I visited Iraq at the invitation of the Government in order to assess the situation of numerous national, ethnic, religious and linguistic communities in the country. I consulted widely with Government representatives, the United Nations, national and international non-governmental organizations and others. A vital part of my visit was to speak directly to minorities, who in Iraq prefer to identify themselves as “components of the society”, and their representatives to hear their views and concerns in different parts of the country. I therefore visited Baghdad, Erbil and Dohuk and their surroundings. I would like to thank the Government of Iraq for extending an invitation to me and for its willingness to engage constructively with my mandate.
Iraq, often referred to as the “cradle of civilization”, has been a country of great diversity and a unique and rich mosaic of various ethnic, religious, cultural and linguistic communities since ancient history. It concerns and saddens me to hear from minorities that this diversity is now under great threat and that they feel targeted, marginalized and unprotected. It was my objective to understand what lies behind these fears and to identify what measures should be taken to ensure their protection and to rebuild trust to guarantee a stable and peaceful co-existence for all the people of Iraq, irrespective of their identity and faith. It is clear to me that while the so-called Islamic State or Daesh has created immense suffering and has targeted certain communities, the challenges facing minorities started much longer ago, and go much deeper in Iraqi society. The solutions must therefore be far-reaching and confront long-standing issues of discrimination.
A clear commitment must be demonstrated to all of Iraq’s diverse communities by the Government of Iraq to reassure them that they have a future in the country. This message must be sent through immediate protection efforts and in the form of legal, policy and institutional frameworks to ensure respect of the dignity and rights of minorities.
While all communities have suffered in Iraq’s recent history and under the criminal brutality of Daesh, many of the smaller ethnic and religious groups have borne the brunt of the violence and atrocities and hundreds of thousands have been displaced from their homes. Historic cities have been destroyed along with the cultural and religious sites and heritage that they were home to. Yet the issues of minorities and the dire situation in which they find themselves, despite global acknowledgement, has been met by relative neglect.
Some communities feel that they have little option but to look for a brighter future outside Iraq. To avoid a continuing exodus from the country, practical steps can and must be taken to improve their situation and to move beyond the current political rhetoric for communities including Baha’i, Christians, Faili Kurds, Kaka’i, Sabian Mandaeans, Shabak, Turkmen, Yezidis, Zoroastrians and other affected groups. It must also be recognized that Shia and Sunni communities in some locations find themselves under threat, displaced, or facing violation of their human rights and these communities must equally be provided with protection wherever they are.
It is essential that the rights of all ethnic and religious communities are clearly enshrined in the Constitution and in separate legislation providing an essential legal basis for them to claim their rights and for the Government to frame effective policy and programme measures. I was encouraged to learn that the Kurdistan Regional Government has adopted a comprehensive law on minorities in 2015 which was welcomed by minority communities. Those minorities who are long-term residents in the Kurdistan region expressed that they enjoy minority rights, including use of their mother-tongue languages in education, and that they have good relations with the majority Kurdish community.
A federal law on minorities should also be adopted as soon as possible, as required by Article 125 of the Constitution, in full conformity with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities. It should include provisions for at least the following areas: protection of existence and from physical violence, including genocide; protection and promotion of minority identity, also through educational and media programmes; right to equality and non-discrimination; and ensuring participation in all spheres of life, especially in public and political life and in decision-making processes. This will send a clear signal to minority communities that they are valued and equal components of Iraqi society.
Equally, in view of the displacement crisis and its disproportionate impact on minorities, a law on internal displacement should also be adopted and explicitly recognize the rights of all ethnic and religious groups to equal protection and to durable solutions in the form of return to their homes or, where that is not possible or desired, local integration or resettlement. A national security strategy should be adopted and followed by a security sector reform to envisage and ensure long-term political and social stability.
Religious communities consistently raised their concerns regarding discriminatory laws and practices which undermine and violate their religious rights and freedoms. Under the Personal Status Law, for example, if one non-Muslim parent converts to Islam, any family children are also automatically converted under this law, which causes great concern to other religious communities. This provision restricts religious freedom and should be revised. I am also concerned about the current format of Identification Cards which obliges everyone to choose one of three main religions – Muslim, Christian or Yezidi - even if the person belongs to a different religion or considers herself/himself as a non-believer. The mandatory declaration of religious affiliation should be re-considered as it can easily be misused and abused.
A dedicated national institution or departments within existing ministries and structures with executive powers should be created with appropriate responsibilities, funding and resources to help to ensure implementation of relevant laws as well as to further formulate policy and programme measures to address minority issues. Such a body should have an inter-ministerial coordination role recognizing the need for mainstreaming of minority issues across policy areas. It should be in a position not only to advise and formulate necessary legislative changes but to map the needs of minorities, monitor their situation and serve as a bridge and trust-building platform between minority communities and the government. The role of national human rights actors and civil society organizations throughout the country is critical and should be strengthened.
