Iraq’s forgotten human rights

The world should be more focused on human rights abuses in Iraq, writes Salah Nasrawi
As the war rages on in Iraq nearly twelve years after the US-led invasion, there have been more reminders of the volume of human rights violations in this beleaguered nation which have now reached a massive scale. With a new US-led coalition being forged and targeting Iraq, this high level of abuse warrants the international community to pay special attention to the situation and to put the crisis on the world’s agenda.
Wide-ranging evidence suggests that the abuses are systematic violations rather than isolated incidents, but because of a culture of impunity for the perpetrators and a lack of proper documentation the true scale of the abuses remains unknown. As the sectarian violence and political turmoil continue in Iraq, the country remains at the bottom of the list of countries with poor human rights records worldwide.
The Baghdad government, the Kurdistan Regional Government, the terrorist Islamic State (IS) and the Shia militias all stand accused of gross human rights abuses, some amounting to war crimes, during the escalation of the violence in the country since the US-led invasion in 2003 and the sectarian conflict and political stalemate that followed.
Accountability for these crimes, however, has remained almost non-existent. Earlier this month, the United Nations announced that at least 9,347 civilians had been killed so far in 2014 and 17,386 wounded, well over half of them since the terrorist group the Islamic State began overrunning swathes of the north of the country in early June.


Estimates of the casualties from the conflict in Iraq since 2003 vary. Nearly half a million people have died from war-related causes since the US-led invasion, according to a study published in the United States last year. That toll is far higher than the nearly 200,000 civilian deaths reported by the British-based group the Iraq Body Count this month or the lesser statistics produced by Iraq’s government.


This deplorable situation stands as testimony to the devastation wrought by the US occupation, the atrocities carried out by the Sunni insurgents, especially the IS terror group, the unbridled reprisals of Shia militias and the horrific violations committed by the government authorities.


Serious human rights violations by the United States in Iraq are now well documented, including unlawful murder, rape, the torture of detainees and other war crimes. Three years after the US troop withdrawal, the Iraqi people are still paying a heavy price for Washington’s failure to fulfil its obligations to protect the Iraqi people’s rights, having devastating consequences for their lives and futures.


In post-invasion Iraq, successive central governments and the government of the self-ruled Kurdistan Region have not only failed to adhere to the standards required of them under international law, but have also themselves committed serious violations. With the country’s ethno-sectarian conflict deadlocked and violence triggered by the terrorist attacks continuing, these governments have sacrificed human rights for security.


Since 2003, various human rights groups have been detailing Iraq as among the world’s top nations responsible for major human rights abuses, ranging from death, torture and arbitrary arrest or detention to the denial of the basic freedoms of expression and assembly.


ALARMING FIGURES: The total number of individuals sentenced to death in Iraq since 2004 is believed to stand at more than 1,200. There are around 48 crimes for which the death penalty can be imposed in Iraq, including some, under certain circumstances, including damage to public property.


Among the systematic pattern of abuse at the hands of the Iraqi central government’s security forces is the practice of arrests without warrants based on religious sect or political affiliation and the mistreatment of prisoners. The systematic and illegal abuse of detainees, including torture and degrading treatment by interrogators and guards, is widespread.


Human rights organisations have been reporting that thousands of detainees languish in prison without charge. Detainees are routinely held incommunicado without access to family or legal counsel. Many of those brought to trial are sentenced to long prison terms or to death after grossly unfair proceedings in which convictions are based on “confessions” extracted under torture or other forms of coercion. Such “confessions” are often broadcast on national television before the trials.


Female inmates suffer from overcrowding and a lack of sufficient access to female-specific health care. Women are frequently detained with their young children, who are then deprived of access to education and adequate health care as well as light, fresh air, food and water. Women prisoners have been reporting that the security forces have detained, beaten, tortured, and in some instances, sexually abused them as a means of intimidating or punishing male family members suspected of terrorism.


Millions of Iraqis have fled their homes in recent years amid waves of sectarian violence that have sparked mass displacement internally and abroad. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees remain on the books of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the International Organisation for Migration seeking safe haven in foreign countries.


More than two million Iraqis remain displaced within their own country. Many of them continue to reside in squatter settlements without access to basic necessities such as clean water, electricity and sanitation, and the government has no plans for their return. As the political crisis continues in the country and the sectarian violence spirals, lasting solutions to the displacement appear as distant as ever.


For years Iraq has faced persistent criticism for suppressing basic human rights of assembly and freedom of speech. The country’s security forces respond to peaceful protests with threats, violence and arrests. In many cases army and police forces have used lethal force on Sunni demonstrators gathering largely peacefully and killing and injuring many people.


The security forces have responded to protests against corruption and the lack of services in Baghdad and other cities with force, arresting, and in some instances beating, the protesters and then prosecuting them on charges of a failure to obey orders. The Iraqi Interior Ministry has invoked broad and restrictive regulations on protests to refuse permits for peaceful demonstrations, in contravention of Iraq’s constitutional guarantee of free assembly.


