Photo Source: © Delil Souleiman/AFP - Getty Images
Photo Source: © Delil Souleiman/AFP - Getty Images

Atrocity Alert No. 178: Syria, Iraq and Ethiopia

30 October 2019

Atrocity Alert is a weekly publication by the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect highlighting situations where populations are at risk of, or are enduring, mass atrocity crimes.

Potential Turkish war crimes in northeast Syria

Since Turkey launched an invasion of Kurdish-controlled areas of northeast Syria on 9 October, there has been mass civilian displacement, attacks on health facilities and allegations of “ethnic cleansing” carried out by Turkish forces and affiliated armed groups. Turkey’s “Operation Peace Spring” is ostensibly directed against the armed militias of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the Kurdish Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG), but it has already resulted in at least 160,000 civilians being forced to flee.

Last week a video emerged depicting the torture of captives and the mutilation of the corpses of Kurdish fighters by armed groups linked to Turkey. The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has warned that Turkey could be responsible for potential war crimes due to the actions of such groups. Kurdish forces have also alleged that Turkey has illegally used incendiary weapons, including napalm and white phosphorus munitions, in northeast Syria. Turkey denies sanctioning war crimes or using incendiary weapons against civilians.

Despite a tentative ceasefire negotiated on 22 October, there were reports that Turkish forces continued to sporadically attack Kurdish fighters and civilian settlements along the border. The ceasefire officially expired on Tuesday evening.

Turkey plans to establish a so-called “safe zone” in northeast Syria after it has been “cleared” of the YPG and SDF and resettle up to two million Syrian refugees there. Advocates allege that hundreds of Syrian refugees in Turkey have already been forcibly repatriated after being arbitrarily detained and pressured into signing “voluntary return” agreements.

Under international law, returns of refugees must be undertaken in accordance with the principle of non-refoulement and must be safe, voluntary and dignified. Turkey’s planned “safe zone” in northeast Syria would appear to meet none of these criteria. There is also a danger that by resettling large numbers of Syrian Arab refugees on the land of displaced Kurdish communities, Turkey is attempting the permanent ethnic reengineering of northeast Syria.

All UN member states should impose targeted sanctions on Turkish government officials and senior military officers with command responsibility for potential atrocities committed in northeast Syria. All members of the international community should immediately halt all arms sales and transfers of military technology to Turkey.

Iraqi security forces kill more than 70 protestors in a week

Renewed mass protests against unemployment, poor public services and government corruption broke out in Iraq on 25 October, resulting in over 70 deaths in the past week. The government has imposed a curfew and Iraqi police have fired rubber bullets, live ammunition and tear gas at demonstrators in Baghdad and across the southern provinces of Basra, Maysan, Dhi Qar and Muthanna.

On Tuesday, 29 October, masked gunmen also opened fire on protesters in Karbala, a Shi’ite holy city, killing at least 18 people. At the time of publication, it was unclear whether the attackers were part of the security forces or members of a non-state armed group.

The deadly crackdown comes just days after the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) released a special report that found that Iraqi authorities committed serious violations and abuses of human rights, resulting in over 150 unarmed civilians being killed during a wave of anti-government protests between 1 and 9 October. On 29 October a group of UN Special Rapporteurs and Working Group Chairs issued a joint statement noting that although the security forces “appear to have shown more restraint” during the most recent protests, the reckless firing of tear gas and stun grenades continues to result in deaths and serious injuries.

On 22 October an Investigative Committee, established by Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi, released its own report determining that the security forces had used excessive force against protesters. The Special Representative of UNAMI, Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, urged the government “to prosecute and punish those responsible,” noting that “investigations, delivering accountability for perpetrators and redress for victims, also serve as critical tools of prevention and protection.”

The government of Iraq must respect the universal right to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. The government should immediately implement a code of conduct for the security forces that is grounded in human rights and ensure they exercise maximum restraint in response to any further protests. All those deemed responsible for the deadly and disproportionate use of force must be held legally accountable, regardless of rank or position.

Violent protests highlight ongoing ethnic tensions in Ethiopia

At least 67 people were killed between 23 and 26 October in violence in Addis Ababa and the Oromia region of Ethiopia. The majority were killed in clashes between supporters of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and supporters of Jawar Mohammed, a prominent Oromo political activist and critic of the Prime Minister. Protests erupted following a Facebook post by Jawar alleging that government forces were planning to attack him.

On Saturday, 26 October, Prime Minister Abiy stated that although the protests initially focused on political grievances, there was “an attempt to turn the crisis into a religious and ethnic one.” Violence was reported in Adama, Bale Robe, Dodola and Harar, including attacks on churches, businesses and homes.

Jawar Mohammed was a leading figure in the 2015-2018 protests that resulted in at least 500 demonstrators being killed by the security forces and the eventual resignation of Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn. Jawar and his supporters were initially supportive of the April 2018 appointment of Abiy as Prime Minister, but Jawar has since accused him of repeating the authoritarian behavior of his predecessors. Earlier this month Prime Minister Abiy was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to end a 20-year border conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea.

Last week’s violence is a result of unresolved ethnic and political tensions that have killed hundreds of people in recent years and displaced more than 2.9 million Ethiopians. Ethiopia’s federalist system has resulted in widespread allegations of ethnic favoritism, with many groups feeling marginalized by the government. A history of dictatorship, torture and other widespread human rights abuses carried out by the security forces has also left many Ethiopians deeply distrustful of state power.

Prime Minister Abiy must confront the underlying sources of conflict in Ethiopian society and implement structural reforms that  protect human rights. The government should closely monitor and quickly confront any incitement to political or ethnic violence. The security forces must exercise maximum restraint while responding to protests as the country prepares for crucial national elections in May 2020.

Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect


Sign up for our newsletter and stay up to date on R2P news and alerts

Follow us on social media


Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect

Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies
The Graduate Center, CUNY
365 Fifth Avenue, Suite 5203
New York, NY 10016-4309, USA

Phone: +1 212-817-1929 |
R2P Resources & Statements