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

(Beirut) – Saudi security forces have surrounded and sealed off the predominantly Shia town of Awamiya in July 2017 as they confronted an armed group hiding in a historic neighborhood slated for demolition, Human Rights Watch said today.

The violence in the Eastern province, which began in May, has resulted in deaths and injuries among the residents, local activists said, and caused significant damage to the town, based on an assessment of satellite imagery. Residents and activists say that most residents have fled Awamiya, and those who remain lack essential services such as medical care. The town remains sealed off.

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Before: Satellite imagery © CNES 2017 - Airbus DS 2017 After: Satellite imagery © CNES 2017 - Airbus DS 2017

“Saudi security forces should provide essential services to trapped Awamiya residents and make sure they can move in and out of the town safely,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Saudi authorities should also immediately and credibly investigate whether its forces used excessive force in Awamiya.”

Saudi Arabia announced plans to demolish and redevelop the al-Musawara neighborhood of Awamiya, Qatif governorate, in 2016, citing health and safety reasons. Demolition began on May 10, after al-Musawara residents were evacuated, but met with armed resistance. Awamiya residents told Human Rights Watch that security forces have fired into populated areas far from al-Musawara, killing residents, occupied a public school, closed clinics and pharmacies, and prevented essential services such as ambulances from reaching the area.

Vehicles belonging to Saudi forces are seen in the eastern town of Awamiya, following a security campaign against Shi'ite Muslim gunmen, August 9, 2017. 

© 2017 Reuters

Security forces engaged in shoot-outs with an unknown number of armed men inside al-Musawara, and on July 26 brought in additional armored vehicles and sealed the town’s entrances and exits, residents and activists said.

Awamiya has a longstanding reputation of opposition to Saudi rule and has been the site of protests about government discrimination against Saudi Shia. It is the hometown of a prominent cleric, Nimr al-Nimr, who was executed in January 2016 over his encouragement of protests in 2011 and 2012. The execution sparked a series of events leading to a breakdown of diplomatic relations with Iran and heightened sectarian tensions across the Gulf region.

On July 28, Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland stated that she was “deeply concerned” about photos purporting to show Saudi security forces using Canadian-made Terradyne Gurkha RPV-model armored vehicles. She ordered an investigation into how Saudi forces are using the vehicles. Saudi forces have also deployed another type of armored vehicle manufactured by the South African company F & R Catai to Awamiya. The automatic cannon in this vehicle’s turret can penetrate and cause considerable damage to buildings and other infrastructure.

Human Rights Watch analyzed satellite imagery that shows extensive damage to the neighborhood and the town’s main commercial street bordering it. While much of the damage is due to the demolition, the images also show buildings and areas damaged by the violence.

Activists and residents said the armed men are on most-wanted lists authorities have issued since 2012 for protest-related crimes in the area.

Saudi Arabia announced on August 10 that security forces had forced nearly all “terrorists and criminal elements” out of al-Musawara, and authorities took international journalists on a tour of the neighborhood on August 9.

Saudi activists said the violence has killed more than a dozen people, both Saudis and foreigners, in addition to at least five armed militants. A Saudi Interior Ministry official told Reuters that eight members of the police and four members of the special forces had been killed. The Saudi authorities have not released information on resident casualties. Reuters reported that a 3-year-old boy died on August 9 from injuries suffered when an armored vehicle fired on his family’s car in June.

Remains of cars and buildings are seen following a security campaign against Shi'ite Muslim gunmen in the town of Awamiya, in the eastern governorate of Qatif, August 9, 2017. 

© 2017 Reuters

Saudi authorities should immediately investigate the circumstances of all casualties related to the use of force by police and security forces and hold security forces accountable if it is shown that they fired at residents unlawfully, Human Rights Watch said.

Five residents interviewed said that Saudi security forces have put people in Awamiya at risk, arbitrarily shooting at or arresting those who emerged from their houses. The residents said that to their knowledge Saudi authorities never issued an order for people to leave Awamiya, and their only chance to leave safely has been for short periods allowed by security forces since July 26.

The residents said that local volunteers and activists coordinated the evacuation without assistance from Saudi authorities. They said that security forces turn away anyone who attempts to return to Awamiya to check on relatives or recover property or possessions.

Local residents said that people have been fired at and injured in areas such as al-Shukrallah, al-Jumaymah, and al-Rif neighborhoods, which are west of security forces who are stationed between these neighborhoods and al-Musawara to the east. The residents said they had not seen any armed militants in these areas.

The five Awamiya residents and three activists close to the situation said that a majority of the town’s inhabitants fled after security forces escalated the situation on July 26. They said that most fled between July 27 and 28 when the town’s electricity was cut off for more than 24 hours, leaving people exposed to temperatures of up to 50 degrees Celsius (122 Fahrenheit) without air conditioning. Residents and activists said that the electricity grid had been damaged by gunfire, but did not know who was responsible.

The residents said that security forces closed all of Awamiya’s clinics and pharmacies in May, which they believed was to ensure that militants could not seek medical treatment. Since July 26, they said, security forces had not allowed emergency services to reach the wounded or taken steps to provide humanitarian assistance to people who remain there, though all the shops in the area were closed.

They also said that security forces had occupied a boys’ secondary school, which borders al-Musawara, and circulated a video that they said showed government forces firing a rocket-propelled grenade from the roof into al-Musawara. Human Rights Watch independently verified the video location by matching landmarks and rooftop features visible in the video to corresponding locations in satellite imagery recorded during the fighting. Human Rights Watch also determined that the rocket-propelled grenade was fired into al-Musawara in the general direction of the Ahmed bin Mahmoud mosque.

The United Nations experts on cultural rights, adequate housing and extreme poverty condemned Saudi Arabia’s destruction of al-Musawara on May 24, noting that the operation had forced “residents out of their homes and of the neighborhood, fleeing for their lives.” They stated that the destruction of al-Musawara would “erase the traces of … historic and lived cultural heritage.”

The Saudi government should publicly order the security forces to abide by the United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials, Human Rights Watch said. The Basic Principles state that security forces shall “apply non-violent means before resorting to the use of force and firearms,” and that “whenever the lawful use of force and firearms is unavoidable, law enforcement officials shall: (a) Exercise restraint in such use and act in proportion to the seriousness of the offence and the legitimate objective to be achieved; (b) Minimize damage and injury, and respect and preserve human life.” Furthermore, “intentional lethal use of firearms may only be made when strictly unavoidable in order to protect life.”

The Basic Principles further provide that, “[i]n cases of death and serious injury or other grave consequences, a detailed report shall be sent promptly to the competent authorities.” The findings of the investigation should be public and result in appropriate disciplinary action or prosecution.

Saudi Arabian security forces should also refrain from using schools, which can cause damage or destruction to important educational infrastructure and interfere with children’s right to an education in safety.

“Saudi Shia in Awamiya face discrimination every day, and for the last three months have been caught in the crossfire,” Whitson said. “Saudi authorities should take immediate steps to allow people to safely return home, allow business and clinics to reopen, and compensate residents for property damage and destruction caused by security forces.”

Accounts from Al-Musawara Residents

One resident, “Sami,” whose name, as with others interviewed, has been changed for his protection, said he had not worked since the fighting started because his shop is on the main street near al-Musawara, in the area where security forces had sporadically opened fire on shops and homes. “My shop is covered in bullet holes,” he said. “I am certain that security forces are responsible because the size of the bullets are medium and large, which only security forces possess.”

