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Address by Ms. Flavia Pansieri, United Nations Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights to the Human Rights Council’s Special Session on Iraq

Geneva, 1 September 2014

Mr. President,
Distinguished Members of the Human Rights Council,
Excellencies,

I thank you for convening this special session of the Human Rights Council on Iraq.

Over the past decade, the population of Iraq has endured relentless violence and unrest. This has escalated dramatically in recent months as the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant group and associated armed groups have seized large parts of Anbar, Ninewa, Salah-al-Din and Diyala governorates. There have been thousands of casualties, mainly among civilians, and widespread destruction of infrastructure and livelihoods. Over one million people have been forced to flee their homes in terror, often under imminent and serious threat to their lives.

OHCHR human rights officers in Iraq continue to gather strong evidence that serious violations of international human rights and humanitarian law have been committed in areas under the control of ISIL and associated groups. This includes targeted killings, forced conversions, abductions, slavery, sexual and physical abuse and torture, and the besieging of entire communities on the basis of ethnic, religious or sectarian affiliation. Mosques, shrines, churches, and other religious sites and places of cultural significance have also been deliberately destroyed.

The effect of the ongoing conflict on the children of Iraq has been catastrophic. Many have become direct victims of the conflict, while others have been subjected to physical and sexual abuse, whose scars may remain with them throughout their lives. Children belonging to ethnic and religious communities targeted by ISIL have endured particularly extensive violations of their rights. In the course of numerous interviews conducted by OHCHR staff in camps for internally displaced, families have reported forced recruitment by ISIL of boys as young as 15. Some of these boys who subsequently managed to escape told their families that they had been positioned on front-lines during military operations, to shield ISIL fighters; others said that they had been forced to donate blood for treatment of injured fighters. Child soldiers have been posted at illegal checkpoints set up by ISIL, and also by other armed groups operating in Baghdad and other areas.

Ethnic and religious groups under attack

Christian, Yezidi, Turkmen, Shabak, Kaka’e, Sabaeans and Shi’a communities have been targeted through particularly brutal persecution, as ISIL has ruthlessly carried out what may amount to ethnic and religious cleansing in areas under its control. The full extent of casualties is difficult to determine. Many have been killed directly; others have been besieged and deprived of food, water or medication. Hundreds of thousands of civilians from these communities have fled to remote and desolate locations where unconfirmed reports indicate that scores of children, elderly people, and people with disabilities have been dying as a result of exhaustion and deprivation.

At least 850,000 people have found refuge in displacement camps established by the Government of the Kurdish Region, and others in host communities, where resources are often scarce. To cite just one example, following the advance of ISIL into areas of the Ninewa Plain in early August, large numbers of Yezidi residents of the Plain ­– and a number of mainly Christian families who had previously sought refuge there from their homes in Mosul – were forced to flee en masse. Some 180,000 people entered the Kurdistan Region in the course of one single day. People from these ethnic and religious communities who remain in areas under ISIL control – and many who have fled – fear further attack by ISIL and associated armed groups.

Yezidis have been targeted for extremely harsh treatment, including enslavement and physical and sexual assault. Reports from Ninewa Governorate suggest that at least 1000 Yezidis have been killed in recent weeks, with close to 2750 kidnapped or enslaved. The actual numbers could be much higher. Some have been coerced to convert to Islam and are subsequently tightly supervised by ISIL. Many men who refused to convert have been executed, while women and young girls, probably including minors, have been allotted as slaves to ISIL fighters. At least 2250 women and children have been detained as hostages in the Badoush prison in Mosul, in Tal Afar, and other locations under the control of ISIL.

On 15 August, the predominantly Yezidi village of Cotcho in Southern Sinjar was subjected to a brutal attack by ISIL fighters. Many men were killed and hundreds of women and children were abducted. I am particularly concerned about reports indicating that other villages of Sinjar remain at risk of similar attacks by ISIL, on the basis of the residents’ ethnic and religious origins.

Christian communities have also been subjected to targeted persecution. As a result, all 8,000 members of the Christian community in Mosul have fled, according to officials, and many more from other locations in Ninewa Governorate. On 17 July, ISIL members in Mosul started marking the houses of Christians and Shi’a with "Property of the Islamic State". Families were given an ultimatum to convert, pay a protection tax, leave – after abandoning all their belongings and savings to ISIL fighters – or face execution. The Christian Patriarch of Mosul later informed OHCHR staff that all Christians had fled the city. A large number of Shi'a have also fled Mosul.

