ZowaaAssyrian Democratic Movement
[Bet-Nahren, Northern Iraq] "Zowaa"

Assyrian Human Rights in Bet-Nahren (Northern Iraq)
by  Dr. Lincoln E. Malik

1.  Introduction

The ancestral homeland of the Assyrian people is the watershed of the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers.  Hence the name Bet Nahrain (land of the two rivers) in Syriac, and Mesopotamia (land between the two rivers) in Greek Present day Iraq occupies most of historical Bet Nahrain, and has the largest concentration of Assyrians worldwide.  Other parts of Bet Bahrain have been depleted of Assyrians, particularly south, and southeast Turkey and northwest Iran, by centuries of systematic discrimination and oppression, punctuated by periodic genocide by the neighboring majority populations of Turks, Kurds, Persians and others. In this century, Assyrians have been subjected to two holocausts.  Once in southeast Turkey and northwest Iran during W.W.I, and then again in Iraq in 1933. Almost half the Assyrian population in Bet Nahrain perished during these holocausts.

Henceforth, this paper shall concentrate on Assyrian human rights in Iraq.  This is not to be misinterpreted to mean that Assyrians in other parts of their ancestral homeland do not face human rights abuses.  In Iraq, Assyrians face human rights abuses common to Iraqis living under one of the most brutal dictatorships in the world.  Their human rights are also violated as the indigenous people of the country living under the rule of other nationalities that constitute the majority and hold state power.  Furthermore, they face human rights abuses due to their Christian faith in a predominantly Muslim country.   These layers of human rights abuses are a heavy yoke that Assyrians have endured for millennia.  The fact that they have maintained their national identity, language, traditions and religion is a tribute to their perseverance and sacrifices, as well as to the deep roots and richness of their ancient culture that has contributed generously to human culture and progress for millennia.

In its broadest sense, civilized society has come to accept that human rights "derive from the dignity and worth inherent in the human person, and that the human person is the subject of human rights and fundamental freedoms, and consequently should be the principal beneficiary and should participate actively in the realization of these freedoms".  The Charter of the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights define these rights on the basis of consensus of the international community:

Since the adoption of the Declaration of Human Rights on December 10, 1948, the international community has moved to establish other categories of individual and communal rights that respond to discrimination against such individuals and communities above and beyond the general human rights defined by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  This has included such additional individual human rights as those pertaining to women and children, and additional communal human rights as those pertaining to persons belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities, and persons belonging to Indigenous Peoples.  It is recognized that these rights are cumulative, and have been recognized as such in the language of the various declarations.  The various declarations on human rights consistently reaffirm and recommit to The Charter, and to all previous declarations, to establish the cumulative nature of these rights.  This is an important distinction for individuals and peoples that face multiple levels of human rights abuses, as is the case of the Assyrian people.

To address the full scope of human rights abuses of Assyrians in Iraq, we shall address the various categories of human rights violations in Iraq, as recognized in United Nations' Charter and Declarations.

2.  Human Rights of Assyrians as Citizens of Iraq

The United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights December 10, 1948.  It is recognized internationally as the most authoritative document establishing the rights of the individual.  The preamble of the Declaration recognizes "the inherent dignity and of the equal inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world".  The Declaration consists of 30 Articles that cover a wide range of rights that an individual should enjoy, irrespective of the particular country he/she may reside.

Iraq is a signatory of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  However, the current Iraqi regime holds the dubious distinction of being one of the most brutal dictatorships in the family of nations.   As such, this regime has been recognized to be at the forefront of abusers of the human rights of its citizens.  In doing so, the regime does not necessarily discriminate on the basis of ethnicity, religion or nationality.  Its brutality has been unleashed against Muslims and Christians, against Arabs, Kurds, Assyrians and Torkomans.  This regime has been truly an equal opportunity oppressor.

Nevertheless, while Assyrians may not have been singled out in Iraq for individual human rights abuses, they are commonly neglected in reports on human rights in Iraq.  This is generally true in reports of Iraqi and international human rights organizations.  Therefore, it is imperative for Assyrians to highlight the fact that our oppression has tracked that of other Iraqis and at times has surpassed it.  It is interesting to hear Assyrians that have been released from Saddam's jails recount how surprised were many non-Assyrian Iraqi political prisoners to find our people sharing their cells and being subjected to the same torture machine as them.  They had somehow discounted us from their calculations of the national and patriotic forces of the country.  This is very ironic when we consider that Assyrians have been in the forefront of the national patriotic struggles in Iraq.   Assyrians were pioneers in the political struggles for independence from British colonialism, in the trade union struggle and in the struggle for democracy since the establishment of the modern Iraqi State in 1921.

