Stephen Goose, director of Human Rights Watch's Arms Division, was instrumental in bringing about the 2008 convention banning cluster munitions, the 1997 treaty banning antipersonnel mines, the 1995 protocol banning blinding lasers, and the 2003 protocol requiring clean-up of explosive remnants of war. He and Human Rights Watch co-founded the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL), which received the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize. Goose created the ICBL’s Landmine Monitor initiative, the first time that non-governmental organizations around the world have worked together in a sustained and coordinated way to monitor compliance with an international disarmament or humanitarian law treaty. In 2013, he and Human Rights Watch co-founded the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots. Before joining Human Rights Watch in 1993, Goose was a US congressional staffer and a researcher at the Center for Defense Information. He has a master's degree in International Relations from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and a B.A. in History from Vanderbilt University.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Summary

I have already lost four years of my life because I have not been able to study. It is not normal for a student to lose this much time. I want to be a doctor, but the Seleka are blocking my future.

–18-year-old student, Ngadja, January 24, 2017

The [anti-balaka] destroyed desks and chairs. We were able to get them to vacate one of the buildings so we could restart the school, but they still occupied half of the school and ruined the building... They used our school grounds as their toilet. They used the desks for firewood.

 –School official, Sekia-Dalliet, January 17, 2017

Four years after the start of the conflict in the Central African Republic—notwithstanding the return of an elected government to power—many children are still prevented from getting an education because armed groups have occupied or destroyed schools. The problem is most acute in the central and eastern provinces where fighting continues.

Armed groups in the Central African Republic have occupied, looted, and damaged school buildings, preventing children from getting an education.

Based on interviews in November 2016 and January 2017 with over 40 people, including school-age children, parents, teachers, local officials and members of armed groups, this report documents the occupation of schools for military purposes, such as for barracks or bases. Further, the report outlines how abuses by fighters in and around schools are threatening the safety of students and teachers, as well as children’s ability to learn.

In the majority of cases documented by Human Rights Watch and other international organizations, including the United Nations, Seleka fighters were the ones who looted and occupied schools; however, anti-balaka fighters have also repeatedly committed such harmful acts. The Seleka (or “alliance” in Sango, the main national language) was a loose coalition of largely Muslim armed actors, aggrieved by years of impoverishment, insecurity and weak social services from the government of Francois Bozizé, the president from 2003 to 2013. The anti-balaka are Christian and animist militias who originally emerged to fight the Seleka, but in recent months some anti-balaka have made alliances with some Seleka splinter groups.

All photos © 2017 Edouard Dropsy for Human Rights Watch 

Fighters occupying schools expose students and teachers to risks. The military use of schools deteriorates, damages, and destroys an already insufficient and poor quality infrastructure as fighters who occupy schools often burn the desks and chairs for cooking fuel.

The use of a school by an armed group can also make the building and grounds a legitimate target for enemy attack. Even once vacated, the school may still be a dangerous environment for children if fighters leave behind unused munitions or other military equipment. In several instances documented in this report, schools that were vacated continue to be affected by the close proximity of fighters to the school grounds, restricting the ability of students to attend class.

As a country in conflict that poses serious threats to children’s health, safety and well-being, the continued military use of schools directly hampers their right to education.  

During times of conflict and insecurity, maintaining access to education is of vital importance to children. If they remain safe and protective environments, schools can provide a sense of normalcy that is crucial to a child’s development and psychological well-being.

***

Violence by armed groups and attacks on civilians have risen sharply since October 2016, particularly in the central and eastern provinces of the country. Fighting between two Seleka factions in the Ouaka and Haute-Kotto provinces led to increased attacks on civilians, displacing tens of thousands of people, and shows no signs of abating. In these areas, the government of President Faustin-Archange Touadéra is struggling to maintain stability and has little presence in areas controlled by armed groups. In most parts of the country, UN peacekeepers are the only force with the capacity to protect vulnerable groups.

The gravity of the crisis in the Central African Republic has resulted in an overwhelming burden on the national government, UN agencies, and humanitarian groups. The country continues to receive inadequate funding to address multiple humanitarian emergencies, with only 4.7 percent of the $399.5 million UN appeal met.

Some children in the Central African Republic continue to suffer the negative effects of fighting and displacement, others struggle with the trauma of violence in their villages, homes, and schools. The government has the primary responsibility to ensure that communities have the resources to repair and rebuild schools that have been damaged due to fighting. This effort will require close collaboration with international partners.

In line with UN Security Council Resolution 2225 on children and armed conflict, the Central African government should take concrete measures to deter the military use of schools, including requesting assistance from the UN peacekeeping mission. In June 2015, the Central African Republic endorsed the Safe Schools Declaration, which commits governments to protect schools from attack and military use. This was an important step that spurred the UN peacekeeping mission in the country to begin clearing schools occupied by militias. Although the UN mission had a number of successes in 2016, progress was undermined by cases of peacekeeping forces themselves using school buildings as bases and barracks, in violation of UN rules.

On December 2, 2016, the Security Council Working Group on Children and Armed Conflict issued a public statement calling on all armed groups, including UN peacekeeping forces, to comply with international law and to respect the civilian character of schools.

For too many children in the Central African Republic, a safe and reliable education is not possible. In a crisis neglected on many fronts, children’s access to education should be a priority. Efforts to establish a safe environment for students are key to achieving a durable peace.

Recommendations

To the Government of the Central African Republic:

  • In accordance with United Nations Security Council Resolution 2225, take concrete measures to deter the military use of schools, including by requesting assistance from the UN peacekeeping mission to oblige armed groups to vacate schools and school grounds;
  • Ensure that students deprived of educational facilities as a result of conflict are promptly given access to alternative suitable facilities while their own schools are repaired. Request assistance from UN agencies and humanitarian actors in this regard;
  • Incorporate into domestic policy, military operational frameworks or legislation, protections for schools from being used for military purposes, using as a minimum standard the Safe Schools Declaration’s “Guidelines for Protecting Schools and Universities from Military Use during Armed Conflict”;
  • Investigate attacks against students, teachers, and schools, and hold those responsible to account.

To All Armed Groups:

  • Order fighters not to use school buildings or school property for camps or barracks where it would unnecessarily place civilians at risk or deprive children of their right to education;
  • Order fighters currently based on or next to school property to vacate the area.

To the UN Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA):

  • Fully enforce the directive issued on December 24, 2015, on the protection of schools and universities against military use;
  • Remind all troops of the UN Infantry Battalion Manual, which states that UN peacekeepers shall not use schools in their operations;
  • Ensure that all peacekeeping forces receive pre-deployment trainings that highlight the obligation not to use schools in their operations;
  • Continue to advocate with armed groups who use schools for military purposes to vacate schools and to ensure the safe return of students.

Methodology

This report is based on research conducted in the Central African Republic in November 2016 and January 2017 in the Lobaye, Nana Grébizi, Nana-Mambéré, Ouaka, Ouham and Ouham-Pendé provinces. A Human Rights Watch researcher visited 12 schools and interviewed more than 40 people, including school-age children, parents, teachers, local officials and members of armed groups. Interviews were conducted in French or Sango with interpretation to French. Research on schools that had been previously occupied and vacated was conducted by field visits to each location to verify the circumstances and consequences of the occupation. Human Rights Watch spoke with relevant Seleka groups, the Central African People’s Democratic Front and MINUSCA during its research. Human Rights Watch sent written questions to Alfred Yékatom, the anti-balaka leader cited in this report; at time of writing, he had not responded.

Many of those interviewed, fearing harassment or reprisals, requested not to be named in the report. As a result, the names of witnesses and victims have been withheld. Some individuals gave consent for their photos to be used so long as their names and the photo locations were withheld. Other individuals gave permission for their photo, location and names to be published.

All of the interviewees provided their informed consent to Human Rights Watch. None of them received payment or other benefits for having given information.

I.   Background

Seleka and Anti-Balaka[1]

The origins of the current conflict in the Central African Republic begin in late 2012 with the establishment of the Seleka rebel group in the northeast. The Seleka (or “alliance” in Sango, the main national language) was a loose coalition of largely Muslim armed actors, aggrieved by several years of impoverishment, insecurity and weak social services from the government of then-President Francois Bozizé.

On March 24, 2013, the Seleka seized Bangui, the capital, and ousted Bozizé and his government. The Seleka said their aim was to liberate the country and to bring security and development; however, within days, Seleka fighters unleashed waves of violence against those they perceived to have been Bozizé’s supporters, killing hundreds of civilians, possibly many more, in Bangui and across the country.[2] The Seleka rule was violent, disorganized and marked by total impunity for serious crimes.

In late 2013, Christian and animist militias known as anti-balaka began to organize counterattacks against the Seleka. (The term “anti-balaka” means “anti-balles,” or bullets, from a Kalashnikov assault rifle).[3] In response to the Seleka attacks, and with support from former government soldiers, the anti-balaka quickly grew into a loosely organized and violent militia. The group frequently targeted Muslim civilians, associating all Muslims with the Seleka.[4]

On December 5, 2013, the Security Council authorized the deployment of African Union (AU) peacekeepers and French forces already on the ground.[5] The two forces effectively pushed most Seleka fighters out of Bangui and the country’s southwest. Most Seleka fighters moved east, where the group established strongholds and split into numerous factions.

The most significant Seleka factions are the Union for Peace in the Central African Republic (l'Union pour la Paix en Centrafrique, UPC) led by Ali Darassa Mahamat in the Ouaka province; the Popular Front for the Renaissance of Central Africa (Front Populaire pour la Renaissance de la Centrafrique, FPRC), led in the Nana Grébizi province by Moussa Maloud and Lambert Lissane (but with ties to Seleka leaders Michel Djotodia and Noureddine Adam, who live outside the country); and the Central African Patriotic Movement (Mouvement Patriotique pour la Centrafrique,  MPC), led in the Nana Grébizi province by Idriss Ahmned El Bachar. In late August 2016, the Seleka announced a conference to unify the branches. [6] The unification was short-lived: in November 2016, the FPRC and the UPC fought each other in the central town of Bria.[7] Conflict there spread to the Ouaka province in December 2016 as the FPRC and MPC allied with anti-balaka forces in the area.[8] Fighting between these groups remains a serious threat to the civilian population in the center of the country.

MINUSCA

In April 2014, the UN authorized a peacekeeping mission, MINUSCA, with 11,820 military personnel to take over from the AU mission. MINUSCA has a mandate to protect civilians, when necessary by force, to facilitate a political transition, and to create a secure environment for humanitarian assistance.[9] As of February 2017, 10,750 peacekeepers and 2,080 police were deployed in the country.

Attacks on Schools and Military Use of Schools by Armed Groups

The Seleka offensive adversely affected an already weak education system. Before the crisis began, the Central African Republic was ranked by one organization as one of the worst places to be a student, due to weak infrastructure, a chronic lack of teachers and disparities between the number of boys and girls. [10]

As the Seleka moved out of the northeast of the country, they looted and occupied schools. By late 2013, schools across the country had lost an average of 25 weeks of the school year.[11] Looting became so severe that in many schools there was nothing left to steal.[12] Anti-balaka groups similarly looted schools as they became more active in 2013.[13]

Attempts to quantify the effects of the use of schools by armed groups in the Central African Republic since December 2012 is complicated due to different reporting standards used by UN agencies and nongovernmental organizations, as well as limited access caused by insecurity and remoteness of locations. Further complicating matters, some schools were occupied repeatedly for short periods of time. While the absence of comprehensive data has hindered attempts to understand the full scale of the problem, some general conclusions emerge.

For example, the UN recorded 36 cases of the military use of schools, most perpetrated by Seleka groups, from late 2012 to February 2016.[14] In an April 2015 report, the education cluster – the humanitarian coordination group on education – reported that 38 percent of the 335 randomly selected schools they assessed had been attacked by armed groups. These numbers were up from two previous assessments looking at attacked schools, from August 2013 and February 2014, which had rates of 17.5 percent and 33 percent, respectfully. The April 2015 report concludes that armed groups “specifically targeted education during the September-November 2014 period, in order to impede the return to school, which is a symbol of the return to normality and stabilization.”[15]

More recently, the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimated in November 2016 that 2,336 schools were operational across the country and at least 461 were not operational. It is unclear if temporary disruptions in the school calendar are reflected in this data. The key reasons for schools remaining inactive, the UN said, are insecurity, a lack of teachers, displacement, the destruction of school property or occupation of schools by armed groups.[16] Humanitarian efforts to reopen schools and to improve the education system remain seriously underfunded. In early 2016, the UN education response was only three percent funded.[17]

From 2014 to late 2016, the intensity of the violence declined but the problem of attacking or occupying schools remained. In October 2016, for example, FPRC and MPC forces attacked a school in Kaga-Bandoro, in the Nana Grébizi provinces, killing two teachers at a school where a teacher training course was being held.[18] One participant from the training course said:

A group of Seleka fighters came into the courtyard of the school. It was about 15 men…  They started to shoot directly at us. One teacher, Kango, was sick and he could not keep up, he was captured and stabbed to death. I watched as they killed him. I learned later that another teacher, the director of the training center, was also killed when they found him in the neighborhood.[19]

In December, fighters from the UPC executed 25 people after calling them to a school in the town of Bakala for an alleged meeting.[20] Human Rights Watch has also received credible allegations that UPC fighters occupied a school in Liwa, 10 kilometers from Bambari, on February 21, 2017, in the days before UPC commander Ali Darassa left the town.[21] 

II.  Use of Schools by Armed Groups Impairs or Denies Education

The practice by armed groups, of looting schools, or using them for military purposes has been a common feature of the crisis for the past four years.[22] Members of the Seleka and anti-balaka have used schools as lodging and military positions and taken furniture for firewood.

At times, peacekeeping forces have also used schools in their operations, contrary to both local directives and international standards from the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations. The education cluster received 11 reports of schools occupied by African Union or UN peacekeepers between 2012 and January 2015.[23] The 2015 report by the UN Secretary General on Children and Armed Conflict reported that AU and French forces had used five schools in 2014.[24] The 2016 report on Children and Armed Conflict in the Central African Republic said that two contingents of the AU’s Central Africa Multinational Force[25] had occupied two schools, in Sibut and Damara, in 2013.[26]

At times, fighters converted an entire school into a barracks or military base. In other cases, they seized control of part of a school campus.

When soldiers impose themselves on schools, it puts students and teachers unnecessarily at risk and hinders students’ ability to learn. It also causes damage to school buildings, equipment, and teaching materials. Even brief military use left schools unfit for educational use without major rehabilitation.

In November 2016 and January 2017, Human Rights Watch visited 12 schools that were either occupied by an armed group, had previously been occupied by an armed group or the group was in the immediate area, preventing students from attending. While some of these schools were operational, teachers and parents told Human Rights Watch of frequent closures that prevented children from attending class.

In some instances, fighters have occupied and then vacated schools, but they still operated nearby. Some of these schools were damaged during the occupation.

In one case from July 2016, in the town of Sekia-Dalliet, Lobaye province, an anti-balaka fighter beat a teacher who tried to stop him from burning a school desk. “One day an anti-balaka fighter was taking a desk to burn and I had had enough,” the teacher said, explaining that, at the time, anti-balaka fighters had been occupying the school for 22 months. “I ran up and told him to stop. I told him to put down the desk because it was for the kids. He pulled out a knife and hit me in the head. I was taken to the hospital immediately.”[27] Human Rights Watch saw scars on the teacher’s head where he said he was struck.

When Human Rights Watch visited Sekia-Dalliet in January 2017, hundreds of anti-balaka fighters were still in the town. None of them were based in the school but some were staying directly across the road. Residents of Sekia-Dalliet told Human Rights Watch that the anti-balaka there were under the command of Alfred Yékatom, alias Rombhot, currently a deputy in the National Assembly. [28]In other towns and provinces, schools were still occupied by armed groups. For example, Seleka forces from the UPC have occupied the primary school in Ngadja in the Ouaka province – which normally has 344 students –on and off since 2015, and they were still there in January 2017. They first took the school in October 2014, but left it for a few months in 2015. They re-occupied the school in December 2015 and vacated it again in 2016 for a few months, only to re-occupy it again later that year. For five months in 2015, while occupying the main school building, the Seleka used the director’s office as a prison. Teachers explained to Human Rights Watch how fighters kept prisoners in the small room for weeks and forced them to relieve themselves in the corner. 