The Shabakand Turkman communities have also been targeted. At least 13,000 Turkmen villagers – including some 10,000 women and children – were until yesterday besieged by ISIL and associated armed groups in Amerli, in Salah al-Din Governorate. The siege had been underway for more than two months, generating severe shortages. Thankfully, the siege was lifted on 31 August by a military operation conducted by the Peshmerga and Iraqi forces, supported by international forces, and life-saving humanitarian assistance has begun to reach the civilians.

When such villages are taken over by ISIL, the consequences have been extremely grave. On 2 July, ISIL fighters entered the Omar-Khan village in the Nimrod area of southern Mosul district, looking for Shabak people, many of whom are Shi’a. They kidnapped around 40 Shabak and Turkmen, stole cattle and vehicles, damaged the Shi’a mosque and set fire to a Shi’a shrine, which they then blew up the following day. Reports indicate that the majority of the residents of the village fled to the Ninewa Plain. On 7 July, ISIL stormed the village of al-Rashidiya, in northwest Mosul, and abducted 40 Turkmen. Some were found executed while others remain missing.

As part of this widespread and systematic pattern of religious and ethnic persecution, ISIL has intentionally destroyed Sunni and Shia shrines, Christian monasteries and churches and other places of cultural or religious significance. Human rights officers are attempting to maintain a list of the often ancient and profoundly beloved sites that have been obliterated. In the area of Mosul alone, they include the 17th century Sunni Tomb of Sheikh Fathi; the 12th century Syriac-Christian Monastery of Mar Behnam; and the Shrine of Nabi Younis, or the Prophet Jonah, revered by both Sunnis and Christians.

These communities have lived side by side, on the same soil, for centuries, and in some cases, millennia. These individuals have an undeniable right to continue living in their own country, in peace, equality and dignity. It appears that ISIL has intentionally committed widespread and systematic persecution of these ethnic and religious groups, depriving them of their fundamental rights, including their right to life and to freedom of religion; denying them of their identity; and compelling many to wander in fear in desolate and dangerous areas. These inhumane and odious offences constitute a serious and deliberate attack on human dignity and on human rights, likely amounting to a crime against humanity.

Residents of Mosul and other cities under ISIL control

Excellencies,

I am deeply concerned by the situation of civilians who remain in areas under ISIL control, particularly in cities such as Fallujah, Ramadi, Tikrit, Tal Afar and Mosul. Their living conditions are intolerable. Medical facilities lack medicine and basic supplies, and health sector employees have not received a salary for months. Reports indicate a near-total breakdown in rule of law and an increase in criminality in Mosul and other cities. This insecurity compounds the difficulty for the civilian populations to access essential services.

Women have been particularly exposed to severe restrictions and abuses by ISIL. On 14 August, an announcement by ISIL was read in all mosques in Mosul, ordering women to veil their faces or incur severe punishment. ISIL has also established a police force to ‘promote virtue and prevent vice’, essentially to coerce women into compliance with gender-specific rulings. Women are not allowed to walk in the street without the presence of a male guardian, and there are more and more reports of women being beaten for violating ISIL rules.

On 10 July, at least 650 male inmates of Badouch Prison in Mosul were summarily executed by ISIL, according to confirmed witness and survivor reports. Inmates claiming to be Sunni were closely questioned and then transported away from the site. Members of Shi’a or other religious and ethnic communities were ordered into ditches where ISIL fighters fired on them. The bodies were then examined and any men that appeared to be alive were shot in the head.

Let me stress that armed groups have an obligation to ensure that all civilians under their control are protected; that they have unhindered access to hospitals and humanitarian assistance; and that they are able to leave in safety and in dignity areas where fighting or violence is taking place.

Killing of civilian officials and executions of hors de combat military or security personnel

OHCHR has received reports of executions by ISIL of religious leaders, including 12 Sunni religious leaders in Mosul who refused to pledge allegiance to ISIL. Confirmed reports also indicate that Government officials and other civil servants have been kidnapped and executed because of their service in the Iraqi administration. In some cases, their houses have been burned down and their families have been persecuted. Others remain in detention.

My Office has also received reports of executions or ill-treatment of hors de combat soldiers, police officers, and prisoners of war including air force recruits and Army conscripts, in complete breach of international humanitarian norms. On 12 June, following an ISIL attack on an Iraqi air force base near Tikrit, over 1500 young conscripts went missing. Many bodies were subsequently found in the Dijla River; they had clearly been executed. Videos viewed by OHCHR staff, which have been confirmed by witness and survivor reports, show the systematic shooting of hundreds of handcuffed men in civilian clothes, some of them wearing military uniforms under their tracksuits.

