GENEVA, Switzerland — Iraq’s justice minister voiced regret before the UN Monday over the hundreds killed during a crackdown on anti-government protesters, as diplomats demanded accountability for the violence.
Speaking at the UN in Geneva, Iraq’s Justice Minister Farooq Ameen Othman voiced “deep regret” over the loss of life during the protests that have been rocking the country since October 1.
More than 300 people have died in violence surrounding mass rallies calling for an overhaul of the ruling system that have rocked the capital Baghdad and the Shiite-majority south since October 1.
Speaking through a translator, he insisted that the government “firmly stands behind the respect for human rights,” and had “taken serious efforts to thoroughly investigate all of the attacks on the protesters.”
But he lamented that “some lawless individuals (had) … attacked security forces, and national institutions, private property and other types of violations and acts that have hampered the peaceful character of the demonstrations.”
The minister was speaking during a so-called Universal Periodic Review — which all 193 UN countries must undergo approximately every four years.
The review came as deadly unrest has gripped Iraq, with rights groups warning that the government crackdown could spiral into a “bloodbath.”
Baghdad has faced harsh criticism after Iraqi forces fired live ammunition at protesters over the weekend.
But Othman insisted Monday that “we refuse the use excessive force and live fire. We have referred all perpetrators of crimes to the courts.”
During Monday’s review in Geneva, countries voiced alarm over “excessive use of force” against the protesters, and demanded that perpetrators be brought to justice.
The United States representative, Daniel Kronenfeld, demanded that Baghdad “immediately cease using excessive force against peaceful demonstrators.”
He especially lamented the “unlawful use of tear gas canisters and live ammunition,” and called on Iraq to “hold accountable, in a transparent manner, those responsible for this violence.”
British representative Matthew Forman meanwhile said London was “concerned by the scale of security force violence in recent protests, and reports of media intimidation and suppression.”
“Freedoms of expression, peaceful assembly and association must be protected, … including by properly investigating violence against protesters,” he said.
A number of countries acknowledged the major security challenges faced by Iraq in recent years with the battle against the Islamic State group.
The Swiss representative however stressed that “Iraq’s security situation does not justify the serious violations of human rights being committed.”
French Ambassador Francois Rivasseau meanwhile urged Iraq to “guarantee the right to peaceful demonstration, freedom of expression and of the press,” and voiced concern over cuts to internet access in the country.
Public anger erupted in October over rampant corruption and a lack of jobs but quickly spiraled into calls to overthrow a regime blamed for perpetuating graft and clientelism.
Oil-rich Iraq is OPEC’s second biggest producer, but one in five people live in poverty and youth unemployment stands at 25 percent, the World Bank says.
The government has suggested a series of reforms in response to the demonstrations, including hiring drives, welfare plans, a revamp of the electoral law and constitutional amendments.
But it has resisted calls for an overhaul of the entire system, with rival political forces closing ranks around embattled Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi.