Photo Source: © Yasin Ozturk/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
Photo Source: © Yasin Ozturk/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Atrocity Alert No. 206: United States, Iraq and Sudan

3 June 2020

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.

Mass protests against police violence and racism in the United States 

Since 26 May protests have taken place in more than 100 cities across the United States (US) in response to police brutality and structural racism targeting black people. Protests have been predominantly peaceful, however, some demonstrators have resorted to rioting and looting.

While police in some cities have used community engagement tactics in an attempt to quell unrest, in many cities the police, state militias and the national guard have responded with disproportionate force. This has included the reckless use of rubber bullets and tear gas to try to disperse largely peaceful crowds. Dozens of cities – including New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Washington, DC – have also imposed overnight curfews in an attempt to curb rioting and looting.

The protests started after an unarmed black man, George Floyd, was choked to death by a white police officer in the city of Minneapolis, as three other officers also kneeled on Floyd or stood by, ignoring his pleas that he could not breathe. Floyd’s murder reignited anger regarding the disproportionate and deadly use of force by police in the US. African Americans account for more than 23 percent of the 1,004 people fatally shot by police during 2019, but constitute only 13 percent of the population. Despite a number of high-profile killings of unarmed black civilians in recent years, very few police officers have been held legally accountable for their actions.

The protests and riots have exacerbated tensions regarding racism and inequality in the US, and led to widespread debate about the militarization of policing. Many members of the media have also been targeted by the police while attempting to report on the protests. The US Press Freedom Tracker has recorded more than 230 incidents against the press, including 41 arrests and more than 150 assaults, including with pepper spray and rubber bullets.

US President Donald Trump has advocated for the use of extreme force against protesters. On Monday, 1 June, Trump claimed he was “dispatching thousands and thousands of heavily armed soldiers, military personnel and law enforcement officers to stop the rioting, looting, vandalism, assaults and the wanton destruction of property.” Over the past week Twitter has applied warnings to tweets from the president and other US government officials for glorifying violence, including a threat that “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.”

In addition to potentially violating the US Constitution, the overly violent response to peaceful protests by US security forces contravenes numerous international laws and standards that protect human rights, including the right to peaceful assembly and association, and freedom of opinion and expression. The UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, arbitrary and summary executions, Agnes Callamard, said on 31 May that, “police use of force should be guided by the principles of legality, necessity, proportion, precaution and non-discrimination. These are fundamental principles of international human rights law… but they are not the norms in the USA.”

While the murder of George Floyd in police custody does not constitute a mass atrocity crime, it has exposed deep divisions in US society. All law enforcement officials involved in the extrajudicial killing of civilians should be held legally accountable and punished to the full extent of the law. Crowd control measures deployed against peaceful protests must be consistent with international standards. The security forces must also strictly comply with the principles of necessity, proportionality, legality and precaution to help prevent any further deaths or serious injuries. Elected officials in the US, especially President Trump, should refrain from making inflammatory statements that incite violence against protesters.

Despite progress towards accountability, persecution of Yazidis persists in Iraq and Syria 

The UN Investigative Team to Promote Accountability for Crimes Committed by Da’esh/ISIL (UNITAD) publicly released its latest report on 27 May, noting significant progress in identifying new sources of evidence against members of the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). In particular, the report reveals that UNITAD’s investigators have obtained over two million mobile telephone data records that correlate to the time periods and geographic locations of atrocity crimes committed against the Yazidi community in Sinjar during 2014.

Established by the UN Security Council in 2017, UNITAD works to support domestic accountability efforts by collecting evidence on atrocities committed by ISIL in Iraq. Between June 2014 and December 2017, ISIL conducted a systematic campaign of atrocities across northern Iraq, including mass killings, sexual slavery, torture and forcible transfer, that may amount to war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide. These attacks included atrocities targeting Iraq’s vulnerable ethnic and religious minority communities, such as Yazidis, Turkmen, and Christians.

Despite the military defeat of ISIL in Iraq in November 2017, Yazidis continue to be persecuted. After the Turkish government launched an offensive in 2018 in Afrin and other parts of northern Syria, thousands of Yazidis were forced to flee their homes and villages. Those who remain in Afrin continue to be targeted by some Turkish-backed armed groups. According to the Ezdina Foundation and Yazda (a Yazidi human rights organization), 18 Yazidi religious sites have been destroyed in Afrin and 80 percent of Yazidi religious sites in Syria have been looted, desecrated or demolished.

The Rome Statute defines the deliberate destruction of cultural heritage as a war crime. The systematic destruction of the cultural heritage of a targeted group can also be an indicator of intent to commit genocide.

Yazidis and other religious and ethnic minorities in Iraq and Syria must be protected from ongoing persecution. Jahaan Pittalwala, Research Analyst at the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, said that, “All perpetrators of atrocities in Iraq should be held accountable for their crimes. The Yazidi, in particular, have waited too long and suffered too much for their demands for protection and accountability to be ignored. The latest evidence collected by UNITAD is an important step on the long path to justice in Iraq.”

The Iraqi government should continue to facilitate the work of UNITAD and comprehensively address the needs of survivors of atrocities. The government should urgently adopt legislation that criminalizes genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.

One year later: Sudanese demand justice for 3 June massacre 

Demonstrators are gathering today, 3 June, on the first anniversary of a deadly attack on a peaceful sit-in outside Army Headquarters in Khartoum, that killed at least 120 people. Although Sudan has started a historic transition to democracy, the perpetrators of the 3 June massacre have not been held accountable for their actions.

Months of country-wide mass demonstrations against a deteriorating economy and the military dictatorship of President Omar Al-Bashir culminated in his removal and arrest on 11 April 2019. Despite protesters demanding a civilian-led government, a Transitional Military Council (TMC) took power following the coup. Demonstrations continued and tens of thousands of protesters remained at the sit-in where they had been encamped since 6 April. In an attempt to end the stand-off, the TMC ordered the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces to attack the sit-in, leading to the mass killing of protesters.

In the aftermath of the 3 June massacre, negotiations between the military and leaders of the protest movement eventually resulted in the August 2019 establishment of a joint civilian-military Sovereign Council to lead the country’s transition to democracy.

The National Independent Investigation Committee, authorized by the Sovereign Council to investigate the 3 June massacre, has received criticism for its slow pace and inaccessibility to victims of sexual and gender-based violence. On 23 May, during a speech on the occasion of Eid El Fitr, Prime Minister Abdallah Hamdok stressed that it is “vital and necessary” to achieve justice and hold the perpetrators of the “sit-in crime” accountable. That same day, hundreds of Sudanese gathered at the Army Headquarters to commemorate the massacre and call for justice and legal reform.

Meanwhile, during February the Sudanese authorities announced that several suspects indicted by the International Criminal Court for atrocities committed in the Darfur region, including Bashir, should face trial in The Hague. During April, the authorities announced that Bashir’s domestic trial for crimes related to the 1989 coup and to a deadly crackdown that preceded his 2019 overthrow has been postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

As Sudan continues its historic transition to democracy, its emerging leaders need to end the cycle of impunity once and for all.

Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect


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