2.1  Judicial Rights

It is not our intention here to chronicle all violations of Assyrian human rights in Iraq as granted in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  We will give some examples merely to demonstrate and highlight some of the more egregious violations.  Articles 5, 9 and 10 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights requires that "no none shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment ... no one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile, ...and everyone is entitled in full equality to a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal."   We needn't here recount the public record of torture, cruel and inhuman practices of the Iraqi government, as they are a matter of public record and object of international condemnation.  What must be emphasized here is that Assyrians have shared other Iraqis this misfortune every inch of the way.  Thousands of Assyrians in Iraq carry the physical and psychological scars of the Iraqi regime's prisons and torture chambers.   In our own community of Assyrians in the US, we find literally hundreds who have spent time in Iraqi jails without trial, and for nothing more than proclaiming Assyrian national sentiments.  In the early 1970's, the Iraqi regime jailed hundreds of Assyrian intellectuals and students, some for extremely long sentences, for nothing more than cultural endeavors directed at maintaining our national existence in our ancestral homeland.  Then in 1984 the regime executed three Assyrian leaders, (Yousef Toma Hermiz, Hubert Benyamin Shlemon and Youkhana Isho Jajo) without "a fair and public hearing."  A few years later, the Iraqi regime executed another Assyrian, Rophael Nano that hey had been holding prisoner, and again without trial or legitimate charges of wrongdoing.  Assyrians worldwide remember these martyrs on the 7th of August, Assyrian Martyrs Day.

2.2  Rights of Citizenship

Article 15 of the Declaration requires that "no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality."  Yet, it is commonplace in Iraq that individual Assyrians are denied Iraqi nationality, even when they are born and raised in the country.  Some have been deprived of their rights as Iraqi citizens on the basis that their parents or grandparents had come to Iraq from Iran or Turkey during the holocaust of our people during W.W.I, even though our people were welcomed into Iraq by the prevailing authorities at the time.  There have been cases where young Assyrians were sent to the front in the war with Iran in the 1980's to be deprived of citizenship rights after they came back from the war.

2.3  Rights of Assembly and Association

Article 20 of the Declaration requires that "Everyone has the right to freedom and assembly and association.  No one may be compelled to belong to an association."  Assyrians have been deprived of forming their own free associations, but like most Iraqis have been compelled to join the ruling Baath Party as a condition of employment, education and, in general, for freedom from police harassment.  The regime considers membership in the ruling party as a sign of loyalty to the state, and those who choose not to join are considered suspect.   Joining the Baath has been especially difficult for the Assyrian people, given that the Baath Party is an Arab nationalist party that proclaims, among other things, that Arab lands are for Arabs only.  Hence, to join the Baath Party compels an Assyrian to literally renounce his/her patrimony and rights to our ancestral homeland Bet Nahrain.

2.4  Human Rights of Assyrians as the Indigenous People of Iraq

There are two major UN documents relating to communal human rights relevant to our Assyrian people in Iraq.  The first is the Declaration of Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious, and Linguistic Minorities, which was ratified in the UN General Assembly December 18, 1992.   The second is Resolution 1994/45 of the Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities, titled Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.  This paper will discuss only the later declaration on rights of indigenous peoples for two reasons, as follows:

1. Assyrians are the indigenous people of Iraq and not a national or ethnic, religious and linguistic minority.   This is a very important distinction with major political and juridical consequences related to our human rights in our ancestral homeland of Bet Nahrain.   The distinction between a national or ethnic minority and indigenous peoples is the historical and cultural ties of the people to the land.  A national and/or ethnic minority is commonly people that have migrated to the land from the outside.  Such minorities abound in the world today, especially in industrialized countries, where migrants seeking work have formed sizable minorities in various countries.  In Iraq we also have such minorities, such as Armenians, Persians and others. Some of these minorities have been living in Iraq for a very long time, and have developed historical roots in the country.  Nevertheless, they all have their own ancestral homeland outside Iraq.  Such minorities have minority human rights in Iraq, as addressed in the declaration referenced above.

