Sara Burhan Abdullah, Pitt Law LLM '08 and JD '11, was an observer to the Iraqi Constitutional Review Committee through the University of Utah Quinney School of Law's Global Justice Project: Iraq. She shares her experiences with the issue of environmental protection in Iraq…
he environmental catastrophe caused by the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico reminded me of a vigorous debate concerning environmental protection between members of the Iraqi government and representatives of the autonomous Kurdish Region. As an extern student in Iraq in Summer 2009, I worked closely and regularly with the Iraqi Parliament and attended the meetings of the Constitutional Review Committee
("CRC"), where I had the opportunity to witness this debate. Both sides were passionate about the principle of federalism and how power should be divided between the federal and regional governments. Unfortunately, however, the federal and regional representatives were much less concerned with the actual exercise of this disputed authority
in important areas, such as environmental protection.
The debate occurred within the Constitutional Review Committee while it was considering revision of the federal and regional governments' shared powers under Article 114 of the Constitution [PDF]. The Kurdish representative argued strongly that the Kurdish region should have the sole power to monitor and protect its environment. On the other hand, the federal government argued that primary responsibility for drafting environmental policy should be federal, although implementation could be left to the regions. The CRC members debated this single point for over an hour, with each side attempting to grab as much power as possible. While the Kurdish region has enjoyed some autonomy from the Iraqi central government since 1991, the issue of Kurdish political autonomy is historically contentious and continues to be politically sensitive. As a result, the issue of environmental protection had become a political tug of war between the country's two main governmental authorities – the central government in Baghdad and the Kurdish regional government based in Erbil.
The debate's contentiousness is not surprising given the sensitivity surrounding the proper allocation of power between the Iraqi central government and the Kurdish regional government. The irony, however, is that in the legal context of environmental policy, the tug-of-war between the two governments was over a fiction. Neither the Kurdish nor the federal government has a real environmental protection policy.
The absence of an environmental protection policy is not due to a lack of laws regulating the environment. Both the federal government and the Kurdish region have passed laws and regulations for environmental protection. The Iraqi Parliament recently enacted Law No. 27 of 2009 [PDF, Arabic], For the Improvement and Protection of Environment, issued in Official Gazette No. 4142 of 2010. This detailed and strict law sets forth punishments for companies and individuals that violate environmental standards. It also upheld and affirmed existing regulations that outline environmental standards in specific detail. The Kurdish region has a similar law, No. 8 of 2008 [PDF, Arabic].
Yet, the reality of environmental protection is somewhat different. While the committee members were in the midst of their debate, I had mental images familiar to every Iraqi currently living in Baghdad — the Tigris River filled with trash, untreated sewage, and garbage, all in violation of Law 27. In the Kurdish region, the situation is hardly different. The lovely mountains of the Kurdish region, where Iraqis picnic on the weekends, are invariably covered with trash, and thousands of empty bottles lie in unsightly piles on green fields. I started to laugh as I listened to the members' heated arguments, since the passion surrounding policy control was in apparent ignorance of the reality of the country's neglected, serious environmental condition. There just does not seem to be the political will to take the actions necessary to implement a real environmental policy.
The session ended that day with the members having made no progress, divided as ever over who should control a non-existent policy. I decided to prepare a brief documentary report for the committee by taking photos of the country's environment. I wanted the committee to look at environmental problems across the country and then develop a policy or plan to implement and enforce existing laws and related regulations in areas clearly under their control, whether Baghdad for the federal government or Sulaymaniya for the Kurdish government. Then a fight over policy might make more sense. Federalism had become such a sensitive issue that it was provoking debates over who could exercise authority in an area of law – environmental protection – where neither government seemed anxious to actually act.
I tried to take some photos of the part of the Tigris River that upset me the most – an area near Baghdad's Historic "Suspension Bridge" that I crossed every day, hoping for a nice and relaxing view of the river but instead finding floating garbage and empty bottles. Unfortunately, security regulations prevented me from taking a photograph of the river from that point. I could only secretly take photos of other areas of the river that were farther from checkpoints or other military bases or police stations. Then, during a trip to visit my family in Sulaymaniya, in the heart of the Kurdish region, I had the chance to take photos of the Azmar Mountain's most beautiful picnic area, which is covered by thousands of empty bottles and trash. Some of these photos can be seen in this article, but sadly, I never had the opportunity to submit them to the committee. The committee never met regularly again, and as election time neared, the members became occupied with their reelection.
The litter I saw on the mountains and in the streams represents only a small part of the environmental problems faced by the Iraqi people. The Iraqi government, both regional and federal, has failed to address these problems and other environmental concerns such as the consequences of Saddam Hussein's use of chemical weapons. All contribute to Iraq's water, air, and soil pollution, and affect the health of Iraqi people.
These problems require urgent action by some authority, regional or national. I hope that a younger and more assertive generation will ask more from its leaders and demand that they take a step toward bringing actual policy into force, rather than arguing about who is responsible.
Opinions expressed in JURIST Commentary are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of JURIST's editors, staff, donors or the University of Pittsburgh.