Sami said he came under fire on June 11 while driving on a street where security forces were stationed, far from the fighting around al-Musawara: “I was out shopping with a friend for a Suhur [Ramadan early morning] meal when we started hearing gunshots. I was in my car ... driving back home when bullets started hitting the ground on the road where I was driving. I quickly turned off the lights of my car and drove toward narrow streets to hide in neighborhoods where apartment buildings could protect me from gunshots.”

“Ali,” a Awamiya resident who fled on July 30, said: “The security situation in Awamiya has been terrible for the past 80 days. While I was still in Awamiya, the town was constantly bombarded by shelling and security forces were going around shooting in residential neighborhoods at random. We were too scared to leave our homes and most of the shops were shut down or burned. Anything that moved became a target.”

Another resident, “Ahmed,” said that he came under fire driving in al-Shukrallah on July 29: “I am from the al-Jumaymah neighborhood. I went in the morning to help my mom and dad. When I left I went toward al-Shukrallah to try to leave Awamiya via a back road through farms. I was driving between houses when someone fired at me and the bullet hit the house next to my car. I saw an armored vehicle at the end of the street … I never saw any armed militants in this area.”

“Hadi,” a Awamiya resident who works on an informal committee assisting those fleeing Awamiya find places to stay, said that another member of the group, Mohammad al-Rheimani, was shot on August 3 while helping residents leave Awamiya at an area west of security forces’ positions, in the opposite direction from al-Musawara.

Hadi said that he believes that 20,000 to 25,000 of the towns’ 30,000 residents had fled, most since July 26. He said that Saudi authorities had housed a small number of them in private apartments in nearby Dammam, but that the vast majority were staying with relatives or renting apartment across the Eastern Province.


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

Submunition of an ASTROS II cluster munition rocket found in Saada City on December 7, 2016. Bahrain and Saudi Arabia have purchased ASTROS rockets from Brazil, where they are manufactured by Avibrás Indústria Aeroespacial SA. Each cluster munition rocket contains up to 65 submunitions. Unexploded submunitions are extremely volatile and can explode on contact: they should never be touched or handled.

© 2016 Private

On July 7, Brazil along with 121 other countries adopted a new treaty on the prohibition of nuclear weapons, which will open for signature at the General Assembly this September.

In an op-ed this month, Foreign Minister Aloysio Nunes celebrated the achievement, writing that the international community has “a moral and ethical obligation” to protect civilians around the globe from the use of these terrible weapons, the “only ones capable of annihilating life on the planet.”

He’s right. Advancing the legal framework toward banning weapons of mass destruction is truly a victory, and Brazil’s participation in this global effort is commendable. But where some other lethal weapons are involved, Brazil is not living up to the true spirit of that commitment. Brazil should also join the treaty banning cluster munitions.

Take the case of Yemen. According to the UN human rights office, more than 5,000 civilians have been killed and more than 8,500 civilians wounded since March 2015, when a coalition of countries led by Saudi Arabia started an aerial and ground campaign against Houthi forces who had taken control of part of the country and allied forces loyal to the country former president. Since then the Saudi-led coalition has indiscriminately or disproportionately killed civilians, striking schools, homes, hospitals and funerals, including by using widely banned weapons, such as cluster munitions.

On December 6, 2016, the coalition used cluster munitions, striking near two schools in Yemen’s northern city of Saada, killing two civilians and wounding at least six, including a child. Khaled Rashed, one of the witnesses, said “We heard... two sounds of explosions... One louder than the other, and… after that we heard more explosions, smaller, and falling from the sky like embers... It landed everywhere, water tanks over houses.” In late February 2017, the coalition again used cluster munition rockets, this time striking a farm in northern Yemen, wounding two boys.

And this is where Brazil comes in. Photographs taken after these attacks show remnants of a Brazilian-made cluster munition rocket produced by the Brazilian arms manufacturer Avibrás and fragmentation damage consistent with submunitions from a cluster munition attack. 

Cluster munitions are widely banned, and for good reason. These weapons contain multiple smaller explosive submunitions that spread out indiscriminately over a wide area. Many fail to detonate and leave a deadly legacy of unexploded submunitions that become de facto landmines, creating an enduring threat to civilians that persists long after a conflict ends.

Because of the harm that cluster munitions pose to civilians, 102 countries have ratified and another 17 have signed the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions, which bans the production, transfer, stockpiling and use of these weapons. Brazil has done neither.

Brazilians should be very troubled that cluster munitions made in Brazil are being used in unlawful attacks in the Yemeni war. We should insist that our government commit to ending production and export of these indiscriminate weapons.

Brazil is already a party to the 1997 treaty banning antipersonnel landmines. Why not its sister treaty, which seeks to address the human suffering caused by cluster munitions. Brazil’s moral and ethical obligation to protect civilians should extend to these weapons as well.  

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

(Beirut) – Houthi-Saleh forces have repeatedly fired artillery indiscriminately into populated neighborhoods of Taizz, Yemen’s third largest city, in violation of the laws of war, Human Rights Watch said today. Over a 10-day period in May 2017, shelling of the city by the Houthi armed group and forces loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh resulted in the deaths of at least 30 civilians and wounded more than 160 others, according to doctors at two local hospitals. The opposing government-affiliated forces of President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi also appear to have fired artillery indiscriminately into populated areas outside the city.

The al-Daboua’a neighborhood in Taizz where shelling from Houthi-Saleh forces struck on May 23, 2017. The attacks killed at least five civilians, including one child, and wounded seven, including four children. May 29, 2017. 

© 2017 Maher al-Absi

Human Rights Watch documented seven attacks between May 21 and 23 that killed at least 12 civilians, including four children, and wounded 29, including 10 children. Houthi-Saleh forces apparently carried out six artillery attacks on Taizz city, which is controlled by forces affiliated with the Yemeni government. On May 22, government-affiliated forces appear to have shelled al-Hawban district, under Houthi-Saleh control, northeast of Taizz, and killed three civilians, including two children, and wounded two others.

“Houthi-Saleh forces’ shelling of populated areas of Taizz has taken a terrible toll on civilians,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Houthi-Saleh commanders should immediately halt these indiscriminate attacks, and Yemeni government forces should ensure that their own forces are not launching similarly unlawful attacks outside the city.”

Human Rights Watch interviewed 14 witnesses to the May attacks along with local activists and health professionals. During the past two years, Houthi-Saleh forces, which control the capital and other areas of the country, have repeatedly fired mortar projectiles and artillery rockets from an elevated area in al-Hawban district indiscriminately into populated areas in Taizz.

Yemeni government-affiliated forces have controlled most of Taizz city since March 2016. Local monitors, including one in al-Hawban district, have reported numerous indiscriminate attacks by Houthi-Saleh forces into the city, and occasional unlawful strikes by government-affiliated forces, like the May 22 shelling, into al-Hawban. Mwatana, a leading Yemeni human rights organization, reported that Houthi-Saleh forces were responsible for most of the dozens of indiscriminate shelling incidents they documented in Taizz between April 2015 and March 2016.

A local activist, Faris al-Obidi, prepared a list of casualties from attacks over the three days in May when shelling in Taizz city was particularly heavy, after speaking with witnesses and survivors, as well as consulting logs at Taizz’s three hospitals. The list, which he shared with Human Rights Watch, included the names, ages, and date of injury for 54 civilians. Among the 14 dead were three children and two women.

Dr. Ahmad al-Dumaini, technical director at al-Thawra, Taizz city’s main hospital, said the hospital received 58 war-wounded civilians between May 20 and 26, including 20 children, plus three people who died before arrival, including a child. He said the vast majority of these casualties were from shelling. Dr. Walid al-Watiri, the laboratory chief at al-Safwa Hospital, said al-Safwa, al-Thawra, and al-Rawda hospitals received the bodies of 31 people, including six children, and another 167 wounded, including 60 children, over a 10-day period.

