other natural resources: on the one hand, it has been interpreted as assigning ownership and management of resources to regional authorities in cases otherwise not specified, but another interpretation suggests that the text of the Constitution speaks of a “joint task” of the government and that a percentage of the money should be given to the regional authorities or even directly to the citizens. The wording of the competences of the central government is written in a very general way as the drafters were mindful of uncertainties due to past experiences. The Constitution requires more flexibility and an accurate interpretation of articles related to ownership and management of resources is needed.
At the conclusion of the seminar, a consensus was reached on recommendations and a final communiqué.
The final communiqué highlighted the main points of discussion, acknowledged the elite group of Members of Parliament, civil society, officials of the Italian Government and Parliament and visiting experts that attended the seminar and thanked the participants for their contributions. It was stated, ‘Here is an atmosphere of brotherhood in the interests of the country rather than personal interests’. The participants acknowledged that it is necessary to build up federalism and establish new regions in order to achieve unity for Iraq and thanked those who participated in the organisation of the seminar, stating that ‘these organisers have left no stone unturned to ensure it is a success'.
In the recommendations, the participants agreed to support the initiation of national reconciliation suggested by the Iraqi Government, including national dialogue, transparency and support for national reconciliation to create mutual trust between the constituent parts of Iraqi society. Participants recommended that efforts be taken to avoid all racial and religious conflicts in Iraq, to build the bases for unity of Iraq. It was considered a necessity to train and modernise the Iraqi Judiciary, as the former judiciary was ruled by the regime. The importance of the establishment and protection of individual and personal freedoms of Iraqi people was underlined, particularly that the personal status law should be revised, the rights of the family and of women and children must be protected and the Universal Declaration on Human Rights must be included in the Constitution. The ownership of resources was a significant area of discussion and the recommendation highlighted the importance that current and future hydrocarbon resources belong to all citizens and must be administered in cooperation between central and regional governments, distributed in a just way, taking into account poverty, population density, environmental damage and damage caused during and after the regime, pursuant to a policy developed by a higher council with representation from the central and regional governments. Finally, the participants mentioned that education and culture are basic constituents of the identity of Iraq, reflecting also its history. The centre, regions and provinces should give importance to this and adopt the precepts of the Constitution of Iraq at all levels in order to guarantee unification of the people of Iraq, while bearing in mind the importance of respect for all minorities in Iraq.
In conclusion, the seminar was considered a highly successful event; the visiting experts and participants contributed greatly and enriched the seminar by sharing experiences and exchanging ideas. The seminar addressed a number of topics and conditions for a successful federalism and, ultimately, unity for Iraq. Although the discussion had a general focus, it was agreed that more specific follow-up on the federal system of Iraq is necessary in the near future. The participants are very dedicated to the establishment of a federal system and this was reflected in the work of the seminar.