Mapping of the composition of the population and monitoring demographic trends
The claim by some communities that their very existence in Iraq is under threat is real and must be taken seriously. Unfortunately, several minority representatives told me that they feel that “there is no future for minorities in this country”. It was shocking to learn that since 2003 the Christian population has an estimated decline from 1.8 million people to just 300,000. Yezidi representatives also noted that some 100,000 Yezidis had already left the country with 100 to 200 more leaving each day, as they see little hope for the future in Iraq. It is of upmost importance that mapping takes place which would give a better understanding of the demographic composition of the country, the trends of displacement and migration and to have a proper assessment of the socio-economic conditions of the various groups. This will enable the design of targeted, necessary humanitarian, human rights and development programmes. Such a mapping should be carried out by an independent organization with the involvement of minority community members.
Assessment of the situation of minorities today
The clear and immediate danger posed by Daesh to some communities must be confronted as a high priority. However, it must be recognized that for many minority groups the challenges that they face did not begin with Daesh and they will not end with its defeat. Many described a reality of widespread anti-minority sentiment that existed for decades and will remain to be confronted in the post-Daesh era. For example, Christians described to me death threat messages and the frequent requests for “protection money” that were made to Christians in Mosul many years before the actual fall of the city. I was saddened to hear testimonies of those who had lived peacefully alongside neighbours of different religions for years who found themselves attacked by those same neighbours or denounced to Daesh. Displaced persons who wish to return to their former homes request guarantees of protection, security, long-term support and accountability of the perpetrators of the heinous crimes committed against them.
Rebuilding houses and infrastructure is an immense need but material investment into the future will not be enough: psychosocial support must be provided for those who have suffered atrocities; trust needs to be rebuilt between various communities, and between the population and the government, to ensure social cohesion and sustainable peaceful coexistence.
There is a need to establish durable solutions for the internally displaced communities. While an emphasis is being placed on return of internally displaced persons by both the Federal Government and the Kurdistan Regional Government, the rights of displaced persons to freely choose whether they wish to return or not must be respected and upheld and they must be fully consulted. For some, the trauma and the haunting memories of the atrocities they endured make return difficult or impossible. Others feel that the destruction of their homes and the symbols of their identity in liberated cities, such as Sinjar, leaves them little to return to. For those who do not wish to return, measures must be taken to quickly move them from camps or temporary shelter into appropriate housing and to initiate livelihood projects as well as to ensure their religious and cultural rights.
Representatives of numerous different ethnic and religious groups expressed their deep frustration, anger and despair at their present situation. They frequently stated that they had lost all trust in national institutions and protection measures that have failed them in the past and in which they have no confidence will protect them in the future. Their perception is that Government is not genuinely concerned about protecting their rights.
The particularly worrying situation of Yezidis
Many communities have suffered greatly under Daesh and many of their members have been killed, forcibly converted or held captive. The Yezidi community for example faced systematic and targeted attacks. Yezidi leaders and community members whom I met in Dohuk and other locations described to me their distressing experiences of escaping from Sinjar in August 2014 as Daesh overran their region. Tens of thousands of Yezidis now live in IDP camps and other temporary shelter in the KRG such as in Khanke IDP camp, which I visited. Many expressed to me their feelings that they have been abandoned and have little prospect of return or hope for their future in the country. I spoke to Yezidi women who had escaped or been released by Daesh and whose stories of starvation, humiliation, rape and sexual slavery are deeply shocking. Captured women and girls are now being sold back and released after large sums are paid by various parties or families to the so-called mediators and smugglers who bring them back from the hands of Daesh. Reportedly, close to 2000 women and girls remain in captivity and everything possible must be done to secure their release.
I learned about more than twenty mass graves many of which remain within the territory under the control of Daesh. I call on the Government and the international community to urgently take all possible steps to protect and preserve these mass graves. It is vital that appropriate forensic expert research can be conducted to enable these graves to serve as essential evidence of the atrocities that Daesh has committed.
The case for genocide
A legal determination of whether an act of genocide has happened needs to be established by an appropriate court of law.
However, information suggests to me that indeed all atrocities against Yezidis including killings, bodily and mental harm have been committed with an intent to destroy them as a community, in whole or in part. A full investigation into the crimes committed by Daesh and any other parties to the conflict must be conducted and the perpetrators held accountable for all crimes and human rights violations, including war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide where they are found to have taken place. Although Iraq has not yet acceded to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, it could request an ad-hoc jurisdiction over the claims of mass atrocity crimes committed by Daesh. Consideration should be given to the ICC opening preliminary investigations. The ICC in the meantime should initiate proceedings against those who are nationals of ICC State Parties. Therefore, it is very important to maintain documentation and evidence must be protected from damage or demolition. The Kurdistan Region Government’s efforts in this regard through the establishment of specialized committees are welcome and must be supported.
