During January 2014 the armed extremist group the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) militarily seized vast territory in Iraq. After ISIL seized Mosul, Iraq's second largest city, during June 2014 it launched a systematic campaign of mass atrocities across northern Iraq, including the targeting of ethnic and religious minorities such as Yazidis, Christians, Shabak and Turkmen, as well as civilians from the majority Shia population. In response a military coalition comprised mainly of the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and Kurdish Peshmerga, operating with United States-led coalition air support, launched offensives to recapture Mosul and all other territory occupied by ISIL. Following several years of intense fighting, on 21 November 2017 the Iraqi government announced the formal end of major anti-ISIL military operations.
Throughout the conflict all parties committed widespread violations of International Humanitarian and Human Rights Law. In June 2016 the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria reported that since it's attack against the Yazidi population in Sinjar during August 2014, ISIL had "committed the crime of genocide as well as multiple crimes against humanity and war crimes against the Yazidis" in Iraq, including killings, sexual slavery, enslavement, torture, inhuman and degrading treatment and forcible transfer. On 6 November 2018 the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) reported that over 200 mass graves holding between 6,000 and 12,000 bodies have been found in formerly ISIL-held territory since June 2014.
While battling the ISF, Kurdish Peshmerga and other armed forces, ISIL fighters consistently used civilians as human shields and killed civilians attempting to flee areas under their control. An estimated 30,000 civilians have been killed and 55,000 injured since January 2014. UNAMI and OHCHR have also reported that ISIL's past violations "may amount to war crimes, crimes against humanity and possibly genocide." Hundreds of civilians were also killed due to anti-ISIL coalition airstrikes, and members of both the ISF and Peshmerga reportedly carried out forced evictions and targeted killings of Sunni civilians in territories formerly held by ISIL.
Despite the recapture of all territory in Iraq from ISIL, their members continue to carry out sporadic terrorist attacks across Iraq and pose an ongoing threat to vulnerable ethnic and religious minorities. Explosive remnants of war, improvised explosive devices and landmines continue to place civilians, particularly children, at high risk. On 13 December 2018 Amnesty International released an investigation determining that ISIL destroyed Yazidi farmland, farming equipment and irrigation systems, leaving thousands of members of the Yazidi community unable to return to their homes.
OHCHR and human rights organizations have expressed concern at reports of forced evictions, killings, torture, sexual violence and denial of humanitarian aid to Sunni communities in parts of Iraq that have been reclaimed from ISIL. UNAMI has expressed concerns regarding the mass hanging of 42 ISIL prisoners on 25 September 2017 and 38 prisoners on 14 December 2017. Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) security forces have also reportedly carried out extrajudicial executions of captured ISIL members.
The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimates that as of 4 March 6.7 million people in Iraq were still in need of humanitarian assistance, with 1.8 million people still internally displaced.
Cultural identities and religious loyalties continue to be manipulated by some forces in Iraq, posing a threat to the country's long-term political stability and social cohesion. In particular, systematic abuse of the human rights of Sunni civilians living in formerly ISIL-held territories, as well as the lack of due process for suspected ISIL-members and abuse of detainees, threatens to aggravate identity-based grievances.
Additionally, the government has yet to pursue accountability for mass atrocity crimes perpetrated since 2014. While Iraqi courts have reportedly sentenced 3,130 prisoners accused of links to ISIL to death on charges of terrorism, no one has been held accountable for the genocide against the Yazidi or for slavery and sexual violence perpetrated by ISIL as a matter of policy in territory it occupied.
The Iraqi government needs ongoing international assistance to uphold its responsibility to protect.
On 21 May the UN Security Council (UNSC) adopted Resolution 2470, renewing the mandate of UNAMI until 31 May 2020.
On 21 September 2017 UNSC Resolution 2379 authorized the establishment of the UN Investigative Team to Promote Accountability for Crimes Committed by Da'esh/ISIL (UNITAD) to support domestic accountability efforts by collecting evidence regarding potential atrocities committed by ISIL in Iraq. On 31 May 2018 the Secretary-General appointed Karim Asad Ahmad Khan as the Special Adviser and Head of the Team. On 15 March 2019 UNITAD, in cooperation with the Iraqi government, began exhuming a mass grave in the village of Kocho, marking the first major exhumation of the remains of the Yazidis targeted and killed by ISIL.
While continuing to prevent the re-emergence ISIL and other armed extremist groups, it is essential that the Iraqi government protects all civilians and addresses the underlying sources of conflict between Sunnis, Shias, Kurds and other minorities within Iraq. The Iraqi government must continue to take active steps to further both political and inter-communal reconciliation, counter violent extremism, and minimize the risk of recurring armed conflict.
All relevant authorities must actively prevent reprisals against Sunni civilians in areas recaptured from ISIL. The Iraqi government should accelerate security sector reform, particularly by building on its recent steps to integrate the Popular Mobilization Forces into the Ministry of Defense and ensuring their adherence to strict human rights standards. The Iraqi and Kurdish governments should undertake credible investigations of all alleged human rights abuses carried out by members of its security forces; intolerance for abuses and impunity must be a central element as the new Iraqi government is formed. All armed militias mobilized to fight ISIL should be demobilized and reintegrated into society.
UN member states should support the operations of UNITAD and provide financial and technical assistance. The government of Iraq should adopt enabling legislation to incorporate genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity into domestic law. All perpetrators of atrocities in Iraq, regardless of affiliation, should be held accountable for their crimes.
Last Updated: 20 October 2019
The five most recent issues of R2P Monitor and Atrocity Alert are available in the side-bar. To see previous assessments of this country, please see R2P Monitor and Atrocity Alert on our Publications page. Iraq has been featured in the R2P Monitor since the July 2013 issue.