Freedom in the World 2003


As the United States mobilized military resources and diplomatic support for a possible invasion to oust the government of Iraq, Saddam Hussein took some steps to improve human rights conditions in what many observers regard as the most oppressive state in the world. Public reaction suggested that long-dormant public disaffection with the regime may be as decisive in determining Iraq's future as the military forces poised on the outside.

Iraq was established as a League of Nations mandate in 1921 and gained formal independence in 1932. The British-installed Hashemite monarchy was overthrown by a 1958 military coup and followed by a succession of weak leftist governments for the next decade. In 1968, the pan-Arab Ba'ath (Renaissance) party seized power and has ruled Iraq ever since. In June 1979, the regime's de facto strongman, Vice President Saddam Hussein, formally assumed the presidency.

The ascension of a dictator anxious to establish Iraq as undisputed leader of the Arab world coincided with postrevolutionary chaos in neighboring Iran. Seeing an opportunity to humble a once-powerful enemy, Saddam ordered an invasion of Iran in 1980, setting off a bloody eight-year war. In 1988, Iraq emerged from the war with minor territorial gains, major foreign debt, and catastrophic human and material losses. Unwilling to demobilize what had become the world's third-largest standing army and introduce hundreds of thousands of soldiers into the ranks of the unemployed, Saddam initiated another war two years later with the invasion of Kuwait. Following Iraq's defeat by a 22-nation coalition in 1991, the UN Security Council imposed a strict economic sanctions regime pending the destruction of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction (WMD). While it was originally anticipated that the sanctions would be lifted within a few years, Iraq refused to voluntarily disclose its WMD capabilities for more than a decade and the sanctions remained in place.

Anxious to avert a humanitarian disaster in postwar Iraq, the United Nations offered within months of the ceasefire to permit Baghdad to sell limited amounts of oil, provided that the proceeds be used for food and humanitarian supplies. For more than four years, Saddam refused to accept such proposals, apparently hoping that the suffering of the Iraqi people would move the world to accept the complete and unconditional lifting of the sanctions. After an "oil for food" program was finally implemented in 1996, Saddam exploited the initiative, imposing a clandestine surcharge on oil sales and re-exporting considerable amounts of humanitarian goods in order to earn illicit revenue to finance rearmament.

As a result of Saddam's obstruction of humanitarian assistance to the Iraqi people, a sharp decline in health care services and the use of contaminated water increased the spread and mortality rate of curable diseases in postwar Iraq. According to UNICEF, more than 500,000 Iraqi children under age five died between 1991 and 1998. In 1990, the UN Human Development Index, which ranks countries based on quality of life as measured by indicators such as education, life expectancy, and adjusted real income, ranked Iraq 55 in the world. By 2000, Iraq's ranking had fallen to 126 of 174 countries.

Iraq exploited this humanitarian disaster to rally international opposition to the sanctions and inflame anti-Western sentiment in the Arab world. By 2001, Iraq's neighbors were turning a blind eye to sanctions-violating trade, and according to a September 2002 report by the British government, Iraq's illicit revenue had reached $3 billion per year. These funds were used not only to finance rearmament, but also to secure the loyalty of Sunni tribal elites and the military-security apparatus surrounding Saddam. Flush with illicit revenue, the Iraqi regime became stronger than ever.

In the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, U.S. President George W. Bush designated Iraq's WMD a salient threat to American national security and openly committed his administration to engineering Saddam's ouster. In November 2002, after months of intense American diplomacy, the UN Security Council passed a resolution giving Iraq a "final opportunity" to disarm and declaring that false statements, omissions, or noncooperation by Iraq would constitute a "material breach" of the Gulf War ceasefire. The Bush administration made clear its view that the resolution was a sufficient mandate for American military intervention in the event that Iraq failed to cooperate fully with UN weapons inspectors, who returned to the country in late November.

In the face of mounting threats of American military action, the Iraqi regime took some steps in 2002 to improve human rights conditions, as a means of diminishing both domestic and international support for U.S. intervention. In February, Iraq allowed the UN Commission on Human Rights special rapporteur, Andreas Mavrommatis, to enter the country for the first time in 10 years. Exit fees for Iraqis wishing to leave the country were reportedly waived. Following his "reelection" in an October presidential referendum, Saddam issued a sweeping amnesty and released tens of thousands of prisoners.

