Iraq: ‘We need real and effective political and economic participation – it should not be décor’

By Chris Chapman

Mikhael Benjamin is an Assyrian-Christian activist from Iraq who has devoted his life to fighting for the rights of his community, first in a political party, and since 2005 in the human rights movement. Since the beginning of the second Gulf War in Iraq in 2003, religious and ethnic minorities, including the Christians and the Yezidis, have experienced a humanitarian catastrophe of genocidal proportions. These communities have in many cases been driven from their lands, and Mikhael has focused in his advocacy work on protecting land rights and cultural diversity, in particular language rights.

A turning point in Mikhael’s career of activism, he says, came in 2010. He had already been working with MRG for a number of years, participating in its training programmes, and his organization, the Nineveh Center for Minority Rights, had received funding to implement a project on documenting human rights violations. It was at this time that MRG encouraged him to apply for a fellowship programme for minority activists at the UN. He did so, and was successful. This programme broadened his knowledge of the tools at his disposal for campaigning work. As he says:

I came to know that I have the right to advocate for my rights, not only to go outside to demand and to campaign in the street, but also in the legal way, to use international law, to use whatever means and tools, and to use the United Nations system.

Mikhael began to put this holistic approach into practice when he started working on a land dispute in Duhok province, in the Nahla Valley in Iraqi Kurdistan, in 2013, using it as a pilot project. The Nineveh Center for Minority Rights, together with the Assyrian Democratic Movement (the political party he used to be a member of), had been documenting cases of land grabbing by other communities in Assyrian-Christian areas since the early 1990s.

In 2014, they organized a demonstration in front of the parliament of Iraqi Kurdistan to protest against one such case. However, when Mikhael was travelling from the Nahla Valley to Erbil, he found that the police had set up roadblocks and were checking identity cards. In Iraq, these cards identify the religion of the bearer. In this way, the police were able to turn back all Christians travelling to demonstrate. Undeterred, Mikhael engaged with local media and was interviewed about the case on a local TV channel. A week later, the Kurdistan president ordered the destruction of the illegal occupier’s buildings on the land. In order to consolidate this decision, Mikhael lodged a case in the courts, and won in the first instance. However, the land is still occupied, and the current occupants are appealing. In addition, the Nineveh Center submitted information to the UN committee which monitors Iraq’s compliance with the Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights. As a result, this committee recommended that the government ‘put an end to illegal expropriation of Assyrian lands without compensation or the provision of alternative accommodation’ and to ‘ensure that judicial decisions ordering the return of lands to Assyrians are enforced’.

Mikhael’s organization has also successfully lobbied to have a law adopted in Kurdistan for the protection of the rights of ‘components’ – the terminology used to describe minorities – and is working with both Kurdistan and central governments to develop a school curriculum that is inclusive of minorities. But in the end many laws and polices are not implemented, and remain tokenistic gestures. The same, says Mikhael, is true of their representation in parliament.

They tell us that in Kurdistan, we have five seats in parliament, even though we are a very small community. But those five seats are not completely representing our community because political parties put those people there. I learnt this from the fellowship programme: we need real and effective political and economic participation – it should not be décor.

Photo: Women celebrate an Easter Mass at the Syrian Orthodox Mart Shmony Church in Bartella, Iraq / Teun Voeten