On the 15th anniversary of demonstrations against the war in Iraq, a delegation from the Iraqi Social Forum visited Rome and Oslo, two cities which voiced strong opposition to the war. The visits strengthened international networks, empowering civil society to be an agent of positive change.
A delegation from the Iraqi Social Forum visited Oslo from 17 – 24 February 2018. The trip was organized by the Norwegian Social Forum and included meetings with Norwegian civil society and government officials. The visit to Oslo was preceded by a visit to Rome, from 14 – 16 February 2018, this one organized by Un Ponte Per… The trips commemorated the 15th anniversary of the massive demonstrations that took place in many cities around the world to denounce the war in Iraq and call for the peaceful resolution to conflicts.
The delegation was made up of activists from the Iraqi Social Forum representing the masars (paths) of Economic and Social Rights, Women’s Rights, Nonviolence and Peace-building, the Environment and Water as well as from the secretariat and the national committee of the ISF.
The first stop of the delegation was Rome, where the Italian NGO Un Ponte Per… organized a commemorative evening on the occasion of the 15th anniversary of the demonstrations against the war in Iraq which took place all over the world. Italy was home to some of the largest of those demonstrations, with thousands of people taking to the street to condemn the military action against Iraq. The nonviolent protesters voiced unequivocal opposition to an unjust war which would burden the Iraqi people with difficulties they had no opportunity to reject.
The evening included a meeting with civilian activists and politicians who had taken part in the 2003 demonstrations; they discussed the current situation in Iraq, the consequences of the war and the occupation, and the critical role of Iraqi civil society and the civil democratic forces working to overcome the difficult circumstances Iraqis now face. Ali Bakht, the representative of ISF’s Nonviolence and Peace-building masar, reviewed his personal experience with the 2003 war, and the ideas and activities he and his colleagues are now implementing in order to bring peace to Iraq. Next, Rowa Khalaf, ISF’s representative from its Economic and Social Rights masar, talked about the the issues facing workers and trade unions in Iraq, many of which are problems inherited from the pre-2003 era. These problems were exacerbated due to the war, and have required exceptional efforts from her and colleagues to find solutions. Activists have worked tirelessly to to create a just and fair legal environment for trade unions, to guarantee the rights of workers through equitable labor laws, and to empower working women.
Janan Saliho spoke next about the current situation of Iraqi women and the most prominent challenges facing women human rights defenders in Iraq. This was followed by her colleague Tabarak Wameed, representing the Iraqi Civil Society Solidarity Initiative. She reflected on her experiences in the field of empowerment and protection of women human rights defenders for the last two years working on the Shahrazad project. Ali Alkarkhi, the representative of the Water and Environment masar, then talked about the dire water situation in Iraq which has led to led to scarcity and poor water management. He praised the active role taken by activists from the Save the Tigris and the Iraqi Marshes Campaign who have called for fair water rights for Iraq from neighboring countries.
Ali Sahib, the representative of the Iraqi Social Forum secretariat, concluded by speaking about the essential role of civil society today in Iraq and its importance in bringing change and resolution to the difficult problems currently facing by the Iraqi people.
A number of Italian activists who participated in the 2003 demonstrations then spoke about their personal experiences in mobilizing public opinion to reject war and armed conflict, and the need to explore more effective peaceful means to resolve crises. Wars, they claimed, are a tool yielding tremendous financial gain for a select few while relying on the suffering and pain of the majority, many of whom have no say in the decision to go to war in the first place.
Parallel to this visit, members from the ISF met with representatives from Un Ponte Per… to talk about their joint programs in Iraq, and the importance of continuing to develop similar programs in the future. These collaborative programs have contributed enormously to the objective of realizing another Iraq, one based on democracy, human rights and social justice.
Another meeting was held with the Lunaria Foundation, one of the founders of the “Sbilanciamoci” network, an alliance of 48 Italian civil society organizations working to create an alternative budget for the Italian government, aimed at supporting education, health and social services rather than a bigger, ever more costly military. The meeting focused on the possibility of transferring this experience to Iraq, especially as Iraq is enormously wealthy yet most of this wealth does not serve the public interest. The meeting concluded with a plan to do a training for the ISF and its related organizations on this subject in Baghdad.
After Rome, the delegation went to Oslo where representatives met with the Norwegian Social Forum. During the meeting, they discussed the program for the delegation’s visit, which included a number of events:
An open meeting with the Iraqi community in Norway and Norwegian civil society
On 18 February 2018, at a social center in Oslo, the Norwegian Social Forum held an open meeting with the Iraqi community, activists and civil society organizations. It featured Iraqi music, and traditional Iraqi cuisine prepared by a group of women from the Iraqi community in Oslo. The delegation talked about the goals and guiding principles of the Iraqi Social Forum and its achievements since it was established.
A Seminar on Water and Energy in Iraq
On the 19th of February 2018, at Oslo University, the Norwegian Social Forum organized a seminar about water and energy that focused on the increasing conflict over natural resources and energy in Iraq. Iraqi activist, Ali Alkarkhi discussed the water crisis in Iraq and the critical challenges the country faces concerning water security. This water crisis has been caused by the construction of huge dams by both Turkey and Iran across rivers that flow into Iraq, diverting the flow of water and greatly diminishing the water that Iraq receives. The actions of these Turkey and Iran are creating regional water conflict, while threatening Iraq economically, politically, and socially. Ismaeel Dawood, the coordinator of the Iraqi Civil Society Solidarity Initiative [ICSSI], spoke about the conflict in the Middle East concerning gas fields and how petroleum resources are delivered to the European continent. Dawood emphasized that conflict over energy resources has been the cause of many disputes and wars in the region.
