Mass protests across Iraq against unemployment, poor public services, corruption and the government’s sectarian quota-based system, have been ongoing since 1 October 2019. While suppressing the protests, Iraqi security forces have utilized disproportionate and deadly force, resulting in at least 500 deaths and over 15,000 serious injuries. The UN Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) has determined that Iraqi authorities have committed serious human rights violations and abuses including the deliberate killing of unarmed protesters, and misuse of tear gas and stun grenades. Security forces have arbitrarily detained thousands of people, subjecting many to ill-treatment or torture. UNAMI has also documented killings, forced disappearances and arbitrary detention of protesters carried out by militias and unidentified third parties.
Violence by security forces sparked outcry from Iraqi political and tribal leaders, prompting Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi to resign on 29 November. A caretaker government is now in place until President Barham Salih names a new prime minister.
Iranian-affiliated armed groups, including the Popular Mobilziation Forces (PMF), have been accused of fomenting violence in Iraq. On 20 December the United States (US) conducted a series of airstrikes targeting the Kataib Hezbollah paramilitary group. The US carried out an additional airstrike on 2 January 2020, killing the head of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force, General Qasem Soleimani, and a senior PMF commander, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. Following the assassinations of Soleimani and al-Muhandis, Iraq’s parliament voted to end the presence of all foreign troops in Iraq and halt assistance from the US-led coalition against the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
The mass killing of protesters comes just two years after another deadly armed conflict in Iraq. During 2014 ISIL militarily seized vast territory across Iraq and Syria and launched a systematic campaign of atrocities across northern Iraq. In response a military coalition comprised mainly of the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and Kurdish Peshmerga, supported by the US-led coalition, launched offensives and eventually declared victory on 21 November 2017. The PMF and Iranian-backed militias also played a key role in defeating ISIL.
Throughout the conflict ISIL fighters perpetrated systematic violations – such as killings, sexual slavery, torture and forcible transfer – that may amount to war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide. Hundreds of civilians were also killed in anti-ISIL coalition airstrikes, and members of the ISF, PMF and Peshmerga carried out forced evictions and targeted killings of Sunni civilians in formerly ISIL-held territories.
Cultural identities and religious loyalties continue to be manipulated by various forces in Iraq, posing a threat to the country’s long-term political stability and social cohesion. These existing challenges are being exacerbated by the ongoing political conflict between the US and Iran. Ongoing violations of international law by various armed forces and non-state armed groups present grave risks to civilians in Iraq.
In particular, influential armed extremist groups, including ISIL, could exploit this new wave of instability and perpetrate further violence against civilians. There is also a risk that the conflict between Iran and the US could spiral into yet another regional armed conflict with devastating consequences for civilians in Iraq.
The Iraqi government needs ongoing international assistance to uphold its responsibility to protect.
On 21 September 2017 the UN Security Council authorized the establishment of the UN Investigative Team to Promote Accountability for Crimes Committed by Da’esh/ISIL (UNITAD) to support domestic accountability efforts and collect evidence regarding potential atrocities committed by ISIL in Iraq. UNITAD has identified 160 ISIL-affiliated individuals who could potentially be held legally responsible for mass atrocities.
Since October 2019 the Head of UNAMI, UN Secretary-General, Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and six UN Special Rapporteurs have all released statements condemning the unlawful killing of protesters, urging the Iraqi authorities to cease violence, and calling for accountability.
After the assassination of Soleimani in Baghdad, the UN Secretary-General urged the leaders of the US and Iran to exercise maximum restraint.
The government of Iraq should implement a code of conduct for the security forces that is grounded in respect for universal human rights. Iraqi authorities must carry out an immediate investigation into the use of deadly and disproportionate force against unarmed civilian protesters and engage in meaningful security sector reform.
The Iraqi government should take active steps towards inter-communal reconciliation and minimize the risk of recurring armed conflict. The PMF and all other non-state armed groups should be demobilized and reintegrated into society. The government of Iraq should adopt enabling legislation to incorporate genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity into domestic law. All perpetrators of past atrocities in Iraq, regardless of affiliation, should be held accountable for their crimes.
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