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Iraq: UN Committee urges urgent investigation and legislation to eradicate enforced disappearances
04 April 2023
GENEVA (4 April 2023) – With up to one million people estimated to have been victims of disappearance, including enforced disappearance, over the past five decades and the crisis continuing today with ongoing patterns, the UN Committee on Enforced Disappearances urged Iraq to immediately establish the basis to prevent, eradicate and repair this heinous crime.
The Committee today published the full report of its visit to Iraq in November 2022*. While welcoming the cooperation provided by the State party during the visit and acknowledging the numerous and serious challenges faced by the State party in addressing the situation, the Committee remained deeply concerned that the practice of enforced disappearance has been widespread in much of the territory of Iraq over different periods, and that impunity and revictimization prevail.
“The visit constitutes a new step in the Committee’s interaction with Iraq, one of the first countries to ratify the Convention,” said the Committee, adding, “but lots remain to be done.”
During its visit, the Committee received a large number of testimonies by victims of disappearances, including enforced disappearance, that continue to occur. In a testimony highlighting a typical ongoing pattern, a mother told the Committee, “My son went to visit his cousin. I called him soon after he left because he had forgotten the bread I wanted him to offer my nephew. He replied, saying that he was at a checkpoint and some men in uniform were checking him, and that he would call me immediately afterwards. He never did. Since then, I have searched for him everywhere, in all prisons, with all the authorities. But nothing, nothing, nothing.”
Other ongoing patterns include the alleged enforced disappearance of children, especially Yezidi children born after their mothers were sexually abused in ISIL/Dae’sh camps. The Committee was informed that, in some cases, mothers were compelled to leave their children in orphanages after returning to Iraq, intending to take them home as soon as possible. However, when they went back to the orphanage, the mothers were told that their children were “given” to another family, allegedly with direct involvement of some State agents.
Meanwhile, hundreds of families are still searching for their loved ones, suspecting they are in camps in Türkiye, Syria, or Iran, where contact with the outside world is impossible.
According to official figures, it is estimated that between 250,000 and 1,000,000 individuals have been disappeared since 1968 due to conflict and political violence. While it is impossible to provide more precise figures, the Committee summarised five waves of disappearance, including enforced disappearance, suffered by all Iraqi people over the past five decades.
During the Ba’ath era in the Federal Iraq and Kurdistan region, from 1968 to 2003, it is estimated that up to 290,000 people, including some 100,000 Kurds, were forcibly disappeared as part of Saddam Hussein’s genocidal campaign in Iraqi Kurdistan.
From the 2003 invasion and subsequent occupation to the pre-ISIL period, the US military and allies captured at least 200,000 Iraqis, of whom 96,000 were held at some point in prisons administered by the United States or the United Kingdom. It is alleged that detainees were arrested without a warrant for their involvement in insurgency operations, while others were “civilians in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
During the ISIL proclamation of an Islamic caliphate over part of the territory of Iraq, the country saw new rounds of abductions and mass killings of Iraqi army soldiers or security forces members from 2014 to 2017 under ISIL’s control. The situation deteriorated further when Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) undertook military operations to retake major cities from ISIL. During the process, pro-government forces disappeared thousands of Sunni Arab, mainly men and boys. Another wave of enforced disappearance occurred during the 2018-2020 protests that gathered people from all religious and ethnic backgrounds.
The Committee urged Iraq to immediately include enforced disappearances as a separate offence. “As enforced disappearance still does not exist as an autonomous crime in national legislation, it cannot be prosecuted as such in Iraq,” the Committee said. It also called upon the State party to establish a comprehensive search and investigation strategy for all cases of disappearances, and to strengthen and enlarge the national forensic capacity to ensure that all victims have access to exhumation processes and forensic services.
Iraq must also immediately establish an independent task force to cross-check systematically the registers of all places of deprivation of liberty with the names of all detainees. The task force must ensure that all detainees are registered and that their relatives are duly informed of their whereabouts.
Regarding persistent allegations of secret detention denied by the State party, the Committee recommended Iraq clarify the situation, setting up an independent commission to carry out a fact-finding mission to verify whether secret places of detention exist, with all technical means, such as satellite pictures and drones.
To address the needs and rights of victims, the Committee called on Iraq to take legislative and judicial measures to ensure that any individual who has suffered harm as the direct result of disappearance is officially considered as a victim and entitled to the rights contained in the Convention.
The dimension, scope and diversity of enforced disappearance in Iraq require urgent and concerted intervention by the State party, its neighbouring countries and the international community as a whole. “The Committee reiterates its unwavering commitment to supporting any processes put in place to prevent and eradicate disappearances, including enforced disappearance,” it said.
* From 12-25 November 2022, the delegation visited Anbar, Bagdad, Erbil, Mosul and Sinjar. It held 24 meetings with more than 60 authorities, and seven meetings with 171 victims and civil society organisations from Anbar, Baghdad, Kirkuk, Diyala, Erbil, Ninewa and Sallah Al Din governorates. The delegation could observe the developments of two exhumations and visited a provisional centre of DNA identification in Sinjar. They also visited the Medico Legal Directorate and four places of deprivation of liberty.
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The Committee on Enforced Disappearances monitors States parties’ adherence to the International Convention for the Protection of all Persons from Enforced Disappearance. The Committee is made up of 10 members who are independent human rights experts drawn from around the world, who serve in their personal capacity and not as representatives of States parties.