Yesterday, 17 October, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) declared that they had liberated Raqqa from the armed extremist group, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). The fall of Raqqa marks another major defeat for ISIL, which had claimed the city as the capital of its self-proclaimed caliphate. While ISIL at one time ruled over 8 million people and perpetrated widespread atrocities, it no longer controls any major city in Iraq or Syria.
The SDF, a coalition of armed opposition groups, has been fighting ISIL with air support from a United States-led international coalition. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has reported that since the start of the SDF’s anti-ISIL offensive in April, at least 3,250 people, including 1,130 civilians, have been killed. While ISIL used civilians as human shields and often shot those trying to flee areas under its control, relentless air strikes by the international coalition caused a surge in civilian casualties and reduced the city to rubble. Of the estimated 300,000 people in Raqqa before the civil war, at least 270,000 have since fled or been forcibly displaced.
After ISIL seized Raqqa during January 2014, the group perpetrated widespread abuses against the civilian population, including beheadings and crucifixions. Many of these public executions took place in Al-Naim Square, where the killings were often filmed for propaganda purposes and bodies were left on display as a warning to the local populace.
Now that Raqqa has been liberated from ISIL, it is essential that reconstruction efforts include ensuring accountability for atrocities perpetrated against civilians. Investigators should collect and preserve evidence of ISIL’s crimes during its occupation as well as potential war crimes perpetrated during the battle for Raqqa. It also remains essential that UN member states continue to support the International, Impartial, Independent Mechanism (IIIM) to assist in the investigation and prosecution of all perpetrators of atrocities in Syria.
On 11 October at least 20 civilians were killed in an attack on a mosque in the Central African Republic (CAR) by a so-called “anti-balaka” militia. The militia surrounded the Djimbi Mosque in the remote village of Kembé, in Basse-Kotto prefecture, before forcing their way inside. Members of the militia then killed the imam and his deputy, as well as a number of worshippers.
The massacre in Kembé took place while the UN Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, Adama Dieng, was in CAR for a five-day fact-finding visit. Special Adviser Dieng denounced the “manipulation and incitement to ethnic and religious hatred instigated by armed groups and militias and accomplice politicians.” The Special Adviser insisted that “it is time to condemn these unacceptable manipulations that sow the seeds of division and wrongfully justify the horrors reported to me by victims, the authorities, civil society representatives and religious and community leaders.”
UN Secretary-General António Guterres is also scheduled to visit CAR next week. His visit and the upcoming renewal of the mandate of the UN Mission in CAR (MINUSCA) present an opportunity for the international community to refocus on this neglected conflict and help prevent any further deterioration of the security situation. The government and MINUSCA currently lack the capacity to adequately protect civilians or confront armed groups who still control over 70 percent of the country.
When MINUSCA’s mandate is renewed in a few weeks time, the UN Security Council must ensure that the protection of civilians remains the mission’s primary focus. The Council should also increase MINUSCA’s troop ceiling and ensure that it can rapidly respond to the threat posed by various armed groups.
With the end of the rainy season, civilians in South Sudan face a heightened threat of renewed attacks and potential mass atrocities. Yesterday, 17 October, the UN Under Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations, Jean-Pierre Lacroix, told the Security Council that throughout September fighting between government armed forces (SPLA) and armed rebels (SPLA-IO) continued in the Equatorias, Unity, Jonglei and Upper Nile states. This fighting resulted in massive displacement of civilians and may intensify as the dry season makes it easier for troops to move around the country.
Ongoing conflict between armed rebels and the government has plagued South Sudan for almost the entire six years of its history, despite numerous peace agreements. Attacks on humanitarian workers also continue, with at least 18 aid workers killed so far during 2017. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and its partners reported 101 access incidents during September, the majority of which involved violence against humanitarian personnel and assets. In addition, the UN Mission in South Sudan continues to face government obstruction as it tries to carry out its mandate to protect vulnerable civilians.
The government, SPLA, SPLA-IO and affiliated militias must immediately cease all hostilities and fully cooperate with the Intergovernmental Authority on Development’s High-Level Revitalization Forum. The UN Security Council should impose an arms embargo and targeted sanctions against political leaders and senior military figures who are implicated in atrocities or continue to obstruct the peace process.