Assyrians on the other hand do not have an ancestral homeland outside Iraq.  As such, we are the indigenous people of the country, irrespective of our numbers compared to the Arabs and Kurds.  Many in Iraq, driven by chauvinist or other political motivations, have sought to label our people as an ethnic minority, or as the regime has attempted, a linguistic minority.  These are nothing short of attempts to abridge our legitimate human rights in our ancestral homeland.

2. The Declaration on Rights of Indigenous Peoples is extremely broad and inclusive of all significant rights afforded national, or ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities.  This declaration most precisely fits the case of human rights of Assyrians in Iraq.

The indigenous movement arose in 1970's, and the Working Group on Indigenous Populations was established in 1982. The UN has declared 1995 to 2004 as the Decade of the Worlds Indigenous People.  August 5 and 6 has been recognized as the international Day of Indigenous People, which is just before our Assyrian Martyrs day on August 7.  In 1993 the working group completed the Draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which met the approval of the organizations of indigenous people working with the working group.  Since then the draft has been in the process of review by the Commission on Human Rights.  It is hoped that the General Assembly should adopt the text by the year 2004.

The full text of the declaration is quite extensive and its 45 articles broad and all-inclusive.  Denial of human rights of indigenous people is a pervasive problem and quite widespread.  Indigenous peoples that find their homelands ruled by other peoples can be classified as those that are victims of colonialism, such as the people of South Africa during the era of Apartheid, and the indigenous peoples of the New World and Australia, and those that have been ruled by other neighboring peoples that have expanded their rule with time.  The later case is the most widespread and is prevalent in Asia, such as the case of the Assyrians and Tibetans.  Needless to say, this topic is highly political as many member states of the UN oppose opening the file of indigenous people for fear of an explosive issue with major ramifications.  Nevertheless, the movement of history is in the direction of righting the wrongs committed against peoples who may not have the means to defend their inalienable rights.  We shall refer to the more important articles in the Declaration on the Rights of indigenous People as it relates to the case of Assyrians in Iraq.

3.1  Guarantees Against Genocide, Ethnocide and Assimilation

Articles 6, and 7 of the Draft Declaration require that " Indigenous people have the collective right to live in freedom, peace and security as distinct peoples and to full guarantees against genocide or any other act of violence, ... and not to be subjected to ethnocide and cultural genocide, including prevention of and redress for: (a) Any action which has the aim or effect of depriving them of their integrity as distinct peoples, or of their cultural values or ethnic identities, ... or any form of assimilation or integration by other cultures".

The current regime in Iraq stands guilty of violating all these human rights of the indigenous Assyrian population.   During the 1988 Anfal operations in North Iraq, the Iraqi army massacred thousands of Kurds, as well as scores of Assyrians.  In one village alone we have 99 individuals that were taken by the army never to be heard from again.  The regime has eliminated all teaching of the Assyrian language (a form of ethnocide) and has spent significant resources to publish books that falsely claim that the Assyrians in Iraq today do not belong to the original Assyrians that are the indigenous people of the country.   The Saddam regime has gone further by issuing history textbooks that claim that the majority Arabs in Iraq today are the only descendants of the ancient Assyrians.  This misleading rendition of history fails to recognize that while many Assyrians were forced over the centuries into Arabization and/or assimilation into the Kurdish majority in North Iraq, only those that still identify themselves as Assyrians are the descendants that have maintained the culture, language, ethnicity and historical entity of the ancient Assyrians.  Assyrians in Iraq today are even pressured to abandon their own names, and use Arab names for their children.

The process of ethnocide has also been extended to the census.  The past two censuses in Iraq have eliminated any mention of Assyrians, and have forced them to register as Arabs or Kurds.  Those that refused were beaten, taken to jail and threatened with loss of jobs.  In all cases, a classification of Arab or Kurd was entered for them if they refused to do so voluntarily.

The situation in North Iraq is quite different since the national uprising in 1991.  While there are still chauvinist voices that claim that "Assyrians are Christian Kurds", the government of Iraqi Kurdistan has made significant changes in the relationship of the Kurdish majority with the Assyrians.  They are recognized officially as an indigenous people and offered representation in the parliament and government.  Assyrians have also been allowed a relatively broad range of rights to develop their culture, language and national identity.

3.2  Protection of Land Holdings

Articles 7 and 10 require " prevention of any action which has the aim or effect of dispossessing them (i.e., indigenous people) of their lands, territories or resources, ... and that indigenous peoples shall not be forcibly removed from their lands or territories."  Again, we find that the Iraqi regime stands in violation of this article.  In the period between 1974 and 1989, over 220 Assyrian villages were destroyed and their people forcibly disbursed among other Iraqi cities.