Jamil Qaid comforts his 8-year-old daughter, Malik, after her arm was amputated. Malik was wounded during one of the Houthi-Saleh artillery attacks on al-Dabou'a neighborhood, Taizz, on May 23, 2017. 

© 2017 Khalid Fuad Albanna

The renewed shelling occurred after local government-affiliated forces pushed Houthi-Saleh forces back from several locations east of the city, said a local activist, Maher al-Absi.

The areas hit on May 21 were about 800 meters from the front lines while those hit on May 22 and 23 were in the middle of the city, far from the front lines, in “very crowded civilian places,” al-Absi said. Witnesses to the six attacks in Taizz city that Human Rights Watch documented said that no government-aligned military forces were in those neighborhoods at the time of the attacks. Witnesses to the attack outside the city said no Houthi-Saleh forces were present.

Dr. al-Dumaini from al-Thawra hospital described what happened to Malik Qaid, an 8-year-old girl who lost her arm in one of the attacks on May 23:

The worst scene I saw was the child Malik. First, I felt helpless and heartbroken because we had only one surgeon in the operating room and he was busy with other cases, but at the end he finished and he operated on her. I felt sorry for this girl. How will she live with one arm? How will she adapt with the other kids while throughout her life she will be scarred by war?

Human Rights Watch has previously documented Houthi-Saleh indiscriminate shelling in Taizz. In June 2016, shelling killed at least 18 civilians and wounded 68 others over three days, hitting markets crowded with people shopping for Ramadan, according to the UN. In August 2015, three Houthi-Saleh attacks on Taizz killed at least 14 civilians, including five women and five children. In February 2017, Taizz-based activists provided Human Rights Watch a list of dozens of attacks on Taizz since March 2015 that had resulted in scores of civilian casualties.

The laws of war applicable to the armed conflict in Yemen prohibit indiscriminate attacks that strike military objectives and civilians or civilian objects without distinction. Examples include attacks that are not directed at a specific military objective or that use weapons, such as unguided rockets, that cannot be directed at a specific military objective.

The laws of war also require commanders to choose a means of attack that can be directed at military targets and will minimize incidental harm to civilians. Explosive weapons that are so inaccurate that they cannot be directed at military targets without a substantial risk of civilian harm should not be used in populated areas. Forces also must avoid locating military objectives near densely populated areas and seek to remove civilians from the vicinity of military targets.

“Commanders of Houthi-Saleh forces could face war crimes charges for ordering attacks that indiscriminately strike Taizz’s populated neighborhoods,” Whitson said. “All sides need to abide by the laws of war to minimize harm to civilians who have endured more than two years of fighting.”

May 21

On May 21, 2017 at about 5 p.m., a munition hit al-Humaira area, Sala district, a residential neighborhood about 200 meters from the front lines, killing a woman and her son and wounding four others, including the woman’s daughter.

Abdulrahman al-Naqeeb, 28, told Human Rights Watch that he and his friends heard a loud explosion and saw that a munition hit near a security checkpoint, wounding a local security officer. Fragments also struck a small van that contained a driver, and a woman and her two children. Al-Naqeeb said:

After the explosion, we heard someone calling for help. Four or five of us went to help…  

I didn’t recognize them at first, the driver was wounded. When we arrived at the hospital, they told us the woman was dead already, and I was looking at her son, and I was wondering why his face was very familiar to me. I was shocked, as I realized that she is my sister-in-law, and those are her kids. They were coming to visit us.

Eman al-Sufiani, 37, a recent widow, and her son Muhanned, 13, died in the attack. Her 8-year-old daughter, Shahad, was wounded. A local activist said three other men, including one of the men who worked at the checkpoint and the driver, were wounded in the attack.

Two more attacks that day, one near a school and the other near a mosque, killed five civilians, including a child. Three others were wounded, including two children, according to local activist al-Obidi.

May 22

On May 22 at about 1:30 p.m., a munition hit near Taizz’s Great Gate in al-Qahira district, a crowded area where people regularly gather to shop at the nearby market. According to al-Obidi’s casualty list, the attack killed one civilian and wounded 10, including a child.

Hamoud al-Shar’abi, 20, was buying vegetables in the market near the Great Gate when the munition hit. He said:

The first shell hit very close to me. People fell. Some got wounded. … I was thinking of rescuing a guy close to me. I didn’t know what to do. … Then I found myself on the ground, I lost consciousness.

Al-Shar’abi’s father said he heard an explosion followed by light cannon firing: “We got scared. The people were running away. Someone came and told us he saw someone with a motorbike rescue my son. I was terrified for my kid.”

Doctors performed surgery twice on al-Shar’abi and removed a light cannon round from his body. He provided Human Rights Watch a photo of the removed round.

Another attack that day on the al-Askari neighborhood wounded three civilians, including a 50-year-old woman and a 17-year-old boy, al-Obidi said.

The same day, government-affiliated forces appear to have shelled indiscriminately into al-Hawban district, northeast of Taizz. According to a local activist, the attack occurred at about 5:10 a.m., hitting al-Jumla neighborhood. A neighborhood resident, 25, said he was waiting for a grocery store to open after the morning prayers when the shell hit: “The loudness of the attack brought all the people from the neighborhood to rescue us.” He was wounded, as was a 16-year-old boy standing near him. Three people, including a 15-year-old and 17-year-old boy, were killed.

May 23

On May 23 at about 11:30 a.m., a munition hit a fruit cart near Mousa Gate in al-Qahira district, wounding five civilians, including three children, according to al-Obidi. Hani Saeed, a 35-year-old owner of a nearby barbershop, said that he rushed to help a 16-year-old girl who sells vegetables next to his shop and her aunt, who were both wounded.

At about 4:30 p.m., at least three munitions hit al-Daboua’a neighborhood, about 10 to 15 minutes apart, killing at least five civilians, including one child, and wounding seven, including four children.

In a video made immediately after the attack, an impact crater and fragmentation pattern on the asphalt indicate a 120mm mortar projectile was used. Based on the direction of the impact, the projectile was fired in an east-to-west direction, which fits with a mortar fired from the locations to the east of the city where Houthi-Saleh forces are known to be positioned.

Haza’a Nubish, a local resident, said the first al-Daboua’a munition hit near the Motherhood and Childhood Center, a small health center, killing his cousin Salem Kudaf and wounding Kudaf’s 5-year-old son, Sami. Fragments from the munition also wounded a 13-year-old girl.

The next two munitions struck near a construction materials store, one hitting a house and the other the middle of the street, killing four people, including a 7-year-old boy, and wounding three, including a 12-year-old boy, Nubish said.

Ghazal Qassim, 24, said she was in a shop with her two sons, one an infant, when the munitions struck. She said she was terrified and sought cover. She went to the hospital after the attack, as she had metal fragments in her back, and her 4-year-old son’s hand was wounded.

At about the same time as the attacks on al-Daboua’a, Flah al-Atfi, 32, was killed and Ameen al-A’shari, 54, lost both his legs after a munition hit about 500 meters east of the Central Security Forces headquarters in Taizz, said al-A’shari’s son. 

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

(Beirut) – Syrian-Russian airstrikes and artillery attacks on June 14, 2017, in a town in the southern Daraa governorate killed 10 civilians in and near a school, Human Rights Watch said today. Residents said they were not aware of any military targets in the vicinity of the attacks.

One of the airstrikes hit the courtyard of Martyr Kiwan middle school in the town of Tafas, killing eight people, including a child, most of them members of a family who had been displaced from another town and were taking shelter there, witnesses said. Artillery attacks roughly an hour earlier on the same day killed two other civilians, including one child, near the school. At least five people were wounded.

