(Washington, DC) – Members of the Global Coalition against Daesh (another name for the Islamic State) meeting in Washington, DC, on March 22 should make protecting civilians and justice for victims priorities in their ongoing battle against the group, Human Rights Watch said today in a memorandum to the participants. Based on violations documented, Human Rights Watch highlighted five key areas that coalition members need to improve in their conduct of operations.
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will host the foreign ministers of the Global Coalition working to defeat the Islamic State (also known as ISIS). It will be the first meeting of the full coalition, now at 68 members, since December 2014. The aim of the meeting, according to a coalition press release, is “to accelerate international efforts to defeat Daesh in the remaining areas it holds in Iraq and Syria and maximize pressure on its branches, affiliates, and networks.” ISIS has carried out war crimes and atrocities amounting to crimes against humanity, including systematic rape.
“In fighting ISIS, coalition members should not lose sight of the fact that their aim should not just be to retake territory but to make sure they take all precautions to protect the people still living in these areas,” said Nadim Houry, terrorism and counterterrorism director at Human Rights Watch. “A victory against ISIS that does not address the security needs of civilians and leaves them at the mercy of revenge attacks will ring hollow.”
Human Rights Watch urges coalition members to make the following commitments:
- Take all feasible precautions to avoid civilian casualties and investigate potentially unlawful strikes: Given the discrepancy in reporting of the various coalition members, the coalition should establish baseline public reporting and investigation standards for all coalition members.
- Cease support for any abusive groups: Human Rights Watch has documented widespread violations by ground forces battling ISIS. These violations include summary executions, beatings, and torture of men in custody, as well as arbitrary detention and enforced disappearances, destruction of civilian objects, use of child soldiers, and mutilation of corpses. Despite these reports, the coalition has yet to develop procedures for robust vetting and investigations of allegations of abuse by local partners.
- Provide safe passage to fleeing civilians and provide sufficient support to displaced people: Aid agencies are bracing for the possibility that an additional 300,000-320,000 civilians may flee in coming weeks from western parts of Mosul during the Iraq operation. People fleeing have reported grave dangers in trying to escape. The UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq has reported that aid agencies are operating “at their limit.” Aid workers have expressed similar concerns regarding any future offensive on Raqqa in Syria. Coalition members should ensure that there is a clear and coordinated plan for civilians to flee areas of fighting for safety and to get the aid they need once they have reached safety.
- Clear commitment to justice for victims: There has been considerable media attention surrounding the grave crimes committed by ISIS in violation of international law, but few concrete plans to provide justice for these crimes. Many ISIS victims are left without any access to justice or assistance. Coalition members should make justice a key pillar in its fight against ISIS by adopting concrete measures to assist victims, collect and preserve evidence, and support efforts to investigate and prosecute serious crimes. Beyond the crimes that ISIS has committed, other actors who have committed grave crimes should also be held to account.
- Increase efforts to survey and clear landmines and explosive remnants of war: Improvised mines laid by ISIS have killed and injured hundreds of civilians returning to their homes, including children. UN Mine Action Service (UNMAS) officials have estimated that it could cost $50 million to remove mines, which are often referred to as victim-activated improvised explosive devices or booby traps, from in and around the Iraqi city of Mosul. In Syria, UNMAS estimates that more than 6.3 million people including 2 million children live in contaminated areas after nearly six years of war. Mine clearance efforts should be a priority to ensure the safe return of civilians.
“What happens after ISIS is defeated is in many ways as important as the actual defeat of ISIS,” Houry said. “The coalition will not be able to say, ‘Mission Accomplished’ without addressing justice, governance, and displacement.”