(Geneva) – The United Nations Human Rights Council has missed a key opportunity to address war crimes and rights abuses by all sides to the conflict in Iraq. The council adopted a resolution on the Iraq conflict by consensus on March 27, 2015, that denounces atrocities by the extremist group Islamic State (also known as ISIS), but failed to condemn the abuses by militias, volunteer fighters, and Iraqi forces.
“No one questions the Human Rights Council's attention to the widespread atrocities by ISIS in Iraq, but ignoring abuses by Iraqi militias and security forces is not only indefensible, it's dangerous,” said John Fisher, Geneva director.
Iraq prepared the resolution, and the Arab group of countries put it forward at the council on March 19. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights issued a report the same day that documents ISIS abuses. But the High Commissioner also found that militias and Iraqi security forces had “carried out extrajudicial killings, torture, abductions and forcibly displaced a large number of people, often with impunity,” and that by doing so they “may have committed war crimes.” The Human Rights Council asked for the report in September 2014 during an emergency session.
Human Rights Watch reached similar conclusions following an investigation of abuses in the wake of the ISIS retreat from the town of Amerli in September. Militias looted property of Sunni civilians who had fled the fighting, burned their homes and businesses, and destroyed at least two entire villages, all in violation of the laws of war.
Iraqi militias and security forces are currently engaged in an offensive in Tikrit. The United States has conducted airstrikes in Tikrit to support Iraqi security forces. Further military operations in the city of Mosul, controlled by ISIS since June 2014, may follow, placing large numbers of civilians at risk from all warring parties.
France and Germany, which are participating in the coalition supporting the Iraqi government, gave early support to the resolution despite its one-sided message, Human Rights Watch said. The United Kingdom and the United States withheld their support for several days, working to strengthen the draft, but ultimately also joined in cosponsoring the resolution.
The resolution does urge the Iraqi government “to investigate all alleged abuses and violations of human rights and violations of International Humanitarian Law,” language that would encompass not only abuses by ISIS but by Iraqi government forces and militias. The High Commissioner for Human Rights is also asked to provide technical assistance to Iraq, and to report back to the council in September.
“With military operations in Tikrit under way, the council missed a crucial opportunity to send a strong signal to Iraq and its allies to take all necessary steps to end abuses by militias and security forces," Fisher said. “Impunity for such crimes will only help ISIS.”