Executions by Iraqi Security Forces and anti-ISIL militias during the period under review

OHCHR has also received reports that in recent months the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and anti-ISIL armed groups have perpetrated violations of human rights and humanitarian law that may amount to war crimes.

On 15 June, at least 31 detainees were executed at the al-Qalaa police station in Tal Afar by police officers fleeing their posts shortly before the approach of ISIL fighters. On 17 June, members of Asayeb Ahl al-Haq, a Shi’a armed group, entered al-Wahda police station in the Qatoon area of Diyala and reportedly executed 48 detainees, all Sunni.

On 22 August, members of the so-called “volunteers units” affiliated with the ISF, and other armed men, carried out an attack on the Musab bin Omair Sunni mosque in Bani Wais village, in Khanaqin district. They opened fire on worshippers from the entrance and the windows of the mosque, as well as from the roof, killing at least 73 men and boys, and wounding 38. Iraqi Army and police units were allegedly close to the scene at the time of the attack, but failed to intervene. I welcome the announcement by the Speaker of the Iraqi Council of Representatives that an investigation into the incident has been launched with a view to bringing the perpetrators to justice.

Mortar rounds and shelling by the ISF have killed and injured many civilians in Tel Keyf city, Batnaya and Tel Esquf towns. On 14 and 15 August, two air strikes in the Hawija area of Kirkuk killed 25 civilians, including four women and three children, and wounded 20 others. Other air strikes in the Daquq district in Kirkuk resulted in the killing and injury of civilians on 13 August; four civilians were wounded in Saad village; and five civilians (including one woman and three children) were killed and three more wounded in al-Wahda village.

In Fallujah, in the province of Anbar, from 14-17 August the General Hospital recorded 17 civilians killed (including one child), and 26 wounded (including six children and two women), as a result of shelling. We have also received reports that ISF air strikes in areas near the Baiji refinery in Salah Al-din have resulted in the killing of at least 25 civilians and the wounding of 40 more.

Conclusion: Accountability

Mr. President,

I am profoundly concerned at the grave impact the current conflict is having on civilians, including children and people from Iraq’s ancient and diverse ethnic and religious communities. Systematic and intentional attacks on civilians may constitute war crimes and crimes against humanity. Individuals, including commanders are responsible for these acts.

Even though this conflict has severely reduced the Iraqi Government’s control over large parts of its territory, the Government continues to bear primary responsibility for the protection of all persons on its territory, and must endeavour to implement its obligations. Additionally, all parties to the ongoing armed conflict are obligated to abide by international humanitarian law, which governs the conduct of conflicts, and international human rights law, which applies during times of war and peace. All parties must also take all feasible precautions, in areas under their effective control, to spare civilians from the effects of hostilities, and to respect, protect and meet the basic needs of civilian populations. Moreover, I must forcefully remind all parties that they are obligated to treat members of armed forces who have laid down their arms, or who are hors de combat, humanely.

Former High Commissioner Navi Pillay has called repeatedly and resoundingly for the immediate cessation of acts of violence and abuses committed against the civilian population of Iraq. I reiterate that call today. The reports we have received reveal acts of inhumanity on an unimaginable scale.

I am particularly concerned about the persecution that is taking place. As I have just outlined, several groups in Iraq are intentionally and severely deprived of fundamental rights contrary to international law by reason of their ethnic and religious identity. This is a crime against humanity under international law.
The international community must intensify its efforts to protect all Iraqis, including ethnic and religious communities and those who are particularly vulnerable. The international community and the Government of Iraq must exert all efforts to ensure that any individuals who have participated in, or supported, the commission of these crimes are held accountable in accordance with the law.

To the extent possible, OHCHR and human rights activists have documented all violations of human rights, and will continue to do so, with a view to ensuring that the perpetrators will ultimately be held accountable. Given ISIL's well-documented record of human rights violations in Syria, particularly in the province of Raqqa, there will be particular scrutiny of the conduct of ISIL fighters and leaders.

I urge the international community to act to support the Government of Iraq, including the Government of the Kurdistan Region, in its efforts to provide humanitarian assistance to civilians in need, wherever they are located, and to ensure the protection and needs of those who have been displaced as a result of the violence and persecution.

ENDS
For more information and media requests, please contact Rupert Colville (+41 22 917 9767 /rcolville@ohchr.org ) or Ravina Shamdasani (+41 22 917 9169/ rshamdasani@ohchr.org) or Cécile Pouilly (+41 22 917 9310 / cpouilly@ohchr.org)

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