GENEVA (13 June 2014) – UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay on Friday expressed extreme alarm at the dramatic deterioration of the situation in Iraq, amid reports of summary executions and extrajudicial killings, and the massive displacement of some half a million people, as the forces allied with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS), overran a succession of major towns and cities earlier in the week.
“The full extent of civilian casualties is not yet known,” Pillay said, “but reports suggest the number of people killed in recent days may run into the hundreds, and the number of wounded is said to be approaching 1,000.” She said she was deeply disturbed by reports that “ISlL fighters, including prisoners they had released from jails in Mosul and provided with arms, have been actively seeking out -- and in some cases killing -- soldiers, police and others, including civilians, whom they perceive as being associated with the Government. We have, for example, received reports of the summary executions of Iraqi army soldiers during the capture of Mosul, and of 17 civilians on one particular street in Mosul City on 11 June.”
The UN human rights chief warned the parties to the conflict that they are obliged under international law to treat humanely members of armed forces who have laid down their arms, or are hors de combat. She also stressed that, under these circumstances, murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment and torture constitute war crimes. They 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.
“I am extremely concerned about the acute vulnerability of civilians caught in the cross-fire, or targeted in direct attacks by armed groups, or trapped in areas under the control of ISIL and their allies,” Pillay said. “And I am especially concerned about the risk to vulnerable groups, minorities, women and children.”
“I call for the immediate cessation of acts of violence and abuses committed against civilians in violation of applicable international humanitarian law, which governs the conduct of conflicts, and international human rights law which applies during time of war and peace,” the High Commissioner said.
“There will be particular scrutiny of the conduct of ISIL, given their well-documented record of committing grave international crimes in Syria,” she added, noting that the Commission of Inquiry on Syria has, as recently as March this year, accused ISIL of committing crimes against humanity, in addition to other gross human rights violations, in the Syrian province of Raqqa.
Pillay also urged Government forces to exercise utmost restraint in their ongoing military operations, and to take measures to ensure that civilians are protected from violence. “The Government, as well as ISIL, is bound by international law to observe the principles of distinction, proportionality and precautions in attack,” she said. “All feasible precautions must be taken with the view of avoiding – and in any event minimizing – incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians and damage to civilian objects including vital infrastructure.”
Even prior to the recent huge territorial gains by ISIL, a sustained upsurge in violent terrorist acts had been taking a very heavy toll of civilian lives. According to casualty figures released by the UN mission in Iraq, UNAMI, a total of at least 799 Iraqis were killed and another 1,409 were injured in acts of terrorism and violence in May 2014.
Pillay noted the importance of providing effective physical and appropriate material support to the displaced, saying “this is a tremendous challenge when so many people flee in such a short space of time.” She called on parties to the armed conflict, and other relevant actors, “to refrain from -- and take the necessary measures to prevent and respond to -- any further displacement of the civilian population.”
The UN human rights chief said humanitarian access and the safety of humanitarian personnel is also “a prominent concern given the unpredictable nature of ISIL, and the manner in which it creates insecure and volatile environments, which hinder access and the delivery of humanitarian assistance.”
“Such insecurity also compromises the ability of civilian populations to access essential services, such as health and education,” she said, noting reports that doctors and nurses have fled Mosul, fearing reprisals. “This has severely disrupted the delivery of health services for those injured. Armed groups must ensure that civilians are protected, that they have unhindered access to hospitals and humanitarian aid, and that they are able to safely leave areas where fighting is taking place.”
Pillay also called for protection of humanitarian aid workers: “I urge all armed groups to agree to, and facilitate, relief operations that are humanitarian and impartial in character, and to allow and facilitate rapid and unimpeded passage of relief consignments, equipment and personnel. They should also respect and protect humanitarian workers and facilities.”
The High Commissioner urgedIraqi political leaders “to seek an urgent, sustainable and effective resolution to the crisis that has engulfed the country. Political leaders should not encourage sectarianism. They should build an inclusive government and work towards national reconciliation, including equal treatment and representation for all communities,” she said. “The failures of the past decade to achieve these goals must be recognized and not repeated. The cost to the people of Iraq of that failure has been immense.”
Pillay also urged an increased effort to restrict the movement of weapons and fighters across the Iraq-Syria border, saying the failure to prevent the two conflicts from seeding each other had “predictably played a major role in the catastrophic situation affecting both countries today.”
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