A new UN report reveals that 2015 was yet another bloody year in Iraq. The “Report on the Protection of Civilians in the Armed Conflict in Iraq,” jointly published on January 19 by the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, states that between May 1 and October 31, 2015, the period covered by the report, at least 3,855 civilians were killed, and a further 6,168 were injured. According to Iraq Body Count (IBC), a total of 16,115 civilian deaths in conflict were recorded in Iraq in 2015. Both are conservative figures, and the latter figure may later rise, as did the 2014 figure. “Current levels of violent death are among the highest since we began recording civilian casualties in 2003,” IBC said.
The assault on the Iraqi people comes from all sides: ISIS, the Iraqi government, coalition airstrikes and armed gangs.
In addition, since the beginning of 2014, more than 3 million Iraqis have become internally displaced, including over 1 million school-aged children. The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre reports, “In 2014 alone, Iraq suffered the highest new internal displacement worldwide, with at least 2.2 million displaced.” Due to a lack of resources and aid, only 8 percent live in displacement camps. Most live in abject poverty, with inadequate access to housing, health care and clean water. Casualties resulting from such living conditions are not included in the figures above. The situation of displaced Iraqis is further exacerbated by the sectarian and ethnic strife in the country, making it impossible for many people to find safety and shelter, and often splitting families up when male members, including children, are not offered refuge along with females due to suspicions that they may be militants. Sometimes it is Iraqi government forces who deny access to the displaced.
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The assault on the Iraqi people comes from all sides: ISIS, the Iraqi government and its security forces and related militias, coalition airstrikes and armed gangs cashing in on the prevailing state of anarchy. The UN report concedes that “The violence suffered by civilians in Iraq remains staggering,” but with more than half of the report dedicated to atrocities carried out by ISIS, the Iraqi government gets off lightly.
A number of the human rights abuses ascribed to ISIS could equally be attributed to government security forces or related militias. For example, both ISIS and the government’s popular mobilization units – mainly Shiite militias drafted into the fight against ISIS – have been open about their recruitment and use of child soldiers. In the latter case, not mentioned in the report, the use of child combatants could have serious implications for the United States, as these militias fall under the umbrella of an army that is trained and supported by the US. UNICEF expressed its concerns in June 2015, and called for “urgent measures” to be taken by the Iraqi government to protect children, including criminalizing the recruitment of children, and “the association of children with the Popular Mobilization Forces.”
The report states that “systematic and widespread violations and abuses of international human rights law and international humanitarian law” committed by ISIS could amount to “war crimes, crimes against humanity, and possibly genocide.” Others, including Human Rights Watch, have suggested that Iraqi government-backed militias in the fight against ISIS may have also committed war crimes. Kurds too have been accused of potential war crimes. Indeed, all parties to the conflict have committed crimes against humanity against the Iraqi people, and there must be no impunity for any of them. A report focused on human rights and the protection of civilians should not be politically biased toward any party.
One of the issues the report does examine is the poor state of the Iraqi judiciary. While ISIS is known for its macabre executions – a major cause of unlawful deaths in Iraq – the Iraqi government has in recent years greatly increased the number of executions it carries out; Iraq has one of the highest death penalty rates in the world. With a legal system riddled with torture, rape and coerced confessions, and arbitrary detention sometimes for financial gain, death sentences passed against individuals alleged to be members of ISIS may be politically motivated.
One area in which the UN sides clearly with the Iraqi government and coalition forces is the use of airstrikes. Airstrikes are conducted by coalition forces, the Iraqi army, joint coalition-Iraqi sorties and coalition drones. According to IBC, between June 2014 and the end of 2015, 2,312 civilians have died in coalition and Iraqi airstrikes. No mention is made of coalition drone strikes, of which Airwars has reported over 6,500 in Iraq since 2014.
The UN report accepts the argument that ISIS’s implantation in civilian areas makes it impossible to avoid civilian deaths, but does not question whether such a policy is effective or worthwhile, especially if it is intended to protect civilians. The UN bodies were unable to verify most of the reported airstrikes. While it is understandable that ISIS would not cooperate with them, why was the UN unable to obtain verification of various incidents from the Iraqi government?
Attacks on civilians by Iraqi security forces and associated militias – popular mobilization units, which since April 2015 are formally part of state forces – are mentioned, but are significantly downplayed. Militias are reported to have carried out attacks on Iraqi civilians and willful destruction to their property, particularly ethnic and religious minorities. A Wall Street Journal article from early 2015 calls such militias a threat to Iraq and accuses them of “engaging in behavior not all that different from ISIS, also known as Islamic State and ISIL.”
A 2015 report by ABC also found images and videos of Iraqi security forces and popular mobilization units carrying out executions and destroying property, in what it described as potential war crimes. At the time, an Iraqi government spokesperson said it was “possible the photos were fabricated by ISIS to discredit the military.” An investigation was promised but one year on ABC reports that “Iraqi officials have only said that the investigation is ongoing.”
Days before the UN report was published, in a detailed report about an incident mentioned in the report, Human Rights Watch reiterated a recommendation it made initially in 2015, “that the Iraqi government take immediate steps to establish effective command and control over the Popular Mobilization Forces and other pro-government militias and disband those that resist government control.” It also called for accountability.
One of the important aspects of the UN report is the discovery of mass graves in areas once held by ISIS: In many cases, victims have yet to be identified and it is partly this discovery that led IBC to increase the death rate by 3,000 for 2014. The report’s emphasis on ISIS’s crimes nonetheless reveals a politicized and ideological bias, one that justifies coalition airstrikes and turns a blind eye to the rampant corruption and impunity in Iraq that fuels outfits like ISIS.
The Iraqi government must be held accountable, too. It has promised investigations and set up bodies to monitor human rights, the displaced and other issues, but what progress has been made remains to be seen. Holding the Iraqi government to account would be a clear step on the road to re-establishing stability and accountability for all Iraqi citizens. As Iraqi novelist and activist Haifa Zangana told me back in 2015, “We’re asking for everything to be investigated. If you are looking for reconciliation, for solutions and to end terrorism genuinely, to build democracy, you have to look at all crimes. You have to start with justice.”