Protecting the rights of minorities in Iraq
For minorities to be able to enjoy equal rights and participate in decision-making, an important place to start is providing education in their mother tongue. Inclusion through education was the topic of a workshop held in Erbil by NPA and partners.
The humanitarian crisis and instability in Iraq have disproportionately affected Iraq’s most vulnerable people, in particular subjecting minorities more than other ethnic and religious groups in the country. Minorities have been exposed to several influxes of displacement and were targeted especially after the collapse of Saddam regime in 2003.
The mass majority of minorities have left their homes, they have been either displaced to safe zones within the country or decided to leave the country and immigrate.
On April 8th-9th, 2019, a two-day workshop entitled, “Inclusive education and rights of linguistic minorities” took place at the Erbil International hotel in Erbil, Iraq. The workshop was coordinated by the Norwegian Center for Holocaust and Minority Studies (HL-senteret) - in cooperation with Norwegian People’s Aid (NPA) and our partner organisation Alliance of Iraqi Minorities (AIM).
The purpose of the workshop was to bring together a variety of Civil Society organizations, international scholars, local experts, representatives of linguistic minorities, and from Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) Ministry of education to learn about and identify opportunities for supporting the minorities on that issue.
AIM is focusing on changing the legislation and policy to respect minorities and provide legal protection. In addition to working on the capacity building of government and stakeholders to actively involve key actors in the protection of minorities, and raise public awareness on minority rights.
"For minorities to enjoy equal human rights they have to be active participants in the decision-making process, especially where their rights are concerned with education in their mother tongue." Hoger Chato explained, AIM Executive Manager, emphasising on the rights of linguistic minorities.
AIM is an Iraqi civil society organization that seeks to protect and promote the rights of Iraqi minorities in a way that respects the rights and interests of all Iraqi people.
UN Special Rapporteur on Minority Issues Fernand de Varennes also attended the workshop, as part of his mandate to raise awareness of minorities’ rights.
The message shared by most educational experts is that children should first be taught in their own language. This will allow them to be more efficient in learning subjects in general, but also other languages.
Prof. John Packer, an expert on minority rights and diversity in education at the University of Ottawa, emphasized: “Article 4 of the Iraqi constitution has significant subsidiary provisions which create an unlimited opportunity for the use of other languages which community on a local level or the majority have chosen to use”, he added.
Public education not presented in a child’s language could be deemed to be discrimination. In 1992, the United Nations issued the Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities, which includes articles on minorities from earlier international pacts, with additional details and guarantees. The Declaration contains a list of rights in favor of persons belonging to an ethnic, national, religious or linguistic minority, and obliges state parties “to protect the existence and the national or ethnic, cultural, religious and linguistic identity of minorities.
"Minority children who are not taught in their own language encounter negative effects. If children are taught well especially in the early years of their education, they will be equipped to learn other subjects better", said UN Special Rapporteur Fernand de Varennes.
The UN gathered a lot of evidence underlining that the best way to have peaceful inclusive societies where minorities are fully engaged and participate is to have their language used in a reasonable proportion in the regions they live so that they feel more equal.
The Ministry of Education in the Kurdistan Regional Government ensured the passage of Article 4 in Law No. 4, establishing primary education in their mother tongue for minorities in the Kurdistan Region.
“Minorities being educated in their language will strengthen the state, reduce the problems and create more stability,” said Kawa Omer Hamd, Director of Curriculum in the Ministry of Education in the KRG.
“KRG opened many schools for the Kurdish language in federal Iraq areas such as Sinjar and Kirkuk, but when ISIS took over, they closed all the schools”, Kawa added. According to him, more than 8000 teachers are employed by the KRG in those areas.
For smaller minorities like Shabak, mostly Shia ethnic group settled in northern Iraq, teaching their mother tongue to their children is an everyday fight. “If nobody protected us, we will vanish. There is no formal entity to protect the Shabaki language. I paid for grammar books to be printed using my own money. 1000 copies were printed, but unfortunately, ISIS burned them all”, said Suria Mahmoud Ahmed, Director of Alshabak Women Association. After the liberation, she could not even find a copy to reprint the books.
For the Shabak community, every small step is a victory in the struggle to protect their language and culture. “Now we have a radio channel in Shabaki. I am calling for the international community to support the survival of the language.” Suria added.
Moreover, the representative from the KRG Ministry of Education underlined the importance of highlighting the history of minorities in the school books and in the national education program. To achieve this goal, he asked the attendees representing minorities to give the Ministry academic materials to add them to the history subject. “We are willing to do that, we just need your help”, he concluded.