Even today, Assyrians in Kirkuk are routinely evicted from their homes and forced into the areas governed by the Kurdistan Government with nothing but the shirts on their backs.  No rational reason is given for these actions.  Homes of these Assyrians are given to Arabs, sometimes from outside Iraq, in the Arabization plans of the regime.  Assyrian villages were also appropriated by the Iraqi regime in the past to build palaces for the dictator or for use by the army.  The people of these villages were merely displaced without recourse and no compensation.

The situation of ancestral lands is markedly different under the Kurdistan Government.  Assyrian lands are by and far protected.  However there are problems in some areas where Kurdish squatters, and/or Aghas have expropriated Assyrian lands and refuse to relinquish them to their rightful owners.  There are also cases where village lands expropriated by the Iraqi government for Saddam's palaces and/or for use by the army has been taken over by the Kurdistan government and has not been returned to its rightful owners yet.   Nonetheless, these lingering problems are within an atmosphere of fraternal relations between the two peoples, both of which have been victimized by the Iraqi regime.

3.3  Cultural, Educational and Religious Rights

Articles 14, 15, 16 and 17 require "indigenous peoples have the right to revitalize, use develop and transmit to future generations their histories, language, oral traditions, philosophies, writing systems and literature, ... and indigenous peoples have the right to establish and control their educational system and institutions providing education in their own language, ... and indigenous peoples have the right to have the dignity of their cultures, traditions histories and aspirations appropriately reflected in all forms of education and public information, ... and indigenous peoples have the right to establish their own media in their own language."

Needless to say, the thrust of the policies of the Iraqi regime have been to the contrary of the letter and spirit of these requirements.  Where the declaration calls for the protection and dissemination of an indigenous people's language and culture, the regime has sought to destroy and replace with Arabic language and culture.  A brief period in the early 1970's saw a government sponsored Assyrian radio and TV program.  However, that project has long been replaced with blatant policies of forced assimilation and ethnocide.

The situation in North Iraq is quite the contrary. For the first time in the history of modern Iraq, Assyrians have been allowed to teach their children in their own language.  Thousands children are enrolled in these schools.  Government sanctioned committees of Assyrians have translated the official curriculum into the Assyrian language for use in these schools.   This extremely important step was enshrined in a law passed by the Kurdistan Government.  Now that the first class of students has completed its primary education in Assyrian, our people have petitioned the government to sanction the continuation of education in Assyrian to the Secondary and high school levels.  Many have been disappointed that the Kurdistan Government has not yet approved these petitions, but we are hopeful that it will take place soon.  This is an important human right of Assyrians as an indigenous people and must be pursued with all vigor.

3.4   Religious Rights

The Declaration of Rights of Persons belonging to ... Minorities, as well as the Declaration of Rights of Indigenous people emphasize religious rights as being fundamental.  This is most relevant for Assyrians, who consider their Christian faith as a foundation of their very national existence.  For the past two millennia the church has been the institution that has maintained our language, heritage, culture and identity.  Throughout all the brutality and holocausts that our people have endured since loss of political power in Bet Nahrain, the church has been free in managing its spiritual affairs.  The current regime in Iraq has destroyed Assyrian churches and monasteries, some dating back 1,500 years, defiled graves of saints and patriarchs and assassinated priests, bishops and the martyr patriarch Mar Isha Shimoun. Furthermore, the Iraqi regime has interfered in the internal affairs of our churches in an aggressive manner, particularly since all churches in Iraq were brought under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Religious Affairs (Aowqaff).  This ministry has traditionally been limited to affairs of Islam in Muslim countries.  This was also the case in Iraq until the current Iraqi regime changed it.

4. Conclusion

Assyrians in Iraq are an indigenous people that have well defined human rights that relate to maintaining their national identity, culture, ethnicity, language and religion.  Assyrians also have human rights as individual citizens of the Iraqi State that also protect the person from government abuse and violation.  We have sought to shed some light on the case for Assyrian human rights in the context of UN human rights declarations.  This can only be considered an initial introductory attempt to the topic.  It is hoped that this paper will encourage others to develop it more deeply, which is most critical for our struggle for our legitimate national rights in our ancestral homeland of Bet Nahrain.


 Related Articles...


Assyrian Democratic Movement, U.S.A. and Canada Branch
41 Sutter St.  •  P.O. Box 3010  •  San Francisco, California USA 94104