The impact crater in the Martyr Kiwan school courtyard from a Syrian-Russian airstrike on June 14, 2017. Seven of the eight casualties, including a child, were from a displaced family and had been sheltering in the school. 

© 2017 Private

“A sign at the entrance of the middle school in Tafas says, ‘Keep the school clean,’ but the floor was smeared with the blood of a whole family on June 14,” said Bill Van Esveld, senior children’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “As long as no one is held responsible for such repeated unlawful attacks, it’s likely they will continue.”

Witnesses said that to their knowledge no members of non-state armed groups fighting the Syrian government were killed or injured in the attacks, and that they did not know of any military objects in the vicinity of the attacks. A local resident said that anti-government armed groups known as Fajr al-Islam and al-Mutaz Bellah are present in Tafas, 13 kilometers north of the city of Daraa, but that neither had any presence in or near the school.

Human Rights Watch contacted witnesses and residents in Tafas by phone and WhatsApp, as well as a relative of the displaced family that had been sheltering there. Some of the names of those interviewed are withheld for their protection. Human Rights Watch also reviewed photographs and videos the witnesses shared. Tafas hospital, where most of the victims were transferred, provided a short report describing the victims’ injuries. Syrian government ground forces are located about five kilometers southeast of Tafas.

Human Rights Watch is not aware that the Syrian or Russian authorities made any statements about the attacks.

The Martyr Kiwan school had 300 to 400 students before the 2011 uprising, and a similar number subsequently, as some children from Tafas had fled but others who had been displaced from other towns were enrolled there, said one Tafas resident. The school was on summer vacation on June 14, which may have limited the number of casualties. The school had previously been damaged by an airstrike in November 2016 that did not cause any casualties, and had continued to operate even though some displaced families were living there. Another resident who lives nearby said that middle school staff told him they plan to teach students in two shifts in the building that was not damaged until the damaged building can be repaired.

Damage to the Martyr Kiwan middle school from a Syrian-Russian airstrike on June 14, 2017 that killed eight civilians, including a child. 

© 2017 Private

Syrian opposition groups captured Tafas in August 2013. All the witnesses Human Rights Watch spoke to said that there were no fighters or other military objects in or near the areas that were attacked on June 14. “The rebels are far from the town, on agricultural lands and in old bases,” said Abu Wesal, a civil defense worker who responded to the attacks. The opposition Free Syrian Army stated that it launched rocket and artillery attacks against Syrian army vehicles at a checkpoint in Khirbet Ghazala, about 15 kilometers east of Tafas, on June 14.

Abu Wesal shared photographs he took of the impact crater in the school courtyard, and of the remnants of the bomb used in that airstrike, but it is not possible to positively identify a specific type. However, given the close proximity to the weapons’ impact, the bomb created significant blast, fragmentation, and thermal effects, which are evident on the bodies of the victims. Both Abu Wesal and another civil defense worker who responded to the attacks said that all the bodies and wounded they evacuated were civilians, and that there was no military object at the school. No weapons or military uniforms are visible in any of the videos and photographs of the attack’s aftermath that Human Rights Watch reviewed.

Witnesses said they could not see the aircraft that dropped the bombs. A fixed-wing aircraft is briefly visible in a video posted online by Shahid, a local media organization, which the group described as footage of the first airstrike on Tafas. Two subsequent airstrikes hit the north and east of Tafas, causing minor injuries, a second civil defense worker said.

The United Nations children’s agency, UNICEF, reported at least 87 attacks on schools or educational staff in Syria in 2016, which killed 255 children in or near schools. The Syrian Human Rights Committee reported 132 attacks against “educational institutes” in 2016, including 113 by Syrian-Russian airstrikes. A Syrian nongovernmental humanitarian group, the Assistance Coordination Unit, found that 27 percent of the 3,373 schools it assessed in November and December 2016 in 90 subdistricts in Syria had been damaged due to the conflict.

According to the UN, 1 in 3 children in Syria are out of school and 1 in 3 schools are not operating because they have been damaged, destroyed, used by military forces, or used to shelter displaced civilians.

“The joint Syrian-Russian military operation in Syria has repeatedly demonstrated contempt for civilian lives and for the schools, which represent a better future for the country,” Van Esveld said. “The attacks on Tafas appear unlawful, and the victims deserve justice.”

The June 14 attacks in Tafas
At around noon on June 14, 2017, an artillery attack killed Hiba al-Hasan, a 12-year-old girl, and Mohamad al-Salkhadi, who was selling vegetables, near al-Omari square, a residential area in the middle of town, Abu Wesal and another civil defense worker in Tafas who responded to the attacks told Human Rights Watch separately. Other artillery attacks hit areas in Tafas to the north and west at around the same time but without casualties, and attacks continued later in the day, the men said. Abu Wesal said the artillery attacks originated from the direction of areas controlled by Syrian government forces near Tafas: Tal al-Khedr and Dara’a al-Panorama. Tafas has been subjected to repeated artillery attacks from government-held areas, witnesses said.

Beginning at around 1 p.m., a fixed-wing jet aircraft dropped four bombs in short succession on Tafas, witnesses said. The first airstrike hit an open area immediately behind the Kiwan middle school, about 300 meters south of the square hit by the earlier artillery strike. Another civil defense worker said he arrived at the site of the explosion within a few minutes, and that a second airstrike hit the school’s front courtyard shortly thereafter. “I saw the [second] bomb hit the school, because I was very close,” he said. “Me and my team went inside the school.” Human Rights Watch saw a video that the civil defense worker said he filmed at the time showing at least five bodies, blood, and body parts in the school entrance.

Abu Wesal also arrived at the school shortly after the second attack, “about three minutes after the first one, just enough time for the plane to circle around.” Among the victims whose bodies he removed was that of his cousin, Ahmad Naji Kiwan, whose home was next to the school.

It was the first time I’d seen something like that – the remains were splattered all over. There were six bodies, amputated heads, amputated hands, amputated legs, not one was left intact. We tried to look for survivors and heard children screaming. The only two survivors we found are the boy [Bara’a al-Masri] and a girl. They were […] stuck under mattresses and furniture. I swear, to this moment, the smell of blood and remains is stuck on the metal. The [bomb], when it fell, tore down the door, the metallic front gate of the school. We found one body with part of the door having pierced him from the chest onto his back. Something indescribable. 

The other seven people killed and wounded at the school were among roughly 15 members of an extended family who had been sheltering there since Syrian forces captured their hometown of Ataman, about 10 kilometers away, in February 2016, said a resident who lives near the school. Witnesses and Syrian rights groups identified the family members killed as Yasmin al-Masri, a 13-year-old girl, and her relatives Rami, Mohamad Ahmad, Mohamad Ayed, Ahmad, Mahmud, and Mahmud’s wife, Basma al-Hari, 31. Al-Hari died while in surgery due to shrapnel wounds in the head, chest, and stomach, according to a written statement from Tafas hospital.

The hospital statement said it had received the bodies of seven people who were killed in the attack, as well as al-Hari, who died in surgery, and four other al-Masri family members who were wounded: Bara’a Mohamad al-Masri, 3, who had abdominal wounds and a ruptured leg artery; another boy, a girl, and a woman, 55, who had abdominal wounds and was transferred to Jordan. A video uploaded to YouTube on June 24 by Orient News shows a boy identified as Bara’a al-Masri, and a doctor who describes performing surgery on him.

