Freedom of Assembly and Expression in Iraq: A Study of Twenty Years of Change



Freedom of Assembly and Expression in Iraq

A Study of Twenty Years of Change

Iraqi Observatory for Human Rights

October 2022


This study was done during a difficult time for Iraq in view of the current political impasse and the political forces’ inability to form a government, more than a year after the legislative elections were held on 10 October 2021, and against the backdrop of the ongoing media attacks and lawsuits against civil society activists and journalists, in addition to the constant demonization of non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

The researcher at the Iraqi Observatory for Human Rights conducted a series of activities to produce this study, including holding two meetings with two Iraqi organizations, and holding two focus group sessions with researchers, specialists and staff members of NGOs, in order to provide a clear and objective assessment of the status of freedom of opinion and expression in Iraq, as well as the work of NGOs and civil society in general.

The interviews and focus groups were conducted online in an attempt to be time-efficient and in order to reach people located in various parts of Iraq. This study is not the first nor the only one of its sort, but it offers a clear and objective understanding of freedom of expression in the country and the work of NGOs and the challenges they face, especially since the outbreak of the October protests on 1 October 2019, which caused hundreds of deaths, casualties and missing persons.

This study examined Iraqi legislations over the past 100 years, that is, since the founding of the modern Iraqi state in 1921. The report touches upon these legislations and their respective contexts, in an attempt to understand the recent historical background that was marked by major and grinding events, developments and changes.

The study focused on the need to transform the misconception by more than a few Iraqi politicians that civil society “plays a destructive role” into the understanding and belief that civil society is capable of being an honest partner to the state, capable of rectifying the wrong paths.

Civil society is not a luxury or a means to obtain fame, nor is it a means for financial gain, as some Iraqi politicians had promoted over the past years. Rather, it is a voluntary workspace that is based on the belief of those working within it that they should be part of the process of building societies and achieving prosperity for citizens.

This study attempted to highlight the role of non-governmental organizations in defending rights and freedoms and confronting political pressure groups that seek to enact legislations that restrict freedoms and undermine social movements through assembly, and people’s ability to unite forces and confront attempts to take rights away or use state resources in illegal ways for the benefit of a particular political or otherwise group.

This research was conducted by Hussam Falah, an activist, human rights defender and member of the Iraqi Observatory for Human Rights, as part of the “WeActTogether” Campaign which highlights the role that civil society has played in successfully advocating rights and freedoms while also highlighting the importance of civil society as a platform from which individuals may voice their opinions and demands. The Campaign is part of a joint project of the Innovation for Change Middle East and North Africa Hub and the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR), in partnership with the Iraqi Observatory for Human Rights. For more information, please visit the campaign’s website at


Peaceful assembly is a human right, according to the United Nations’ definition[1]: “Everyone has the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association, which are essential components of democracy. The right of peaceful assembly includes the right to hold meetings, sit-ins, strikes, rallies, events or protests, both offline and online. The right to freedom of association involves the right of individuals to interact and organize among themselves to collectively express, promote, pursue and defend common interests. This includes the right to form trade unions. Freedom of peaceful assembly and of association serve as a vehicle for the exercise of many other rights guaranteed under international law, including the rights to freedom of expression and to take part in the conduct of public affairs. The right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association is protected by article 20 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”

The national legislation of any country reflects the extent of its commitment to international human rights standards and the conventions it has signed, especially those related to rights and freedoms. These legislations are a clear reflection of the articles and paragraphs of international treaties, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, international humanitarian law, and the two international covenants; the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

The last decade witnessed increased activism[2] and the emergence of freedom of assembly in the Middle East, specifically Iraq. These assemblies still continue as of the publication of this report. What is currently happening in Iran[3], Iraq, Lebanon and previously in Syria, Egypt and Bahrain, indicates that the gatherings, especially protests, have become essential in the quest of societies to express their views.

Over nearly two decades, Iraq is considered one of the democratic countries that has transitioned to a new stage after close to two and a half decades of dictatorship and totalitarianism that imposed restrictions on establishing parties, associations and non-governmental organizations, and ended the role of trade unions and all civil society institutions.

The founders of the new regime that was established in 2003 – after the fall of the totalitarian Ba’ath Party regime, and under pressure from the international community – were keen that civil society should have a role in the “new Iraq.” Therefore, they guaranteed freedom of opinion, expression and peaceful assembly in Article 38 of the Iraqi constitution of 2005[4]. Based on that, trade unions were allowed to resume activity, and non-governmental organizations were established.

Over the past 20 years, 5000[5] non-governmental organizations were established in Iraq. These organizations have been active in various fields, including human rights, humanitarian relief, education, media, economy, press freedoms, women, children, etc., and some of them gained quite an influence.

These organizations played a major role during peaceful gatherings, demonstrations and sit-ins in the country against corruption, political quotas and human rights violations. A group of them continuously submitted reports[6] to international organizations on the human rights situation in Iraq.

Since 2008, five years after the change, until today, Iraq witnessed a large protest movement in the years 2008, 2011, 2015, 2018 and 2019. The latest movement in October 2019 led to the collapse[7] of the government of Adil Abdul-Mahdi, a year after its formation.

However, this protest movement was always met with violence, demonization and accusations of treachery. 560[8] protesters and activists were killed during these times, even though the protests were peaceful and did not take up arms against state institutions.

Despite all this, activists and human rights defenders continued their advocacy on social issues, and kept pressuring the authorities to fight the corrupt, confine possession and use of arms to the state, eliminate political disagreements from state institutions, and hold perpetrators of human rights violations accountable.

Some NGOs have long been accused of following foreign agenda and seeking to cause chaos in the country. These claims by powerful and influential forces aimed to demonize these organizations, weaken them, and tarnish their reputation. The same applies to protest movements and peaceful gatherings.

Download the Full Report here:

[1] United Nations, Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

[2]  Al Jazeera Centre for Studies: Colored Revolutions and the Arab Spring… the Reality of the Geopolitical Conflict between America and Russia in the Region.

[3] BBC: Iran Demonstrations.

[4] The Iraqi Constitution of 2005.

[5] An interview by the Iraqi Observatory for Human Rights with a government official.

[6] The Iraqi Observatory for Human Rights’ Report on violations against journalists.

[7] BBC: Iraq demonstrations: Abdul-Mahdi’s Resignation, Beginning of Reform or Civil War.

[8] A Statement by Hisham Daoud, Advisor to the Iraqi Prime Minister, Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, on July 30, 2020.