How Stabilization Worked in Iraq, and What the UN Can Learn from it

20 April 2018   ·   PeaceLab editorial team

On 18 April 2018, the German Mission to the United Nations in New York hosted a roundtable on success factors of stabilization in Iraq and its lessons for the international community. At the UN, stabilization remains a contentious issue that sparked a lot of interest in the speaker’s conclusions: it’s all about political strategy, international coherence, local leadership and flexibility in deploying funds.

More than 70 participants, most of them UN officials and diplomats representing their countries at the UN, participated at the event in the German House in New York. The roundtable was moderated by Sarah Cliffe, Director of the Center on International Cooperation at New York University, and introduced by Ambassador Jürgen Schulz, Deputy Permanent Representative of Germany. The panelists were Ambassador Mohammed Hussein Bahr Al-Uloom, the Permanent Representative of Iraq, Mourad Wahba, Assistant Secretary-General at UNDP, and Ambassador Ekkehard Brose, Special Envoy for Crisis Prevention and Stabilization at the German Foreign Office.

How Stabilization Worked in Iraq, and What the UN Can Learn from it

Given the huge focus at the United Nations on ISIL, counterterrorism and the conflicts in Iraq and Syria, the fact that stabilizing Iraq beyond the military fight against ISIL is barely featured in New York marked a serious gap, argued Ms. Cliffe. The discomfort around the idea of stabilization made it precisely important to discuss the topic openly.

Stabilization is a success in Iraq

To start off, Iraq’s UN Ambassador Al-Uloom explained his government’s overall approach as prioritizing national reconciliation and social peace, including women’s participation, which is why the new constitution reserves at least 25 per cent of the parliamentary seats for women. In terms of initial progress toward stabilization, he reported that more than 60% of Internally Displaced Persons in Iraq – 3.6 million out of a total of 5.8 million – have already returned home thanks to stabilization programs funded by the UNDP Funding Facility for Stabilization, among others. More than 300 projects are underway in Mosul alone, he stressed.

Now it was key, he argued, for Iraq and its international partners to see the mission through towards sustainable success. That will require rebuilding housing and creating jobs, for the Iraqi economy to overcome its financial crisis and to provide adequate care and social reintegration for trauma survivors.

Three lessons learned from the Iraqi experience

Mourad Wahba, UNDP’s Assistant Administrator for the Middle East and North Africa, focused his initial remarks on the conceptual debate about stabilization. When does stabilization start and when should it stop? And what is its relationship to civil military cooperation and humanitarian action? Based on a review being undertaken jointly between UNDP and OCHA on their work in Iraq, he outlined three lessons:

First, stabilization needs national leadership to enable productive cooperation between international support and local authorities. Second, stabilization requires international support, not just financial but also political. Third, stabilization requires effective outreach to key local communities, specifically those harmed by the conflict. He argued for a clear conceptual framework and for continuing to make stabilization instruments more flexible.

“The job is not yet done”

Ambassador Ekkehard Brose, Germany’s Special Envoy for Crisis Prevention and Stabilization and a former ambassador to Iraq (2014-2016), argued that the stabilization of Iraq is one of the rare successes in resolving a crisis. The international community should be proud of it, but also acknowledge that it was primarily achieved by the leadership of Iraqi politicians and officials. At the same time, it was critical to not pack up and go home, since “the job is not yet done.”

In explaining the success so far, he singled out two factors as particularly critical. First, having a clear political strategy for stabilization. The Abadi government established this based on the acknowledgment that political reasons were behind the collapse of the Iraqi army. It created the foundation for a strategy that did not solely rely on military victory but also included the necessary political elements. And second, there was unity of effort among international partners, both on the international level as well as locally in Baghdad among the embassies coordinated by the government of Iraq and Germany.

Costs for stabilization is nothing compared to costs of waging a war

In the following lively discussion Ambassador Al-Uloom recommended to take the lessons from Iraq to different crisis regions. ASG Wahba called for more comparative analyses on the humanitarian-development-stabilization nexus examining also the cases of Libya, Sudan, Nigeria, Pakistan and Somalia. Ambassador Brose underlined the need to focus on inclusiveness toward all local communities, and for international actors to invest the necessary money to allow stabilization to succeed. “It is expensive but nothing compared to the cost of waging war”, he argued. 

After an hour and a half, Ms. Cliffe wrapped up the debate by summarizing the lessons "that were rarely so clearly brought out": a clear concept of stabilization, effective national ownership and a shared international approach.

How Stabilization Worked in Iraq, and What the UN Can Learn from it