In January 2017, UPC fighters were living in the kindergarten on the school grounds and had men posted outside the main school building while children were attending school. At times they fired their guns while school was in session, teachers and students said. A student from the school explained:

The Seleka received new guns on January 13 [2017] and they were shooting them. We were in class when they started shooting behind the school. We wanted to run, but the teachers told us it was safer to stay down in the class room. I am scared to come to school. I am scared the Seleka will attack me. I often ask myself, “Should I even bother to go to school? Is it worth the risk?”[29]

Use of Schools as Places of Accommodation and Detention

Since the crisis began, multiple armed groups have used schools as temporary bases, usually when they seek shelter from rains during the rainy season, and the trend continues today. In Zoumanga, in Nana-Grébizi province, for example, Seleka fighters from the MPC occupied the only school starting in March 2014. They vacated the school building in November 2015, but set up a base on the school grounds near the road. From this road they extort money by gunpoint from passersby. In early 2016, MPC fighters re-took the school building and held it until October, when they once again moved on the school grounds near the road. A local MPC commander explained that they had no choice but to stay in the school when the rainy season started because they lacked sufficient shelter. “The school is a nice building,” he said. “And look at our tents, they are not good. So we will have to move into the school again soon once the rains come. But it is ok, the students can still come to school when we are here.”[30]

In October 2016, an armed group in the west of the country, the Central African People’s Democratic Front (Front démocratique du people centrafricain, FDPC), vacated a school in Zoukombo, in the Nana-Mambére province, at the insistence of MINUSCA, but it has threatened to reoccupy the school during the upcoming school holidays. The FDPC had occupied the school since May 20, 2016. FDPC spokesperson Gustav Guingi justified the school occupation to Human Rights Watch: “We want to be moved somewhere comfortable while we wait for DDR [Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration]. Now we are in huts and life is not good. We won’t live in the school again, but we may occupy it during the school holidays as it is not in use.”[31]

According to the UN Panel of Experts on the Central African Republic[32], using the school as a base, the FDPC has looted goods and extorted money and valuables from villagers and travelers in the area, and negotiated payments for hostages held by the group in other areas.[33]

In June 2016, the UN Panel of Experts took photos of armed FDPC fighters stationed in front of the school.[34] On January 27, 2017, a Human Rights Watch researcher saw an FDPC fighter armed with a Kalashnikov meters away from the school perimeter as students were walking to class.

On December 11, 2016, UPC fighters attacked Bakala, a town in the Ouaka Province. After a battle with the FPRC, the UPC took control of the town. That evening they held a small group of men captive in a classroom of the École Sous-Préfectorale. The next day, they sent a message around town that there was to be a meeting at the school. When people gathered there, UPC fighters seized at least 24 men and one boy, killing 16 of them on the school grounds.[35]

MINUSCA Use of Schools

Since 2013, Human Rights Watch has documented five occasions in which armed international peacekeepers from the AU mission, MISCA, and the UN mission, MINUSCA, used schools as bases, including two cases from late 2016. In November 2016, Human Rights Watch visited a school in De Gualle in the Koui sub-prefecture in the Ouham-Pendé province and observed how MINUSCA peacekeepers from the Republic of Congo had occupied the town’s primary school and grounds. Locals said the armed peacekeepers had been there for several weeks. The commanding officer told Human Rights Watch that they were going to leave the school soon, but that it was the community’s wish for the peacekeepers to use the school.[36] The peacekeepers did leave the school in November 2016 after Human Rights Watch contacted MINUSCA staff in Bangui.

Since December 2016, Mourouba, a small town in the Ouaka province, has seen clashes between the UPC and FPRC in the area. UPC fighters took control of the town in December and killed at least three civilians, a father and his two sons, aged 1o and 16.[37] They also ransacked the school and burned documents, residents said. The town’s population fled and when they returned in January, the school was occupied by MINUSCA peacekeepers.

During a visit to the town on January 22, Human Rights Watch researchers saw MINUSCA peacekeepers from Pakistan using the school grounds as their base. Residents told Human Rights Watch that they want the peacekeepers to stay, but they also want to send their children back to school. One parent explained:

We all fled when [UPC commander] Darassa’s men arrived and when we came back the Pakistanis [MINUSCA] were in the school. They arrived sometime this month. We would like to restart the school, but now the Pakistanis are there and we would rather have MINUSCA in the town to protect us.[38]

“I hope that peace returns so the Pakistanis leave the school and we can re-open it,” a 16-year-old boy told Human Rights Watch. “I would like to be an intellectual. Without school, I will have no future, so it is important to me.”[39] 

Human Rights Watch informed MINUSCA authorities of the occupied schools in De Gaulle and Mourouba and both were subsequently vacated. However, these recent occupations are troubling violations of MINUSCA’s own directive “not to use schools for any purpose” (see Section III for more details) that show how orders from Bangui are not getting implemented in the provinces. When speaking with Human Rights Watch, the MINUSCA commanding officers in De Gaulle defended their use of the school, on grounds that the local population wished them to be based there, and officers in Mourouba failed to clearly answer questions about the directive.

Dangers Keep Students from Education in Occupied Schools

In Ngadja, in the Ouaka province, the school runs despite the UPC occupation, but a school official told Human Rights Watch that hundreds of students were routinely missing class because parents were too afraid to allow them to come. One parent from Ngadja told Human Rights Watch:

I am worried that if there is a fight between the Seleka and the anti-balaka, the Seleka could seek revenge on the general population and attack our children at the school. We live far from the school, so if there is an attack or if the Seleka decide to attack our kids in revenge, I will not be able to get to our children. If I had not gone to school, I would not be able to write my name. Education gave me this ability. I hope these Seleka will leave the school so our kids can at least gain what they have lost and get a basic level of education, the same level that I got.[40]

Another parent from Ngadja made a similar point. “I am most afraid of an anti-balaka attack on the school and the kids getting caught in the crossfire,” he said. “I want the national government and MINUSCA to get this base away from the school so our kids can safely study.”[41]

In Zoumanga, Seleka fighters from the MPC are based in huts only a few meters from the school and have their meals under a tree on school property. While the Seleka fighters told Human Rights Watch they have no problem with the school and wish it to continue

running, school officials talked of a constant threat. “The Seleka sometimes shoot at pigs that walk in front of the school,” one official said. “I complained about this just a few days ago and the commander told me, ‘We are ready to close the school at any moment.’ It is very difficult to teach under these conditions and children often do not come.”[42]

School officials in Zoumanga said at least 100 students out of 392 do not come regularly to school because they fear the Seleka fighters.  One parent who does not permit his children to go to the school told Human Rights Watch:

I have three kids that should be going. But the Seleka could start shooting at any moment. Sometimes they shoot their guns off and it scares the children. My kids want to go to school, but since November [2016] I have decided not to send my kids there. When peace comes back they will be able to return.[43]

Another parent from Zoumanga concurred. “The presence of the Seleka makes it too dangerous for our kids,” he said. “A gun
could go off, a child could stray too close to the Seleka and they could shoot him, or the Seleka could be attacked and shooting
could start.”
[44]

Fear Keeps Students from Education in Vacated Schools

The risk to teachers and students may not end once an armed group has vacated a school. In four instances in January 2017, Human Rights Watch observed the presence of fighters in close proximity to school grounds. Several parents said they were too afraid to send their children to school because the fighters were so close.

In Bojomo, in the Ouham province, Seleka fighters vacated the local primary school in November 2016 at the behest of local authorities and MINUSCA.[45] However, one school official explained how parents are still reluctant to send children to class due to threats. “The Seleka are just down the road,” she said. “Parents are afraid to send their kids because the Seleka said they would kill people in the village. They were angry they were told to leave the school.”[46]

A parent with four school-age children said:

Since the Seleka put their base here, there has been a lot of fear on the part of the parents. Their base is still near the school. The Seleka attacked the village in 2014 and killed my husband. Seeing these Seleka here with heavy arms and us with no means to defend ourselves if they attack…it is too much. I can’t send my kids to school.[47]

In Mbrès, a town in the Nana Grébizi province, Seleka fighters allied with the FPRC and the MPC vacated two schools, a boys and girls primary school, in December 2016. The schools were meant to re-start afterwards, but they remain closed due to tensions in the town, a lack of teachers— many of whom fled during the fighting, and the close proximity of fighters to the school buildings. On January 21, Human Rights Watch researchers noted the presence of Seleka fighters just meters away from the schools.

One teacher from Mbrès told Human Rights Watch:

The schools closed in 2013. They were meant to re-open on September 21, 2016, but we decided not to because of the presence of the Seleka. At this point there was a Seleka group sleeping in each class, but that team has now moved on to Bakala. Since then they have left, but the Seleka are just next to the school and the parents are too scared to send their kids. The Seleka think it is normal to be based in schools.[48]

One student, a 15-year-old girl, told Human  Rights Watch:

I am scared of the Seleka in front of my school. They look at me with red eyes when I pass. Some of them smoke drugs and it makes me scared. I have not studied since 2013. I have lost years. I want to return to school, but the presence of the Seleka means it is not possible.[49]

Another student, a 16-year-old boy, said:

When school was meant to re-start a few months ago, more Seleka came and occupied it. These Seleka have stolen my future. I am not always afraid of the Seleka. I can walk by them on the road, but sometimes the men outside the school can shoot and we don’t know where the bullet will go. I want to be a teacher because I like to read. I’d like to teach that to other kids, but now I don’t know what to do.[50]

The fears of the students are grounded in years of Seleka occupation in Mbrès. One 13-year-old girl explained:

The school closed because the Seleka came and when they first arrived they threatened to lock us into our classrooms and kill us all. That frightened me. If the school reopens and I can go, but only if other students also go…  I can’t go alone. With the school closed it means I can’t be smart. My favorite subject is math and I want to be a teacher, but without the school I can’t realize my dream.[51]

Education Infrastructure Damaged and Destroyed by Military Occupation

When an armed group occupies a school, the result is frequently some amount of damage: broken or burned furniture, looted supplies. In ten of the twelve schools visited by Human

Rights Watch in November 2016 and January 2017, desks had been burned as firewood. In some instances, reading materials were deliberately destroyed.

A school official from Sekia-Dalliet, where the primary school was occupied by anti-balaka fighters from late 2014 to October 2016, explained to Human Rights Watch how his school was still suffering the consequences:

They destroyed desks and chairs. We were able to get them to vacate one of the buildings so we could restart the school, but they still occupied half of the school and ruined the building. They would smoke marijuana all day and they said they were waiting for DDR [Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration]. They would go out on the main road and put up roadblocks on the street, stop vehicles and take money from them at gunpoint. They used our school grounds as their toilet. They used the desks for firewood and destroyed at least 75 of them. When the building is repaired we will use it again.[52]

The primary school in Mbali, in the Ouham province, which Seleka fighters occupied from August 2013 to July 2016, was still impacted when Human Rights Watch visited in January 2017. One teacher told Human Rights Watch:

The Seleka took the school in 2013. Some time back we asked the Seleka to leave the school, and the fact that we asked made them angry so they made a big fire and burned all the desks and the books. Now the school is functioning, but we don’t have enough books or documents with which to teach.[53]

A 16-year-old boy from the school told Human Rights Watch, “I lost three years because the Seleka took the school. Now we don’t have enough books that I need to study, so it is making restarting my life difficult. I think about it a lot.”[54]

Seleka Response

Of the 12 schools visited by Human Rights Watch in November 2016 and January 2017, eight were either occupied or continued to be affected by the occupation of Seleka fighters from the UPC, MPC, or FPRC. Commanders from the different Seleka factions did not see how the presence of their fighters at or around the schools could negatively affect children’s ability to attend school.

In Mbrès, where Seleka fighters from the MPC and FPRC occupied schools as recently as December 2016, and continue to be based meters from school grounds, the zone commander Anour Djima said:

I don’t know why parents are scared to send their kids to school. Since 2016, we have not been inside a school or taken material, so they have no reason to be afraid of us. Also, we are here for their protection. I have now said our elements can’t sleep in schools, but yes they are stationed near them for protection.[55]

None of the three schools in Mbrès have operated since 2013.

The commander of the UPC, General Ali Darassa Mahamant, told Human Rights Watch on January 23, 2017 that his men do not occupy schools but that they may be in close proximity to schools in order to protect the population.[56] Darassa’s men continue to occupy the kindergarten and are based on school grounds in Ngadja. Local UPC commanders in Ngadja told Human Rights Watch that despite their presence on the school grounds, it was their adversary, rather than the UPC, that negatively affected schools. “It is the anti-balaka who threaten the school, not the UPC,” said Raul Antoine Oubandi, the group’s local general secretary. “It is the UPC that protects the school and allows students to study.”[57]

According to local residents, hundreds of children do not attend school in Ngadja due to the UPC’s presence.

In Zoumanga, where MPC fighters occupied the primary school until late October 2016, Seleka commanders told Human Rights Watch that their roadblock, along a road on the school grounds, serves to protect the population.[58] However, several residents of Zoumanga said fighters used the roadblock to extort money and often fired their guns on school grounds.

In Bojomo, where the primary school was occupied by MPC fighters from mid-2013 to November 2016, Seleka commanders denied that they had damaged school property and told Human Rights Watch that they were near the school to protect students.[59] Some MPC fighters have killed civilians in the town, including parents of children who are too afraid to attend class.

Anti-Balaka Response

As anti-balaka fighters in Sekia-Dalliet continue to threaten residents, Human Rights Watch did not speak with fighters in town due to security concerns.

Human Rights Watch delivered a letter to Alfred Yékatom’s office at the National Assembly on March 7, 2017, outlining our research findings and asking for a response. As of March 16, he had not replied.

III.  Legal Protections for Schools

Not all uses of schools for military purposes are prohibited by the laws of armed conflict. However, even military use of schools that do not violate the laws of armed conflict may nonetheless infringe on children’s right to education as guaranteed under international human rights law.

Unlawful and unnecessary misuse of schools is made more likely by a lack of clear regulations, training for soldiers on how schools should be protected from military use, and adequate logistical support.

In 2015, the Security Council, in Resolution 2225, expressed “deep concern that the military use of schools in contravention of applicable international law may render schools legitimate targets of attack, thus endangering the safety of children and in this regard encourages Member States to take concrete measures to deter such use of schools by armed forces and armed groups.”[60]

Law of Armed Conflict (International Humanitarian Law)

The law of armed conflict (also known as international humanitarian law) is the body of law that regulates conduct in armed conflicts. Under Additional Protocol II to the Geneva Conventions, applicable during non-international armed conflicts, it is a “fundamental guarantee” that children shall receive an education, in keeping with the wishes of their parents.[61]

Schools are normally civilian objects and, as such, shall not be the object of attack unless they become legitimate military objectives.[62] To intentionally direct attacks against schools when they are not legitimate military objectives constitutes a war crime. In case of doubt whether a school is being used to make an effective contribution to military action, it shall be presumed not to be so used.[63]

The law of armed conflict requires that the parties to a conflict take precautions against the effects of attack. To the extent that schools are civilian objects, parties to an armed conflict shall, to the maximum extent feasible, a) avoid locating military objectives within, or near, densely populated areas where schools are likely to be located; b) endeavor to remove the civilian population, individual civilians and civilian objects under their control from the vicinity of military objectives; and c) take the other necessary precautions to protect those schools under their control against the dangers resulting from military operations.[64]

Therefore, turning a school into a military objective (for example, by using it as a military barracks) subjects it to possible attacks from the enemy that might be lawful under the law of armed conflict. Locating military objectives (weapons, for example) in a school courtyard also increases the risk that the school will suffer incidental damage from an attack against those nearby military objectives that might be lawful under the law of armed conflict.

Account must also be taken of other relevant rules and principles of the law of armed conflict. Among these are special protections to children.[65] If education institutions are fully or partially used for military purposes, the life and physical safety of children might be at risk and access to education is restricted or even impeded, either because children may not go to school for fear of being killed or injured in an attack by the opposing forces, or because they have been deprived of their usual educational building.

International Human Rights Law

International human rights law guarantees students, teachers, academics, and all education staff the right to life,[66] personal liberty and security.[67] States shall also ensure, to the maximum extent possible, the survival and the development of children.[68]

Everyone has the right to education.[69] With a view to achieving the full realization of this right, states shall make primary education compulsory and available free to all; secondary education generally available and accessible to all; and higher education equally accessible to all on the basis of capacity.[70] The material conditions of teaching staff shall be continuously improved.[71] States shall also take measures to encourage regular attendance by children at schools and the reduction of child dropout rates.[72] With respect to children, states shall undertake such measures to the maximum extent of their available resources and, where needed, within the framework of international co-operation.

