If You Are Afraid for Your Lives, Leave Sinai! Egyptian Security Forces and ISIS-Affiliate Abuses in North Sinai

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Since 2011, the Egyptian military and police have battled ISIS-affiliated militants in North Sinai governorate. Sparsely populated, and with roughly half-a-million residents, this northern part of the Sinai Peninsula that borders Israel and the Gaza Strip has been a historically marginalized territory, separated from the rest of the country by the Suez Canal. Thousands have been arrested, and hundreds have been disappeared in the past six years since the conflict escalated in 2013. Tens of thousands of residents have been forcibly evicted or fled their homes due to ongoing violence.

This report documents how the Egyptian military and police have carried out systematic and widespread arbitrary arrests—including of children—enforced disappearances, torture, and extrajudicial killings, collective punishment, and forced evictions—abuses it has attempted to conceal through an effective ban on independent reporting. The military has also possibly conducted unlawful air and ground attacks that have killed numerous civilians—including children—and used civilian properties for military purposes. In addition, it has recruited, armed, and directed local militias, which have themselves engaged in serious rights violations, such as torture and arbitrary arrests, often exploiting their position to settle personal scores.

Human Rights Watch has previously documented other abuses in Sinai that are not covered in this report, including unlawful mass destruction of homes and the Egyptian army’s forcible evictions of tens of thousands of residents, with little or no help for temporary accommodation and no judicial recourse.

For their part, hundreds of fighters with the ISIS-affiliate group Wilayat Sina’, or Sinai Province, have kidnapped, tortured, and murdered hundreds of Sinai residents. They have beheaded or shot those who disagree with their extreme religious views or whom they perceive to be government sympathizers, and they have executed scores of captured government security forces, a war crime.

Based on the research done for this report, and previous research Human Rights Watch has published on the situation in Sinai, the report finds that the fight in North Sinai most likely amounts to a non-international armed conflict (NIAC) in which the laws of war apply.
The conditions to qualify a situation as a NIAC include severity, intensity, and duration of hostilities, as well as identifiable chains of command for warring parties. Some of the abuses carried out by government forces and the militants, which this report documents, are war crimes, and their widespread and systematic nature could amount to crimes against humanity. Both war crimes and crimes against humanity are not subject to any statute of limitation, and the latter could be prosecuted before international tribunals.
The conflict in North Sinai escalated dramatically after July 2013, when then-Defense Minister Abdel Fattah al-Sisi ousted President Mohamed Morsy, a top Muslim Brotherhood official who had taken office the year before. Since Morsy’s removal, which prompted nationwide unrest and a brutal response from the army and police, the government has mobilized tens of thousands of soldiers in the area and used heavy weapons, naval vessels, and military aircraft. It has also imposed a state of emergency and a curfew in most of North Sinai, which quickly became the site of frequent attacks on the military and police.

The Egyptian military presence in Sinai has not been this large seen since the country’s 1979 peace treaty with Israel, which strictly limited armed forces in the Sinai Peninsula.
However, since 2013, Israel has not only allowed a build-up of Egyptian military presence in the area beyond the treaty stipulations, but also according to media reports and official statements, aided the Egyptian government forces and probably participated in airstrikes against ISIS-affiliated militants.

As the conflict has ground on, the toll on local residents has grown. Independent media estimates indicate that at least hundreds of civilians have been killed and injured by all sides since July 2013. Formerly inhabited parts of North Sinai have turned into ghost towns, abandoned by residents fearful of more violence or being forcibly evicted by the army.

Governments have an obligation to protect inhabitants of their territories from harm and protect their right to life. They and all parties to a conflict are also obliged to comply with international law. As the United Nations has repeatedly warned and Human Rights Watch has repeatedly documented, not only are abusive counterterrorism measures unlawful, they are also often counterproductive, alienating the very local communities they are allegedly protecting and generating support for extremist and armed groups.

Human Rights Watch calls on the Egyptian authorities to protect civilians and uphold its obligations under the international laws of war and local and international human rights laws. The United Nations Human Rights Council and the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights should also open a commission of inquiry into abuses by all parties to the conflict in the North Sinai, including the Egyptian authorities, their armed forces and their irregular militias, and Sinai Province group. In addition, UN member states should suspend assistance to the Egyptian military and the police, as long as they carry out widespread and serious violations of human rights and international humanitarian law and fail to hold those responsible for violations accountable. Governments currently transferring weapons to Egypt, including the United States, United Kingdom, and France, have a responsibility to monitor how the arms they export are being used. When they continue to supply arms and other assistance knowing this support is significantly contributing to serious abuses, they may risk being complicit in these violations as well.

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