The aircraft conducted two other airstrikes shortly after hitting the school, witnesses said. The third strike wounded two children when it hit a former military barracks about 2.5 kilometers east of the school that is being used as shelter for displaced families from the towns of Sheikh Maskin, Ebtah, Garfah, and Ataman, Abu Wesal said. The fourth airstrike hit land next to a former cigarette warehouse which also shelters displaced people on the edge of Tafas without causing casualties.

Another resident who lives near Tafas told Human Rights Watch that he visited the school the day following the attack on behalf of a children’s organization, and that he also met Bara’a al-Masri in the hospital: “He had no one anymore. No mother. No father. Only his uncle, who was devastated. I went to visit him the next day as well, and offered some help.” The boy was discharged from hospital five days later. A family member said that the boy had been transferred to a hospital in Jordan, with another relative.

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

Journalists and police inspect the scene at the community hall in Sanaa that Saudi-led coalition warplanes attacked on October 8, 2016. 

© 2016 Khaled Abdullah/Reuters

This week's judgment by the High Court declaring that UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia are not illegal is deeply disappointing.

The landmark legal case, brought by Campaign Against Arms Trade, tried to establish that the UK government is breaking its own arms export licensing criteria by selling weapons to Riyadh, given the repeated international humanitarian law (IHL) violations the Saud-led coalition has committed during its military campaign in Yemen.

Had the High Court ruled in favour of Campaign Against Arms Trade, it was hoped that UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia would have been suspended – at least temporarily – and thereby help to pressure Riyadh to end its unlawful attacks in Yemen, where the two-year-old conflict has left more than 4,900 civilians dead, another 8,500 wounded, and brought millions in the country to the brink of starvation.

So Monday's ruling is terrible news for Yemen's civilians. But the Court's approach also involved some significant omissions.

For example, in reaching a judgment on whether there is a "serious risk" that UK arms and equipment sold to Saudi Arabia will be used to commit "a serious violation of international humanitarian law" - at the heart of this legal case - it is crucial to look closely at Saudi Arabia's record during the Yemen conflict, and to scrutinise the contrasting evidence put forward by the different parties.

The Court's judgement commends the UK government's processes for considering allegations of violations of IHL. This includes the fact that cases are placed on a central government database, known as "the Tracker", as well as the frequent and high-level discussions on these issues that take place across Whitehall. This activity is cited as evidence of Ministerial good intentions and underpins the government's claim, backed by the Court, that the UK is compliant with its legal obligations.

But is this really good enough? Human Rights Watch has identified at least 81 apparently unlawful attacks by the Saudi-led coalition, which have hit schools, markets, hospitals and homes. Amnesty International and the UN have also identified scores of additional Saudi-led coalition strikes which they judge to be unlawful. While it does not say so explicitly, the logic of the UK's position is that Human Rights Watch, Amnesty and the UN rights agencies - whose work is often commended by the UK government in other contexts for its objectivity and rigour - have repeatedly gotten it wrong in the case of Yemen.

The government is entitled to challenge our organisations' research, legal analysis and conclusions, of course, but it has failed to make public any convincing counter evidence to dispute ours and substantiate theirs. And, more importantly, the Court is seemingly happy with the government's assurances from Saudi Arabia that it remains "genuinely committed to compliance with international humanitarian law".

For example, the Court makes much of the fact that the government quickly raised concerns when the Saudi-led coalition bombed a funeral hall in Sanaa in October 2016 – an appalling attack that killed or wounded hundreds of civilians. But even in this case – which the UN human rights office called "outrageous" and which prompted the United States to review its support to the Saudi-led coalition and hold up some weapons sales – the UK has not said whether it believes the airstrike was lawful or not.

Similarly, the judgment mentions an October 2016 attack on Al-Zaydiya security compound in western Yemen, noting the site was "alleged to be a prison by some." Our researchers visited the site, documented weapons remnants from the attack, and interviewed civilians who were grievously wounded, many with horrible burns. They told Human Rights Watch of the horror they felt when the first bomb struck, when they realised the guards would not let them out, and when the next two weapons struck. Here again, the government refuses to state whether it judges the strike illegal or not.

The Court also makes some statements about the work of human rights groups, including that they have often "not visited and conducted investigations in Yemen and are necessarily reliant on second-hand information." This is not correct. Human Rights Watch has visited Yemen repeatedly since the start of the war in March 2015, and conducted numerous on-site inspections. Nor does Human Rights Watch rely on second-hand information. Instead, we conduct thorough investigations that draw on multiple sources of information, including interviews, video and photographic evidence, and satellite imagery.

The Court also notes approvingly the frequency of UK government contact with the Saudi authorities, and a number of high-profile recent public statements by the Saudis. But where is the evidence that this has translated into changes in Saudi conduct?

There is no let-up in the Yemen war. The Saudi-led coalition, supported and armed by the UK, continues to carry out attacks that we and others deem to be unlawful. There are simply too many unanswered questions for this ruling to be the last word on UK arms sales to Saudi.

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

Countries voted to adopt the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons at the United Nations in New York on July 7.

© 2017 Bonnie Docherty/Human Rights Watch

History was made at the United Nations on Friday as 122 countries adopted the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.

This outcome resulted from a process – which began in Oslo, Norway in 2013 – to address the humanitarian consequences of using and testing nuclear weapons. It is rooted in more than 70 years of activism that began with the deaths of thousands from atomic weapons used in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The treaty is a milestone in part because it ensures that all weapons of mass destruction are banned. It complements the conventions prohibiting chemical and biological weapons.

In addition, the treaty was inspired by and advances humanitarian disarmament law, exemplified by the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions and 1997 Mine Ban Treaty. “Humanitarian disarmament” seeks to strengthen international humanitarian law and protect civilians from weapons that cause unacceptable harm, including weapons that are invariably indiscriminate in populated areas.

To prevent future harm, the new instrument categorically prohibits the use, production, stockpiling, transfer, and other activities involving nuclear weapons. It also requires countries that have joined the treaty to address the consequences of nuclear weapon use and testing – in particular by assisting victims and remediating environmental contamination.

The collective efforts of countries, United Nations agencies, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons led to the success of the recent negotiations.

Countries attending the negotiating conference voted overwhelmingly in favor of the treaty. Only the Netherlands, which called for the vote, voted against adoption, and only Singapore abstained.

Although no countries that possess nuclear weapons participated in the process or adopted the convention, it can still have a far-reaching impact. It provides a framework for the elimination of an inhumane and invariably indiscriminate weapon that causes unacceptable harm. It also reinforces the principle that disarmament law should focus on ending the human suffering caused by such weapons.

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

A civil defense member breathes through an oxygen mask, after what rescue workers described as a suspected chemical attack in the town of Khan Sheikhoun in rebel-held Idlib, Syria April 4, 2017.

© 2017 Reuters

The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) released yesterday its report on the April 4 chemical attack on Khan Sheikhoun in northern Syria that killed at least 90 people. The OPCW concluded the attack used sarin, a nerve agent, or sarin-like substances, confirming what Human Rights Watch reported in May.

I read the report while in Syria interviewing witnesses of another attack that has barely received any attention even though it also appears to have involved a nerve agent. In a town near Raqqa, I met two villagers from Jrouh, a village in the Hama countryside, who described experiencing symptoms consistent with exposure to a nerve agent after an aircraft – believed to be part of the Syrian air force – dropped a munition on the village in December 2016. Two medical personnel I met near Raqqa also confirmed that injured people from the attacks exhibited symptoms consistent with exposure to a nerve agent, saying that a hospital in then-ISIS controlled Tabqa received between 60 and 70 patients.