The Safe Schools Declaration

In June 2015, the Central African Republic endorsed the Safe Schools Declaration, which is an international political commitment to strengthening the prevention of, and response to, attacks on students, teachers, and schools during armed conflict. These include collecting reliable data on attacks and military use of schools; providing assistance to victims of attacks; investigating allegations of violations of national and international law, and prosecuting perpetrators where appropriate; developing and promoting “conflict sensitive” approaches to education; and seeking to continue education during armed conflict.

Countries that endorse the declaration also commit to refrain from using schools for military purposes, by using the “Guidelines for Protecting Schools and Universities from Military Use during Armed Conflict,” which provide guidance to both armed forces and non-state armed groups on how to avoid using schools from military use, and to mitigate the negative consequences when such use occurs.

In May 2016, the Peace and Security Council of the AU commended the Central African Republic for endorsing the Declaration and urged all other AU member states to do so.[73]

In February 2017, the Committee on the Rights of the Child—an international body of child rights experts which oversees implementation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child—also welcomed the Central African Republic for its endorsement of the Safe Schools Declaration. The Committee urged the government to “take the measures necessary to deter the use of schools by parties to the conflict, including by bringing the ‘Guidelines for Protecting Schools and Universities from Military Use during Armed Conflict’ into military policy and operational frameworks.”[74]

Standards for Peacekeeping Forces

On December 24, 2015, the head of MINUSCA, and Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General, Parfait Onanga-Ayanga, issued a directive on the protection of schools and universities against military use. The directive states that MINUSCA forces are requested “not to use schools for any purpose” and that abandoned schools, which are occupied should be “liberated without delay in order to allow educational authorities to reopen them as soon as possible.”[75]

Moreover, according to the UN Infantry Battalion Manual, which regulates the behavior of all troop-contributors:

The military has a special role to play in promoting the protection of children in their areas of operation and in preventing violations, exploitation and abuse... Therefore, special attention must be paid to the protection needs of girls and boys who are extremely vulnerable in conflict. Important issues that require compliance by infantry battalions are … schools shall not be used by the military in their operations.[76]

Examples of Good Practice Protecting Schools from Military Use

There are precedents instituted in other countries that Central African Republic could consider as examples of good practice when developing its own protections for schools from military use through legislation, military orders or in negotiations with armed groups. Many examples of such protections come from countries that also have experience with armed conflict.

In early 2013, the then Vice Prime Minister and Minister of Defense of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Alexandre Luba Ntambo, issued a ministerial directive to the army stating:

I urge you to educate all members of the [Congolese army] that all those found guilty of one of the following shortcomings will face severe criminal and disciplinary sanctions: ... Recruitment and use of children… Attacks against schools ... requisition of schools ... for military purposes, destruction of school facilities.[77]

In the Philippines, the armed forces are required to observe this strong protection:

All [Armed Forces of the Philippines] personnel shall strictly abide and respect the following: ... Basic infrastructure such as schools, hospitals and health units shall not be utilized for military purposes such as command posts, barracks, detachments, and supply depots.[78]

The armed forces of Colombia have issued the following order:

Considering International Humanitarian Law norms, it is considered a clear violation of the Principle of Distinction and the Principle of Precaution in attacks and, therefore a serious fault, the fact that a commander occupies or allows the occupation by his troops, of ... public institutions such as education establishments.[79]

During fighting between the armed forces of Sudan and the Sudanese Peoples’ Liberation Army (SPLA), both sides agreed:

The parties specifically commit themselves to ... refrain from endangering the safety of civilians by ... using civilian facilities such as ... schools to shield otherwise lawful military targets.[80]

In Nepal, the government armed forces and Maoist fighters made the following commitment as part of their peace agreement in 2006:

Both sides agree to guarantee that the right to education shall not be violated. They agree to immediately put an end to such activities as capturing educational institutions and using them, ... and not to set up army barracks in a way that would adversely impact schools.[81]

South Sudan is currently considering a proposal to amend legislation to make military use of schools by members of the national armed forces an indictable offense, with penalties including court martial, dismissal from service, and relief from command.  In September 2014, the Acting Chief of General Staff in the SPLA issued an order to all units “to reaffirm” that “all SPLA members are prohibited from…occupying or using schools in any manner.” It states any SPLA member who violates the directive is subject to the “full range of disciplinary and administrative measures available under South Sudanese and International law.”[82]

Nineteen non-state armed groups, including from Burma, India, Iran, Sudan, Syria, and Turkey, have signed deeds of commitment developed by the nongovernmental organization Geneva Call, pledging to:

... avoid using for military purposes schools or premises primarily used by children.[83]

Acknowledgments

This report was researched and written by Lewis Mudge, researcher in the Africa Division at Human Rights Watch, and Bede Sheppard, deputy director in the Children Rights Division. Thierry Messongo, research assistant in the Africa Division, provided research and translation assistance. Fred Abrahams, associate program director, and Babatunde Olugbuji, deputy program director, edited the report. Aisling Reidy, senior legal advisor provided legal review. Savannah Tryens and Lauren Seibert, associates in the Africa division, provided additional editorial assistance. Fitzroy Hepkins and Jose Martinez provided production assistance.

Photography and video footage by Edouard Dropsy.

Human Rights Watch is deeply grateful to the Dutch Postcode Lottery for its generous support of our work to document attacks on education worldwide. Thank you for making the publication of this report possible.

 

[1] A third armed group, the Central African People’s Democratic Front (Front démocratique du people centrafricain, FDPC) figures in this report. The FDPC was established by Abdoulayé Miskine (born Martin Koumatamadji) in 2005 in the north of the country near Kabo, in the Ouham province. At time of writing, the group maintained a presence in a small area near the Chadian border with a handful of combatants. Miskine signed a ceasefire in December 2006; however, in 2008 the FDPC increased attacks on government positions. The group signed other peace agreements between 2009 and 2013, which were not respected. The FDPC was affiliated with the Seleka at the start of the movement but subsequently distanced itself. The FDPC, however, continued to raid villages on the Cameroonian border and Miskine was placed on the US sanctions list in 2013. Miskine was arrested by Cameroonian authorities in late 2013, and was released and sent to the Republic of Congo a year later in what is widely assumed to be a prisoner swap. See Peter Bouckaert, “Dispatches: VIP Treatment for Warlord Sends Wrong Message in CAR,” Human Rights Watch Dispatch, December 1, 2014, https://www.hrw.org/news/2014/12/01/dispatches-vip-treatment-warlord-sends-wrong-message-car.

[2] “Central African Republic: Rampant Abuses After Coup,” Human Rights Watch news release, May 10, 2013, https://www.hrw.org/news/2013/05/10/central-african-republic-rampant-abuses-after-coup; or “Central African Republic: Seleka Forces Kill Scores, Burn Villages,” Human Rights Watch news release, June 27, 2013, https://www.hrw.org/news/2013/06/27/central-african-republic-seleka-forces-kill-scores-burn-villages.

[3] “Balaka” means “machete” in Sango. Like other organizations and observers, Human Rights Watch originally erroneously equated “anti-balaka” with “anti-machete”.

[4] Human Rights Watch, They Came to Kill: Escalating Atrocities in the Central African Republic, December 18, 2013, https://www.hrw.org/report/2013/12/18/they-came-kill/escalating-atrocities-central-african-republic. 

[5] United Nations Security Council, Resolution 2127 (2013), S/RES/2127 (2013), https://www.un.org/en/sc/documents/resolutions/2013.shtml.

[6] Bienvenue Marina Moulou-Gnatho, “Centrafrique: Des regroupements de combattants ex-Séléka signalés à Bria,” Réseau des journalists pour les droits de l’homme, August 18, 2016. http://rjdh.org/centrafrique-regroupements-de-combattants-ex-seleka-signales-a-bria/.

[7] “Central African Republic: Civilians Killed During Clashes,” Human Rights Watch news release, December 5, 2016, https://www.hrw.org/news/2016/12/05/central-african-republic-civilians-killed-during-clashes.

[8] “Central African Republic: Executions by Rebel Group,” Human Rights Watch news release, February 16, 2017, https://www.hrw.org/news/2017/02/16/central-african-republic-executions-rebel-group.

[9] United Nations Security Council, Resolution 2149 (2014), S/RES/2149 (2014), http://www.un.org/en/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol=S/RES/2149(2014).

[10] Global Campaign for Education, “Back to School? The Worst Places in the World to be a School Child in 2010,” September 2010, http://www.campaignforeducation.org/docs/reports/1goal/1Goal%20School%20Report.pdf

[11] Cluster Education en République Centrafricaine, “A Step Back: The Impact of the Recent Crisis on Education in the Central African Republic,” September 2013, http://www.protectingeducation.org/sites/default/files/documents/a_step_back.pdf pp. 8 and 17.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Watchlist on Children in Armed Conflict, “Vulnerable Students, Unsafe Schools: Attacks and Military Use of Schools in the Central African Republic,” September 2015, http://watchlist.org/wp-content/uploads/2144-Watchlist-CAR_EN_LR.pdf pp. 14 and 23-26.

[14] UN Security Council, Report of the UN Secretary-General on Children and Armed Conflict in the Central African Republic, February 12, 2016, http://www.un.org/en/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol=S/2016/133 para. 35.

[15] République Centrafricaine – Cluster Education, “Education Cluster Assessment on the State of Education in the Central African Republic, End of the First Semester, April 2015,” April 2015 https://www.humanitarianresponse.info/fr/node/85330 p. 25.

[16] United Nations Office of the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, “Plan de Réponse Humanitaire, 2017-2019,” November 2016, http://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/rca_ocha_2016_hrp.pdf p. 8.

[17] United Nations Office of the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, “Rapport Périodique de Monitoring: Plan de Réponse Humanitaire 2016 – Centrafrique,” January – April 2016, https://www.humanitarianresponse.info/en/system/files/documents/files/rca_ocha_16_pmr01.pdf p. 17.

[18] “Central African Republic: Deadly Raid on Displaced People,” Human Rights Watch news release, November 1, 2016, https://www.hrw.org/news/2016/11/01/central-african-republic-deadly-raid-displaced-people.

[19] Human Rights Watch interview with resident of Kaga-Bandoro, Kaga-Bandoro (name withheld), October 19, 2016.

[20] “Central African Republic: Executions by Rebel Group,” Human Rights Watch news release, February 16, 2017.

[21] Correspondence with UN employee, February 27, 2017.

[22] Watchlist on Children in Armed Conflict, “Vulnerable Students, Unsafe Schools: Attacks and Military Use of Schools in the Central African Republic,” September 2015, and UN Security Council, Report of the UN Secretary-General on Children and Armed Conflict in the Central African Republic, February 12, 2016.

[23] Watchlist on Children in Armed Conflict, “Vulnerable Students, Unsafe Schools: Attacks and Military Use of Schools in the Central African Republic,” September 2015, page 29.

[24] UN Security Council, Report of the UN Secretary General on Children and Armed Conflict (A/69/926-S/2015/409) http://www.securitycouncilreport.org/atf/cf/%7B65BFCF9B-6D27-4E9C-8CD3-CF6E4FF96FF9%7D/s_2015_409.pdf, para. 46. Some of these schools may have been the same as reported by the education cluster.

[25] The Central Africa Multinational Force, or FOMAC, was the African Union force that preceded MISCA.

[26] UN Security Council, Report of the UN Secretary-General on Children and Armed Conflict in the Central African Republic, February 12, 2016, para. 54.

[27] Human Rights Watch interview with teacher (name withheld), Sekia-Dalliet, January 17, 2017.

[28] Yékatom was an officer in the national army before the conflict and promoted himself to “colonel” when he became a key anti-balaka leader in 2013. In August 2015, the United Nations Security Council Committee added him to the sanctions list. Despite this, he ran for parliament in 2015 and won a seat representing Mbaïki in the Lobaye province. For more information see: Security Council Committee Concerning Central African Republic Lists One Entity, Three Individuals Subject to Measures Imposed by Resolution 2196 (2015); UN Security Council press release, SC/12018, August 20, 2015, http://www.un.org/press/en/2015/sc12018.doc.htm; and UN Panel of Experts on the Central African Republic, Midterm Report of the Panel of Experts on the Central African Republic, August 11, 2016, published in letter dated 9 August 2016 from the Panel of Experts on the Central African Republic established to the President of the Security Council, S/2016/694, para 22.

[29] Human Rights Watch interview with student (name withheld), Ngadja, January 24, 2017.

[30] Human Rights Watch interview with Seleka MPC commanders Adraman Dambiti and Mamadou Adamou, Zoumanga, January 20, 2017.

[31] Human Rights Watch interview with FDPC leader Gustave, Zoukomo, January 27, 2017.

[32] A team mandated to facilitate the work of and report to the UN Sanctions Committee.

[33] UN Panel of Experts on the Central African Republic, Midterm Report of the Panel of Experts on the Central African Republic, August 11, 2016, S/2016/694, paras. 102-105.

[34] Ibid, annex 33, page 82.

[35] “Central African Republic: Executions by Rebel Group,” Human Rights Watch news release, February 16, 2017.

[36] Human Rights Watch interview, De Gaulle, November 25, 2016.

[37]“Central African Republic: Executions by Rebel Group,” Human Rights Watch news release, February 16, 2017.

[38] Human Rights Watch interview with resident of Mourouba, Mourouba (name withheld), January 22, 2017.

[39] Human Rights Watch interview with resident of Mourouba (name withheld), January 22, 2017.

[40] Human Rights Watch interview with resident of Ngadja, Ngadja (name withheld), January 24, 2017.

[41] Human Rights Watch interview with resident of Ngadja, Ngadja (name withheld), January 24, 2017.

[42] Human Rights Watch interview with school official, Zoumanga (name withheld), January 20, 2017.

[43] Human Rights Watch interview with resident of Zoumanga, Zoumanga (name withheld), January 20, 2017.

[44] Human Rights Watch interview with resident of Zoumanga, Zoumanga (name withheld), January 20, 2017.

[45] MPC fighters also occupied a school in Kouki, approximately 30 kilometers south of Bojomo around this time. See, UN Panel of Experts on the Central African Republic, Final Report of the Panel of Experts on the Central African Republic, December 5, 2016, pursuant to Security Council Resolution 2262 (2016) addressed to the President of the Security Council, S/2016/694, para. 200.

[46] Human Rights Watch interview with school official (name withheld), Bojomo, January 19, 2017.

[47] Human Rights Watch interview with resident of Bojomo, Bojomo (name withheld), January 19, 2017.

[48] Human Rights Watch interview with student (name withheld), Mbrès, January 21, 2017.

[49] Human Rights Watch interview with student (name withheld), Mbrès, January 21, 2017.

[50] Human Rights Watch interview with student (name withheld), Mbrès, January 21, 2017.

[51] Human Rights Watch interview with student (name withheld), Mbrès, January 21, 2017.

[52] Human Rights Watch interview with official (name withheld), Sekia-Dalliet, January 17, 2017.

[53] Human Rights Watch interview with teacher (name withheld), Mbali, January 19, 2017. 

[54] Human Rights Watch interview with student (name withheld), Mbali, January 19, 2017.

[55] Human Rights Watch interview with Anour Djima, Mbrès, January 21, 2017. 

[56] Human Rights Watch interview with Ali Darassa Mahamant, January 23, 2017.

[57] Human Rights Watch interview with Zone Commander Commandant Kouba and General Secretary Raul Antoine Oubandi, Ngadja, January 24, 2017.

[58] Human Rights Watch interview with Seleka MPC commanders Adraman Dambiti and Mamadou Adamou, Zoumanga, January 20, 2017.

[59] Human Rights Watch interview with Seleka MPC commander, Bjomo, January 19, 2017.

[60] Security Council Resolution 2225, June 18, 2015, S/Res/2225 (2015), para. 7.

[61] Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, and relating to the Protection of Victims of Non-International Armed Conflicts (Additional Protocol II), 1125 U.N.T.S. 609, entered into force December 7, 1978, art. 4(3)(a).

[62] Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, and relating to the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts (Additional Protocol I), adopted June 8, 1977, 1125 U.N.T.S. 3, entered into force December 7, 1978, art. 52(1). This rule is also part of customary law for international and non-international armed conflicts; International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Customary International Humanitarian Law, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), rules 9 and 10; Additional Protocol I, art. 52(2). This rule is also part of customary law; ICRC, Customary International Humanitarian Law, rule 8; International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), Final Report to the Prosecutor by the Committee Established to Review the NATO Bombing Campaign Against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, The Hague, June 14, 2000, sec. 41.

