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 153,000 people have been displaced due to the offensive.
On 23 January the Iraqi government announced the complete recapture of eastern Mosul. UN agencies and humanitarian organizations have raised concerns about the estimated 750,000 civilians, including up to 350,000 children, still living in the ISIL-controlled western sector of the city, where living conditions are deteriorating sharply. Approximately 47 percent of the casualties in Mosul have been civilians,
Since the start of the Mosul offensive, the UN has received credible reports of mass killings and forced displacement of civilians perpetrated by ISIL. On 18 October the UN Office of the 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. Those who resisted were killed, including at least 230 civilians on 26 October. Additionally, Human Rights Watch reported on 20 December that ISIL fighters have targeted fleeing civilians in Mosul with mortar rounds.
The ISF and Kurdish Peshmerga forces have also discovered at least five mass graves in towns near Mosul since the offensive began. Three of the mass graves were discovered in the town of Hammam al-Alil, and likely contain the bodies of hundreds of missing Iraqi police officers. Two other mass graves of members of the Yazidi community were discovered by Peshmerga near the Shababit junction in northwestern Iraq.
The UN Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) reported that 382 civilians were killed in acts of terrorism, violence and armed conflict during January. 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 (OCHA) estimates that as of December 10 million people in Iraq – nearly one third of the population – are in need of humanitarian assistance, with 3.1 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." On 4 July the Minority Rights Group warned that many of Iraq's minority communities are "on the verge of disappearance." More than 3,500 women and children, mainly Yazidi, also remain enslaved by ISIL. On 16 June the Commission of Inquiry on Syria reported that ISIL "has committed the crime of genocide as well as multiple crimes against humanity and war crimes against the Yazidis" in Iraq.
ISIL also routinely targets civilians from the majority Shia population in sectarian bombings. On 2 January at least 36 people were killed in a bombing that targeted a market in Sadr City, a largely Shia district of 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 27 October Human Rights Watch reported that Kurdish forces were arbitrarily detaining men and boys fleeing Mosul and Hawija during the ongoing offensive. 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 the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (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 and transferred to Al-Shahama camp.
ISIL poses a genocidal 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, the largest city still under the control of ISIL, is a crucial step towards defeating the extremist group in Iraq. However, as the ISF and Peshmerga forces advance on Mosul, ISIL continues to use civilians as human shields and target those who attempt to flee. As the territory controlled by ISIL continues to shrink 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 is unable to uphold its Responsibility to Protect and needs ongoing international assistance.
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 on Yazidi survivors of atrocities committed by ISIL, calling for Iraq to accede to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC) and hold perpetrators accountable for "targeting and seeking to destroy" the Yazidi.
On 1 November the UN Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, Adama Dieng, released a statement condemning 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 IHL. 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 committed by state forces 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 February 2017