Based on interviews with several witnesses, Human Rights Watch reported on these attacks in May, but they have received little attention because they took place in ISIS-controlled territory, which tightly controls communication and bans taking photos. As ISIS loses territory, however, more witnesses are surfacing.

These attacks are important not only because they appear to have killed dozens of civilians, but also because they appear to be the first time Syrian government forces used nerve agents since an attack killed hundreds in Ghouta, near Damascus, in 2013.

These attacks provide important context to the Khan Sheikhoun chemical attack. Syrian and Russian officials have denied that the Syrian government used chemical weapons in the Khan Sheikhoun attack, claiming that a Syrian high-explosive bomb struck chemicals stored on the ground. But evidence that Syrian government forces used nerve agents on multiple occasions makes this explanation implausible.

The Khan Sheikhoun case now goes to the United Nations-OPCW Joint Investigative Mechanism, whose task it is to establish who was responsible for the attack. As more witnesses become available, let’s hope the OPCW will be able to issue strong conclusions on December attacks as well and that the Joint Investigative Mechanism considers this pattern of attacks when assessing responsibility for chemical weapon use in Syria.

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

Smoking and burning white phosphorus streaks to the ground in west Mosul on June 2, 2017. 

© 2017 Getty Images
(Washington, DC) – The use of artillery-delivered white phosphorus by the United States-led coalition fighting Islamic State (also known as ISIS) forces in Syria and Iraq raises serious questions about the protection of civilians, Human Rights Watch said today. This multipurpose munition should never be used as an incendiary weapon to attack personnel or materiel in populated areas, even when delivered from the ground.

“No matter how white phosphorus is used, it poses a high risk of horrific and long-lasting harm in crowded cities like Raqqa and Mosul and any other areas with concentrations of civilians,” said Steve Goose, arms director at Human Rights Watch. “US-led forces should take all feasible precautions to minimize civilian harm when using white phosphorus in Iraq and Syria.”

White phosphorus munitions can be used for several purposes on the battlefield: as an obscurant or smoke screen, for signaling and marking, and as an incendiary weapon. US forces are using white phosphorus in both Mosul, in Iraq, and in the ISIS stronghold of Raqqa, in Syria. But the rationale for its use by US-led coalition forces is unclear as the coalition does not comment on specific incidents.

Human Rights Watch was not able to independently verify whether the use of the munitions resulted in any civilian casualties. A Raqqa resident living in Beirut told the New York Times that an internet cafe in Raqqa was recently hit by white phosphorus, killing around 20 people.

In Syria, a video published on Facebook on June 8, 2017, and reported on Facebook as shot that day in Raqqa, shows the use of ground-fired artillery projectiles containing white phosphorus, which are distinctive when air-burst. Another video broadcast by Amaq News Agency, an ISIS-linked news outlet, purports to show the same incident with fires on the ground started by white phosphorus, but its veracity cannot be determined. A video published online on June 10 suggest further use of white phosphorus on June 9.

In early 2017, US Marine artillery deployed to Syria in support of the operation to retake Raqqa, an operation in which Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are also participating. The Washington Post published photographs of the deployed Marine unit equipped with white phosphorus projectiles, as well as similar pictures showing white phosphorus projectiles with US Army units outside Mosul. The SDF announced the offensive to take Raqqa from ISIS on June 6. The reason for this use of white phosphorus cannot be determined from the videos, which shows white phosphorus being used just after sunset.

Footage shot in Mosul, Iraq on June 3 also shows the use of ground-fired projectiles containing white phosphorous. Smoke from ground fires is also visible in the video, but it is unclear if these were ignited by white phosphorus or caused by something else. Since mid-February, Iraqi forces supported by the US-led coalition have been engaged in an offensive to retake densely populated west Mosul.

The purpose of this use of white phosphorus is unclear, but Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) stated on June 4 that it was used to create a smoke screen. According to a US-led coalition comment to media on the use that Human Rights Watch obtained: “While protecting civilians fleeing from the Jamouri Hospital the Coalition used smoke and precision munitions to suppress the enemy and provide cover for fleeing civilians. In conjunction with Iraqi Security Forces, the Coalition used appropriate munitions to suppress and obscure ISIS snipers so that the civilians could reach friendly forces.”

In both Mosul and Raqqa, the US-led forces are using US-made M825-series 155mm artillery projectiles containing 116 felt wedges impregnated with white phosphorus, which ignites and continues to burn when exposed to the air. This is the only type of 155mm white phosphorus projectile in US stocks that can be air-burst. Neither ISIS nor Syrian government forces are known to possess or have used these US-made munitions.

The US-led coalition states that as a matter of policy it cannot publicly discuss the use of specific munitions, but admits to using white phosphorus in its operation in Iraq and Syria. US Army Col. Ryan Dillon, a spokesperson for the US-led coalition in Iraq and Syria, told international media on June 9 that, “in accordance with the law of armed conflict, white phosphorus rounds are used for screening, obscuring and marking in a way that fully considers the possible incidental effects on civilians and civilian structures.”

In the Mosul incident, the projectiles burst very close to the ground in what seems to be an attempt to minimize the footprint of the effects. In Raqqa, videos appear to show the munitions bursting higher in the air, spreading the white phosphorus over a much wider area.

White phosphorus ignites when exposed to atmospheric oxygen and continues to burn until it is deprived of oxygen or exhausted. Its chemical reaction can create intense heat (about 815° C/1500° F), light, and smoke. White phosphorus can thus be used for marking, signaling, and obscuring, but it can also be used as a weapon to set fires that burn people and objects.

On contact, white phosphorus can also burn people, thermally and chemically, down to the bone as it is highly soluble in fat, and therefore in human flesh. White phosphorus fragments can exacerbate wounds even after treatment and can enter the bloodstream and cause multiple organ failure. Already dressed wounds can reignite when dressings are removed and they are re-exposed to oxygen. Even relatively minor burns are often fatal.

Attacks using air-delivered incendiary weapons in civilian areas are prohibited under Protocol III of the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW). While the protocol contains weaker restrictions for ground-launched incendiary weapons, all types of incendiary weapons produce horrific injuries. Protocol III applies only to weapons that are “primarily designed” to set fires or cause burns, and thus some countries believe it excludes certain multipurpose munitions with incendiary effects, notably those containing white phosphorus.

Lebanon became the 114th country to ratify CCW Protocol III on April 5, 2017. Iraq, Russia, and the US are parties to the protocol, while Syria has not ratified it.

From 2000 to 2016, white phosphorus munitions were reportedly used in at least seven conflicts – Afghanistan, Gaza, Iraq, Lebanon, Somalia, Ukraine, and Yemen. In 2016, the Saudi Arabia-led coalition in Yemen used artillery-delivered white phosphorus munitions.

Syrian government forces are not known to have used white phosphorus, but Human Rights Watch has documented the use of air dropped Soviet or Russian-made incendiary weapons in the country since 2012, and in their operations with Russian forces since late 2015. Human Rights Watch has repeatedly called on the Syrian-Russian coalition to cease their use of incendiary weapons in Syria.

“Horrific civilian harm from previous use of white phosphorus has generated public outrage and this latest use of white phosphorus underscores the urgent need for states to strengthen international law relating to incendiary weapons,” Goose said.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighters on their way to Raqqa, Syria June 6, 2017.

© 2017 Reuters

(Beirut) – The United States-led coalition, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), and other local armed groups should make protecting civilians and respect for human rights a priority in the offensive to retake Raqqa from the Islamic State (also known as ISIS), Human Rights Watch said today. The offensive was announced on June 6, 2017.

