(Beirut) – Iraqi security forces and pro-government militias committed possible war crimes during 2015 in their fight against the extremist group Islamic State, also known as ISIS, by unlawfully demolishing buildings in recaptured areas and forcibly disappearing residents, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2016.
ISIS carried out numerous atrocities, including summary executions and indiscriminate bombings.
“ISIS and Iraq’s government-affiliated militias are both committing atrocities against civilians with evident support from their commanders,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director. “Making matters worse – much worse – is the fact that Iraq’s justice system isn’t providing any semblance of accountability.”
In the 659-page World Report 2016, its 26th edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in more than 90 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth writes that the spread of terrorist attacks beyond the Middle East and the huge flows of refugees spawned by repression and conflict led many governments to curtail rights in misguided efforts to protect their security. At the same time, authoritarian governments throughout the world, fearful of peaceful dissent that is often magnified by social media, embarked on the most intense crackdown on independent groups in recent times.
ISIS claimed responsibility for two devastating bombings that killed more than 115 people in Khan Bani Saad, north of Baghdad, on July 17, and 67 people at Jamila Market in Baghdad’s Sadr City, on August 13. ISIS often executed people by extremely cruel and painful methods such as burning, drowning, electrocution, and stoning. ISIS reportedly recruited children for suicide missions and to carry out executions.
Mostly Shia militias fighting ISIS with the support of the Iraqi government, such as the Badr Brigades, League of the Righteous, and Hizbollah Brigades, carried out widespread violations of human rights and international humanitarian law, in particular by demolishing homes and shops in recaptured Sunni areas.
After recapturing Tikrit in March 2015, militia forces torched and blew up hundreds of buildings and destroyed large sections of neighboring al-Dur, al-Bu ‘Ajil and southern al-Alam. Militias also forcibly disappeared some 200 men and boys. Shia militias also recruited, trained, and used children as young as 12 years in battle.
Peshmerga forces of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) also carried out – or failed to prevent – destruction of Arab homes and looting of shops in areas recaptured from ISIS.
Iraqi courts provided weak accountability, in effect granting impunity to people responsible for assassinations, disappearances, and grave breaches of the laws of war. In July, Iraq’s Central Criminal Court tried 28 people for participating in the June 2014 ISIS massacre of up to 1,700 Shia military cadets. After a trial that lasted only a few hours, the court sentenced 24 to death, though defendants said their confessions were extracted under torture and that they could not choose defense lawyers.
In one case, courts did hold Shia militiamen accountable, sentencing an undisclosed number of defendants to death for an August 2014 massacre of 30 Sunni worshipers. Human Rights Watch opposes the death penalty in all circumstances.
Iran provided advisers and arms for combat to Iraq. The US remained the largest provider of military equipment to Iraq and also supported Baghdad with training, intelligence, and advisers. Iraqi militias implicated in human rights abuses used US and Iranian weapons in their operations. The US FY16 National Defense Authorization Act tightens obligations on the Defense Department to report on its security aid to the Iraqi government.
In its annual report on export controls for 2014, the European Union noted three denials of licenses to Iraq based on human rights and international humanitarian law concerns, also without providing further information.
“Governments have an obligation to ensure their military support does not end up violating human rights,” Stork said. “Government should be transparent in how they ensure that their support does not become part of rampant human rights violations in Iraq.”