Human Rights Watch (HRW) has accused the UN Security Council (UNSC) of failing to investigate war crimes and rights abuses by anti-ISIS forces in Iraq. The group said it’s a “flawed and selective” approach that turns a blind eye to abuses that have plagued the country for decades.
On Thursday, the UNSC unanimously adopted a US-backed resolution that sets up an investigative team to collect evidence of “war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide” committed by Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL) members.
While many welcomed the decision, with US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley saying the “landmark resolution was a major first step in addressing ISIL atrocities, especially against women,” Human Rights Watch said the UN Council has utterly failed to include abuses by anti-ISIS forces.
“This is obviously a flawed and selective approach, because it misses the opportunity to investigate crimes committed by all parties of the conflict,” Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of HRW’s Middle East & North Africa division, told RT.
“Human Rights Watch has, of course, documented very serious abuses by ISIS forces. We’ve also documented very serious abuses by Iraqi government forces, militias and members of the international coalition. Those also need to be investigated so that the people of Iraq can see that justice is blind, and that anyone who has committed violations is going to be held to account,” she added.
While abuses by Iraqi and KRG [Kurdistan Regional Government] forces, as well as Shia military units are longstanding, the battle against ISIS has enabled these forces to carry out abuses under the guise of fighting terrorism, HRW said.
“The most serious abuses that we have seen are at the hands of the Iraqi forces and Iraqi militias. We documented numerous cases of detainees who have been executed, tortured, brutalized by Iraqis because they were believed to be related to an ISIS fighter. These are of course completely unacceptable,” Whitson said.
“We also have a lot of concerns about the bombardment of Mosul. The UN Security Council knows very well that organizations like Human Rights Watch have repeatedly urged them to expand the mandate of this investigative team to include abuses by all parties to the conflict. And they have chosen very deliberately not to do that. The reasons and the motivations can only be speculated about.”
During operations to retake Mosul, Iraqi forces frequently tortured and executed those captured in and around the battlefield with complete impunity, sometimes posting photos and videos of the abuses on social media sites, HRW said. Despite repeated promises to investigate wrongdoing by security forces, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi “has yet to demonstrate that Iraqi authorities have held a single soldier accountable for murdering, torturing, or otherwise abusing Iraqis in this conflict,” the rights group added.
According to HRW, an imbalance in accountability efforts could not only open new divisions in the country, but could also result in a resurgence of ISIS-like groups in Iraq.
Iraqi forces’ long campaign to retake Mosul – the country’s second-largest city before the war – has been plagued by reports of abuse. Rights groups said disturbing news was coming from Mosul even during the final stages of fighting. Human Rights Watch reported in June that Iraqi troops abused unarmed men and boys fleeing the carnage, with some civilians being detained at checkpoints outside the city and taken away for execution.
In July, an execution site with 17 apparent victims of extrajudicial killings was found near the Old City in west Mosul, HRW said. With the find came “persistent documentation about Iraqi forces extrajudicially killing men fleeing Mosul in the final phase of the battle against the Islamic State,” HRW noted.
Late last month the Iraqi Prime Minister finally acknowledged that members of an Iraqi special forces unit did abuse civilians during the major offensive to retake Mosul.
“The [investigation] committee has concluded … that clear abuses and violations were committed by members of [special forces unit] the ERD[Emergency Response Division],” the office of Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said in a statement. The prime minister’s office added that the perpetrators would face prosecution.
The Iraqi government launched an investigation in May after German magazine Spiegel published a news story that included disturbing images taken by a freelance photographer who accompanied the soldiers of the elite ERD unit on their way to the Islamic State stronghold of Mosul.
In the article, titled ‘Not heroes but monsters,’ Ali Arkady said he witnessed multiple instances of rape, torture and targeted killings by members of the ERD. He added the soldiers had persecuted numerous civilians on “vague” suspicions of links with IS. The publication included gruesome photos by Arkady of alleged IS sympathizers hanging from the ceiling with their arms cuffed behind their backs, as well as other graphic scenes of torture, abuse and degrading treatment.