[63] Additional Protocol I, art. 52(3). The principle of presumption of civilian character in case of doubt is also contained in Amended Protocol II to the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons.

[64] Ibid, art. 58(a), (b), and (c). These rules are also part of customary law. See ICRC, Customary International Humanitarian Law, rules 22-24. See also ICTY, Kupreškić et al case, Judgment, Trial Chamber, 14 January 2000, secs. 524-525.

[65] On the special protection afforded to children in armed conflicts, see Geneva Convention relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War (Fourth Geneva Convention), adopted August 12, 1949, 75 U.N.T.S. 287, entered into force October 21, 1950, arts. 14, 17, 23, 24, 38, 50, 82, 89, 94, 132; Additional Protocol I, arts. 70, 77, 78; Additional Protocol II, arts. 4 and 6.

[66] International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), adopted December 10, 1948, G.A. Res 217A (III), U.N. Doc. A.810 at 71 (1948), art. 6; African [Banjul] Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR), adopted June 27, 1981, OAU Doc. CAB/LEG/67/3 rev.5, 21 I.L.M. 58 (1982), entered into force October 21, 1986, art. 4; and UN Human Rights Committee, General Comment No. 6, the Right to Life (1982).

[67] ICCPR, arts. 9 & 10; see also ACHPR, art. 6.

[68] Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), adopted November 20, 1989, G.A. Res. 44/25, annex, 44; U.N. GAOR Supp. (No. 49) at 5, U>N> Doc A/54/49 (Vol.1) (2000), entered into force December 22, 2000, art. 6.

[69] International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), adopted December 16, 1966, G.A. Res. 2200 (XXI), 21 U.N. GAOR Supp. (No. 16) at 49, U.N. Doc. A/6316 (1966), 993 U.N.T.S. 3, entered into force January 3, 1976, art. 13; and CRC, art. 28. See also ACHPR, art. 17; African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, OAU Doc. CAB/LEG/24.9/49 (1990), entered into force November 29, 1999, art. 11.

[70] ICESCR, art. 13(2)(a)-(d); and CRC, art. 28(a)-(d).

[71] ICESCR, art. 13(e).

[72] CRC, art. 28(e).

[73] Press Statement on the Peace and Security Council of the African Union’s 597th meeting on May 10, 2016: “Children in Armed Conflicts in Africa with particular focus on protecting schools from attacks during armed conflict.”

[74] Concluding observations on the second periodic report of the Democratic Republic of Congo, CRC/C/CAF/CO/2, February 3, 2017, paras. 62-63.

[75] “MINUSCA directive on the protection of schools and universities against military use,” Inter-Office Memorandum, December 24, 2015. Copy of file with Human Rights Watch.

[76] Department of Peacekeeping Operations, Department of Field Support, United Nations Infantry Battalion Manual, 2012, sec. 2.13.

[77] Ministerial Directive on the Implementation of the Action Plan, Ministry of Defense, Disarmament and Veterans, N° VPM/MDNAC/CAB/0909/2013, May 3, 2013.

[78] Philippines, Armed Forces of the Philippines Letter Directive No. 34, GHQ AFP, November 24, 2009, http://www.protectingeducation.org/sites/default/files/documents/philippines_armed_forces_letter_directive_no_34.pdf, para. 7.

[79] Colombia, General Commander of the Military Forces, Order of July 6, 2010, No. 2010124005981 / CGFM-CGING-25.11.

[80] Sudan, Agreement between the Government of the Republic of Sudan and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement to protect non-combatant civilians and civilian facilities from military attack (2002), http://peacemaker.un.org/sites/peacemaker.un.org/files/SD_020331_Agreement%20to%20Protect%20NonCombatant%20Civilians%20from%20Military%20Attack.pdf

[81] Nepal, Comprehensive Peace Agreement concluded between the Government of Nepal and the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) (2006), http://un.org.np/node/10498 (accessed September 18, 2015).

[82] Order 557/9/2014 from Lieutenant General Thomas Cirillo Swaka, Acting Chief of Staff of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army of South Sudan (SPLA), September 11, 2014; see also General Order 0001 of General James Hoth Mai, Chief of General Staff of the SPLA, August 14, 2013.

[83] Geneva Call, Deed of Commitment under Geneva Call for the Protection of Children from the Effects of the Armed Conflict (2010), http://www.genevacall.org/wp-content/uploads/dlm_uploads/2013/12/DoC-Protecting-children-in-armedconflict.pdf, art. 7.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

All photos © 2017 Edouard Dropsy for Human Rights Watch 

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

(Tunis) – Libyan National Army (LNA) forces may have committed war crimes, including killing and beating civilians, and summarily executing and desecrating bodies of opposition fighters in the eastern city of Benghazi on and around March 18, 2017, Human Rights Watch said today. The army forces allegedly intercepted civilians trying to flee a besieged neighborhood, some accompanied by opposition fighters, and the whereabouts of some civilians are unknown.

A member of the Libyan National Army, the armed forces allied with the Interim Government in al-Bayda, stands next to a hole on a wall during clashes with the Benghazi Revolutionaries Shura Council, an Islamist militia alliance, in Benghazi, Libya. 

© 2015 REUTERS/Esam Omran Al-Fetori

Khalifa Hiftar, the commander of the LNA forces in eastern Libya, should order a full and transparent investigation into recent alleged crimes by forces under his command, including attacks on civilians, alleged summary executions, and the mutilation and desecration of corpses, and hold those responsible to account.

“The LNA leadership needs to respond urgently to these deeply disturbing allegations by investigating the suspected perpetrators, including senior military commanders who may bear individual responsibility,” said Joe Stork, Middle East and North Africa deputy director at Human Rights Watch.

Relatives, activists, and local journalists told Human Rights Watch by phone that dozens of civilians unexpectedly fled the besieged Ganfouda neighborhood in the eastern city of Benghazi on March 18, 2017, after a nearly two-year stand-off between LNA forces and fighters of the Benghazi Revolutionaries Shura Council (BRSC), a coalition of armed groups opposing the LNA. About half of the civilians, some accompanied by BRSC fighters, fled to al-Sabri and Souq Elhout neighborhoods in downtown Benghazi, which remain under BRSC control. LNA fighters intercepted about seven families after one of their cars broke down and attacked and killed some of them and arrested others, the relatives said.

Human Rights Watch reviewed videos and photos shared by family members of victims, local journalists, and activists that purport to show bodies of BRSC fighters in Benghazi that LNA fighters allegedly desecrated and mutilated during or after the March 18 evacuation of Ganfouda residents.

 
In a letter sent to Hiftar on March 8, 2017, Human Rights Watch raised concerns for the safety of Ganfouda residents trapped by the fighting and said that LNA leaders should ensure safe passage for civilians and unimpeded delivery of aid. The LNA should also provide detailed information about the screening procedures for civilians and fighters who evacuated the besieged neighborhood, and about the arrest of some of them, Human Rights Watch said in the letter. The LNA has yet to respond.
 

The LNA announced on March 18, that its forces had evacuated seven families who had remained in buildings no. 12 in the Ganfouda neighborhood, the last bastion of fighting between the LNA and BRSC in the neighborhood. But the LNA has not provided information on the whereabouts of the civilians, whether it has finished screening them, and whether any civilians have been detained or charged with a crime.

On March 20, 2017, the LNA leadership issued a statement decrying incidents in which members of the LNA were caught on video and photos committing serious violations, including desecration, burning, and mutilation of corpses. The statement said that the LNA would arrest those suspected of the violations and bring them before an investigative committee. On March 21, the spokesperson of the army special forces, Saiqa, which is a part of the LNA, issued a statement that appears to defend some of the violations. But a statement later that day by the special forces commander pledged to hold those responsible for the desecration of BRSC fighters’ remains to account.

One video shared with Human Rights Watch appears to show the exhumed remains of the BRSC commander, Jalal Makhzoum, local journalists told Human Rights Watch. In the video, LNA fighters are seen cheering and accompanying the body, tied to a car hood, as they parade through the streets of Benghazi. The BRSC issued a statement announcing Makhzoum’s death on March 18, 2017.

A separate video purportedly shows the body of a BRSC fighter hanging from a concrete barrier at the entry to an army camp as LNA fighters cheer and pose for photographs with the corpse. In another photo, the body of a dead fighter is seen lying on the back of a truck as an unidentified man cuts off the ears and hands. In yet another photo, an unidentified fighter in military fatigues poses for a photograph next to a burning corpse.

Activists and local journalists said that these photos were taken during or after the LNA’s operation to retake the Ganfouda neighborhood on March 18, 2017. Human Rights Watch researchers were unable to verify the date and location of the incidents.

Desecration of the bodies of fighters is prohibited by Libyan and international law. Articles 292 and 293 of the Libyan Penal Code prohibit the desecration of corpses. International humanitarian law obligates all conflict parties to take all possible measures to prevent bodies of the dead from being despoiled.

In an undated video, widely shared over social media, Mahmoud al-Warfalli, a captain in the LNA special forces, is seen shooting three men in the back of the head with a machine gun as they kneel facing a wall with their hands tied behind their backs. Local journalists told Human Rights Watch that the executions took place in Benghazi during the final battle for Ganfouda on or around March 18, 2017.

The LNA special forces spokesman issued a statement on March 21, defending al-Warfalli’s actions as having occurred “within the battlefields.” Activists told Human Rights Watch that the three victims were Tuareg fighters from Ubari who appeared on photos, while alive, apparently in detention by LNA forces.

In another undated video, a man in military fatigues is seen being chased out of a building by a mob of more than a dozen fighters, most dressed in army fatigues. They beat, insult, and throw him to the ground, then line up in a row facing him and several summarily execute him with machine guns. Benghazi activists say that this incident took place in the Qwarsha district of Benghazi. Human Rights Watch was unable to confirm the exact circumstances of this incident.

Relatives of families who held out in Benghazi also shared a video of two sisters, both children, who had been caught by LNA soldiers as they attempted to flee the Ganfouda siege on March 18, 2017. In the video, an LNA fighter interviews both girls, who allege that an LNA fighter beat them and their mother during the evacuation. Relatives of Ganfouda residents believed both girls to be 14 or 15-years-old. Their whereabouts are unknown.

Other relatives shared with Human Rights Watch information and photos of their family members who they said were killed attempting to flee Ganfouda on March 18, 2017. The victims included an unidentified girl, a 75-year-old woman, and a 47-year-old man. Relatives said that LNA forces killed all three as residents attempted to flee. Human Rights Watch was not able to independently verify these claims or exact circumstances of their deaths.

By issuing statements justifying these barbaric acts, the LNA leadership is implicating themselves in what appear to be war crimes, Human Rights Watch said.

“Forces under the Libyan National Army have been committing serious human rights violations for some time, unchecked, and with impunity,” Stork said. “Senior military commanders need to know that they too can be held accountable unless they actively do something to stop these violations.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

(Erbil) – The Islamic State (also known as ISIS) executed and dumped the bodies of possibly hundreds of detainees at a site near Mosul, Human Rights Watch said today.

Multiple witnesses told Human Rights Watch that the bodies of those killed, including bodies of members of Iraqi security forces, were thrown into a naturally occurring sinkhole at a site known as Khafsa, about eight kilometers south of western Mosul. Local residents said that before pulling out of the area in mid-February, ISIS laid improvised landmines at the site, which are sometimes referred to as improvised explosive devices or booby traps.

“This mass grave is a grotesque symbol of ISIS’s cruel and depraved conduct – a crime of a monumental scale,” said Lama Fakih, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Laying landmines in the mass grave is clearly an attempt by ISIS to maximize harm to Iraqis.”
 

The Islamic State (also known as ISIS) executed and dumped the bodies of possibly hundreds of detainees at a site near Mosul.

 

Iraqi authorities should make it a priority to mark and fence the site for the protection of the mass grave and those in the area, until deminers can clear the site, Human Rights Watch said. Residents said that water runs through the bottom of the sinkhole, which may make it difficult to exhume the human remains there. If exhumation is possible, the process should be carried out under international standards. Authorities should turn the site into a memorial and support families of victims seeking justice for the executions.

The site is one of dozens of ISIS mass graves found between Iraq and Syria, but could be the largest discovered thus far, Human Rights Watch said. While it is not possible to determine the number of people executed at the site, the estimates of residents, based on executions they witnessed and what ISIS fighters in the area had told them, reaches into the thousands.

Iraqi forces seized control of the site in mid-February 2017. Human Rights Watch visited the site on March 7, but did not inspect the sinkhole closely due to the landmines. An improvised explosive device left at the sinkhole killed a journalist and at least three Iraqi security forces on February 25.

Residents said they had seen multiple mass executions at the 35-meter-wide sinkhole, sometimes on a weekly basis starting in June 2014 until May or June 2015. They said they heard ISIS fighters talking about other executions, including of former police, former Iraqi Security Force members, and members of the Awakening Force (Sahwa), the Sunni force that fought extremist fighters from 2007 to 2008.

Some of the victims may also have been detainees at Badoush Prison, 10 kilometers west of Mosul, which ISIS captured on June 10, 2014. On that day, ISIS fighters executed about 600 prisoners at a ravine in the nearby desert, nine survivors told Human Rights Watch.

On March 11, 2017, the Iraqi Security Forces announced that they had found another mass grave, about two kilometers from Badoush prison, that held between 500 and 600 men – though it is unclear how they determined these numbers. On March 13, Human Rights Watch spoke to an Iraqi military commander who had visited the site four days earlier and had witnessed Iraqi forces exhuming bodies there. On March 15, a general in the Iraqi military’s 9th division told Human Rights Watch that under the division’s supervision, medical experts from Baghdad had exhumed about 400 bodies from the site.

 
Fawaz Abdulameer of the International Committee for Missing Persons, an international organization working to establish effective procedures for protecting mass graves and conducting exhumations, told Human Rights Watch: “These excavations are unacceptable. They must be carried out by trained teams with sufficient experience, because they are dealing with human remains at a crime scene.”

This is the second report of ad hoc and unprofessional exhumations taking place without authorization.

Widespread or systematic murder carried out by a state or organized group as part of an attack against a civilian population – as part of a policy to commit murder – constitutes a crime against humanity. The deliberate killing of civilians and civilian or military prisoners during an armed conflict constitutes a war crime.

To facilitate accountability for these crimes, Iraq should ratify the Rome Statute, giving the International Criminal Court jurisdiction over war crimes and crimes against humanity there, and should incorporate the prosecution of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide into its domestic law.

All parties to the conflict in Iraq should respect the 1997 Ottawa (Mine Ban) Treaty, which Iraq has ratified.

 A marked and fenced ISIS mass grave in Hammam al-Alil, 30 kilometers south of Mosul, discovered in November 2016.

© 2017 Belkis Wille/Human Rights Watch

“The strong desire to exhume the remains of loved ones from ISIS mass graves is perfectly understandable, but hastily conducted exhumations seriously harm the chances of identifying the victims and preserving evidence,” Fakih said. “While exhuming the remains of those killed at Khafsa may be difficult, authorities should do what they can to make sure that those who lost their loved ones there have access to justice.”

 
The Killings at Khafsa

Five residents from villages near Khafsa told Human Rights Watch that on June 10, 2014, they saw ISIS fighters bring four large trucks filled with blindfolded men, with their hands bound, to the sinkhole. Two residents of al-Athba, a village three kilometers from Khafsa, two residents of Swada, a neighboring village, and a resident of Irbid, three kilometers away, who were able to see the site, described what they saw.

The witnesses said the fighters unloaded the men, lined most of them up on the edge of the sinkhole, and opened fire so that the bodies fell in. Fighters shot a smaller number of people a short distance away and threw their bodies into the hole, the witnesses said. One of the men from al-Athba and the man from Irbid said ISIS fighters later told them that the men they had executed were prisoners from Badoush.

The killings at the Khafsa sinkhole apparently continued regularly from late 2014 to mid-2015. One of the residents from Swada, a shepherd, said that in September 2014, he was near Khafsa and saw male ISIS fighters arrive in a pickup truck with at least 13 women, all with full face coverings and cloaks and blindfolds, with their hands bound. He said the ISIS fighters shot the women on the precipice of the pit. He said he witnessed three more group executions subsequently, including the execution of three of his relatives.