Reconciliation and stabilization
Lack of accountability increases the likelihood for further atrocities to be committed. For communities to recover and begin to regain their trust in their government and the rule of law, a process of truth, justice and reconciliation is required and legal remedies and reparations put in place, including restitution or reconstruction of property, compensation, and prosecution. In this regard, customary and traditional justice processes may also be considered alongside legal and court proceedings.
Ethnic and religious leaders have an important role to play in building inter-communal reconciliation. Equally the views of women and youth must be heard and they must be given a chance to participate in shaping the views and future of their communities.
My concern for vulnerable groups includes those from Shia and Sunni communities who find themselves in situations in which they are targeted, displaced and under threat. I fully recognize that these communities have also suffered greatly under the Daesh. For example, I have been informed of displaced Sunni groups who are living in extremely perilous situations in different regions, subjected to restrictions on their freedom of movement and in some cases trapped between Daesh and Peshmerga forces. Reports of Sunnis and others being blocked from accessing safe locations are deeply concerning and I urge all relevant authorities to ensure the safety of all communities without discrimination. Equally, concern was expressed to me about the possibility of retaliation and retribution against Sunni groups following the liberation or future liberation of some territories, such as Mosul. Everything possible must be done to ensure the protection of civilians in all circumstances and that the brutality of Daesh is not replicated by others.
The establishment of an Iraqi security force that truly reflects the diversity of the society and includes members of all communities would be an important step forward as it could increase trust in law enforcement in general and end the trend of the formulation of various militias based along ethnic and religious lines. The draft National Guard Law currently under consideration should conform fully to international standards.
Strengthening an inclusive sense of Iraqi national identity will be essential to a future of peace, stability and social cohesion that has been fragmented by years of conflict and the historic marginalization of some groups on the grounds of their identity. While some steps have been taken under Prime Minister al-Abadi to forge a more inclusive government, this must go beyond the Shia and Sunni Muslim communities to ensure true and meaningful representation of other ethnic and religious groups that is currently lacking. However, amongst the concerns frequently expressed to me was the lack of political representation of minorities at all levels from national government to regional and local political offices. While a quota system functions in certain areas providing reserved seats for some component groups, there is generally a lack of representation of minorities in Iraq that must be addressed to ensure meaningful rather than symbolic representation. Where appropriate, a higher degree of local autonomy for some groups over their territories and affairs should be considered.
Education is a vital component in creating understanding and acceptance of diversity for the next generation. Minorities noted to me that there is an absence of education on ethnic and religious diversity and positive portrayals of minority communities and their contributions to Iraqi society. Education curriculums should be revised to ensure education on citizenship and peaceful coexistence. Equally there is an absence of human rights education that would contribute greatly to promoting acceptance and non-discrimination. Education and training must not end with the school classroom, but must extend throughout Iraq’s public institutions to ensure that public officials, the judiciary and the security forces are trained in human rights, including minority rights.
I am concerned that the gains made by women, including minority women over the last decades are being deeply eroded by the current crisis and displacement of communities. I am especially worried about girls’ access to education which has reportedly decreased.
I came to Iraq not only to expose the challenges and concerns, but also to seek out the positives and the rays of light that offer hope for the future. I heard stories of how communities had helped and supported each other in times of crisis. I also heard about a society which is able to forgive and to rebuild, even after the worst atrocities have been committed. I do truly believe that, beyond the divisions of ethnicity or religion and the terror perpetrated by extremists that has deeply wounded and infected Iraqi society today, there is a more powerful force of tolerance, acceptance and understanding that must be promoted and cultivated once again as the bedrock of the future Iraqi society.
The United Nations is a trusted partner both by the Government and the different communities and is expected to deliver assistance in many areas. Also in light of the current financial crisis affecting Iraq which relies heavily on oil revenues, I urge the donor community to maintain and enhance their level of support to match the massive need for humanitarian and stabilization assistance of thousands of families in desperate situations. All international partners should, within their response and recovery planning, give greater consideration to the situation, needs and intentions of minorities and consider programmes targeted towards them, and in full consultation with them, that go beyond humanitarian assistance to consider longer-term requirements to achieve sustainable solutions that allow them to live in safety and dignity.
I once again wish to thank the Government of Iraq and the Kurdistan Regional Government for their cooperation with my mandate. I also thank the non-governmental and civil society actors that I met and who provided essential information to me. Finally, I also sincerely thank the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq and all United Nations entities for their tireless work to assist the Government and all of the people of Iraq.