A Seminar on Women’s Rights in Iraq
Activists from the Norwegian Social Forum also convened a seminar specifically to address women’s rights in Iraq. Ruaa’ Khalaf spoke about the Women’s Union Forum, an institute for empowering female workers and trade union members. She also discussed the difficult challenges that Iraqi women union members face, including their struggles within a male-dominated society where women’s abilities are not always respected, harassment, marginalization, and discrimination. These challenges are widely experienced by female workers in many different jobs.
Jinan Slewa spoke about Iraqi women’s political participation, which remains at a low level, far below civil society activists’ ambitions. The larger political parties, which exercise great power in Iraq, have kept women’s participation in the Parliament to only 25%; and within this small percentage, many unqualified women have been chosen for office, which further disempowers women. At the same time, in the Council of Ministers, Iraqi women hold only three positions. The marginalization, exclusion and discrimination that women face in the political realm will be an important challenge for Iraqi civil society in the coming years.
Film Screening “Nowhere to Hide”
On the evening of February 21st, in one of Oslo’s university halls, the movie “Nowhere to Hide” was screened. Directed and written by the Iraqi filmmaker Zaradasht Ahmed, the movie tells the story of an Iraqi nurse before and during her emigration from Diyala province, which fell under the control of Daesh (also known as ISIS). The movie has won many international prizes. Following the screening, Ali Bakhat and Ali Alkarkhi offered a variety of thoughts about Iraqis’ hopes for change following the wars and violence their nation has suffered. They argued that Iraqis, who wish to live in peace and enjoy true freedom after the defeat of Daesh, must build a movement that unites members of all generations.
Many Other Important Meetings
The Iraqi delegation to the Norwegian Social Forum held a series of meetings with individuals and Norwegian civil society organizations, as well as formal meetings with the Norwegian Parliament and Ministry of Foreign Affairs. These meetings gave the Iraqi delegates new ideas for action and for building international solidarity.
There was a highly valuable meeting with the Fivas Organization, which is interested in environmental affairs and is a member of the steering committee of the ICSSI international campaign to Save the Tigris River. Participants reviewed previous campaign actions, and then discussed future plans for activities to promote greater support for policies to improve the protection of water resources in the region.
A second important meeting was with the head of the Nobel Peace Museum in Oslo, Mrs. Leafe Toris. The meeting included an overview of the work of ICAN—winner of the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize for their global, civil society campaign to abolish nuclear weapons. The meeting presentations featured the importance of non-violence and peace building in international affairs, and also included a presentation about the ISF’s “Kahrmana Path” for women’s rights.
A highly important meeting took place with staff from The Karibu Foundation, one of the most prominent supporters of Social Forum activism in recent years—and a vital sponsor of the Iraqi Social Forum [ISF] and the ICSSI. During the meeting, delegates discussed plans for this year’s work in Iraq, details of workings within the ISF, and relations with the larger World Social Forum movement. Following this highly valuable exchange of ideas, the ISF will be working directly with Karibu to obtain funding for the Social Forum.
Another valuable meeting was with the Norwegian People’s Aid [NPA] organization, the labor movement’s humanitarian organization for solidarity, whose goal is human worth and equal rights for all, irrespective of sex, disability, ethnicity, religion, age, sexual preference or social status. The Iraqi delegates discussed the activities of the ISF and their work to elevate women’s roles in decision-making, to increase diversity, to promote peacemaking and trade union activism, and other future goals.
A number of meetings occurred with Norwegian trade unions that offered ideas for future solidarity efforts and for issues that Iraqi trade union activists could address. These included meetings with the Labor Union of Oslo, the Union of Cashier Workers and Account Companies, and a delegation that represents working woman in the Norwegian Labor Unions. The meetings addressed the status of labor unions in Iraq and how the struggle for economic and social rights can create an environment that advances cooperation between civil society organizations and labor unions. Iraqis also reported on how the Iraqi unions’ most prominent and successful recent campaign resulted in advanced legislation concerning workers’ rights.
Official meetings were organized with the Norwegian Minister of Foreign Affairs’ envoy to Iraq and Syria, Mrs. Sally Pex, and her management crew. Iraqis and Norwegians focused particularly on the situation in Iraq following liberation from Daesh [ISIS]. Iraqis stressed the importance of solidarity with Iraqi civil society as people strive to find ways to ensure a lasting peace. They also talked about the importance of opening a Norwegian Embassy in Baghdad and raised important questions about the currently harmful role of Norwegian oil companies in Iraq.
Yet another meeting took place with leftist Norwegian political parties represented by Mrs. Sahar Ouda from the Red Party. This meeting emphasized the importance of solidarity with the people of Iraq, supporting local communities that are transitioning from a state of war, and helping them to rebuild their housing and infrastructure. Many questions were raised about the practices of Norwegian oil companies currently working in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq that have not paid taxes to Iraq, and other important topics that Iraqis have not been able to previously raise.
At the end of their time in Oslo, the ISF delegates participated in the Norwegian Social Forum. During the meeting everyone agreed on the importance of strengthening the relationship between the two social forums. They discussed the opportunities for increasing communication, meetings, and exchanging experiences. All agreed on the value of repeating the visit of a Norwegian Social Forum delegation to Iraq, to advance the potential that exists for mutual support of social movements important in both countries, to promote strong structures of solidarity, and to advance the movement of the World Social Forum globally.