One of al-Athba residents, also a shepherd, said he witnessed one execution at the end of 2014, after ISIS fighters called on the residents of al-Athba to come to the sinkhole over the mosque loudspeaker. Fighters brought three of his friends and his cousin to the site because they were accused of having shared GPS coordinates of ISIS positions with the Iraqi forces, he said. The fighters beheaded the men on a wooden block in front of the town residents, and then threw the bodies into the pit. He said fighters told him they had killed another of his cousins, an army officer, and dumped him in the pit.

The shepherd from al-Athba said that at another time, at the end of 2014, he was with his sheep in the area and saw ISIS fighters arrive in two cars and drag out a very large, strong man. They walked him up onto the precipice of the sinkhole, and as they were about to shoot him, he grabbed one of the fighters and jumped into the hole, holding him. Two witnesses of multiple executions said that fighters started carrying out executions further from the precipice after that because of the fighter they had lost.

Another shepherd from al-Athba said that in February 2015 he was about 30 meters from Khafsa with his sheep when he saw six ISIS fighters arrive in a large bus and march at least 20 men to flat ground near the sinkhole. They lined the men up and shot them, then threw their bodies in, he said. In March 2015, the man said, he was again in the area with his sheep and saw two fighters pull up in a car, take four prisoners out, and shoot them near the pit, then throw their bodies into the sinkhole.

Human Rights Watch interviewed a family from Kudila, 60 kilometers southeast of Khafsa, who had fled their home in March 2016. The husband, a former Iraqi soldier, said that ISIS had imprisoned him for 18 days in Qayyarah in March 2015 for selling cigarettes. He said that fighters took several prisoners from the facility while he was there, and he overheard guards saying they were taking them to Khafsa for execution. The prisoners did not return.

Another man from Sawda said that in early 2015, he saw fighters driving 11 freezer trucks toward the sinkhole, and heard from local ISIS fighters that as many as 1,000 people transported to the site in those trucks had been executed that day.

The five people living near Khafsa said they had heard estimates of between 3,000 and 25,000 people executed at the site. They said they often heard screams and gunfire. By early 2015, the stench from the bodies had become unbearable and families were telling ISIS fighters that they would need to move to Mosul if it persisted. One of al-Athba residents said: “It was summer so we had to sleep on the roof, but we were not able to sleep because the stench of the dead was so strong. The smell was overwhelming.” Another said, “The smell was disgusting, we were inside our houses but the smell still reached us.”

In response to the complaints, fighters brought several cranes and dumped the contents of several large trailers into the hole then filled the rest of the pit with earth using several excavators, according to two of the residents Human Rights Watch interviewed. One said, “They [ISIS] told us the trailers were also full of bodies.” ISIS did not carry out any more executions at the site after it was filled in, all the locals said. They said the smell of decomposing bodies diminished after that.

Satellite imagery analyzed by Human Rights Watch shows that the sinkhole was filled in sometime between March and June 2015.

 

Satellite imagery showing the Khafsa sinkhole being filled in by June 2015.

 
 

 
© 2017 DigitalGlobe

By the time Iraqi government forces retook the area around the sinkhole in February 2017, the filled-in earth had started to subside. Images taken then by international journalists show the remains of what look like two cars in the middle of the filled-in pit.

The location was already labeled on the open-source online map, Wikimapia, as an ISIS mass grave in April 2014 by an unnamed user, before the area had fallen to ISIS-control, but when there was already a strong ISIS presence in the area. The two shepherds from al-Athba and a federal police officer said that as early as 2004, Al-Qaeda in Iraq, the precursor group to ISIS, had used the sinkhole to dump bodies of people they executed for allegedly collaborating with the Americans or the Iraqi and Kurdistan Regional Governments.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Multiple witnesses told Human Rights Watch that the bodies of those killed, including bodies of members of Iraqi security forces, were thrown into a naturally occurring sinkhole at a site known as Khafsa, about eight kilometers south of western Mosul. Local residents said that before pulling out of the area in mid-February, ISIS laid improvised landmines at the site, which are sometimes referred to as improvised explosive devices or booby traps.

“This mass grave is a grotesque symbol of ISIS’s cruel and depraved conduct – a crime of a monumental scale,” said Lama Fakih, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Laying landmines in the mass grave is clearly an attempt by ISIS to hide evidence of its crimes.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

(Washington, DC) – Members of the Global Coalition against Daesh (another name for the Islamic State) meeting in Washington, DC, on March 22 should make protecting civilians and justice for victims priorities in their ongoing battle against the group, Human Rights Watch said today in a memorandum to the participants. Based on violations documented, Human Rights Watch highlighted five key areas that coalition members need to improve in their conduct of operations.

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will host the foreign ministers of the Global Coalition working to defeat the Islamic State (also known as ISIS). It will be the first meeting of the full coalition, now at 68 members, since December 2014. The aim of the meeting, according to a coalition press release, is “to accelerate international efforts to defeat Daesh in the remaining areas it holds in Iraq and Syria and maximize pressure on its branches, affiliates, and networks.” ISIS has carried out war crimes and atrocities amounting to crimes against humanity, including systematic rape.

“In fighting ISIS, coalition members should not lose sight of the fact that their aim should not just be to retake territory but to make sure they take all precautions to protect the people still living in these areas,” said Nadim Houry, terrorism and counterterrorism director at Human Rights Watch. “A victory against ISIS that does not address the security needs of civilians and leaves them at the mercy of revenge attacks will ring hollow.”

Human Rights Watch urges coalition members to make the following commitments:

  1. Take all feasible precautions to avoid civilian casualties and investigate potentially unlawful strikes: Given the discrepancy in reporting of the various coalition members, the coalition should establish baseline public reporting and investigation standards for all coalition members.
  1. Cease support for any abusive groups: Human Rights Watch has documented widespread violations by ground forces battling ISIS. These violations include summary executions, beatings, and torture of men in custody, as well as arbitrary detention and enforced disappearances, destruction of civilian objects, use of child soldiers, and mutilation of corpses. Despite these reports, the coalition has yet to develop procedures for robust vetting and investigations of allegations of abuse by local partners.
  1. Provide safe passage to fleeing civilians and provide sufficient support to displaced people: Aid agencies are bracing for the possibility that an additional 300,000-320,000 civilians may flee in coming weeks from western parts of Mosul during the Iraq operation. People fleeing have reported grave dangers in trying to escape. The UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq has reported that aid agencies are operating “at their limit.” Aid workers have expressed similar concerns regarding any future offensive on Raqqa in Syria. Coalition members should ensure that there is a clear and coordinated plan for civilians to flee areas of fighting for safety and to get the aid they need once they have reached safety.
  1. Clear commitment to justice for victims: There has been considerable media attention surrounding the grave crimes committed by ISIS in violation of international law, but few concrete plans to provide justice for these crimes. Many ISIS victims are left without any access to justice or assistance. Coalition members should make justice a key pillar in its fight against ISIS by adopting concrete measures to assist victims, collect and preserve evidence, and support efforts to investigate and prosecute serious crimes. Beyond the crimes that ISIS has committed, other actors who have committed grave crimes should also be held to account.
  1. Increase efforts to survey and clear landmines and explosive remnants of war: Improvised mines laid by ISIS have killed and injured hundreds of civilians returning to their homes, including children. UN Mine Action Service (UNMAS) officials have estimated that it could cost $50 million to remove mines, which are often referred to as victim-activated improvised explosive devices or booby traps, from in and around the Iraqi city of Mosul. In Syria, UNMAS estimates that more than 6.3 million people including 2 million children live in contaminated areas after nearly six years of war. Mine clearance efforts should be a priority to ensure the safe return of civilians.

“What happens after ISIS is defeated is in many ways as important as the actual defeat of ISIS,” Houry said. “The coalition will not be able to say, ‘Mission Accomplished’ without addressing justice, governance, and displacement.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

(São Paulo) – The Saudi-led coalition launched Brazilian-made cluster munition rockets that struck a farm in northern Yemen in late February 2017, wounding two boys, Human Rights Watch said today.

“The Saudi-led coalition’s continued use of widely banned cluster munitions in Yemen shows callous disregard for civilian lives,” said Steve Goose, arms director at Human Rights Watch and chair of the Cluster Munition Coalition, the international coalition of groups working to eradicate cluster munitions. “Saudi Arabia, its coalition partners, and Brazil, as a producer, should immediately join the widely endorsed international treaty that bans cluster munitions.”

Cluster munitions are delivered from the ground by artillery and rockets, or dropped from aircraft and contain multiple smaller explosive submunitions that spread out indiscriminately over a wide area. Many fail to detonate and leave unexploded submunitions that become de facto landmines, posing a threat long after a conflict ends.

Part of the bursting mechanism from an ASTROS cluster munition rocket lies where it was reported to land in Qahza, Saada governorate on February 22, 2017.

© 2017 Private

On February 22, at about 3 p.m., Muhammad Dhayf-Allah, 10, and Ahmad Abdul-Khaleq, 12, were working at their relatives’ farm at Qahza, in the al-O’albi area of northern Saada governorate, when it was attacked. Human Rights Watch interviewed by telephone two men who witnessed the strike. One witness provided photographs taken at the attack site shortly afterward that show remnants of part of a cluster munition rocket. Both witnesses said they heard a loud explosion followed by several smaller explosions, consistent with a cluster munition attack.

Muhammad Hunish Hawza, 60, an uncle of the boys, was in Qahza that day. “We heard blasts in the air, dozens of multiple small blasts together,” he said. “The small bombs fell over us.”

One of the farm owners, Tareq Ahmad Saleh al-O’airi, 25, said he had been in a greenhouse with the boys pruning cucumber and tomato plants. They heard a blast, went outside, and saw a bomb explode about 50 meters away. He said he told the frightened children to lie down.

“One of the bombs fell five meters away and exploded over us, wounding the two children,” he said. “Two or three bombs exploded inside the greenhouses [and] around 60 bombs exploded in the area. It was like Judgment Day.”

Dhayf-Allah was wounded in his left forearm, and Abdul-Khaleq in his right thigh and back. Relatives took the boys to al-Jumhouri Hospital for treatment.

Part of the bursting mechanism from an ASTROS cluster munition rocket lies where it reportedly landed at Qahza, Saada governorate on February 22, 2017.

© 2017 Private
Photographs that al-O’airi provided show part of the bursting mechanism from an ASTROS II cluster munition rocket lying where witnesses said it landed, near a greenhouse at the farm. Other photographs show solar panels damaged by fragmentation consistent with submunitions from a cluster munition attack. Hawza, the boys’ uncle, said that the attack destroyed more than 30 solar panels.

Al-O’airi said that the farm is three to five kilometers north of al-Saifi military camp, which is controlled by the Houthi-Saleh forces fighting the coalition. Both witnesses said this was the second time coalition attacks have hit the farm since the coalition began its aerial campaign in Yemen in support of the government of President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi against the Houthi-Saleh forces in March 2015.

ASTROS cluster munition rockets have been used on at least three previous occasions since the Saudi-led coalition began its intervention in Yemen, killing two civilians and wounding at least 10.

ASTROS II surface-to-surface rockets are delivered by a truck-mounted, multibarrel rocket launcher. Each rocket contains up to 65 submunitions. Bahrain and Saudi Arabia have purchased ASTROS cluster munition rockets from Brazil, where they are manufactured by Avibrás Indústria Aeroespacial SA.

Solar panels damaged by the February 22 attack on Qahza, Saada governorate. The fragmentation damage is consistent with impact caused by submunitions from cluster munitions.

© 2017 Private

On March 9, 2017, the Brazilian arms manufacturer Avibras stated that it could not confirm its cluster munitions had been used in Yemen, but claimed that since 2001, its ASTROS cluster munition rockets have been equipped with a “reliable self-destruct device that complies with humanitarian principles and legislation” of the Convention on Cluster Munitions.

Cluster munitions are prohibited by a 2008 treaty ratified by 100 countries and signed by another 19, though not by Yemen, Brazil, and Saudi Arabia, and its coalition partners Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Qatar, Sudan, and the United Arab Emirates.

The back of solar panels after the Februry 22 attack on Qahza Saada governorate. The fragmentation damage is consistent with impact caused by submunitions from cluster munitions.

© 2017 Private

The treaty prohibits all cluster munitions and does not exempt “self-destruct” variants, which leave explosive remnants that must be considered hazardous and not be handled or approached by anyone other than a trained technician. At least 14 countries that have ratified the Convention on Cluster Munitions have destroyed cluster munitions equipped with “self-destruct” features, including Chile, France, Germany, Japan, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom.

Members of the Saudi-led coalition and other parties to the conflict, including the United States, should promptly join the Convention on Cluster Munitions and abide by its provisions, Human Rights Watch said. Brazil should end its production and transfer of cluster munitions. In February 2017, Yemen’s Ministry of Human Rights told Human Rights Watch during a visit to Aden that Yemen was ready to sign the treaty when parliament reconvened.

“The Brazilian government’s silence is a wholly inadequate response to mounting concerns over civilian casualties from the Saudi-led coalition’s use of Brazilian cluster munition rockets in Yemen,” Goose said. “Brazil should recognize that cluster munitions are prohibited weapons that should never be manufactured, transferred, or used because of the harm inflicted on civilians.”

Coalition Use of Cluster Munitions

Since March 26, 2015, a Saudi-led coalition of nine Arab states has conducted military operations in Yemen against the Houthis, also known as Ansar Allah, and forces loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have documented the use of seven types of air-delivered and ground-launched cluster munitions made in the US, the UK, and Brazil.

Human Rights Watch has documented the coalition’s use of cluster munitions in 18 unlawful attacks in Yemen that killed at least 21 civilians, wounded 74 more, and in some cases, struck civilian areas.

The coalition has acknowledged using US- and UK-made cluster munitions in Yemen, but claims to have done so in compliance with the laws of war. In a January 11, 2016 interview with CNN, the coalition military spokesman said the coalition used CBU-105 Sensor Fuzed Weapons in Hajjah in April 2015 “against a concentration of a camp in this area, but not indiscriminately.” He said that the US-made cluster munitions were used “against vehicles.”

In May 2016, the US suspended transfers of cluster munitions to Saudi Arabia. In December, the coalition announced it would stop using a UK-made cluster munition, the BL-755, but left open the possibility it would continue using other types of cluster munitions in Yemen.

Human Rights Watch previously documented Saudi Arabia’s use of ASTROS cluster munition rockets in Khafji, Saudi Arabia, in 1991, during the First Gulf War. The munitions left behind a significant number of unexploded submunitions.

The three earlier attacks in Yemen where the Saudi-led coalition used Brazilian-made cluster munition rockets during the current conflict include:

·       Amnesty International reported an ASTROS cluster munition rocket attack on February 15, that hit the residential areas of Gohza, al-Dhubat, and al-Rawdha, wounding two civilians.

·       Human Rights Watch documented an ASTROS cluster munition rocket attack by the Saudi-led coalition near two schools in the al-Dhubat neighborhood of Saada’s Old City on December 6, killing two civilians and wounding at least six, including a child.

·       Amnesty International found remnants of ASTROS cluster munition rockets remaining after an attack on Ahma in Saada on October 27, 2015, that wounded at least four people.

A crater from the February 22 attack on Qahza, Saada governorate is consistent with damage caused by a submunition from a cluster munition attack.

© 2017 Private
 
Civilian harm from the coalition’s use of cluster munitions in Yemen since 2015 has received worldwide media coverage, provoked a public outcry, and been condemned by dozens of countries as well as by a European parliament resolution. In September 2015, more than 60 nations at the First Review Conference of the Convention on Cluster Munitions expressed deep concern at the use of cluster munitions in Yemen and issued a declaration condemning “any use of cluster munitions by any actor.”

In December 2016, 141 countries voted in favor of a United Nations General Assembly resolution on cluster munitions that urged countries that have not yet done so to join the Convention on Cluster Munitions. Russia and Zimbabwe voted against it, while 39 states abstained, including Yemen, Brazil, and Saudi Arabia.

Human Rights Watch is a co-founder of the international Cluster Munition Coalition. Germany’s Ambassador Michael Biontino will preside over the next annual meeting of the Convention on Cluster Munitions in Geneva on September 4-6, 2017.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

On March 16, 1988, civilians in the Iraqi-Kurdish town of Halabja, awakened to a nightmare. Iraqi aircraft, ostensibly seeking to push back against Iranian and Kurdish forces fighting them in the grim final stages of the Iran-Iraq war, bombarded the city with sulphur mustard and Sarin, both deadly agents.

Media reports estimate that some 5,000 people—mainly women and children—were killed in this war crime; another 7,000-10,000 were injured, many of them permanently scarred.

