ISIS Fighters Not the Only Bad Actors in Iraq
A U.N. report alleges terrorists and government-affiliated forces both have violated civilians' human rights in the country.
Fighters with a Shiite militia group battle Islamic State group militants north of Baghdad, in 2015.
Iraqi forces and militia members battling the Islamic State group are allegedly responsible for abuses against civilians that have contributed to the chaos in the war-torn nation over a nearly two-year period, according to a new U.N. report.
Violence in the country has surged since the Islamic State group's rise in 2014: A U.S.-led coalition has been battling the extremists primarily through airstrikes, while security forces and militia members have waged a war further inflamed by sectarian tensions on the ground. According to Tuesday's report from the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, nearly 19,000 civilians have been killed and another 36,000 have been wounded in Iraq between January of 2014 and the end of October last year, with the Islamic State group bearing much of the blame.
"During the reporting period, [the Islamic State group] killed and abducted scores of civilians, often in a targeted manner," the report said. It "continues to target members of different ethnic and religious communities, systematically persecuting these groups and subjecting them to a range of abuses and violations."
Officials working on the report, which is based on interviews with Iraqi civilians, were unable to clearly tally all of the abuses according to which were perpetrated by pro-government forces and which by the Islamic State group because the security situation in the country is so precarious. But the report notes allegations of "arbitrary arrests" and civilian abductions by Iraqi security forces and associated troops, as well as "unlawful killings" of suspected Islamic State group sympathizers.
There were also reports of heavy civilian casualties from anti-Islamic State group airstrikes, but the U.N. agency said it was difficult to verify most cases.
"It is also complex to assess whether principles of distinction and proportionality were adhered to, considering that [the Islamic State group] deliberately bases itself in civilian areas, often fails to distinguish themselves as fighters, and use[s] civilians and civilian infrastructure as shields," the report said.
The U.N. has "tons more" reports of abuses officials were unable to corroborate and include in the report, a spokeswoman says, but it is the government's responsibility to both prevent abuses and hold perpetrators accountable.
"The government needs to do more to be able to re-establish proper rule of law, proper administration in these areas," says Ravina Shamdasani, a spokeswoman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights. "It's very challenging, of course, but a lot more needs to be done because these internally displaced people are suffering not only from the effects of the lack of humanitarian supplies, but also from a lack of rule of law in these areas."
The State Department said it is reviewing the report and cannot independently confirm the figures of civilian deaths and injuries it documents, but the U.S. is concerned about proper conduct by Iraqi forces. Department spokesman John Kirby said Tuesday that "fair treatment of innocent civilians in a conflict like this is something we routinely discuss with our Iraqi counterparts."
The Islamic State group controls swathes of territory in Iraq, and civilians are frequently caught in the crossfire between the terrorist organization and pro-government forces trying to drive it out. The conflict also involves a number of armed groups working on behalf of the government, making it difficult to discern who is responsible for human rights violations.
The advance of the Islamic State group through Sunni Muslim territory in Iraq in 2014 was accompanied by the killings of thousands of Shiite Muslims and ethnic minorities. Some Sunnis, disaffected by the Shiite government in Baghdad, had initially welcomed the extremists and were believed to have been targeted by the forces that repelled them.
When the Islamic State group was dislodged from its stronghold in Tikrit last spring by armed forces dominated by Shiite militias, reports suggested that militia members destroyed homes and shops and abducted nearby civilians in retaliation for the Islamic State group's massacre of Shiites a year earlier.
The U.N. report noted instances of peshmerga and likely Shiite militia forces demolishing houses and structures, some of which could not be corroborated.
Joe Stork, deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa division of Human Rights Watch, says that while Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has spoken out against civilian human rights abuses and promised to hold perpetrators responsible, he has little ability to actually do so. "The problem is we're not seeing the government officials taking any responsibility for investigating or holding accountable people in the militias responsible for serious abuses," Stork says. "We're looking at a situation where the militias are, some of them anyway … autonomous enough that they don't really answer to the prime minister."
Both the U.N. human rights agency and Human Rights Watch say Iraq should accede to the Rome Statute, which would allow human rights abuses in that country to be prosecuted in the International Criminal Court. Internally, even if the government were to identify perpetrators, the Iraqi judicial system is not equipped to deal with such an undertaking.
"You'd have to have an independent judiciary, which is something that is also lacking in Iraq these days," Stork says. "You'd have to have judges, prosecutors who were able and willing to conduct investigations into incidents, to launch investigations to prosecute people, to issue arrest warrants – this sort of thing. It's pretty tough to do in Iraq today."