In the midst of an otherwise depressing news cycle on Iraq, the recent resolution out of Geneva from the UN Human Rights Council is a positive note. The resolution, adopted on Monday, requests the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights to dispatch a fact finding mission to Iraq to investigate alleged human rights violations committed by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and associated terrorist groups. It calls on the High Commissioner to establish the facts and circumstances of the abuses, with an eye to avoiding impunity and ensuring full accountability.
The measure, introduced by France and supported by Iraq, was discussed at a special session. Special sessions are a relatively new tool, developed when the old UN Human Rights Commission was rechartered in 2006 as the more agile and effective Human Rights Council, which is comprised of 47 member states, currently including the United States. Scheduled when necessary, special sessions allow the UN to respond to urgent issues outside of normal, prescheduled meetings.
Addressing this special session, Deputy UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Flavia Pansieri spoke about the abuses committed by ISIS and its associates. Among other things, Pansieri described the experience of Iraqi women, who have experienced severe restrictions and abuses by members of ISIS. In Mosul, women have been forced to veil their faces. As Pansieri pointed out, “Women are not allowed to walk in the street without the presence of a male guardian, and there are more and more reports of women being beaten for violating ISIS rules.”
Pansieri emphasized that the Iraqi government has a responsibility to protect its citizens and address these issues. “Even though this conflict has severely reduced the Iraqi government’s control over large parts of its territory,” she said, “the government continues to bear primary responsibility for the protection of all persons on its territory, and must endeavour to implement its obligations.” She noted that, in fact, all parties to a conflict must respect international humanitarian law and international human rights law, stressing that the “international community and the government of Iraq must exert all efforts to ensure that any individuals who have participated in, or supported, the commission of these crimes are held accountable in accordance with the law.”
Special Representative of the UN Secretary General for Children and Armed Conflict Leila Zerrougui also addressed the Human Rights Council. She stated that 693 child casualties have been reported in Iraq since the beginning of this year, most of which result from indiscriminate attacks by both government and armed groups. Additionally, Zerrougui spoke of unverified reports of sexual violence, forced marriages, and the abduction of young girls from minority groups.
Although the Human Rights Council’s resolution may be a small step, the decision of its member states to call for greater UN involvement to protect Iraqi women and children from current abuses provides some reason for optimism in a time where collective action via international institutions is often blocked.