Iraq had used chemical weapons repeatedly in its eight-year bloody war with Iran. But Iraq’s allies turned a blind eye though the attacks were no secret. Stories of Iraqi chemical weapon attacks against Iranian military units first appeared in the media in August 1983. On February 16, 1984, Ali Akbar Velayati, the Iranian foreign minister at the time, told the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva that there had been at least 49 Iraqi chemical attacks in border regions, leaving at least 109 people dead and hundreds more wounded.

A still from video shows green smoke from a chlorine attack by Syrian government forces in the Daheert Awwad neighborhood of Aleppo, Syria on November 22, 2016. © 2016 Aleppo Media Center


As reports of Iraqi chemical weapon attacks continued, UN investigators visited the battlefields in the Iranian territories several times. In 1986, in a letter transmitting the investigators’ findings, the UN Secretary-General, Javier Perez de Cuellar, stated that: “In the circumstances, the secretary- general cannot but note with regret that the specialists have confirmed the use of chemical weapons by Iraqi forces against Iranian forces.”

Meanwhile, Iraq’s US allies were actively covering for Iraq. The Defense Intelligence Agency was quick to blame Iran publicly for the attacks, but declassified US intelligence documents showed that the US knew about those attacks and actually provided potentially vital military intelligence to the Iraqi army, showing little if any concern  about the serious consequences of these actions.

Even after  the Halabja massacre  gained widespread media attention,  UN Security Council resolution 612, adopted in May 1988, could only weakly state that it “expects both sides to refrain from the future use of chemical weapons...”After years of chemical attacks on both Iran’s fighters and civilians, that statement contributed to many Iranians’ bitterness and distrust in the international community.

Even though the international community failed to react adequately, Iraq’s use of chemical weapons was an important factor in the negotiations for a total ban on the use, production and stockpiling of  chemical weapons as well as a prohibition on using the toxic properties of any chemical to injure or kill. In 1997, an international treaty, the Chemical Weapons Convention, entered into force and now has 192 member states – including  Iran, Iraq and Syria. It is the most universal weapons ban in international law.

But today that agreement is under threat.  The UN, rights groups, and the media have provided extensive proof that the Syrian government has conducted chemical attacks against Syrian civilians. Our latest investigation found that

Syrian government helicopters dropped cylinders filled with chlorine on opposition-controlled areas at least eight occasions between November 17 and December 13, the last weeks of the battle for Aleppo. Our researchers also documented that the Islamic State used chemical weapons both in Syria and in Iraq, and Amnesty International has documented that the Sudanese government likely used chemicals as weapons in Darfur last year.

Yet the Syrian government’s allies are more than willing to ignore the government’s serious breach of international law that these chemical attacks represent.

On February 28, Russia and China vetoed a UN Security Council resolution to sanction Syrian government officials and entities and the Islamic State for conducting chemical warfare. The resolution was offered amid fresh reports of government chemical attacks in eastern Aleppo and following the publication of an October 2016 report by the UN and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) Joint Investigative Mechanism that concluded  that the Syrian government used chlorine as a weapon on at least three occasions in 2014 and 2015, and that ISIS had used sulfur mustard, a blister agent, at least once.

Russia’s veto to protect its Syrian ally from sanctions at the expense of accountability and civilian protection, is hardly a surprise. But Syria’s other powerful ally, Iran, should feel compelled to pressure Syria to end its chemical warfare and punish those involved.

Knowing the horrors of chemical weapons first-hand, Iran’s leaders also have a legal obligation to use their influence with the Syrian government to signal that any use of chemicals as weapons is unacceptable, and that those responsible for ordering their use should be held accountable.

There is a museum in Tehran— the Museum of Peace—highlighting the misery and human devastation the Iran-Iraq war wrought on both veterans and civilians. In 2002, when a newspaper editor from the UK editor visited the museum, a guide permanently scarred by Iraqi mustard agent, Hassan Saadi, told him, "We want to show the whole world that chemical weapons have done this to us. We want to show how painful the consequences are. We don't want revenge. We just want to show what happens so it won't happen again." Iran owes it to Iranian victims like Saadi, to stand up for justice and support of the international ban on these horrific weapons.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

I get out of bed at 5 a.m., just as the curfew is being lifted in Donetsk, the capital of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) in eastern Ukraine. It’s pitch dark outside and I feel privileged — really and truly privileged — to be able to afford to pay $25 for three extra hours of sleep and a significant risk reduction. My fellow travel companions crossing from rebel-controlled territory to government-controlled areas, I realise, had to leave their homes during curfew and spend half the night parked in the “neutral zone,” between DNR and government checkpoints, fully exposed to the dangers of nightly shooting and shelling. Backpack zipped-shut, I go downstairs and get into a taxi, which will drop me off at the last rebel-controlled checkpoint. From there, I’ll just walk through the “neutral zone” on the lookout for my “ferryman”.

“Ferrymen” take people from rebel-controlled areas to government controlled territory and back. As of 2015, Ukraine’s government established strict controls over crossing to and from rebel-controlled areas. The government of course has the right to control such movement, but the way the crossing system works results in tremendous difficulties for many civilians who already bear considerable hardships after the nearly three-year armed conflict.

On the border of the "neutral zone", it can take hours to cross from separatist to government territory.

© 2016 Tanya Lokshina

According to Ukraine’s State Border Service, 26,000-32,000 people cross the line of contact daily. The UN estimates the overall population of separatist-controlled areas at 2.7 million, and many of these people travel to government-controlled areas on a regular basis. Some of the most frequent travelers have jobs or business deals on the other side of the line. Others go there to visit relatives, process ID and other documents, and even buy groceries, the prices on meat and produce being much higher in rebel-controlled areas. Many people who fled to other parts of Ukraine proper during the war travel to rebel-held territory to check on their homes, see their families and assess the prospects for return.

Yet there are only five crossing checkpoints —and one is minuscule and only for foot traffic — to accommodate the tens of thousands of daily travelers. This results in humongous queues, with people waiting for hours and sometimes overnight, to travel a distance that, technically speaking, is negligible.

Today, I’m traveling from central Donetsk to its immediate suburb, government-controlled Mariinka. Before the war and even during its first months, the trip would take about 30 minutes. Now, God willing, it will take me four hours, provided the crossing checkpoint operates on a normal schedule. But again, I’m privileged — my fellow travelers had to leave three hours ahead of me to get a spot at the front of the crossing queue.

The Ukrainian authorities have banned regular bus service or other public transportation between rebel-controlled and government-controlled territories. Hence, the “ferrymen” who deliver passengers in large vans, eight people per vehicle, pretending that they’re ferrying friends and family members. The pretense is pretty transparent, but some palm-greasing ensures smooth passage. The ferrymen use their palm-greasing skills on the other side of the border as well, so they can get away with breaking curfew and avoid getting the passengers searched and harassed at “zero”, or the last DNR checkpoint.

The ferrymen have collected their passengers from across Donetsk and the outskirts between 2 and 3 a.m., aiming to make it through the “zero” checkpoint and into the “neutral zone” by around 3:30. This way, they won’t be at the very front of the queue for Ukraine’s crossing checkpoint, as there are always some people who did not get through the day before and stayed there overnight. But if all goes as planned, they should be close enough to get through sometime between 9 and 10 a.m. Ukraine opens its crossing checkpoints at 8 a.m., which is 9 a.m. in rebel-controlled areas between mid-October and mid-April. Like Russia, the rebels don’t switch to winter time.

Accordingly, the ferrymen and their passengers spend at least six hours, including several hours before dawn, in the “neutral zone”. It’s between dusk and dawn that the warring sides frequently fire, so all people traveling this itinerary at this hour are at serious risk. Moreover, no aid organisations are allowed into the “neutral zone,” and the warring sides clearly have not been thinking about installing sanitary and other facilities on that stretch of the road. The “neutral zone” has no toilets, portable water, heaters, tents, or sources of light. It has nothing really, except heavily mined fields on the both sides.

At 6:30 a.m., I’m walking through a throng of vehicles “in the neutral zone” toward my ferryman’s van. The queue is already large and dense, with the cars parked extremely close to one another, so as not to leave any space for latecomers attempting to jump the queue.

As I’m walking ahead, a posh black jeep takes a plunge onto the muddy roadside and drives on the mined field parallel to the road, attempting to sneak into the line of cars at the front of the queue. This past spring, a bus performing a similar trick blew up on a mine on government controlled territory, next to the Maiorsk check-point, killing four people and wounding 19. The memory of that tragedy is still fresh, but the frustration of waiting is so intense that some take the risk. The jeep finds a tiny opening, climbs up, but gets was pushed down back into the mud by several angry men dead set on not letting anyone break the rules. The despondent driver eventually turns around, and heads back.

As I find my van, more and more cars arrive. Also, lots more people on foot or bicycle join the “pedestrian” queue upfront, on the left side of the road. Among them are the elderly and the frail. Two old men lean painfully on their crutches. Small kids whimper from cold, exhaustion and sheer boredom. Some people hold onto their bags the whole time, others, whose bags are too heavy or who simply don’t have the energy, drop them in the mud. It rained all night, the road is still wet.  

Though we’re lucky with the weather and it’s a few degrees above zero, two hours later I’m chilled to the bone. It is mind-blowing to think of people standing like this for hours in sub-zero temperatures, icy wind, freezing rain or snow, or under blazing sun in boiling summer heat.

As it gets later, people are getting increasingly uncomfortable. More and more men turn to face the roadside and urinate with their back to the crowd. Some women, including the elderly ones, make their way into the field— yes, the minefield — and squat in full view of the crowd, as there are no bushes or trees to hide behind. It’s dangerous and degrading. But do they really have a choice?

When the government crossing checkpoint finally opens, I claim my seat in the van next to a stylish woman in her mid-forties. She is artfully made up and coiffed, and looks astonishingly well put together for someone who spent half the night in an overcrowded vehicle on a dangerous road. She is also sporting a pristine white wool coat cinched at the waist and shiny knee-high boots, making me realise my jacket and shoes are splotched with mud.

As I apprehensively slide to the very edge of the seat to avoid fouling my neighbor’s immaculate clothes, she starts muttering about the desperate need to empty her bladder. She describes how when she got up at 2 a.m. she purposefully did not drink anything and how she sat on the toilet for a few minutes trying to express urine “to the last drop” because she knew what she “is in for”. But it’s been over six hours already, and she is “just dying”. After 15 minutes of moaning, she jumps up, “I cannot help it any more. I’m about to burst. Could you please come with me?” - “You want to brave the field?” I ask warily. - “No, not that. See this tiny space between our van and the next one? I’ll squat there but please stay next to me so that the men don’t come and stare.”

All numb, I descend into the stretch of mud between the two vehicles and watch my chic companion hold the snow-white flaps of her coat with one hand, and pull down her pantyhose with the other. But the endless queue of cars suddenly starts moving. “Into the van!” yells the driver, and both of us scramble back inside. It takes another 45 minutes to make the crossing to government-controlled territory and reach the first roadside toilet. By mute agreement, the passengers in our van let the woman in white go first.

It’s a war zone and as with any war, some of the easiest things suddenly become precarious and hard to accomplish. However, the warring sides have the obligation to protect civilians and respect their dignity. Opening additional checkpoints to speed up the crossing may be difficult and time consuming, but putting up sanitation facilities, heaters and tents is something that can and should be done without delay. It will make a huge difference to thousands of people, people whose safety and dignity are being lost.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

(Kyiv) – Ukrainian civilians are exposed to risks to their health and safety – even grave danger – as they face endless waits when they need to go back and forth across the contact line between government-controlled areas of eastern Ukraine and the separatist-held Luhansk and Donetsk regions, Human Rights Watch said today.

Lack of adequate sanitary and other infrastructure at crossing points, and exposure to landmines can make an already grueling crossing – often involving long waits in freezing or hot temperatures – dangerous for civilians, Human Rights Watch found. Fighting, which has recently flared up in the vicinity of the contact line, means civilians waiting at crossing points, including overnight, are exposed to shooting and shelling. All parties to the conflict should uphold their obligations under international humanitarian law to take necessary measures to protect civilians. Authorities on both sides of the contact line should ensure that civilians are not exposed to undue hardship or unnecessary suffering.

“Civilians living in eastern Ukraine have many ties on both sides of the line of contact, such as family, friends, or property or may need to access government-provided services,” said Tanya Cooper, Ukraine researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The parties to the conflict recognize that civilians need to cross from one side to the other, and so they should facilitate that and avoid measures which make crossing a threat to their health or even lives.”

Civilians waiting at the Novotroitske crossing point around 11 a.m. in the government-controlled Donetsk region, December 21, 2016.

© 2016 Tanya Cooper for Human Rights Watch

Human Rights Watch interviewed more than 80 civilians on both sides of the contact line in November and December 2016, and visited all four functioning crossing points in the government-controlled part of the Donetsk region and the so-called grey or neutral zone. That area stretches along the 500-kilometer line of contact between the crossing points – controlled on one side by the Ukrainian government and on the other by the de facto authorities of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) and Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR) – and is only a few hundred meters wide in most places. Human Rights Watch also interviewed people who use the only crossing point in the Luhansk region open solely to pedestrians, and spoke with staff of several groups that help people affected by the conflict in eastern Ukraine.

Every person interviewed who had tried to cross said that they experienced significant hardships, especially long waits, made more difficult by freezing winter weather, rain, or summer heat. Long waiting times are the result of an insufficient number of crossing points and personnel operating them. More than half of the people interviewed said they had experienced long delays more than once, including having to spend the night at a crossing point. Crossing points often lack basic facilities such as toilets and waiting areas.

People interviewed also said that military personnel on both sides behaved improperly, such as arbitrarily refusing to allow crossing, using rude and abusive language, and taking bribes.

Civilians travel across the line of contact for many reasons. People who live in government-controlled territory said they need to see family members, to ensure their property was safe, or to return to their homes after spending the week working on the other side of the line. People in areas controlled by separatists said they regularly needed to cross to collect their pensions and other social payments, to visit family members, to seek medical care, and to take care of such essential administrative issues as registering with the pension fund or registering the birth of a child. Civilians also cross to buy groceries, household items, and medicines that are too expensive or unavailable in areas where they live, and to visit cemeteries where loved ones are buried.

In a January 10 letter to Ukrainian officials, Human Rights Watch expressed concern over restrictions on movement in and out of areas not under Ukrainian government control and urged Ukrainian authorities to take urgent measures to ease hardships for thousands of people crossing the line of contact in eastern Ukraine.

Official statistics, which Ukraine’s State Border Guard Service provided to Human Rights Watch, show that between 3,000 and 7,000 people crossed each point every day both ways in December 2016 and January 2017. The State Border Guard Service said at a February 8 meeting, that the number of crossings peaks between the 15th and 25th of every month, when people from the non-government-controlled territory cross to collect pensions and other social benefits.

Recent heavy fighting between Ukrainian forces and Russia-backed separatists in the area of Avdiyivka, a government-controlled town of about 22,000 in the Donetsk region close to the line of contact, has underlined the vulnerability of people living next to and crossing the line of contact, Human Rights Watch said. Nearly two dozen people were killed on the government’s side, including at least three civilians, between January 29 and February 3 alone. According to the town’s authorities, 114 houses and eight apartment buildings were damaged in Avdiyivka. Other surrounding towns near the line of contact also suffered damage. On February 2, a crossing point near the government-held town of Mariinka was attacked. No one was waiting overnight that night, but some facilities were damaged and the checkpoint lost electricity.

On the DNR side, the city of Donetsk and the neighboring Makiivka were shelled by Ukrainian forces between January 31 and February 3. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine confirmed nine civilian deaths on both sides of the line of contact in the Donetsk region between January 29 and February 9.

The Ukrainian government has the right to control movement in and out of separatist-controlled areas, but all parties to the conflict should allow and facilitate civilians’ access to areas on both sides of the contact line without arbitrary and unreasonable delays, Human Rights Watch said. While the Ukrainian government has no obligation to provide financial assistance to government structures operating under the control of separatists, its human rights obligations to the civilian population do not cease on account of the ongoing conflict.

“The protection and well-being of civilians should be a priority of both Ukrainian authorities and Russia-backed separatists in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions,” Cooper said. “Civilians should not continue to bear the brunt of the armed conflict in eastern Ukraine.”

For detailed findings, please see below.

The Eastern Ukraine Crossing Points

Human Rights Watch conducted research missions along the line of contact in November and December.

