Damning Reports on Human Rights Violations Ignite Political Firestorm in Iraqi Kurdistan

Last month, a series of international reports on human rights violations and governance failures in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) sent shockwaves through the political landscape. Yet, it seemed that the ruling party propagated much of the controversy, with the response characterized by self-consciousness and paranoia.  

These reports, released by the US State Department and Amnesty International, and an opinion piece published in the Foreign Policy, sparked heated debate within the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and beyond.  

The KRG’s Office of the Coordinator for International Advocacy (OCIA), led by long-time Coordinator and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) member Dindar Zebari, vehemently denied wrongdoing. The OCIA notably accused the US State Department report of relying on biased sources and criticized the US Consulate General in Erbil for engaging with local civil society organizations, media outlets, and individuals supporting certain ‘political agendas’. This set the tone for more political drama for Irvin Hicks Jr., the US consul general in Erbil, who has made it a policy to keep in touch with local journalists.  

Barzani Headquarters, the official office of former Kurdistan Region President and KDP leader Masoud Barzani, also condemned the Foreign Policy article penned by Winthrop Rodgers, a journalist based in the Kurdistan Region. Rodgers is the former editor of NRT English.

The commotion escalated when Rodgers’ article, likening Iraqi Kurdistan to a “House of Cards,” was shared by Irvin Hicks Jr. on his personal LinkedIn account. This action triggered a backlash from social media accounts affiliated with the ruling KDP party. Both the Rodgers article and the share by the US Consul General prompted a rebuke from Barzani Headquarters, which was shared by the official social media accounts of the KDP. The statement read, “KRI isn’t a House of Cards, but rather the product of the blood of thousands of martyrs & the tears of the mothers of the martyrs. It will be protected with tears & blood.” KDP media outlets and affiliated influencers seized the story.  

Rebwar Babkayee, a KDP member and MP in KRI’s Parliament, demanded an apology from Hicks for sharing the article. Hicks later removed the post, with some speculating he succumbed to pressure from KDP-leaning media outlets.  

Adding to the controversy, former Iraqi Kurdish MP Sarkawt Shamsuldin accused the KDP of smearing Rodgers by suggesting he was paid by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK).  

Relations between the KDP and PUK have reached their lowest point since the infamous civil war of the 1990s, which left Iraqi Kurdistan politically divided. The bitter rivalry between Prime Minister Masrour Barzani, who also serves as the deputy leader of the KDP, and PUK leader Bafel Talabani has resulted in a dysfunctional governing system marked by minimal cooperation.  

Genuine fears of a formal dual administration have emerged, where each party would govern its own territories separately within the region. The PUK, which remains a partner in the KRG but has abstained from cabinet meetings due to a long-running political quarrel with the KDP, shared these reports through their official channels, seizing an opportunity for an easy hit on its regional rival.  

Kurdistan Region President Nechirvan Barzani, the KDP’s other deputy leader and former Kurdistan PM, has spearheaded efforts to resolve these issues. However, his attempts, along with those of Special Representative of the Secretary-General for the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI), Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, have proven fruitless. Since being replaced as PM by cousin Masrour, Nechirvan’s influence has been in free fall.  

The recent reports highlighting violations and governance failures in Iraqi Kurdistan during Masrour Barzani’s tenure reveal a worrisome trend. In 2021, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) issued a report on human rights and freedom of expression in the region, emphasizing the unjust trials of the “Badinan Detainees.” Local authorities arrested over 100 individuals in the KDP-controlled Duhok province during the 2019 demonstrations. In a subsequent press conference, former Governor Farhad Atroushi asserted that the detainees were politically motivated, linked to parties opposed to the KDP, and connected to local political actors, opposition parties, and Turkey’s Kurdish rebel group, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).  

The detainees’ plight has garnered increased attention, with Bashdar Hussein, representing their legal team, receiving a Global Human Rights Defender Award from the US State Department in 2023. As the United States and the international community continue to scrutinize political events and human rights violations in Iraqi Kurdistan, Masrour Barzani’s administration has grown increasingly self-conscious and paranoid when it comes to taking criticism on the chin.