GENEVA (11 July 2017) – The retaking of Mosul from ISIL by Iraqi Government forces, supported by their International Coalition partners, marks a significant turning point in the conflict, but Iraq faces a series of human rights challenges which, if left unaddressed, are likely to spark further violence and civilian suffering, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein has warned.
“The women, children and men of Mosul have lived through hell on earth, enduring a level of depravity and cruelty that is almost beyond words,” said Zeid. “ISIL forced tens of thousands of people from their homes in and around the city and used them as human shields, a war crime under international humanitarian law and a violation of the most basic standards of human dignity and morality,” he said.
“ISIL’s cruel grip on Mosul has been broken, and we should recognise the sacrifices by the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) as they battled to reclaim the city and surrounding areas, suffering losses among serving and former members,” the High Commissioner said. “But ISIL’s fighters can still terrify and kill through bombings and abductions, and people are still being subjected to daily horrors and suffering in remaining ISIL strongholds, such as Tal Afar and Hawijah.”
With Mosul now reclaimed, the extent of ISIL’s violations and abuses has become even more evident. Information gathered by the UN Human Rights Office strongly suggests that international crimes may have been perpetrated by ISIL during the three years that the group was in control not only of Mosul but of large areas of Iraq.
“ISIL’s serious and systematic violations of international humanitarian law and gross abuses and violations of human rights, including the sexual slavery of women and girls, committed over these past three years have left deep scars on Iraqi society,” Zeid said. This includes the abduction of 1,636 women and girls, and 1,733 men and boys from the Yezidi community who remain unaccounted for.
Zeid noted that there have also been allegations of human rights violations and abuses by the ISF and associated forces, as well as by individuals taking revenge against captured ISIL fighters or people accused of supporting them.
“Horrific though the crimes of ISIL are, there is no place for vengeance. It is therefore disturbing to hear reports that threats of collective punishment, including illegal forced evictions, have been made against families whose relatives are suspected of being affiliated to ISIL. Such punishments are an act of vengeance that works against national reconciliation and social cohesion,” Zeid said.
As soon as practicable after re-taking of areas from ISIL, the Iraqi Government should ensure that responsibility for law and order is restored to civilian control and that the human rights and basic humanitarian needs of civilians in those areas are met.
“The most fitting response, after the horrors inflicted on countless individuals and communities across northern Iraq by ISIL, the enormous loss of civilian life, and the destruction of livelihoods, homes and infrastructure - not least the many irreplaceable cultural and religious monuments or places of cultural significance - is to step up efforts to create an Iraq grounded in equality and the rule of law,” Zeid said.
The High Commissioner welcomed the fact that the judicial authorities have launched investigations into allegations of serious human rights violations committed by pro-government forces, and he called on the Government to make the findings public and ensure that perpetrators are brought before courts.
Given the large-scale nature of serious crimes, Iraq should also seek legal reforms to allow domestic courts to have jurisdiction over international crimes. To this end, the UN Human Rights Office and the UN Assistance Mission in Iraq (UNAMI) are supporting efforts to initiate a legal framework to establish a specialised court competent to try alleged perpetrators for international crimes.
“I urge the Iraqi Government to prioritise advancing accountability and also repeat my call for the Government of Iraq to become a party to the Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC),” Zeid said.
The High Commissioner also called for allegations of human rights violations by the Iraqi Security Forces to be fully investigated and those responsible held accountable.
“After the offensive to retake Mosul from ISIL began in October 2016, I called repeatedly on the ISF and its Coalition partners to ensure that military operations complied fully with international humanitarian law, in particular the principles of distinction, proportionality and precaution, so as to avoid or, at the very least, minimize civilian casualties,” he said. Airstrikes were a significant factor in causing civilian casualties and in the final weeks of the campaign to retake Mosul, there were reports of increased civilian deaths. These included 84 people reportedly killed when an airstrike on 31 May hit several houses in Zanjilly neighbourhood, at the time under ISIL control.
As part of efforts to break the cycle of violence, the reconstruction of communities needs to start to enable internally displaced people to return to their places of origin in dignity and security, and in full compliance with humanitarian principles. Programmes must be put in place to support victims and survivors of crimes to help them reintegrate into their families and communities, the High Commissioner highlighted.
“The root causes of violence and conflict in Iraq need to be addressed in terms of human rights violations suffered by all communities in the country over several decades. Only then can secure foundations be laid for the lasting peace that the Iraqi people deserve,” he said.
“Dialogue between communities needs to begin now to try to halt the cycle of violence, and to promote accountability for the crimes against Iraqis. Violations and abuses need to be fully documented. Evidence, including of some 70 mass graves discovered to date, must be preserved, and legislative reforms passed so that those accused can be tried in courts that meet international standards and held to account. The right to truth must prevail to ensure ISIL’s crimes do not poison Iraqi society for generations,” Zeid stressed.