The Baghdad government and Kurdish authorities continue to use arbitrary power to impose curbs on the freedom of expression. More than 200 Iraqi employees of media networks have been killed since the invasion of March 2003, making Iraq the world’s most dangerous place for journalists. Iraq was named “worst nation” on the 2013 Impunity Index of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) for unsolved journalist murders.


TERRORIST GROUPS: The situation of human rights in Iraq has further deteriorated with IS terrorists taking over large chunks of land in June and committing savage crimes, including slaughter, carrying out mass executions, abducting women and girls as sex slaves, and using child soldiers.


In its 2 October report, produced jointly by its mission in Iraq (UNAMI) and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, the United Nations talked of a “staggering array” of human rights abuses committed by IS militants and associated armed Sunni groups in Iraq.


Among the gross human rights violations and violence against religious minorities were forcing non-Muslims to convert to Islam. Those who refused have been forced to either pay a protection tax or leave their homes and towns.


Al-Qaeda in Iraq, as IS was formerly known, has been responsible for lethal suicide car bombings and other attacks, including the bombings of mosques, markets and residential areas. The attacks, directly targeting Shia soldiers and civilians and their neighbourhoods and worshiping places, have been largely responsible for the escalation in religious violence.


Al-Qaeda driven cycles of violence have also pushed the country’s Shias to retaliate. Shia militias, which began to remobilise earlier this year, have reportedly carried out retaliatory attacks, including on Sunni mosques. Government-backed Shia militias have also been kidnapping and killing Sunni civilians throughout Baghdad and in other mixed Sunni-Shia provinces.


Shia extremists have been accused of carrying out targeted or extrajudicial killings in some mixed districts and neighbourhoods. There have been reports that Shia armed groups have threatened Sunni residents with death if they did not leave the areas. The bodies of men, believed mostly to be Sunnis, who have been killed in execution-style killings are routinely found in Baghdad.


CORRUPTION AND LACK OF ACCOUNTABILITY: A cross-section of views from a wide range of regional and international rights organisations agree that 12 years after the collapse of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein’s repressive regime, many Iraqis today enjoy greater freedoms than they did under his rule. But the fundamental human rights gains that should have been achieved during the past decade have significantly failed to materialise.


Human rights groups have documented abuses in the Kurdish enclave that is under the jurisdiction of the autonomous Kurdistan Region. These abuses include the arbitrary arrests of critics of the government, torture and abuse in detention, and unsolved abductions and murders. Violations of freedom of expression and assembly have also been reported.


Widespread graft and corrupt governance reflect negatively on all human and civil rights.


Saddam’s Iraq was known for its shocking violations of human rights. Mass atrocities by the secret police, public executions, assassinations, disappearances and the detention of political opponents and destruction of their houses were just some of the methods the regime used to maintain control.


The post-Saddam governments’ response to the pervasive human rights violations in the country has been disappointing and marked by a lack of transparency and accountability and a disregard for human life and dignity. Both the Iraqi Ministry of Human Rights and the parliamentary Human Rights Committee have failed to put human rights at the forefront of their work. Iraq has set up a national human right commission which in theory should work to protect human rights and end abuses, but critics say it has been largely ineffective.


Next month will witness two major events which Iraqi rights activists hope will help focus world attention on the dilemma of human rights in Iraq. A group of Iraqi human rights activists will meet in Berlin to try to set up a national human rights organisation that will re-channel efforts by Iraqi groups to monitor abuses by the government and other non-state actors and pressure them to act according to human rights principles.


In Casablanca, Arab human rights advocates and groups will come together to work out a plan to advance the movement. The Iraqi participants are expected to urge delegates to the Casablanca conference, which will prepare for an international forum later in November, to put the human rights abuses in Iraq higher on the international agenda.


TURNING A BLIND EYE: The international community has done little to stop human rights violations in Iraq and in some cases has turned a blind eye to them. As the US-led coalition embarks on what seems to be a prolonged war against IS, the allies are required to ensure the protection of the civilian population against incidents by their own forces or reprisals by the Iraqi parties.


The international coalition should make human rights part of its political approach in Iraq, integrating them into its strategy to resolve the country’s conflict.


Violence, inequality and injustice in Iraq present a threat to the country’s future and to regional and world peace. The international community should maintain pressure on the country to rectify its appalling human rights record. Reconciliation, lasting peace and a healthy future for all its citizens will be impossible if past and present abuses are not addressed.


One major step which the international community should take now is to prevent Iraq from becoming an island of impunity. Iraq perhaps more than many other places qualifies for a tribunal of its own to address suspected war crimes and crimes against humanity. The world should send out a clear message that those who commit gross human rights crimes in Iraq should be prosecuted and punished no matter how much time has elapsed since the crimes were committed.


The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Raad Al-Hussein, has also called on the government of Iraq to consider acceding to the Rome Statute that set up the International Criminal Court. In a report published earlier this month, Al-Hussein said Iraq should take immediate steps and “accept the exercise of the International Criminal Court’s jurisdiction with respect to the current horrendous situation facing the country”.


The tribunal will offer the chance to put the perpetrators of the abuses on trial and condemn atrocities committed by government authorities and belligerent groups, and it will also help in resolving Iraq’s lingering sectarian conflicts which are now threatening world peace.

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