In November, two Human Rights Watch researchers who are native Russian speakers interviewed more than 50 people who live on both sides of the line of contact, including in Donetsk, Makiivka, Starobesheve, Severodonetsk, Slavyansk, Kramatorsk, Mariinka, and Krasnogorivka. One researcher interviewed people in the government-controlled territory at the crossing point near the town of Mariinka, the second researcher entered the Mariinka crossing point from the separatist-controlled area, the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, and interviewed civilians on that side and in the zone between the two sides’ checkpoints – the no man’s land commonly referred to as the “grey” or “neutral” zone. While this zone is officially controlled by the Ukrainian government, very few functioning governmental institutions are left there due to the armed conflict.

A Human Rights Watch researcher interviewed 32 people on December 20-22 at all four open crossing points on the government-controlled side of the line of contact, in Mayorsk, Mariinka, Novotroitske, and Gnutovo (Pishchevik). The researcher visited the Mayorsk and Mariinka crossing points at night, while they were closed, and Mariinka, Novotroitske, and Gnutovo (Pishchevik) during the day.

Human Rights Watch also spoke with staff members of seven Ukrainian non-governmental groups and international organizations that provide assistance to internally displaced people and civilians living next to the line of contact.

In its meeting with Human Rights Watch on February 8, Ukraine’s State Border Guard Service, said that the agency is taking steps to improve the situation for the civilians living on both sides of the line of contact, including increasing the number of border guards at each crossing point, prosecuting officials who take bribes (59 were charged in 2016), and installing cameras providing live feeds from all the crossing points to the anti-terrorist center in Kramatorsk and the State Border Guard Service headquarters in Kyiv.

The State Border Guard Service acknowledged that some serious shortcomings persist and noted that the cooperation of all parties to the conflict, not just the Ukrainian authorities, is required for the situation to improve meaningfully for civilians crossing the line of contact.

Insufficient Number of Crossing Points

There are five functioning crossing points along the 500-kilometer line of contact, which separates the territories under the control of the Ukrainian government and the separatist forces in the Luhansk and Donetsk regions. Mayorsk, Mariinka, Novotroitske, and Gnutovo (Pischevik) are in the Donetsk region; and the pedestrian only Stanitsa Luhanska crossing is in the Luhansk region. The crossing points are open from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. during the summer and 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. in the winter.

When either side shuts down a crossing point temporarily for security or other reasons, people travel to those that remain open, increasing congestion and reducing people’s chances of making it to the other side by the time a crossing point closes. Many of those who do not manage to cross stay overnight, either on the road close to crossing points – including in the neutral zone – or in a nearby town, and try their luck the next day.

The statistics the State Border Guard Service provided to Human Rights Watch said that between 15,000 and 27,500 people crossed the line of contact each day in December. On February 13, almost 18,000 people crossed.

Most civilians living on both sides of the line of conflict whom Human Rights Watch interviewed said the insufficient number of crossing points was a serious problem. In particular, they said that since there is only one crossing point in the Luhansk region, people often have to wait a full day or sometimes longer, and that winter weather caused additional suffering as people are forced to wait several hours outside with only one or two small shelters on the Ukrainian-controlled side.

While some people pass through crossing points in private vehicles and take shelter in their cars, those on foot face the cold, rain, or heat. In a June 2015 decree, Ukrainian authorities banned direct public transit services to the separatist-held territories, so passengers disembark at the Ukrainian government crossing points and line up on foot with their luggage. Then they board other means of transportation on the other side. Some pay so-called ferrymen who transport passengers in large vans from side to side.

Several local and international aid workers said that having only five functioning crossing points along the 500-kilometer line of contact is not enough to allow massive numbers of displaced civilians and others affected by the armed conflict to move across without needless restrictions.

Some people said that instead of waiting long hours to cross the lone crossing point at Stanitsa Luhanska on foot, they had tried other crossing points in the Donetsk region, which significantly increased their travel time and costs. People, including aid workers, who regularly cross in the Donetsk region also said that the four crossing points open to vehicles are insufficient to allow crossing without significant delays and hardship.

The State Border Guard Service officials told Human Right Watch that in March 2016 they opened a second checkpoint in the Luhansk region, near the town of Zolote, but it remains closed to civilians because Russia-backed separatists in the Luhansk region are unwilling to operate it from the other side.

Long Waits

Human Rights Watch interviewed several people and aid workers who regularly cross at Stanitsa Luhanska in the Luhansk region. All said that they frequently spent between two and five hours on each side. An aid worker in the government-controlled Severodonetsk said that his mother and 80-year old grandmother waited six hours in October when they tried to cross there.

Of eight people interviewed near government-controlled Mariinka in November, five said that they had to spend a night near a crossing point on either side due to long lines and because the crossing point’s operating hours are insufficient. One man travelling from Kramatorsk to Donetsk through the crossing point near Mariinka said that at least on one occasion it took him two full days to cross. “Ask anyone here, they will also say that it happened to them,” he said. Of the 25 people Human Rights Watch interview in the DNR, 19 said they got stuck overnight at the crossing point at least once.

A worker with an international aid group said that the Mayorsk crossing point was the most problematic from both sides. The crossing point usually has long waiting lines, the aid worker said, and people often sleep at the crossing point while waiting for it to open. When a Human Rights Watch researcher visited the Mayorsk crossing point on the Ukrainian side around 6 p.m. on December 20, she found six elderly women in one of two tents set up by Ukraine’s Ministry of Emergencies. The women said they did not make it through the crossing point before it closed that day and would have to spend the night in the tent so they could try crossing the next day. Most of the women were over sixty years old, two had disabilities. One of them, a 76-year-old woman who came from Horlivka in the DNR but did not manage to cross back in time, cried when talking to a Human Rights Watch researcher, saying “How did I deserve this? All I did my entire life was work and hope for a peaceful retirement. Now they [Ukrainian officials at the Mayorsk crossing point] call me a terrorist. How did I deserve this?”

Several local residents and international aid staff working in the government-controlled area of the Donetsk region said that at least three elderly civilians had died while waiting in line to cross in recent months. According to a recent media report, on January 22, a man travelling from Donetsk to Dnipro died in the grey zone next to a separatist crossing point near Mariinka, where no ambulance would go. About 300 vehicles waited to pass through the government-controlled crossing point from both sides that day, according to information on the website of the State Border Guard Service. Human Rights Watch did not independently verify these reports.

Since the start of the armed conflict in 2014, there have been hundreds of casualties as a result of mines, cluster munition remnants, and other explosive remnants of war (ERW). According to the UN, landmines and other ERWs contaminate at least 74,000 acres of eastern Ukraine’s territory. Last year, the HALO Trust, a UK mine clearance organization, identified 97 mine-hazardous areas in the region, and these are only initial estimates.

Some of the people crossing from the separatist-held territory of the Donetsk region said that they start their journey via “ferrymen” at between 2:30 and 4 a.m., despite a 5 a.m. curfew in the region, to get a spot in line closer to the Ukrainian checkpoint, which only opens at 8 a.m. (9 a.m. DNR winter time).

In November 2016, a Human Rights Watch researcher crossed the line of contact from separatist-controlled Donetsk to government-controlled Mariinka, in a large van operated by a “ferryman” as a shuttle taxi.

The driver scheduled pick-up time at 3 a.m., explaining that he starts collecting passengers, who had all booked a place in his van by phone, just after 2 a.m. from various parts of Donetsk and its close suburbs to be able to make it through the DNR crossing point and get a spot in the line for Ukraine’s crossing point near Mariinka. He explained that if he arrived there by 3:30 a.m., while he would not be at the very beginning of the line because of the people who had not gotten through the day before and had stayed overnight, he would be close enough to get through sometime between 9 and 10 a.m. “if all goes well.”

Several of the passengers confirmed to Human Rights Watch that this was how other shuttle taxi drivers operated every day as well – collecting passengers in the middle of the night, parking in the line by 3:30 a.m., and spending the rest of the night in the neutral zone. Driving during curfew is forbidden by DNR authorities, but, according to the driver and several passengers interviewed, “paying off the right people” ensures unhindered passage for shuttle taxis.

By 6 a.m., an hour after the end of the curfew, the neutral zone was already crowded with vehicles and pedestrians, including the elderly and small children. The van made it to the government check-point in five-and-a-half hours, by about 9 a.m. Ukrainian time (10 a.m. DNR time). The route, therefore, took over six hours. Before there were restrictions, the drive from Donetsk to Mariinka took approximately 30 minutes.

Everyone interviewed underscored that crossing the line of contact created disproportionate hardships for elderly people, young children, pregnant women, and people with disabilities, who may require additional assistance or who experience difficulties during long waits in cold and crowded conditions with no bathroom facilities in the neutral zone.

While Ukrainian authorities allow priority crossing to women in advanced stages of pregnancy, nursing women with infants, and people with disabilities, many people who might claim priority do not know they can because the information is not posted. Border guards and civilians also said that when people with priority try to cross, it often provokes others in line to become aggressive or even violent and to refuse to let them through.

Lack of basic facilities

Due to the excessively long lines at crossing points, there is an urgent need to install and maintain basic facilities to alleviate civilians’ hardships, especially during the winter and summer months. On the separatist-held side of the crossing points, basic facilities such as potable water and shelters were often absent altogether. In the neutral zone, where people spend the most time waiting to cross, there are no basic facilities.

While facilities are better developed on the government-controlled side, with significant support from several international humanitarian aid groups, there still are not enough well-maintained toilets at all crossing points, shelters that provide protection from rain and sun in the summer, and snow and cold weather in the winter, and potable water stations. On the Ukrainian side, the responsibility to maintain these facilities lies with the local administrations of the government-controlled Luhansk and Donetsk regions. The lack or unsanitary state of these basic facilities causes serious difficulties for civilians with health conditions and limited mobility and those with young children.

In the Luhansk region, aid workers and residents said that while the Ukrainian side had a shelter and a tent, where civilians can warm up and get a hot drink, the crossing point on the other side did not have such facilities.

Civilians interviewed at the Mariinka crossing point complained about the state of toilets, which were provided by international aid groups but are not maintained or cleaned by the local authorities. All civilians interviewed flagged that the problems were particularly aggravating in the neutral zone. Due to the lack of adequate toilet facilities there, some civilians resort to relieving themselves in open fields, which is not only humiliating, but can be life-threatening due to the landmines.

While waiting in the neutral zone for the Ukrainian crossing point to open, Human Rights Watch observed how, in the absence of toilets, numerous men turned to face the roadside and urinated with their back to the crowd. Women, including some elderly ones, who had trouble walking, had to descend from the road into the field, walk a distance and squat in the field, still in full view of the crowd as there are no bushes or trees to hide behind. Some women described this experience as “degrading.” They also said they were afraid of stepping on a landmine, but the long waiting time and lack of sanitary facilities left them little choice.

E-passes

In January 2015, the Ukrainian government began enforcing travel regulations that require civilians to obtain a special pass to move between separatist-controlled and government-controlled territories. Civilians can apply online, and the electronic permit is valid for one year. Civilians can also apply for the e-pass in person in several government-controlled towns – Kramatorsk, Velyka Novosilka, Mariupol, Bahmut, and Starobilsk – and by phone.

If there is even a minor discrepancy between the information on one’s e-pass and the passport information – such as one letter in the person’s name, one digit in the person’s passport number, or the pass has expired, Ukrainian border guards do not let those people through in either direction.

Those who are stopped have to make corrections either online or in person and can travel again only when the corrected e-pass is issued. If they have any suspicions about a person’s information, appearance, or luggage, the guards send the person to officials of Ukraine’s Security Service (SBU) who are stationed at the crossing points.

The online application takes only a few minutes to fill out, but processing takes up to 10 working days. The process is quite straightforward if one has a computer, knows how to use it, and has electricity and internet connection. Otherwise, the process can be burdensome. There is also no procedure in place to allow people to apply for an emergency e-pass if it is needed for medical emergency or other extraordinary situations.

Recommendations to all sides of the conflict – Ukrainian government, de facto authorities of the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics:

  • Increase the number of entry/exit crossing points along the line of contact, particularly in the Luhansk region where only one functioning crossing point exists at the moment that civilians can only cross on foot;
  • Increase staffing and boost technological and other infrastructure at entry/exit crossing points to facilitate transit, especially during winter months;
  • Ensure that all crossing points are equipped with adequate toilet facilities, shelters from inclement weather, warming stations, and potable water stations;
  • Investigate and address allegations of corruption and extortion among border guards and other officials present at crossing points; formalize and widely publicize crossing procedures as a means to combat corruption; and
  • Ensure priority crossing to vulnerable groups of people on both sides, such as elderly people, people with disabilities, young children, pregnant women, and others. Make information about priority crossing publicly available and visible at crossing points.

To Ukraine’s Security Service:

  • Improve the e-pass system to avoid delays; ensure people without access to electricity, computers or the internet, elderly people, and people with disabilities are able to obtain e-passes without undue difficulties, including by increasing the locations where e-passes can be obtained in person; ensure those crossing the line of contact for humanitarian or medical reasons are not prevented from crossing only because they do not have a valid e-pass. 
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

(Erbil) – Armed forces fighting Islamic State (also known as ISIS) to retake a town and four villages near Mosul looted, damaged, and destroyed homes, Human Rights Watch said today. There was no apparent military necessity for the demolitions, which may amount to war crimes and which took place between November 2016 and February 2017.

The Iraqi authorities should investigate allegations of war crimes and hold those responsible to account, Human Rights Watch said. The United States and other countries providing military assistance to the Iraqi Security Forces should press the government to carry out these investigations. The United Nations Human Rights Council should expand the investigation it established in 2014 on ISIS abuses to include serious violations by all parties, including the Popular Mobilization Forces (known as the PMF or Hashd al-Sha'abi), units that were formed largely to combat ISIS, and are under the direct command of Prime Minister al-Abadi.

“Absent a legitimate military objective, there is no excuse for destroying civilian homes,” said Lama Fakih, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “All the destruction does is to keep civilians from going home.”
 

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Satellite imagery shows building demolition in the village of Mashirafat al-Jisr, southwest of Mosul, Iraq, after it was captured by Popular Mobilization Forces on December 12th, 2016.

Before: © 2016 DigitalGlobe After: © 2017 DigitalGlobe

To the southwest of Mosul, Human Rights Watch documented looting and extensive demolition of buildings in three villages using explosives, heavy machinery, and fire. Witness statements about the extent and timing of the demolitions, between late December and early February, were corroborated by satellite imagery showing the destruction of at least 350 buildings, including the main mosque, in the village of Ashwa during that time. Satellite imagery reviewed by Human Rights Watch showed that the abuses took place after anti-ISIS forces incorporated the villages into a large network of earthen berms and trenches. Locals told Human Rights Watch the only armed forces in the areas taken from ISIS were different groups within the PMF.

Human Rights Watch asked a representative of the PMF about the destruction in all three villages. In a written response received on February 12, the PMF stated that some buildings were used as artillery positions by ISIS while other houses were booby-trapped by ISIS in order to detonate around advancing PMF forces. They also said the PMF slowed their advance for nearly two days to avoid destroying infrastructure and private property and that after being pushed out, ISIS forces continued to aim artillery fire at the villages.

The PMF did not say how long ISIS attacks on the villages continued and did not provide the number of homes destroyed by ISIS or say which groups within the PMF were in the villages. The statement did not acknowledge that the PMF conducted extensive property demolitions after retaking the areas, let alone provide an explanation for the destruction.

Despite the PMF statement about booby-trapped homes, the satellite imagery reviewed by Human Rights Watch shows that the houses were destroyed by explosives, heavy machinery, and fire after the PMF had retaken the villages. Burning, demolishing, or bulldozing homes is a wholly inappropriate mechanism for mine clearance, and would likely detonate any improvised explosive devices (IEDs). In addition, almost all of the burnt buildings still have their load-bearing exterior and interior walls intact, with only the roof missing, which is inconsistent with IED blasts.

Given the broader investigation and the continued pattern of destruction for almost two months after the PMF were firmly in control of the area, Human Rights Watch did not find evidence to support claims that the demolitions may have been undertaken for legitimate military reasons.

Satellite imagery shows that the PMF incorporated the retaken villages within a security network of earthen berms and trenches. That network suggests that the whole area inside was well enough protected that there would have been no military need for PMF forces to demolish the homes inside the secured zone. In addition, satellite imagery shows no demolitions in other villages nearby; if there was a military need for the destruction, there should be a more even distribution of demolitions in adjacent villages.

