On July 2, 2018, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) Cabinet issued an official response to a report published by the Assyrian Policy Institute (API) on recent KRG tax injustice prejudicially-targeting Assyrians in Ankawa, a city part of the Erbil Governorate.
The KRG’s dispute of the veracity of the API report is consistent with its frequent dismissal of reports published by Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and other reputable human rights organizations, as well as the U.S. State Department Human Rights Report. The API stands by its findings published on June 26, 2018.
The API was approached by the Ankawa-based activist group Hand in Hand for Ankawa regarding tax injustice under the KRG and a new ordinance regarding business licenses enforced exclusively in Ankawa. We subsequently conducted a number of interviews with locals in Ankawa, including business owners and attorneys who presented documentation to further their claims. Their testimonies were also corroborated by Assyrian parliamentarians in both the Council of Representatives of Iraq and the Iraqi Kurdistan Parliament interviewed by the API, who as indicated in the June 26 report, have previously appealed to KRG authorities to address this tax injustice to no avail.
KRG Shura Council Response regarding higher taxes in Ankawa (Feburary 2018).
On February 13, 2018, the KRG Shura Council issued a response to two Assyrian parliamentarians inquiring about taxes and regulations imposed only on Ankawa residents, stating: "Not collecting this tax in some towns as a result of negligence or incompetence of the relevant KRG departments is no reason to refrain from collecting such a tax in said towns [Ankawa]."
As per the correspondence above, the KRG privately accepts the fact that tax collection is arbitrary.
The discriminatory tax rate imposed on residents of Ankawa, the only remaining Assyrian-majority city under KRG jurisdiction, was the subject of a massive October 2015 protest organized by local residents. The rectification of this tax injustice was one of eight main demands presented by the community to the Governor of Erbil, the KRG Minister of the Interior, as well as the U.S. Consulate in Erbil. The statement was signed and thereby endorsed by four Assyrian representatives in the Iraqi Kurdistan Parliament as well as the only Assyrian representative on the KRG constitution drafting committee.
Left: Residents of Ankawa protest discriminatory taxes in Oct. 2015 holding signs reading "We deman[d] that Ankawa's taxes be like the other areas of Erbil." Right: Assyrian members of KRG Parliament join Oct. 2015 Ankawa protest in solidarity.
The API continues to stand by its various sources whose identities must be protected in the interest of their personal safety.
Many Assyrians impacted by the KRG’s discriminatory policies, including those interviewed by the API, are unwilling to speak publicly about their grievances given the high likelihood of retaliatory measures by the government as well as KRG internal security forces. A 2009 Amnesty International Report entitled Hope and Fear: Human Rights in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq found that KRG internal security sources are all politically-affiliated and “effectively operating outside the rule of law.” Human rights violations by the KRG’s Asayish are well-documented, including in the 2017 U.S. State Department International Religious Freedom Report on Iraq which reported “occurrences of harassment and abuses by Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) Peshmerga and Asayish (internal security) forces.”
Furthermore, the KRG’s crackdown on free speech by citizens critical of KRG authorities is widely-reported. Human Rights Watch observed in 2013 in a report entitled Iraqi Kurdistan: Free Speech Under Attack that “The Asayish—the Kurdistan Security Agency—and police arrested without warrants journalists and others who published articles criticizing public officials, and detained them without charge or trials for periods ranging from several weeks to a year.” The same report describes this practice as a “blatant violation of the rule of law.”
According to the U.S. State Department, “In the [Iraqi Kurdistan Region], government authorities continued to try, convict, and take legal action against journalists, despite a 2008 law that decriminalizes publication-related offenses.”
The basis for the KRG’s denial of its discriminatory practices rests on the basic premise that good governance and rule of law exist in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. The July 2, 2018 KRG statement cites Iraqi tax laws adopted by the Iraqi Kurdistan Parliament, claiming universal, fair application of such laws across the Kurdistan Region. The implicit message in the KRG response is that it promotes an independent judiciary and equality before the law, and that it exceeds governance and service delivery in countries like the United States of America, Germany, Sweden, or France—where so many Assyrians now live after being driven from their ancestral lands.