More surprising than the amnesty was the public reaction that followed: hundreds of women whose husbands or sons had not been released protested outside the Information Ministry. Few observers believe that the Iraqi people will rally around Saddam in the event of an American invasion. In August, former Egyptian Chief Staff Salah Halaby predicted that the Iraqi army will "pounce on Saddam . . . without any hesitation" once a U.S. assault begins. Reports of dissent within the armed forces, mostly unconfirmed, occurred throughout the year. On October 8, the Kuwaiti daily Al-Qabas reported that an Iraqi MiG-23 pilot tried to veer off course during a training exercise and bomb a presidential palace, but was shot down. During a visit to Baghdad, Qatari foreign minister Hamad bin Jasem bin Jaber al-Thani offered Saddam and his family political asylum if he would step down (the envoy was quickly expelled from the country). There were also reports that Libya had agreed to accept the Iraqi dictator.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Iraqis cannot change their government democratically. Saddam holds supreme power as president and chairman of the nine-member Revolutionary Command Council (RCC), a body with virtually unlimited and unchecked authority. Although the 250-seat National Assembly formally shares legislative responsibilities with the RCC, in practice it ritually endorses RCC decisions with little or no deliberation. Opposition parties are illegal, and all legislative candidates are carefully vetted to ensure their support for the regime. High turnout is typical in elections, as failure to vote may be seen as opposition to the government.

Iraqi citizens live under the constant threat of arbitrary arrest, torture, rape, or summary execution. Tens of thousands of Iraqi citizens have disappeared over the last two decades and thousands are believed to be held in incommunicado detention. The number of political prisoners was estimated to be in the tens of thousands prior to the October 2002 amnesty, and international human rights groups expressed concerns that few political detainees were among those freed. The security forces routinely torture detainees suspected of opposition activity. According to defectors from Iraq's national soccer team, players have been brutally tortured after losing games. There have been credible reports of Iraqi defectors receiving videotapes of their female relatives being raped.

Executions are an integral component of the regime's control over Iraqi society. Military and government officials suspected of disloyalty are routinely executed, as are the relatives of Iraqi defectors. Some mass executions have been carried out to thin the prison population. The Washington-based International Alliance for Justice, an umbrella group of 260 nongovernmental organizations from 120 countries, reported in early 2002 that the Iraqi government had executed 4,000 people since 1998. There were numerous additional reports of executions in 2002. In July, the government itself announced the execution of two people allegedly spying for Iran. According to Iraqi human rights organizations abroad, the regime executed 6 military officers who served at Saddam's presidential retreat at Tharthar and 17 Iraqis from the southern provinces of Muhanna and Najaf in March. In June, 10 people were reportedly executed at Abu Ghareb prison. In October, 6 political prisoners with alleged links to the opposition were put to death.

The judiciary is not independent. Although some safeguards exist in civil cases, those accused of political or economic crimes are usually tried in closed, special security courts, chaired by military officers and Ba'ath-party officials, where no due process protections are recognized. A variety of crimes, including theft, corruption, desertion from the army, and currency speculation, are punishable by amputation, branding, or execution. Doctors have been killed for refusing to carry out punishments or for attempting reconstructive surgery.

Freedom of expression is almost entirely absent in Iraq. All media outlets are either controlled directly by the state or owned by Saddam's loyalists. The Iraqi president's eldest son, Uday Hussein, is head of the Journalists' Union, owner of 11 newspapers, including the daily Babel, and director of television and radio stations. Freedom of speech is explicitly restricted by numerous laws, such as RCC Decree Number 840, which prohibits insulting the president or other senior government officials on punishment of death.

Freedom of assembly is restricted to pro-government gatherings, while freedom of association is limited to government-backed political parties and civic groups. Independent trade unions are nonexistent, and the state-backed General Federation of Trade Unions is the only legal labor federation. The law does not recognize the right to collective bargaining and places restrictions on the right to strike.

Islam is the official state religion. While freedom of religion is protected in principle, it is severely restricted in practice. The government appoints all clergy in Iraq and monitors all places of worship. Sunni Arabs, who constitute about 35 percent of the population, dominate political and economic life, although token members of minority communities have been appointed to high-level positions in the government and ruling party. Shi'a Muslims, who are predominantly Arab and constitute around 60 per cent of the population, face severe persecution. Shi'as may not engage in communal Friday prayers, funeral processions, or other religious observances without explicit government approval. Security forces have reportedly arrested thousands of Shi'as, executed an undetermined number of these detainees, and assassinated dozens of Shi'a clerics and religious students in recent years. Government forces in the south have desecrated Shi'a mosques and holy sites, razed homes, and drained the Amara and Hammar marshes in order to flush out Shi'a guerrillas.

The Iraqi regime has long pursued a policy of "Arabization" against ethnic Kurds, Turkomans, and other non-Arab minorities. Thousands of families have been expelled by the central government into northern Iraq, where a Kurdish safe haven has existed under UN protection since 1991.

Iraqi laws grant women equality with men in most respects, but it is difficult to determine the extent to which these rights are respected in practice.

2003 Scores


Not Free

Freedom Rating

(1 = best, 7 = worst)

Civil Liberties

(1 = best, 7 = worst)

Political Rights

(1 = best, 7 = worst)