Iraq Helsinki Project: Origin

The “Iraq Helsinki Project” began from a conference, convened by Professor Pádraig O’Malley, entitled “Iraq: The Way Forward”, held at Tufts University, Boston, under the auspices of the Institute of Global Leadership (IGL). This conference ended on 31 January 2007.

Afterwards, its Executive Committee  met with Dr Ali al-Allawi and Dr Haider Alabadi, senior Iraqi political advisers, to discuss whether to develop a further process of engagement.

Helsinki I

The result was what has become known as “Helsinki I”, where 16 representatives from Shia and Sunni communities in Iraq were brought together, in a remote location outside Helsinki, Finland, with key negotiators from all sides of the conflicts in Northern Ireland and South Africa.

At the Helsinki I conference, these two sets of participants — Shia/Sunni and Northern Ireland/South Africa — interacted with each other on the following topics:

  • Experience sharing
  • Listening
  • Clustering (disaggregate and reframe issues)
  • Identify commonalities
  • Risk assessment
  • Contingency planning
  • Skills development

The conference objective was to facilitate discussion among the Iraqi participants, in order to formulate a way forward that might allow Iraqis to live in peace among themselves, with a more robust political process for the resolution of disputes other than through violence.

The Helsinki I talks took place from 30 August-2 September 2007. After four days of intensive discussion and many hours of meetings, workshops and further debates, the 16 delegates reached consensus on what is named “The Helsinki Agreement”.

Helsinki II

Consequently, there was clear support to deepen and broaden participation in this process. The time was deemed right to extend invitations to senior Kurdish politicians, and to engage more parties, including independents, other blocs and representatives of the Sahwa (Awakening) Councils.

Further engagement was significantly assisted by Sheikh Humam Hamoudi, Chair of the Constitutional Review Committee (CRC) of the Iraqi Parliament. Sheikh Hamoudi separately led a CRC study delegation of 15 representatives to Northern Ireland in March 2008 (involving overlapping delegates from Helsinki I and II).

This week-long visit was commissioned by UNOPS and UNAMI, the two UN-sponsored support organisations for Iraq, and organised in Northern Ireland by Stratagem. A subsequent report, “Iraq, Learning Lessons from Northern. Ireland”, co-authored by Bronagh Hinds and Quintin Oliver, was launched by the Speaker of the NI Assembly, Willie Hay MLA, on 24 November 2009.

The Helsinki II talks took place from 24-28 April 2008, again at a remote (but different) location outside Helsinki, Finland (whose government assisted with security, visas and logistics). Some delegates were unable to attend at the last minute because of the security situation around Baghdad, particularly Sadrists who had attended Helsinki I.

The conference co-chairs were Cyril Ramaphosa (chief negotiator, ANC (South Africa)) and Martin McGuinness MP MLA (chief negotiator, Sinn Féin (Northern Ireland)).

The focus of the discussions was on how the principles adopted at the Helsinki I conference might be strengthened, improved and updated, as well as what mechanisms might ensure their implementation.

After four days of exhaustive discussions, including a final marathon overnight shuttle exercise between delegations, a key document was agreed and signed on 28 April 2008, by senior political representatives from Shia, Sunni, Kurd and independent interests; it was announced to an airport press conference on departure.

The “Helsinki II Agreement” is a broad framework for national reconciliation, with an agreed 17 Principles (to provide the context within which national deliberations are pursued and disagreements settled, including the disavowal of violence) and 15 Mechanisms (designed to monitor compliance). There are addendum notes of clarification or dissent, by some delegates, to both sections, but all participants signed.

The Helsinki II Agreement is deemed a “work in progress” by its signatories, as there remain three outstanding areas of policy disagreement — national identity, identification and protection of minority groups, and dealing with militias.

Baghdad: “The Helsinki Agreement & The Future of Kirkuk”

The Helsinki Agreement was launched publicly at a major event on 5 July 2008, in the Great Hall of the al-Rasheed Hotel Baghdad, before the international media, the diplomatic community, signatories, other Iraqi politicians and in the presence of the Iraqi Government’s National Security Adviser, Dr al-Rubbaie, and representatives of the international facilitators (including Martin McGuinness, Lord John Alderdice and Mac Maharaj).

Professor Padraig O’Malley subsequently travelled to Baghdad twelve times between July 2008 and October 2009, to follow up on the outstanding areas as well as to explore possible actions to underpin the implementation Mechanisms of the Helsinki II Agreement.

Meanwhile, representatives from the municipality of Kirkuk attended a conference convened by Prof. O’Malley: “Forum for Cities in Transition”. This conference was held at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, from 14-16 April 2009, and attended by mayors and senior officials from Derry/Londonderry (Northern Ireland), Nicosia (Cyprus), Mitrovica (Kosovo/Serbia), and Kirkuk (Iraq). At the conclusion of the conference, delegates decided to establish a new Forum, and all signed a “Call to Action” communiqué.

This communiqué was formally endorsed by the Kirkuk Provincial Council in May 2009.

Furthermore, in the same month a delegation of representatives from the Iraq Council of Representatives (ICOR) and Kirkuk Provincial Council (KPC) travelled to Northern Ireland for a series of meetings and discussions in Belfast and Derry/Londonderry.

This has led to greater participation by ICOR and KPC representatives in the process of the Iraq Helsinki Project.

These efforts led to the convening of a conference in Baghdad, by the President of ICOR (Speaker of the Iraqi Parliament), Dr Ayad Mahdi al-Samarrai (a delegate of Helsinki I conference and enthusiast).

The conference was “The Helsinki Agreement and the Future of Kirkuk”. Dr al-Samarrai sent invitations to the 36 signatories of the Helsinki II Agreement as well as to 16 members of the Kirkuk Provincial Council.

The conference committee chairman was Hashim Y.A. al-Ta’ee. Conference facilitators were John (Lord) Alderdice (Northern Ireland), Alex Maskey MLA (Northern Ireland), and Roelf Meyer (South Africa).

As in previous project events, secretariat services were headed by Quintin Oliver (Stratagem). Supporting services were provided by Ryan Gawn, Allan Leonard (Northern Ireland Foundation), and Nancy Riordan (Assistant to Prof. O’Malley). Shahily Waliy, a Fulbright scholar at Fletcher, served as Dr al-Samarrai’s special assistant for this conference.

The mission of the conference was to ask participants to consider the following, in terms of finding a satisfactory solution to the Kirkuk question and related issues:

“Do the participants wish to set up an inter-parliamentary dialogue council, comprised of the Helsinki signatories and the Kirkuk Provincial Council delegates, with either all other attendees or nominated individuals, to continue the work of the conference?”