The KRG’s claim that it upholds the rule of law has been challenged by numerous sources:
Jeffrey Koncsol, Director of the Law Program at the American University in Iraq-Sulaimani, wrote on the Washington Institute for Near East Policy forum that corruption prevention in the KRG requires the authorities to “actually enforce existing laws.” He notes that an Integrity Commission was created to prevent corruption by government officials and that it still needed to take the “first step [and] equally and transparently enforce existing laws.”
The Middle Eastern Research Institute (MERI), based in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, published a new report in June 2018 entitled State-building: A Roadmap for the Rule of Law and Institutionalization in the Kurdistan Region which notes that “leadership and administrative mechanisms of the judicial system remain weak. As a result, the authority of standing courts are undermined and rendered a tool for promoting private and political interests.” Institutions like the judiciary are designed to defend citizens against poor governance and injustice, and regrettably do not currently exist under KRG jurisdiction. In the same report, MERI states, “In its current form, the KRI’s parliament has been unable to become a source of power, resolve conflicts and crises or engage in strategic debates to steer the Region’s direction.”
The U.S. State Department International Religious Freedom Report on Iraq released in May 2018 found that: “Leaders of non-Muslim communities said corruption, uneven application of the rule of law, and nepotism in hiring practices throughout the country by members of the majority Muslim population continued to have detrimental economic effects on non-Muslim communities and contributed to their emigration.”
The July 2, 2018 KRG statement is also inconsistent with statements made by relevant KRG officials. In 2017, Rudaw, a Kurdish media outlet described by the U.S. State Department as a “KDP-affiliated outlet” and understood to have direct ties with KRG Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani, published an article entitled, “Nearly Half of Kurdish Businesses Pay No Tax.”
In the article, Dr. Kamal Tayyib, credited as the General Manager of the Directorate of Taxes and Public Properties in Erbil, is quoted:
“‘[T]he challenges are far greater than just companies not paying taxes,’ Tayyib said, adding that corruption in many tax offices across the country that are linked to his own directorate in Erbil has been a major obstacle to the proper collection of taxes.”
The KRG statement also contradicts official correspondence between Assyrian representatives and the relevant KRG offices, which both acknowledge and attempt to justify the higher tax rates in Ankawa.
The API takes steps to verify all information used in reports and analyses both publicly and privately circulated to defend the rights of Assyrians wherever those rights are being violated. We believe strongly in the need for robust public accountability. For this reason, we encourage other non-governmental organizations to investigate these reports, and remain confident that their findings will be consistent with those published by the API on June 26, 2018.
Many Ankawa residents, including those interviewed by the API, expressed frustration over the KRG’s official response to the report. A statement published by Hand in Hand for Ankawa on July 4, 2018 read:
“Despite the constant civilized demanding of the Christian residents of Ankawa for more than 8 years from the KRG to solve the problems in this town, [none] of the problems are solved and not even one KRG official has issued a statement regarding these demands, despite the big demonstration held by the Christians in Ankawa in 2015. However since the tax problem (jizya) has been spread and got some international attention, the KRG rushed and issued a very illogical and weak statement denying the problem...this is [a] sign that the KRG only cares about keeping the false positive image that the international community has on the reality of the Christians in the Kurdistan Region...we decided from now on to write all our problems in English...and spread them to the international community hoping that they could help us to preserve our existence from the KRG’s malicious attempts to drive us out of our forefathers land.”
We urge KRG leadership to accept responsibility for the arbitrary actions of KRG officials in order to initiate the development of rule of law to benefit all of its citizens, including the indigenous Assyrians. We also urge the KRG to refrain from retaliating against those Assyrians in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq exercising their right to free speech to bring attention to this injustice, whether elected officials or private citizens.
The API stands ready to meet with KRG officials both in Iraq and in the United States to address the many long-standing grievances of Ankawa residents, including the improper confiscation of lands belonging to Assyrians and KRG policies advancing demographic change in the area, as well as interference in local, regional, and federal elections for Assyrian representatives.
The Assyrian Policy Institute was established in May 2018 to support Assyrians as they struggle to maintain their rights to the lands they have inhabited for thousands of years, their ancient language, equal opportunities in education and employment, and to full participation in public life. We will continue to work alongside our partners in Iraq and abroad to ensure that Assyrians facing injustice in their homeland can make their voices heard.