Key human rights priorities for anti-ISIS forces should include: taking all feasible precautions to avoid civilian casualties and investigating alleged unlawful strikes; ensuring that no child soldiers participate in the military operation; respecting detainee rights; providing safe passage to fleeing civilians and providing sufficient support to displaced people; and increasing efforts to survey and clear landmines and explosive remnants of war.

“The battle for Raqqa is not just about defeating ISIS, but also about protecting and assisting the civilians who have suffered under ISIS rule for three and a half years,” said Lama Fakih, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Coalition members and local forces should demonstrate concretely that the lives and rights of the hundreds of thousands of civilians in Raqqa are a parallel priority in the offensive.

On December 23, 2016, Human Rights Watch shared recommended human rights priorities with the US Defense Department, the Syrian Democratic Forces, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), and the local Kurdish police, known as the Asayish, all of which are expected to be involved in the offensive and related security operations. On February 16, Human Rights Watch shared the same recommendations with the new US defense secretary.

Up to 400,000 civilians are estimated to remain in Raqqa governorate, and 160,000-200,000 in the city of Raqqa, which ISIS captured in January 2014. Human Rights Watch staff last visited the city in April 2013.

Avoid Civilian Casualties; Investigate Unlawful Strikes

Human Rights Watch has documented several missile and aerial attacks that caused civilian casualties and were carried out by US-led coalition forces in Syria since they began operations there in September 2014. Rising civilian casualties from US-led coalition strikes have heightened concerns about whether adequate precautions are in place.

On June 2, Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF-OIR) published its monthly civilian casualty report covering Syria and Iraq. The report found that: “To date, based on information available, CJTF-OIR assesses that, it is more likely than not, at least 484 civilians have been unintentionally killed by Coalition strikes since the start of Operation Inherent Resolve.”

During the same period, Airwars, a United Kingdom-based nongovernmental organization that monitors airstrikes, estimated that the minimum number of civilian casualties from US-led coalition strikes in Syria and Iraq was more than 3,800, approximately eight times the number reported by the coalition. Despite having the authority and funds, the US has done very little to compensate those injured by strikes or the families of those killed. US military officials have said that non-US coalition members are responsible for at least 80 of the 484 fatalities, but none of the other coalition members have publicly admitted responsibility. As a result, as of May, the US stopped confirming its own responsibility for specific civilian casualties.

Coalition members should take all feasible measures to ensure the protection of civilians and civilian objects during military operations. This includes maintaining international standards and procedures designed to prevent civilian casualties, and robustly and transparently reporting airstrikes and enemy and civilian casualties. This also requires promptly, impartially, and, thoroughly investigating instances in which civilian casualties may have occurred as a result of those operations; and providing compensation for wrongful civilian deaths and injuries and appropriate “condolence” or ex gratia payments for civilian harm.

Based on its experience monitoring the Mosul air campaign in Iraq as well as other coalition airstrikes in Syria, Human Rights Watch urges coalition members to:


  • Maintain measures to require the maximum levels of target verification and authorization prior to all air and ground-launched strikes. A central decision-making node, such as the Combined Joint Forces Land Component Command – Operation Inherent Resolve’s “Strike Cell” in Baghdad, should evaluate and approve each strike and provide additional targeting information and recommendations as necessary. Taking this step where practicable is one way to ensure that targeting officers are equipped with more information about the target and the potential risks to civilians before a strike is approved. Additionally, multi-level approval systems that incorporate and synthesize large amounts of information from the battlefield can help minimize civilian casualties;
  • When operating in densely populated areas where civilians and combatants are comingled, commanders should take all feasible steps to minimize the harm to civilians and civilian objects. The use of munitions with large payloads of high explosives in populated areas should be limited. These munitions can have a wide-area destructive effect, and it is not possible when using them to distinguish adequately between civilians and combatants, almost inevitably resulting in civilian casualties. Where feasible, commanders should require terminal attack controllers, who have the authority to approve the release of weapons to maintain the highest level of direct control over each strike, including both seeing the target and the attacking aircraft. Commanders should also limit the use of indirect-fire weapons – mortars, artillery, and rockets – and using unguided munitions – meaning that the firing unit does not see the target, but relies on spotters to provide targeting information. In all cases, commanders and targeting officers should select weapons and specific munitions to minimize civilian casualties to the maximum extent possible;
  • When conducting airstrikes, use all available means to verify the presence and location of combatants, as well as the presence of civilians in the immediate vicinity. Anti-ISIS forces should also take into account the increasing use of civilians as human shields by ISIS. Any estimates of potential civilian casualties before a strike should take into account that many civilians remain trapped in ISIS-held territory and may not be readily observable from the air or by using advanced targeting equipment. Because of this, to reduce the risk of civilian casualties, surveillance, intelligence, and reconnaissance assets under the control of members of the US-led coalition should, where possible, be dedicated to conducting pattern-of-life analyses and locating and tracking civilians moving in and out of potential and future target areas in advance of operations;
  • Prior to conducting strikes, carefully and rigorously verify information received from partner forces, including other members of the US-led coalition, using all available sources of information – aerial observations, information collected by personnel and military hardware, etc. This step is critical to avoiding acting upon erroneous targeting information;
  • Coalition members should individually, robustly, and transparently investigate credible reports of civilian casualties and make public detailed findings of all of their investigations. These investigations should use a full range of tools, including interviews with victims and their families, consultation with human rights groups, surveillance and targeting videos, and forensic analyses. The public findings of investigations should include an explanation of the accountability measures coalition members used, the redress provided to victims or their families, and the process through which coalition members determined whether accountability or redress measures were necessary;
  • Redress should include compensation for wrongful civilian deaths and injuries and for harm to civilians. The coalition should develop effective systems for civilians to file claims for condolence or ex gratia payments and to evaluate the claims. If the investigation finds that serious violations of the laws of war occurred, it should refer those responsible for appropriate criminal prosecution.


Ensure that No Child Soldier Takes Part in the Campaign

In doing research in northern Syria in February 2014, Human Rights Watch found that, despite promises in 2013 from the Asayish and the YPG to stop using children for military purposes, the problem persisted in both forces. The internal regulations of both the Asayish and YPG forbid the use of children under age 18. International law sets 18 as the minimum age for participation in direct hostilities, which includes using children as scouts, couriers, and at checkpoints.

In a positive development, on June 5, 2014, the YPG admitted that the problem continued and pledged to demobilize all fighters under 18 within one month. In July 2015, however, Human Rights Watch released further evidence that the YPG and its female branch failed to adhere to obligations not to use child soldiers. The YPG sent Human Rights Watch a response on July 22, 2015, pledging to “follow up” on the cases cited.

In November 2015, when Geneva Call, a nongovernmental organization dedicated to promoting respect by non-state armed groups for international humanitarian norms, was in Syria, the official YPG spokesperson acknowledged that child recruitment was a persistent problem, but that the YPG was working to remedy the situation. In October 2016, when Human Rights Watch was in northern Syria, the spokesman said that child recruitment had gone down “to a minimum” and that children were not fighting on the front lines. Human Rights Watch urges coalition members to:


  • Vet armed groups before assisting them, and monitor their compliance with international humanitarian law, including the prohibition on the use of child soldiers, and investigate any credible allegations of abuses;
  • Make clear to the Syrian Democratic Forces and other forces that recruiting children as soldiers is unlawful even if they are not serving a military function; discipline officers who allow children to serve under them; and encourage the forces to provide former child soldiers all appropriate assistance for their physical and psychological recovery and social reintegration; and
  • Commit publicly to ceasing coordination with or assistance to armed groups that recruit and fail to demobilize child soldiers.


