Doomed to Repeat History on Iraq?

HRW Dispatches

by Peggy Hicks

Six years ago, the United Nations Human Rights Council lauded Sri Lanka’s commitment to the “promotion and protection of all human rights” at the close of its bloody conflict with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, a group that had committed horrendous abuses. Just two years later a UN panel concluded that tens of thousands of civilians might have been killed during the last five months of the war, most by unlawful government shelling.

Despite that recent debacle, the Human Rights Council stands poised to repeat the mistake, this time in a resolution over another bloody conflict — in Iraq.

Drafted by Iraq itself and put forward by the group of Arab states at the Council, the resolution was circulated the same day the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights reported that Iraqi security forces and affiliated militias “carried out extrajudicial killings, torture, abductions and forcibly displaced a large number of people, often with impunity,” noting that by doing so, they “may have committed war crimes.” Human Rights Watch’s own reporting on similar abuses was more detailed, and even more damning.

Rather than calling for continuing investigation by the High Commissioner’s office into serious abuses by both the armed group Islamic State (also known as ISIS) and Iraqi forces and affiliated militias, the resolution focuses only on technical assistance for Iraq in promoting and protecting human rights, a measure that is certainly needed but is hardly sufficient. Yet this weak draft has garnered the support not only of other Arab states, but of states that are part of the coalition undertaking military operations in Iraq, including France and Germany.

How can such an obviously flawed resolution garner support? The justification may be that the “real” threat is ISIS, and glossing over violations by anyone fighting ISIS is considered irreproachable. But with the offensive in Tikrit and battle looming possibly for Mosul and Anbar, this flawed approach is not only insufficient, it is a significant threat. If the world’s leading human rights body says nothing in the face of violations by Iraqi forces and affiliated militias already reported by the UN, it risks giving implicit license for those practices to continue. The Human Rights Council should help protect Iraqi civilians from retaliation by condemning the abuses that have already occurred, calling on Iraq to prevent further violations, and continuing the High Commissioner’s mandate to investigate and report on the situation. Anything less, and the UN and sponsors had better stand ready for another soul-searching exercise about how their own actions potentially made a bad situation worse.

Originally published at on March 24, 2015.

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