April 16 (Bloomberg) -- Iraq is on a path leading away from the reasonably democratic model the U.S. hoped to leave behind. President Nouri al-Maliki is on a power trip. More broadly, his government is pushing laws that would constrain freedoms fundamental to a democracy.
Maliki, a Shiite, has gone after leading Sunni politicians, most notably issuing an arrest warrant, on what seem to be trumped-up murder charges, for Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, now a fugitive. In response, Hashimi’s Sunni-dominated party, a part of the governing coalition, refuses to participate in the Cabinet.
More quietly, Maliki’s government is pursuing worrisome measures that are potentially of greater long-term importance, as it crafts rules that will govern the new Iraq into the distant future.
These laws, regulating such things as mass communications and political parties, are necessary. Unfortunately, as detailed in a report by the Canada-based Centre for Law and Democracy, the versions drafted by Maliki’s government for parliamentary approval would unreasonably hinder freedom of expression, assembly and association.
The Internet Bill provides for life imprisonment and heavy fines for offenses such as publishing information about the manufacture of “any tools or materials used in the planning or execution of terrorist acts.” It sounds reasonable, but the measure could cover articles about the making of ink, paper, computers, guns, knives, or just about anything. An individual can be heavily fined or jailed for life for using a computer or information network to harm the reputation of Iraq. Similar laws elsewhere -- Turkey’s infamous Article 301, for example, which made it a crime to “insult Turkishness” and a successor law that bars insulting the Turkish nation -- have inevitably led to dubious prosecutions and infringements on human rights.
The Parties Bill forbids media outlets from “taking sides against political parties.” Such prohibitions on television and radio broadcasters are common in democracies, since broadcasting frequencies are a limited public resource, but for print, online, cable and other media in the free world, political endorsements are standard.
The Assembly Bill requires organizers of an assembly or demonstration to obtain authorization at least five days before the event and to provide for their own security. Under the democratic gold standard, the right of assembly applies broadly for private meetings and meetings on public thoroughfares; organizers must inform -- not seek permission from -- authorities in advance only when it’s necessary to make arrangements for public order and security, and those are the state’s responsibility.
At the same time, the Iraqi bills contain many hopeful notes -- provisions supporting the rule of law and statements of general support for various basic freedoms. What’s the best way to support the positive over the negative strains as Iraq determines its course?
With no troops left in Iraq and deep concerns that Maliki might turn to Iran, the Obama administration has limited leverage over Iraq. But the U.S. still has Maliki’s ear and can help to steer him, and his government, in a better direction. On Hashimi and the sectarian issues that preceded that crisis, for example, the U.S. could nudge the Iraqi leader to accept compromises through a national reconciliation process that is fitfully underway.
The U.S. can also do more to support non-state actors that can help guide Iraq toward a democratic model. Last year, for example, domestic and international civil-society groups successfully lobbied the Parliament to improve a bill enshrining the rights of journalists. Because of the work of groups such as Irex, Article 19 and the Centre for Law and Democracy, the final law goes so far as to give Iraqi journalists the right to protect the confidentiality of their sources, a privilege they don’t enjoy in the U.S.
Backing such nongovernmental organizations is partly a matter of funding. Security requirements make working in Iraq particularly expensive. Such groups often rely on governments for financing, with foundations and wealthy individuals making up the balance. U.S. State Department support for civil society work in Iraq, which goes mostly to NGOs, declined to $51 million in 2012, from $84 million in 2010.
Outside governments and multilateral organizations, such as United Nations agencies, can also play the role of matchmaker, opening the door for NGO leaders to meet with influential Iraqis. Host-country ministers have a harder time ignoring a human-rights report they have received in person than one that has been posted on a website.
Finally, governments need to protect their NGOs when host nations turn nasty, especially in countries like Iraq where the rule of law is weak. The U.S. demonstrated how to do this when Egypt issued arrest warrants for Americans working at NGOs there: It suspended military aid until the staff members were allowed to leave the country. As NGOs step up activity in the Middle East, more such conflicts will emerge.
Whether invading Iraq was wise at the time or not, the U.S. has a deep interest in having its considerable investment there pay off in a reasonably democratic and therefore stable country. Urging Maliki to back off Sunni leaders and increasing support for civil-society groups working in Iraq are good ways to help ensure that outcome.
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