December 13, 2005,
One of the most promising developments of Iraq’s election season and proof that Iraqi democracy is rapidly developing is a new campaign based not on electing any one party or establishing the political power of a tribe, region, or religious group, but instead focused on guaranteeing freedom and human rights for all Iraqis.
"The Pledge for Iraq" (Ahad al-Iraq), as the campaign is called, is Iraq’s first nationwide issue-based campaign. It was organized by a group of Iraqi women activists seeking to ensure that human rights, rights for women, and political freedoms are protected when the next national assembly, which will be voted into office on December 15, 2005, convenes.
Although the campaign was organized by women, it is not focused only on women’s rights. Rather, these women, who are members of different political parties and are representative of Iraq’s diversity, want to guarantee rights that must be fundamental to all citizens if Iraq is to assume a lasting place among the world’s democracies.
In a democracy barely two years old, the Pledge for Iraq represents a remarkable example of grassroots political activism and initiative. Learning from other democracies in the world, the Pledge for Iraq is similar in concept to the Contract with America, the 1994 Republican campaign platform, but with a twist: It is nonpartisan and all political parties and candidates are invited to sign on. The key similarity, though, lies in asking party leaders and candidates running for the national assembly to sign their names to a pledge that commits them to working to pass specific laws in the next national assembly. These laws five of them were written to protect political freedoms, human rights, and equality under the law for all Iraqis.
Why focus on laws? The Iraqi constitution approved in the Oct. 15 national referendum is vague on several crucial issues related to freedom and human rights, requiring instead that the 275-member national assembly define these legislatively. While amending the constitution is possible, it is likely to be a long and complex process. The laws included in the Pledge for Iraq are both focused in scope to appeal to a large number of Iraqis and broad enough to fill the most gaping holes. They include:
A law to secure freedom of expression, freedom of the press, and freedom of assembly.
A law to preserve the existence of civil courts for matters of personal status (such as marriage and divorce) as an alternative to religious courts.
A law to ensure the professionalism and integrity of Iraq’s Supreme Court by requiring that all judges have advanced degrees in law and experience as practicing judges.
A law to strengthen the High Commission for Human Rights by enabling it to refer cases to the Supreme Court for review.
A law to enable the High Commission for Human Rights to enforce the right of equal opportunity for all Iraqis.
The main concern of the organizers of the pledge was that waiting until the national assembly was elected could mean waiting too long. The Pledge for Iraq was launched on November 1, and in little more than a month, it has received tremendous popular support, as hundreds of NGOs, civil-society organizations, professional associations, university presidents, and individual Iraqis from across the country have showed up to events or gone on-line to endorse it. Together the campaign’s organizers and supporters have canvassed Iraq’s new politicians in search of signatures. They will be on the front lines of helping to elect parties and candidates who support the Pledge and then holding them accountable once in office.
Whatever the outcome of the elections, it appears likely that the Pledge’s platform will have significant backing in the national assembly. Already, more than 100 current members of the national assembly, candidates and political leaders have signed the Pledge, giving their commitment to work to pass these laws in the next national assembly.
The organizers of the Pledge have been out spreading the word and gathering signatures from Mosul to Basra. One question they often hear is: Why focus on human rights and freedom when Iraq has so many more pressing issues like security, jobs, and restoring basic services? The answer, one that has clearly resonated, is that yes, those issues are crucial and every party will have their own ideas on how to best address those issues; but freedom and human rights are the base upon which we will solve those problems. What the Pledge for Iraq implicitly recognizes, both in its action and its platform, is that democracy itself is the long-term cure for present and future challenges facing the new Iraq.
The Pledge for Iraq is far greater than the sum of its five laws. Its goal has universal implications: “By this Pledge, we the sons and daughters of the first civilization hope to prove to the world that we are worthy of the freedom inherent in human beings.” This pledge will provide a common platform for all parties involved to build a safe, democratic, just, and prosperous Iraq. Whatever the outcome of the elections, on this point they have already succeeded.
Basma Fakri and Tamara Quinn are co-founders of the Women’s Alliance for a Democratic Iraq. Fakri currently serves as president.