News & views | 11 September 2018 | by Carrie Huisman0
Only dialogue can reduce tensions in Basra
Basra, along with other regions in Southern Iraq, garnered a great deal of media coverage this summer in response to largescale public protests and civil unrest underway since early July. While international attention waned in recent weeks, the protests are still underway and show little sign of coming to a conclusion, negotiated or otherwise.
The Iraqi government, as well as most outsiders, took Basra’s relative stability for granted in recent years. These are certainly not the first protests in the region; in fact they were preceded by more than 260 separate demonstrations this year alone. However, the sheer size, persistence, and geographic span of the protests surprised many inside of Iraq and out. For PAX and its local partners, these protests came as less a shock than an inevitability. Our most recent Human Security Survey in Basra from April-May 2018, conducted with over 750 individuals across the governorate mere weeks before the protests began, makes clear that members of the public see a link between worsening economic conditions, poor governance, and rising insecurity.
For instance, when asked to identify the two main factors most likely to cause conflict in the coming year, 81% of HSS respondents said “poverty or lack of livelihood opportunities” and 40% pointed to “poor governance at the national level.” People were also rather pessimistic about the future, with two-thirds of respondents saying that it is either somewhat likely or very likely that they would personally become a victim of violence in the coming year. Further, 76% of respondents disagreed with the statement, “I generally feel safe from violence or crime in my community” compared with just 18% who agreed with the statement, “The national government in Baghdad is taking clear steps to reduce violence in our community.” Finally, nearly one-quarter of respondents reported that a member of their household acquired or used a weapon in the previous year as a protection strategy. These are clearly the reflections of people who feel their sense of security and stability deteriorating.
Basra governorate – home to one of Iraq’s largest cities and much of the country’s oil reserves – was long a dependable source of wealth for the country. However, today Basra is characterized by rising unemployment, poor service delivery, ineffective governance, environmental degradation, and increasing criminality. The acute electricity and water shortages that preceded this year’s protests coincided with soaring temperatures across the region, which fuelled greater demand for scarce resources In the last few weeks the water situation further deteriorated with multiple water treatment centres closing. The once lush region between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers now has only salty and polluted water flowing from its taps. According to Al Jazeera and others, nearly twenty thousand people have been admitted to hospitals in recent weeks as a result.
Basra’s citizens lack access to safe drinking water, as well as many other basic services.
Some of the economic and environmental challenges facing Basra are due to external conditions. These include climate change, which has resulted in ever higher temperatures and lower rainfall, as well as a global decrease in the price of oil since 2014 that damaged southern Iraq’s primary industry and led to rising unemployment. (According to The Economist, approximately 95% of Iraq’s GDP comes from Basra’s oil fields.) Many other challenges are of the government’s own making, such as rampant public corruption and crumbling physical infrastructure. As stated this week in The Independent, “Few things epitomise the failure of the Iraqi state so starkly as the fact that, despite its vast oil wealth, Basra is now threatened by a cholera outbreak.”
The people of Basra know this and they intend to hold authorities to account. The current public protests are therefore not solely about expressing frustration with temporary power cuts or salty water; rather, demonstrators have made clear that they see these as merely symptoms of much deeper, more systemic issues that must be addressed. Poor governance is widely perceived as the real root cause of Basra’s high unemployment and insufficient services, and poverty is one of the most significant drivers of rising conflict and criminality.
This is why protesters targeted and burned government and political party offices, blocked access to oil installations, and why they hurled stones at security forces. The government’s response to the protests has not helped to improve conditions on the ground. A few half-hearted attempts at appeasement were made in the form of promises for more public sector jobs, but this was received as a hollow buy-off. In recent weeks local and national authorities restricted internet access, threatened curfews, blocked off streets and entry points to major cities, and sent thousands of troops to meet protesters in the streets. These actions do nothing to address public grievances or respond to citizens’ stated demands.
Nor has the security services’ behaviour done anything to deescalate the situation. The Iraqi police and military have repeatedly used tear gas and live fire against the protesters, demonstrating a lack of sufficient restraint and sense of proportionality. According to Human Rights Watch, at least three demonstrators died and another 47 were seriously injured during just ten days in July. Since then, there have been dozens of additional casualties and more than 200 people arrested. As recently as this week, we hear from partners in the field that security forces are harassing individuals even as they sit in hospitals recovering from injuries incurred while protesting. The protests (as well as the government’s militarized response) show no signs of abating.
PAX’s Protection of Civilians team urges the Iraqi government and security forces to take meaningful steps to address public grievances and restore basic services to the people of Basra, and to refrain from the use of violence in responding to legitimate public protest. The national government is still struggling to form a government after this May’s elections, but the legitimacy of the state in the eyes of its citizens is waning by the day. We see in our Human Security Survey that Basra’s citizens already demonstrate diminished trust and faith in national political and security institutions to respond to their basic needs. Resorting to physical coercion and violence against protesters instead of investing those resources in addressing their demands will only further erode public confidence and inflate tensions.
Instead, we invite local authorities to join us and our Iraqi partners in utilizing our Human Security Survey methodology as a means for facilitating constructive dialogue between civil society, government authorities, and security institutions about civilians’ experiences, priorities, and hopes for their security in the future with an aim towards decreasing the likelihood of conflict-related violence. Only through meaningful and inclusive dialogue, in which the wellbeing and security of Basra’s citizens is prioritised, can a much needed sense of partnership between government, security institutions and civil society be utilized to relieve tensions and build a more stable future.
Here is a summary of some key findings from our recent survey in Basra. More detailed reports are forthcoming. To stay informed about additional analyses and reports, please register for our newsletter.