The dire consequences of Iraq’s criminalization of the Baath Party

Subversion of political freedom, opening the floodgates of political targeting and the polarization of Iraqi society

On August 4th, 2016 Geneva International Centre for Justice (GICJ) sent an urgent letter to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mr Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, to express its sincerest concerns about a new bill passed by the Iraqi Parliament on the 30th July, 2016. The decree in question criminalizes the existence of and belonging to the Arab Socialist Baath Party (hereinafter the “Baath Party”) and bans the party and other even remotely similar groups from any political, social, intellectual or cultural activity across the country.

In this regard, GICJ expressed its sincere concern about the enactment of this sweeping law as it violates internationally recognized human rights law in regards to political freedom and participation, has a very real potential to be abused by the government in order to legitimize illegal political targeting, as well as contributes to social and political polarization and violence in Iraq.

In the letter, GICJ provided Mr Ra’ad Al Hussein with an analysis of the history and results of the Baathist purge that began in 2003, an account of the latest developments by the Iraqi legislature, and translations of key Articles of the new bill. Furthermore, in relation to these developments, our correspondence identified crucial areas of concern and provided recommendations for the international community and the relevant United Nations mechanisms and bodies.

The grim history of De-Ba’athification in Iraq

Following the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and the fall of the government in 2003, the coalition started the implementation of its plan to dismantle the Arab Socialist Baath party (hereinafter “Baath Party”). To do so, the U.S.-led coalition introduced a series of legal and administrative measures that forcefully removed alleged members of the Baath Party from all public sectors. These policies, which were to have profoundly detrimental consequences for Iraqi society, came to be known as ‘de-Baathification’.

The Arab Socialist Ba'ath Party (Arabic:‎‎ Ḥizb Al-Ba‘ath Al-‘Arabī Al-Ishtirākī) was a political party founded in Syria in 1947 by Michel Aflaq, Salah al-Din al-Bitar and associates of Zaki al-Arsuzi. The party espoused Ba'athism (from Arabic: Al-Ba'ath or Ba'ath meaning "renaissance" or "resurrection"), which is an ideology mixing Arab nationalist, pan-Arabism, Arab socialist and anti-imperialist interests. Ba'athism calls for unification of the Arab world into a single state. Its motto, "Unity, Liberty, Socialism", refers to Arab unity, autodetermination and freedom from interference.

Under the Ba’ath Party rules, in particular in the ‘70s and ‘80s, Iraq witnessed an unprecedented level of social and economical development, a level of growth similar to European countries, the eradication of illiteracy, the establishment of compulsory education for boys and girls, the empowerment of women as active part of the society, and many other achievements that are well documented and acknowledged by international organisations such as UNESCO, WHO and UNICEF.


The 1970s witness the initiating of the "National Campaign for Eradication of Illiteracy". The results were very positive, so much that Iraq was awarded, in 1982, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) prize for eradicating illiteracy.

Education was made free to everyone in Iraq; this not only includes grade school, but also covers college and graduate level education. It started in the early '70s and resulted, by the mid '80s, in an unprecedented 100% enrolment rate, and helped build a better educated middle class.

Government scholarships were granted every year for hundreds, if not thousands, of Iraqis to study abroad. This resulted in a solid education system that enjoyed a reputation that made it the destination for many Arab students in the area, whom were also given free education.

Before 1968, there were four Universities in Iraq. The Baath Party regime initiated a solid educational policy and every province in Iraq soon had a university of its own, if not more than one. Furthermore, a number of schools were built in every city, and at least one was built in every village in the country.

Nationalization of Oil

The Ba’ath party led the oil nationalization process in 1972 while western oil companies had a total monopoly over the Iraqi oil production. The nationalization of Iraqi resources resulted in the tripling of the Iraqi oil production in the first 8 years allowing the government to initiate huge investments in the infrastructure of the country and to support its policies in the field of education, health and basic services provisions. Western powers were unhappy with this move, and a new policy and measures were implemented against the Ba’ath regime. 


Water and Electricity were made available to nearly every city and village in Iraq. "Model Villages" were built to provide farmers with better services and overall living standards. At least one school and clinic were built in every village. Roads were paved and modern highways were constructed all over the country. Bridges and recreational villages were built in numerous locations.

Work on the Mosul Dam, the fourth largest dam in the Middle East, was started in 1980, a year after Saddam Hussein became president and was finished 6 years later. A number of other modern dams were built during the '70s and '80s, giving Iraq more control over its water resources, and providing Iraqis with electricity.

