Friday, July 23, 2010

Soma Hotel; Un-extinguished Blaze - By Hishyar Abid23/07/2010

The fire at Soma Hotel in Sulaimaniyah that claimed the lives of 30 people, 14 of whom were foreign nationals, and injured more than 40 others, has exposed a serious problem in the way Kurdistan is managed by the current administration and the ruling parties. According to sources, most of the victims died from smoke inhalation and the lack of fire escapes contributed to the high death toll.

Dr Barham Salih, the Prime Minister of KRG, was quick on the scene last Friday promising action to prevent such tragedy from happening in the future. These swift responses and the arrests of last night of the hotel managers are praise worthy steps. The tragedy is at such a scale that it requires bold and extraordinary actions. After all, many people died and were injured in what seems to be preventable tragedy, caused by a problem (electrical short, according to Police Chief) that is so common that almost all public building and business premises will fail any credible inspection in this regard. Moreover, almost half of the dead were foreign citizens. They worked for foreign oil firms, AsiaCell and other companies. Therefore, the scope of the tragedy transcends the boundaries of the region to become a major concern, undermining the lukewarm and tentative confidence that the international business community have been so persistently cajoled to finally give Kurdistan Region.

People living in Kurdistan know that no matter how grave the risks are, an inspection by any official will not usually lead to prosecution, because the management will find a connection to an even higher official who is willing to “help” and interfere to stop it. The 5 star Soma hotel (no EHQ schemes. Stars, in Kurdistan, are self awarded by management) was no exception. The hotel owner, Mr. Faraydon Abdulkadir was a member of PUK’s Polit Bureau for decades. He was also Governor of Sulaimaniyah in the 90s and later Minister of Home Affairs in Dr Barham Salih’s first cabinet 2001-2004. If he wished to, he was in a strong position to resist any pressure from local inspectors demanding him to undertake safety improvement measures that could cost money. Not that I know of anything like that ever occurred.

Mr. Barham Salih lived most of his adult life in the UK or USA. He studied his BsC, Masters degree and PhD in the UK. He worked as a consultant engineer in the UK. He should be very familiar with Health and Safety matters. He was also the PM in Sulaimaniyah for four years. And now, he is the Prime Minister of the whole region, supported by President Talabani and President Barzani. He has the expertise as well as the authoritative knowledge, and he has the executive power as well as the responsibility to do something about it. It is Dr. Barham Salih’s credibility as a public servant which is on the line here.

Therefore I welcome his statement when it confirmed that he has “ordered an immediate review of fire safety measures at all public buildings in the city of Suleimaniah and the Kurdistan Region”. Ordering an enquiry is the correct first step to establish what has happened and learn its lessons. But in the past such enquiries have been used to stifle the debate and cover-up the problems. There are vested interests at stake, some of which held by the likes of Mr. Abdulkadir. This would be the perception of the public unless they hold a public and independent enquiry.

The enquiry has to be public, open and transparent, chaired by a well regarded judge, because it is dealing with a public concerns that affects them directly and it is about peoples’ trust in the system of government. It should also be independent and free from any form of influence or interference. And it should be thorough, given a wide remit with no predetermined limitations.

The enquiry should conclude by delivering a report to the Prime Minister and publish it. The recommendations of the report should form part of the next legislative programme of the government in the areas where it need legislations. The enquiry should also be instructed by the Prime Minister to look into the issue of compensation and assistance to the victims and their families, some of whom have been maimed and injured for life.

Only the Prime Minister can call such an enquiry. Only he can give them the right level of support and see to it that it concludes its task successfully. The question remains in our minds; Will He? - By Hishyar Abid