Populations at Risk Current Crisis


The extremist armed group the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant has committed genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity in Iraq. As they confront ISIL, some Iraqi Security Forces, Kurdish Peshmerga and Shia militias have also committed possible war crimes. Growing conflict between the Kurdistan Regional Government and the central government also poses a threat to the safety and security of civilians.

During July 2014 the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) seized vast territory across northern Iraq. Following an eight-month offensive, on 9 July 2017 a coalition comprised mainly of the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and Kurdish Peshmerga, operating with United States air support, announced the successful recapture of Mosul, inflicting a major defeat upon the armed extremist group. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, during the battle at least 920,000 people were displaced from the city.

Despite being in retreat, ISIL still controls pockets of territory across northern Iraq, largely in western Anbar governorate. On 5 October the government of Iraq announced the successful recapture of Al-Hawija in Kirkuk governorate from ISIL. During the battle for Al-Hawija ISIL fighters used civilians as human shields and targeted and killed civilians attempting to flee from areas under their control. Sporadic clashes with ISIL fighters also continue across parts of Nineveh governorate, limiting the ability of 816,882 displaced people to return home. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), as many as 50,000 civilians may be freshly displaced as a result of anti-ISIL military operations in the coming months.

Following an independence referendum on 25 September, growing political tensions between the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and the central government in Baghdad threaten to result in armed conflict. On 15 October the ISF forcibly retook the city of Kirkuk from the KRG, resulting in sporadic armed clashes. The Peshmerga command released a statement saying that Baghdad, "bears the main responsibility for triggering war on the Kurdistan people, and will be made to pay a heavy price." Both the ISF and Peshmerga remain engaged in ongoing military operations against ISIL.

Despite its diminished capacity, ISIL continues to systematically attack and persecute vulnerable ethnic and religious minorities, including Christians, Shabak, Yazidis and Turkmen. The UN Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) have reported that ISIL's past 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. It is estimated that approximately 3,300 members of the Yazidi community remain in ISIL captivity, including over 1,600 Yazidi women and girls.

OHCHR has reported that at least 70 mass graves have been found in formerly ISIL-held territory since October 2016. The ISF and Kurdish Peshmerga forces have discovered five additional mass graves in towns near Mosul. Three of the mass graves were discovered in Hammam al-Alil and likely contain the bodies of hundreds of missing Iraqi police officers who were massacred. On 22 March Human Rights Watch reported that ISIL had also disposed of the bodies of an unknown number of executed ISF members in a sinkhole near Mosul.

ISIL also routinely targets civilians from the majority Shia population in sectarian attacks. On 14 September coordinated attacks on a restaurant and security checkpoint in Nasiriyah, in the south of the country, killed at least 50 people.

The United States-led coalition has been conducting airstrikes against ISIL in Iraq since August 2014, following the Iraqi government's request for assistance after the group seized the northern town of Sinjar. The coalition has been responsible for hundreds of civilian deaths so far this year, including up to 200 civilians killed in a single airstrike in Mosul on 17 March.

OHCHR has expressed concern at reports of forced evictions and 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." Since Mosul was retaken, reports have emerged regarding torture, extrajudicial killings and other violent reprisals against suspected members of ISIL.

OCHA estimates that as of June 2017, eleven million people in Iraq – one third of the population – are still in need of humanitarian assistance, with 3.2 million people internally displaced.

ISIL still 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 marked a crucial step towards defeating ISIL in Iraq. However, ISIL still maintains control over territory in the west of the country and in Kirkuk governorate. As the territory controlled by ISIL shrinks the group will also likely increase terrorist attacks across Iraq. It remains essential that all parties combatting ISIL ensure the protection of all civilians and 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 still 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.

Having jointly defeated ISIL across most of Iraq, growing conflict between the KRG and the central government poses a direct threat to the safety and security of vulnerable civilians. The Iraqi government must take practical steps to facilitate reconciliation amongst the various ethnic and religious communities in Iraq, especially the Kurds, and minimize the risk of recurring violence and civil war.

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 member states, as well as Albania and Canada, have provided assistance to Kurdish fighters battling ISIL.

On 14 July the UN Security Council (UNSC) adopted Resolution 2367, renewing the mandate of UNAMI until 31 July 2018.

On 18 August 2016 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 15 August 2017 the UN Secretary-General transmitted a letter from the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Iraq to the UNSC requesting international assistance to pursue accountability for atrocities perpetrated by ISIL in Iraq.

On 21 September the UNSC authorized the establishment of an Investigative Team to support domestic efforts to hold ISIL accountable by collecting evidence regarding potential war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide in Iraq. The team will be headed by a Special Adviser to be appointed by the Secretary-General, and will consist of both international and domestic experts with an initial mandate of two years.

While continuing to battle 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 and Kurds. The government of Iraq and the KRG should actively prevent any further clashes between the ISF and Peshmerga. Further ethnic or sectarian polarization and armed conflict must be avoided.

As anti-ISIL operations continue, both the government of Iraq and the KRG must strictly and consistently uphold their obligations under international humanitarian law. All relevant authorities should investigate and punish human rights abuses and actively prevent reprisals against Sunni civilians in areas recaptured from ISIL.

UN member states should fully cooperate with the Investigative Team established by the UNSC, and provide technical assistance to ensure due process in accordance with international human rights law. The government of Iraq should adopt enabling legislation to incorporate genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity into domestic law. All perpetrators of atrocities, regardless of position or affiliation, should be held accountable under international law.

Last Updated: 16 October 2017