Furthermore, light and heavy industries flourished in the '80s as a part of a policy to decrease dependency on oil that Saddam deputed. The Baath Party successfully initiated a policy of industrialisation that benefited the whole population of the country.  Large factories were built all over the country and Iraq was making its own radios, televisions, heaters, air conditioners and fridges.


Healthcare was free for everyone. Kids were vaccinated door-to-door by the government. Medical care reached 97% of the urban population and 71% of the rural population. Mortality rate was 50/1000 LB, infant mortality was 40/1000 LB. Hospitals were built in every city and the Iraqi healthcare system was known to be of very high quality, Iraq was actually about, before the sanctions, to gain developed country status, versus being a developing country.

In 1988, Iraq was ranked 50th out of 130 countries on the 1990 UNDP Human Development Index (HDI). This index measures national achievements in health, education, and per capita GDP. Iraq was close to the top of the “medium human development” category, a reflection of the Government’s continued investment in basic social services. The sanctions imposed by the Security Council were disastrous; by 1995, Iraq had declined to 106th out of 174 countries and by 2000 it had plummeted to 126th.

Those who were subjected to these measures were not individually assessed on the basis of their competence, participation in human rights violations or any other measure of integrity. Instead, based on the assumption that any and all high standing officials must have been ideologically committed to Baathism and thus had committed serious illegal acts, tens of thousands of trained professionals were dismissed from government based solely on their rank in the civil service or Baath Party. Furthermore, some 400,000 thousand conscripts, officials, officers and other from Iraq’s military and security institutions were left unemployed.

This assumption laid the groundwork for serious misgivings. Most importantly, it meant that the de-Baathification regime was built on the presumption of collectivized guilt rather than the presumption of innocence. The Arab Socialist Baath Party, rather than the accusation of human rights violations that had been committed at the executive level, was demonized, which led to significant social strife and political turmoil.

The de-Baathification policies were used to legitimize the assassination of more than 150,000 innocent Iraqi civilians based on the accusation that they were members of the Baath Party. Thousands of others were forced to leave Iraq due to continuous threats and intimidation. The process also failed to take into account the need to maintain a functioning civil service, which had disastrous effects on public ministries that saw over services such as education and health. While the de-Baathification policies were officially targeting a political party it was the civilian population that ultimately paid the highest price.

In many ways, the de-Baathification process was nothing else than a purge. The framework and legal powers of the de-Baathification scheme were opaque, lacked meaningful oversight and accountability mechanisms, and violated basic due process and human rights standards. Even when power was given over to the Iraqi Governing Council (IGC) in September 2003, the de-Baathification measures continued and intensifies under the Higher National De-Ba’athification Commission (HNDC), and were subsequently also introduced into the permanent Iraqi constitution.

The mass killing and dismissal of alleged Baathists that had commenced in 2003 only subsided in 2008 when the Accountability and Justice Act was passed. While this bill sought to stymie the de-Baathification process and review the results, little reflection came to fruition and the law, like its predecessor, was ultimately employed primarily as a means to weaken the government’s opponents.

The disastrous effects of the de-Ba’athification policies put in place by the U.S. in Iraq following the invasion must not be underestimated. The Chilcot report, issued on the 6th of July 2016, points out that “the increasing codification of the extent of de-Baathification, in the Transitional Administrative Law and then the Iraqi Constitution, was one crucial way in which sectarianism was legitimised in Iraqi political culture, helping to create an unstable foundation for future Iraqi governments.”  Indeed, the Inquiry concludes by noting that the early decisions on the form of de Baathification and its implementation had a significant and lasting negative impact on Iraq.

Latest developments in the Iraqi legislature and key articles of concern

On Saturday, July 30, 2016, the Iraqi Parliament officially passed a new bill banning the Arab Socialist Baath Party from any activity across the country. More specifically, Article 4(1) of said law prevents “the Arab Socialist Baath Party from exercising any political or cultural or intellectual or social activity under any name and by any means of communication or media”.

According to the text, “This decree includes other parties who have similar ideas and political messages to the Baath party.” And, in regards to the classification of “a Baathist”, Article 5 provides that the ban on the Party and its members include acts such as (1) “belonging to the Baath Party under any name whatsoever”; … (3) “engaging in any political or intellectual activity that would encourage or promote or glorify the ideas of the Baath Party or membership with that group”; … (5) using any audio-visual media or print to spread the ideas and opinions of the Baath Party; … and (7) “participating in any rallies or demonstrations or sit-ins”.

