Seminar on Practical federalism in Iraq

Erbil, 10-16 July 2007

Language rights featured extensively in discussions, with a number of speakers lamenting the limited efforts that have gone into ensuring the two official Iraqi languages of Arabic and Kurdish are afforded genuinely equal status within all of Iraq. Several participants suggested looking to the many language laws designed for other multilingual countries. A Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms was considered a particularly interesting model, given its success in other multicultural and multilingual federal states.
In addition to Kurdish and Arabic, numerous speakers noted the importance of recognising also other languages within Iraq, including those of the Cheldo Assyrian and Turkmen communities, with many indicating that these ought also to be officially recognised. Several accounts were given of the extent to which minority languages have been persecuted under former Iraqi regimes, consequently requiring special protection if they are to survive.
The importance of recognising and protecting languages was supplemented also with calls for greater efforts to ensure adequate translation services are available during conferences and other events, and that official documents, such as ID cards, carry both official languages. The absence of non-Arabic media in cities such as Baghdad was also criticised.
Noting the importance of regional constitutions, including that of the Kurdistan Region, there were calls for assurances that language rights will be stated also explicitly in the constitutions of each Iraqi region.
The link between federalism and a multicultural society was also raised by participants, underlining that federal institutions, the media, and civil society still play a crucial part in preserving the diversity of Iraq. Most acknowledged that language, culture, education, and art play a central role in building and stabilising democratic societies. This link was however also observed to run in the reverse direction, with observers noting how only democratic societies have historically served to protect such rights. Efforts should be made, it was suggested, to ensure diversity is achieved in political appointments and positions, as well as within governmental institutions.
The importance of respecting international covenants and conventions was also recognised, in particular the Universal Declaration for Human Rights and those related to the protection of women, children, and those otherwise prone to discrimination.
Culture was repeatedly presented as an institution that can achieve what politics cannot, reaching and bridging the divides between groups. Culture in particular has suffered a great deal under former regimes, and so participants called for greater attention and resources to help restore Iraq’s cultural institutions. This should include, it was suggested, greater support and protection for the many writers and editors across Iraq’s linguistic and cultural communities. Some called in particular for amendments to the Iraqi Constitution to explicitly recognise the importance of culture.
Articles 137, 148 and 101 were however cited as a good foundation for freedoms of this nature. Participants noted the importance of building a democratic society on the basis of these principles, introducing human rights and democracy to Iraqi citizens as early as in their primary education.
Article 2 was also raised by some participants, introducing the difficult question of the Iraqi state’s relation to Islam. Many noted first and foremost the importance of recognising Iraq’s new democratic nature, underlining that this should provide other religions with the freedom both to practice and live in accordance with their beliefs and the Iraqi constitution.