The laws of war prohibit attacks on civilian property except when an enemy is using it for military purposes. They also prohibit indiscriminate attacks, including attacks that treat an entire area, such as a village, as a military objective.

Human Rights Watch also documented looting and burning of homes in two villages southeast of Mosul: in the Christian town of Bakhdida, also known as Hamdaniyah or Qaraqosh, and the mixed Sunni and Christian village of al-Khidir. The looting and destruction took place after they were retaken from ISIS, between November 2016 and January 2017. Multiple forces including the Nineveh Plain Protection Units (NPU), the Iraqi military’s 9th Division, local police, and Federal Police were present in Bakhdida, according to military personnel in the area and residents interviewed by Human Rights Watch.

Human Rights Watch was unable to identify the specific forces responsible for these abuses. In al-Khidir, 30 kilometers southeast of Mosul, Human Rights Watch also saw evidence of looted homes. Residents said that they fled the village one week before the area was retaken, on November 19, and when they returned home 20 days later, their homes had been looted. During that time there were several PMF units present, including the Christian Babylon Brigades, according to military personnel in the area.

Elsewhere in Iraq, Human Rights Watch has documented looting and destruction of civilian property, amounting to war crimes by the PMF and by the Kurdistan Regional Government’s Peshmerga forces, in their operations to retake territory from ISIS.

Iraqi authorities should take immediate steps to investigate these alleged war crimes and other allegations of unlawful demolitions, looting, and destruction of civilian property. They should hold armed forces that loot or destroy civilian property to account. The committee established by law to compensate victims of “terrorism and military errors” should process claims of victims of looting and destruction by armed forces.

“The Iraqi government may win its fight against ISIS, but it also needs to win the peace,” Fakih said. “That will be difficult if forces under its control violate international laws by looting and destroying the homes of local villagers.”

Southwest of Mosul

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Map of recently constructed security network and building demolition in the villages of Khoytlah, Mashirafat al-Jisr, and Ashwa between December 2016 and February 2017. 

© 2017 Human Rights Watch

Ashwa
Human Rights Watch interviewed six residents of the village of Ashwa, who said that on December 12, 2016, ISIS forces who had taken control of the area in June 2014 left the village as fighters belonging to the PMF’s League of the Righteous (Asa'ib Ahl al-Haqq) and the Ali al-Akbar Brigade (Lua Ali al-Akbar) took control of the area. The residents could identify which PMF groups came to the village from their banners, flags, and badges. Once the PMF took over, they told residents to leave the area for a displaced persons camp to the south.

Residents said ISIS prevented locals from fleeing by reinforcing pre-existing security earthen berms surrounding the village. Human Rights Watch reviewed satellite imagery that showed ISIS had substantially reinforced the berms by August 2016. When the PMF arrived, the residents said they opened up a section of the berm so that villagers could leave.

Satellite imagery of the village shows that after the PMF captured it, they incorporated the pre-existing berms into much larger, newly-constructed security earthen berms to the south and west of the village between December 11 and December 22.

Human Rights Watch reviewed satellite images that show 46 buildings were destroyed between December 8 and December 20, and an additional 94 buildings were destroyed between December 20 and February 10. Visible damage signatures were consistent with the use of high explosives, heavy machinery, and fire. One of the buildings destroyed by explosives was the Ashwa Mosque, the primary mosque in the village.

Mashirafat al-Jisr
Human Rights Watch interviewed three displaced residents of Mashirafat al-Jisr, the neighboring village to Ashwa. One said that on the morning of December 12, at about 10 a.m., he saw four cars with ISIS fighters pull into the village and immediately come under fire. At that time, the majority of the village residents, roughly 100 people, fled by car to a nearby hill, residents told Human Rights Watch, and watched as ISIS forces left the village and fighters flying PMF banners entered.

One villager remained behind to protect his property. He said he saw 10 cars arrive, and the fighters who descended introduced themselves to him as members of the Martyrs of Sayyid Battalions (Kata'ib Sayyid al-Shuhada). They told him to leave the area, to which he responded that if the villagers returned to find their homes looted he would blame their unit.

 

Satellite imagery showing the village of Mashirafat al-Jisr, Iraq, before building demolition.

© 2016 DigitalGlobe

He said he left, joined the other villagers, and traveled on to a camp, where they remained. The three residents said that most villagers did not return home but seven days later, one young villager who was recruited by the PMF inside the camp went back to the village with two other new recruits and sent his relatives photos suggesting their homes had been looted or destroyed.

The photos, which Human Rights Watch saw, show at least one house burned from the inside, one house destroyed, and two looted.

One of the new recruits said that when he got to the village on December 19, he saw that many homes had been destroyed, and those still standing had been looted, many had also been burned. At that time, the village was under the control of the PMF unit League of the Righteous. He heard one fighter ask a League of the Righteous officer what had happened in the village, and he replied that the homes had been full of IEDs. He also said that the Martyrs of Sayyid Battalions had been in the area at one point, but did not give a date.

Satellite imagery showing the village of Mashirafat al-Jisr, Iraq, after building demolition.

© 2017 DigitalGlobe

The satellite imagery shows that more than 90 per cent of the affected buildings in the village were destroyed by fire.

Human Rights Watch reviewed satellite images of the village taken on December 6, January 1, January 24, and February 2. The first set showed no signs of significant building damage, the later images showed that 100 buildings had likely been burnt down or demolished with high explosives. In addition, the village appears to have been incorporated into a military post, with security earthen berms running along the western edge.

Khoytlah
Anti-ISIS fighters retook the village of Khoytlah from ISIS on December 13, at which point all the residents left and have not yet returned. Federal Police officers at a base in Qayyarah told Human Rights Watch that the PMF retook the village from ISIS and that only PMF fighters remained in the area after the clashes. Human Rights Watch was unable to identify which PMF were present.

A local leader who was present in the village under ISIS and withdrew as the village was being retaken by the PMF said that he did not witness ISIS destroying buildings before he and the rest of the villagers left their homes.

Human Rights Watch reviewed satellite images of the village that showed armed forces likely demolished at least 63 buildings with explosives, heavy machinery, and fire between December 8 and 22, and an additional 47 buildings between December 22 and February 10.

A satellite image taken on January 1 captured a smoke plume from an active building fire, indicating burning continued in the village two weeks after it had been occupied by anti-ISIS forces.

Southeast of Mosul

Bakhdida
In early January, Human Rights Watch researchers visited the Christian town of Bakhdida, 20 kilometers southeast of Mosul, and observed evidence of extensive looting and burning of homes. Human Rights Watch spoke with six residents who had been displaced from the town in 2014 when ISIS took it over and were now living in Erbil. Three said their homes in Bakhdida had been looted and three others said their homes were damaged by fire after anti-ISIS forces took control of the town in October.

Human Rights Watch reviewed satellite images of the town from October 18, showing multiple building fires burning across the city before anti-ISIS forces took over, but the displaced residents who spoke to Human Rights Watch said that they visited their homes after anti-ISIS forces took over the town and saw that they had not been impacted by the fighting or intentional destruction under ISIS.

In the months following the ISIS withdrawal, no residents were living in the town and it was occupied only by anti-ISIS security forces, according to the residents interviewed by Human Rights Watch.

According to local military personnel, the Nineveh Plain Protection Units (NPU), an Assyrian Christian brigade within the PMF, the Iraqi military’s 9th Division, and local and federal police took control of the town after ISIS was forced out . Human Rights Watch passed through NPU checkpoints in the town and saw NPU graffiti tags on walls throughout the town.

Three displaced residents told researchers that in the days after the town was retaken by a range of anti-ISIS forces, on October 22, they traveled back to their town from Erbil to check on their homes and saw that their homes were not damaged and that most of their personal items were still there. They said that after surveying their property they locked up and returned to Erbil.

Afterwards they returned regularly to the town and said that during these visits, from mid-November to early January, they saw their homes had been broken into and the contents looted.

Another displaced resident told Human Rights Watch that he visited his home on November 6, and found that the federal police had established a base in the building next door, and the NPU another behind his house. At the time, he said some of his furniture and personal belongings had been moved out onto his lawn but that his belongings were for the most part still there. He said that his home had not been damaged.

He returned to the town again on November 21, but this time said that he found that some of his furniture and one room had been burned. He went to the Federal Police base to ask what had happened, and an officer said that the fire had somehow been the result of a recent ISIS insurgent attack, without providing any details. Human Rights Watch could not verify whether such an attack occurred.

A fifth resident also displaced to Erbil since 2014, told Human Rights Watch that he visited his home in Bakhdida on December 2, and saw no signs of damage to his property. He said at that point the town was occupied by anti-ISIS forces, including from the local police and NPU, and the situation was calm. He said he left at 3 p.m. the same day, and two days later, his cousin called to say he had seen the house had been burned from the inside. The resident returned to the town on December 5, and confirmed that his house had been set on fire. He told Human Rights Watch he heard a rumor in mid-January that the local police, in conjunction with the NPU, had arrested two men from the Shabak community (a minority group in Iraq) accused of having committed another arson attack, and had sent them to Baghdad. Human Rights Watch was unable to confirm this or to connect these men to any of documented incidents of home burning

Another resident, also displaced to Erbil, who had visited his home in Bakhdida on December 26 and confirmed his property was not damaged, received a call on January 10 from a friend who said he heard that his house had been burned. The resident traveled back home the next morning and confirmed it had been destroyed. He said that while there, he saw local police and NPU fighters present in the town and that other anti-ISIS fighters may have also been there.

Al-Khidir
In the village of al-Khidir, 30 kilometers southeast of Mosul, Human Rights Watch also saw evidence of destruction of a few homes in early January. Three residents said that they fled the village one week before the area was retaken by anti-ISIS forces on November 19, and when they returned home 20 days later, their homes had been looted. During that time, according to military personnel in the area, there were several PMF units present, including the Babylon Brigades.

A local commander present in the area throughout the operation, told Human Rights Watch that he had observed the extensive looting, knew which forces were behind it, but would not divulge their identity. His statement, however, reflected that the looting was not done by ISIS fighters before they withdrew from the village, Human Rights Watch said. 

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

(Beirut) – A Saudi-led coalition airstrike near a school in northern Yemen on January 10, 2017, killed two students and a school administrator and wounded three children, Human Rights Watch said today. The unlawful attack reinforces the urgent need for an international investigation into alleged laws-of-war violations in Yemen, an end to arms sales to Saudi Arabia, and the return of the coalition to the United Nations secretary-general’s “list of shame” for abuses against children in armed conflict.

“The bombing death of an 11-year-old girl on her way to school shows how little the Saudi-led coalition took to heart its brief inclusion on the UN secretary-general’s ‘list of shame,’” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “How many more schoolchildren need to die and be maimed before the UN responds?”

The informal gas station in Bani Mea’asar village after it was hit by a Saudi-led coalition airstrike on January 10, 2017. The attack killed two students and a school administrator and wounded three children. Mwatana, a leading Yemeni human rights organization, visited the site six days after the attack and photographed building damage and munitions remnants. 

© 2017 Mwatana Organization for Human Rights

On January 10 at about 8 a.m., a coalition airstrike hit an informal gas station in the village of Bani Mea’asar, in the Nihm district, Sanaa governorate, killing three civilians and wounding five others. The attack shattered a number of the nearby school’s windows and damaged its electrical wires and speakers, witnesses said. Al-Falah school, 150 to 200 meters from the gas station, provides primary and secondary education to about 900 boys and girls. In the winter the school usually starts about 8 or 8:30 a.m. Students were either on their way or getting ready to head to the school when the strike took place.

Muhammad Mea’asar, who has served as Al-Falah school’s director for more than 20 years, told Human Rights Watch he was at home with his family preparing to head to the school’s morning assembly when the munition hit. “It landed north of the school wall… next to some shops and an informal gas station,” he said.  “If it landed at that time on the school building it would have been a disaster.”

Ahmad Mea’asar was at home about half a kilometer from the school when he heard the explosion. His two children, in the fifth and seventh grades, had already left for school. He immediately ran to the site of the attack, initially worried the munition had hit the school, as it looked like smoke was coming from the building. He helped in the rescue effort once he arrived.

Ali Mudafeer, the school’s deputy director, was killed in the strike. Muhammad Mea’asar said that Mudafeer had been standing outside the school to “reassure the students who were still coming that [an earlier] strike [in the area] was far away and the school was okay.” The munition also killed Ishraq al-Moa’fa, 11, who was on her way to school, and Shamkh Sa’soua’, a 19-year-old who had enrolled at Al-Falah after his previous school closed due to nearby fighting. The strike also wounded two girls, ages 8 and 12, and a 16-year-old boy.

Muhammad al-Radi, a mathematics teacher at the school, was about to leave his house, which is in the school compound, with his 9-year-old son when the munition detonated. He said:

Suddenly… I realized because of all the smoke, dust, and glass that came over us that the airstrike occurred in front of us, in front of the school. … My wife ran out with my two kids, out of the school, because we were worried that they will attack again. We were terrified.

Al-Radi said that he and at least 10 other people immediately ran to help the wounded:

We saw body parts scattered on the ground, and we saw Ishraq, and her severed foot. From the traces of the blood, it seems that she crawled… to the other side [of the road], and she was holding her bag, but we arrived and she was dead.

Munitions remnants found by Mwatana near the site of an airstrike by the Saudi-led coalition on an informal gas station in Bani Mea’asar village on January 10, 2017. 

© 2017 Mwatana Organization for Human Rights

Mwatana, a leading Yemeni human rights organization, sent a team to the village to examine the attack site on January 16. Mwatana photographed remnants of munitions. Human Rights Watch examined these photos and concluded from the thickness of the fragments that the remnants were from the guidance unit and fin assembly system from an air-dropped bomb, but the images were insufficient to make a positive identification.

Coalition airstrikes had previously hit the area around the village, which was about eight kilometers from ongoing fighting between coalition-backed Yemeni forces and Houthi forces and forces loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh. The gas station had previously fueled military vehicles passing through the town, Mwatana and a witness said. Three witnesses told Human Rights Watch that the coalition had often struck military targets in the area, including military vehicles, but that there was no military vehicle at the gas station at the time of the attack.

International humanitarian law, or the laws of war, applies to all sides fighting in Yemen. Deliberate or indiscriminate attacks against civilians and civilian structures are prohibited. The laws of war require the parties to a conflict to take constant care during military operations to spare the civilian population and to “take all feasible precautions” to avoid or minimize loss of civilian life and damage to civilian objects.

While the occasional use of the fuel station by military vehicles may have made it a lawful military objective, there was no evident urgency to strike so close to a school at the beginning of a school day. The coalition should have provided an effective advance warning of the attack and taken all feasible precautions to minimize harm to civilians, including, for example, carrying out the strike when the school was not in session.

Since March 2015, the Saudi Arabia-led coalition has carried out military operations in Yemen, supported by the United States, against Houthi-Saleh forces. The coalition has unlawfully attacked homes, markets, hospitals, schools, civilian businesses, and mosques. The UN secretary-general’s 2016 annual report on violations against children in armed conflict found that at least 785 children were killed and 1,168 wounded in Yemen in 2015, with 60 percent of the casualties attributed to the coalition. The report also found that the coalition was responsible for nearly half of 101 attacks against schools and hospitals.

On June 2, 2016, then-Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon included the Saudi Arabia-led coalition on his annual “list of shame” for grave violations against children during armed conflict. A few days after the report was published, Saudi Arabia and its allies issued threats to withdraw hundreds of millions of dollars in assistance to the UN. In response Ban announced he was removing the Saudi-led coalition from the list “pending the conclusion of [a] joint review” and publicly admitted these financial threats influenced his decision.

After the Saudi-led coalition was removed from the list of shame, coalition attacks continued to kill and maim children and damage schools and hospitals. In December, for example, a coalition cluster munition attack struck an area near two local schools in Saada city, in northern Yemen, killing two civilians and wounding six, including a child. Students were told not to return to school the day after the attack, as the schools had to be checked for any explosive remnants, including unexploded submunitions.

The secretary-general also included the Houthis, government forces, pro-government militias, and Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula on his 2015 list for grave violations against children during the armed conflict in Yemen. Human Rights Watch has documented Houthi-Saleh forces in Yemen using landmines that killed and maimed children, recruiting and using child soldiers, and arbitrarily holding and abusing child detainees.

“Yemeni children have been among those paying the heaviest price during this nearly two-year-long war,” Whitson said. “Both the Saudi-led coalition and Yemeni forces on both sides need to better protect children from the fighting.”
 

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am