Moreover, Article 8 also states that anybody caught “becoming a member of the outlawed Baath Party or promoting the ideas and opinions by any means” will be put in jail for up to ten years, and Article 9 provides that anyone who is caught “contributing or helping through the media to publish thoughts and opinions of the Baath Party” shall be punished by imprisonment “for a term of no less than six years.”

Undermining political freedom, the precedent for legal abuse and the polarization of Iraqi society

Iraq is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). By enacting this new bill, the Iraqi government is actively in violation of its international obligations under this Covenant and other obligations under international human rights law.

GICJ is very concerned with this blanket ban on Baathism as it runs counter to well-developed principles of international human rights law and undermines the inherent dignity of the human person. In particular, the new Iraqi law is in clear violation of several articles of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) which seeks to protect the enjoyment of civil and political freedom as well as freedom from fear.

In accordance with Article 19 of said treaty, (1) “everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference” and (2) “everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression” including “the freedom to seek, receive and impart information of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice”. Article 5 of the new Iraqi law is in clear and unquestionable violation of these international legal principles.

Article 26 of the ICCPR further provides that “the law shall prohibit any discrimination and guarantee to all persons equal and effective protection against discrimination on any ground such as … political or other opinion.” GICJ is highly concerned that the new Iraqi law indeed legitimizes the discrimination of individuals based on their political stance or societal opinion.

Moreover, Article 21 and 22 of ICCPR, which provides for the “right of peaceful assembly” and “the right to freedom of association with others”, respectively, are blatantly violated by the new Iraqi ban on “participating in any rallies or demonstrations or sit-ins” (Article 5.7).

GICJ is also gravely concerned about the highly ambiguous legal language employed in the article outlining the definitional requirements for “Baathists”. Such imprecise and wide-ranging classification leaves much room for legal abuse. GICJ has received numerous letters, emails and instant messages from Iraqi civil society and the general citizenry expressing their fears that this new law can and will be applied maliciously. Echoing these sentiments, GICJ is highly concerned that the newly enacted law may be used as a pretext by the Iraqi government to pursue political opponents as has been documented to be the case with the application of the Anti-Terrorism Law No. 13.

In the cases drawing upon Anti-Terrorism Law 13, the Iraqi government has systematically refused to provide any information as to the individuals charged, the alleged crimes, or the legal proceedings. As such, there is a great chance that such a position will characterize the application of the new anti-Baathist law as well. This, in turn, means that the new law could well be used to publically legitimize otherwise illegal sentences of years and even lifetimes of imprisonment.

In this regard, GICJ would also like to note the fact that the Iraqi judiciary does not uphold the basic rights and obligations in regards to fair trial and due process, and has been known to base prosecutions on forced and faulty confessions. Numerous GICJ sources have also repeatedly documented that the judiciary prevents those prosecuted from amounting a satisfactory defence.

Lastly, GICJ would also like to stress the very real political and social effects that the law passed by the Iraqi Parliament will have on Iraqi society. In particular, GICJ is concerned that the illegalization and alienation of the Baathist party (and all other political sentiment that even remotely resembles it) fuels sectarianism and leads to greater political and social polarization in the country, as was clearly the result in the years following the introduction of the de-Baathification measures in 2003.

This continuation of political revenge will not foster positive change or development in Iraq but add fuel to hatred and violence. There is no doubt that criminal justice is crucial for the future empowerment of Iraqi society, but in echoing the sentiment of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al-Hussein in his speech on the 1st of August 2016, let us remember that “vengeance is not justice”.


In light of these concerns, Geneva International Centre for Justice (GICJ) recommends the following:

  • Urges the international community, and especially the relevant United Nations bodies and mechanisms, to exert pressure upon the Iraqi government to repeal this new law that contravenes international human rights in order for the state of Iraq to bring its domestic legislation in line with its international commitments.

    • Calls upon the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to denounce this new violation to Iraqi obligations under international human rights law, and to urge the government to put an end to the enactment of measures that promote hatred and divisions within the Iraqi society instead of reconciliation and peace.

      • Recommends that the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association include the issue of this new law into his next report.

        • Recommends that the UN Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers carefully monitor this new law and include the topic into his next report.

          • Urges the United Nations human rights bodies, and especially the High Commissioner for Human Rights, to investigate all violations of international human rights law that occurred in Iraq since 2003 throughout the De-Baathification measures.

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