Following the launch of a major offensive to recapture Mosul from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), who have declared a caliphate spanning Syria and Iraq, the humanitarian situation in the city has become increasingly dire. Since the offensive began on 17 October, ISIL has engaged in widespread fighting across northern Iraq with a coalition comprised mainly of the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and Kurdish Peshmerga, operating with United States air support. According to the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), more than 215,140 people have been displaced by these military operations.
On 23 January the Iraqi government announced the recapture of eastern Mosul, and on 19 February began an offensive to retake western Mosul. UN agencies and humanitarian organizations have raised concerns about the estimated 750,000 civilians still living in the ISIL-controlled western sector of the city, where living conditions have deteriorated sharply. Up to 4,000 civilians are allegedly fleeing the city each day and civilians comprise approximately 47 percent of casualties in Mosul.
Since the start of the Mosul offensive, the UN has received credible reports of ISIL perpetrating mass killings and forced displacement of civilians. On 18 October the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) announced that ISIL had abducted at least 8,000 families and moved them to strategic locations in Mosul to be used as human shields. Hundreds of civilians who resisted were killed. Additionally, Human Rights Watch has reported that ISIL fighters have targeted and killed civilians who are fleeing Mosul.
The ISF and Kurdish Peshmerga forces have discovered at least five mass graves in towns near Mosul since the offensive began. Three of the mass graves were discovered in Hammam al-Alil, and likely contain the bodies of hundreds of missing Iraqi police officers. Peshmerga discovered two other mass graves of members of the Yazidi community near the Shababit junction in northwestern Iraq. OHCHR has reported that at least 20 mass graves have been found in formerly ISIL-held territory since October 2016.
The UN Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) reported that 392 civilians were killed in acts of terrorism, violence and armed conflict during February. Given access constraints, UNAMI states that these figures "have to be considered as the absolute minimum." The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimates that as of March 11 million people in Iraq – one third of the population – are in need of humanitarian assistance, with 3 million people internally displaced.
ISIL continues to systematically attack and persecute vulnerable ethnic and religious minority communities, including Christians, Shabak, Yazidis and Turkmen, causing their mass displacement. UNAMI and OHCHR have reported that ISIL's violations, "may amount to war crimes, crimes against humanity and possibly genocide." The Commission of Inquiry on Syria has also reported that ISIL "has committed the crime of genocide as well as multiple crimes against humanity and war crimes against the Yazidis" in Iraq. More than 3,500 women and children, mainly Yazidi, remain enslaved by ISIL.
ISIL also routinely targets civilians from the majority Shia population in sectarian attacks. On 16 February at least 54 people were killed in a bombing that targeted the largely Shia neighborhood of Bayaa in Baghdad.
The United States has been conducting airstrikes against ISIL in Iraq since 8 August 2014, following the Iraqi government's request for assistance after the group seized the northern town of Sinjar. Since then Australia, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Jordan, Netherlands and United Kingdom have joined the military coalition against ISIL in Iraq, with some also participating in airstrikes on ISIL in Syria.
Responding to sectarian terrorist attacks and the rise of ISIL, some members of the ISF and Kurdish Peshmerga forces have carried out violent reprisals against Sunni civilians. OHCHR has expressed concern at reports of forced evictions and extrajudicial killings committed by Iraqi and Kurdish security forces and affiliated militias "against Sunni Arab communities in parts of Iraq that have been reclaimed from ISIL," particularly Fallujah and Mosul.
On 11 November OHCHR reported allegations of retaliatory attacks by civilians and ISF members, including revenge killings and demolition of houses in Kirkuk, as well as other violations of international humanitarian law (IHL) and international human rights law (IHRL). On 2 February UNHCR reported that at least 116 families allegedly affiliated with armed groups have been expelled from their homes by local government authorities in Salah al-Din governorate.
ISIL poses an existential threat to Iraq's ethnic and religious minorities, who face the risk of further mass atrocities. ISIL's sectarian violence also poses a direct threat to members of the majority Shia community. ISIL is committed to the extermination of all religious communities and minority cultures that do not conform to its strict interpretation of Islam.
The recapture of Mosul is a crucial step towards defeating ISIL in Iraq. However, as the ISF and Peshmerga forces advance, ISIL continues to use civilians as human shields and target those who attempt to flee. As the territory controlled by ISIL shrinks they will likely increase terrorist attacks across Iraq. It is essential that all parties combatting ISIL uphold their obligations under international law.
Despite a November 2010 power-sharing agreement between political parties representing Shias, Sunnis and Kurds, many Sunnis felt marginalized under former President Nouri al-Maliki. ISIL exploited widespread disaffection to build alliances with Sunni tribes and seize large swathes of territory and resources during 2014. Cultural identities and religious loyalties continue to be manipulated by various political forces in Iraq. Some Shia militias, mobilized by the government to fight ISIL, pose a direct threat to Sunni civilians.
The Iraqi government needs ongoing international assistance to uphold its Responsibility to Protect.
In addition to international support for the Iraqi government, several European Union (EU) member states, as well as Albania and Canada, have provided ongoing assistance to Kurdish fighters battling ISIL.
On 25 July the UN Security Council (UNSC) adopted Resolution 2299, renewing the mandate of UNAMI until July 2017.
On 18 August OHCHR and UNAMI released a report calling for Iraq to accede to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court and hold ISIL perpetrators accountable for "targeting and seeking to destroy" the Yazidi.
On 1 November the UN Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, Adama Dieng, condemned crimes committed by ISIL and retaliatory violence against Sunni communities during the Mosul offensive.
The international community should continue to provide support to the Iraqi government to combat the threat ISIL poses to vulnerable populations, especially religious and ethnic minorities. The Kurdistan Regional Government is also in need of international support to defend vulnerable populations from ongoing ISIL attacks.
While confronting ISIL and other armed groups, it is essential that the Iraqi government protects all civilians and addresses the underlying sources of conflict between Sunnis, Shias and Kurds. The government of Iraq and the Kurdistan Regional Government must strictly uphold their obligations under international humanitarian law. Iraq's international supporters must ensure that all parties participating in the battle for Mosul take effective measures to ensure the consistent protection of civilians.
The government must investigate and punish human rights abuses and actively prevent reprisals by the ISF and allied militias against Sunni civilians in areas recaptured from ISIL.
The UNSC, with Iraqi government support, should immediately establish an international investigative commission to collect evidence regarding all mass atrocity crimes perpetrated by ISIL in Iraq, including the genocide against the Yazidi. Perpetrators should be held accountable under international law.
Last Updated: 15 March 2017