Respect Detainee Rights

During field investigations in Syria in February 2014, Human Rights Watch documented that the Asayish arbitrarily detained people in areas under their control and mistreated detainees, including those accused of terrorism-related offenses. Human Rights Watch found in October 2016 that the SDF had seemingly arbitrarily detained medical personnel for providing assistance to ISIS.

Arresting authorities should not presume that someone is affiliated with ISIS or otherwise suspected of criminal activity based simply on gender, age, religious sect, or tribal name. Suspects should only be detained if there is individualized suspicion that they committed a crime. SDF forces and local authorities should stress to commanders and soldiers that it is not permissible to detain medical personnel who provide medical treatment to enemy combatants. The forces and local authorities should investigate credible allegations of arbitrary detention, ill-treatment, and torture of detainees and hold those responsible accountable.

Any screening of displaced people by the SDF or other security forces should last only a matter of hours, in a way that is nondiscriminatory and ensures civilian protection in accordance with the laws of war and human rights law. Anyone held longer should be treated as a detainee, meaning that their detention should have a clear legal basis, and they should be in an authorized place of detention. Authorities working at the screening centers should have basic technical training for their tasks, and the authorities should provide them with the adequate resources to screen people as quickly and safely as possible. The forces should transparently inform humanitarian groups about capacity and procedures at the screening centers. Other recommendations relating to screening include:


  • The authorities should promptly notify the families of detainees of the whereabouts of their relatives and publish overall numbers of detainees;
  • Authorities should make medical care, including first aid, promptly available to everyone at screening sites;
  • Authorities running the screening centers surrounding Raqqa should locate them as far from hostilities as possible;
  • Authorities should promptly identify vulnerable people and give them first priority for screening, including people needing immediate medical assistance, and provide them with any assistance needed. Unaccompanied children should be treated in an age-appropriate manner, and female staff should screen women and girls;
  • Authorities should make every effort to keep any child held for screening with a parent, and should only question children in the presence of a parent. If authorities screen children and suspect that they were child soldiers, treatment should focus on rehabilitation and social reintegration, not detention or prosecution. Under international norms, officials should seek at all times to release, protect, and reintegrate children unlawfully recruited or used, without condition, and children should be rapidly separated from adult fighters and handed over to “an appropriate, mandated, independent civilian process.” In all cases, children should be detained or imprisoned only as a last resort and for the shortest appropriate period, separately from adults;
  • The authorities should allow independent protection monitors at all screening centers; and
  • Authorities should ensure that people being screened are treated respectfully and that conditions in the centers meet international standards.


Provide Safe Passage to Fleeing Civilians, Sufficient Support to Displaced People

According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), more than 200,000 people have been displaced as a result of the Raqqa operation, and up to 160,000-200,000 are estimated to remain in the city, including 40,000 children.

The laws of war require all parties to the conflict to take all feasible steps to evacuate civilians from areas of fighting or where fighters are deployed and not block or impede the evacuation of those wishing to leave. Human Rights Watch has previously documented that ISIS uses civilians to protect its forces from attack. Deliberately using the presence of civilians to protect military forces from attack is the war crime of “human shielding.”

The presence of ISIS fighters among civilian does not absolve anti-ISIS forces from the obligation to target only military objectives, however. The creation of humanitarian corridors and the issuance of effective advance warnings of attack to the civilian population do not relieve attacking forces of their obligation to distinguish at all times between combatants and civilians and to take all feasible precautions to protect civilians. Corridors and warnings do not permit forces to treat civilians who remain as combatants subject to attack.

Staff from humanitarian organizations working to meet the needs of those affected by fighting in Raqqa have told Human Rights Watch that civilians there will require access to health care, especially sexual and reproductive health for women and girls, food assistance, and potable water. Aid groups anticipate finding that health facilities and water pumping stations may have been severely damaged due to airstrikes and will need to be repaired or alternatives found and that there is most likely a shortage of medical professionals in the city. Raqqa is seen as a high-risk area for cholera.

People displaced by the fighting in Raqqa are sheltering in other parts of the governorate, as well as in Aleppo, Idlib, and to a lesser extent Hama, Homs, and Deir al-Zour governorates. Many are in camps for displaced people.

In its May 23 Raqqa situation report, OCHA said that in mid-May reports emerged that local authorities prevented internally displaced people from Raqqa governorate from leaving Ein Issa camp by confiscating their ID cards and travel documents. Camp authorities have since indicated that these rules will not be enforced and that displaced people will be able to leave the camps if they find sponsors.

OCHA also said that for security reasons, displaced people had been allowed to relocate to rural areas but not towns such as Tell Abyad, Ayn Arous, and Kobane and that their identity documents had been confiscated at checkpoints if they tried to go to the towns. It said:


Restrictions on freedom of movement, as shown by the situation in Mabrouka and Ein Issa, continue to be of concern. Some 3,500 families had reportedly been using their cars as shelter outside Ein Issa camp waiting for the authorities to return their identity documents. Communication devices are confiscated upon entry to Mabrouka camp.


SDF and other forces should ensure that civilians are able to flee areas of fighting for safety and to get aid, including in areas controlled by the Democratic Union Party (PYD)-led autonomous administration in northern Syria. They should ensure the safety and security of humanitarian relief personnel at all times.

Local authorities should allow freedom of movement for all displaced people in areas under their control, including those who want to live or travel outside of the camps. Movement restrictions should only be imposed if  “provided by law … and necessary to protect national security, public order, public health or morals, or the rights and freedoms of others,” as outlined in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Increase Efforts to Survey and Clear Landmines, Explosive Remnants of War

Improvised mines, other types of explosive devices, and remnants of war pose a significant threat to civilians and hinder recovery in places that were under ISIS control. ISIS-planted improvised explosive devices will likely pose a major threat to civilians in the battle to retake Raqqa from ISIS.

During a five-day investigation in the city of Manbij from October 4 to 9, 2016, Human Rights Watch collected the names of 69 civilians, including 19 children, killed by improvised mines planted by ISIS in schools, homes, and on roads during and after the fighting over control for the city. The total is most likely much higher because Human Rights Watch was not able to collect information from all neighborhoods and villages. Hospital staff said that they had treated hundreds of people injured by improvised mines. Nearly all the incidents documented appear to have been caused by victim-activated improvised explosive devices.

Local military and civilian authorities should raise awareness among the displaced about the threat of improvised mines and develop capacity to rapidly clear homes and residential areas of mines and remnants of war to facilitate the return of the civilian population.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

(Beirut) – The expected battle involving Iraqi and US-led coalition forces against the Islamic State (ISIS) in west Mosul’s Old City poses a considerable threat to civilians and civilian objects, international humanitarian and human rights organizations said today. All warring parties should cease using explosive weapons with wide area effects and inherently indiscriminate weapons in densely populated west Mosul. ISIS’s unlawful use of civilians as “human shields” and the difficulty of identifying civilians in buildings increases the risk of civilian casualties.

The United Nations has estimated that 200,000 civilians remain in the two-square-kilometer area in west Mosul’s Old City, which Iraqi and US-led coalition forces are encircling in preparation for the battle there.

Two Emergency Response Division IRAM launchers in Badoush, May 2017. 

© 2017 Private

“Thousands of families are trapped by ISIS in west Mosul, with its fighters preventing civilians from fleeing to safety,” said Lama Fakih, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Iraqi and coalition forces should recognize that in the crowded Old City, using explosive weapons with wide area effects puts civilians at excessive risk.”

The groups expressing concern are Airwars, Amnesty International, Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC), Human Rights First, Human Rights Watch, the International Network on Explosive Weapons (INEW), and War Child.

On May 25, 2017, anti-ISIS forces dropped leaflets urging civilians to immediately leave areas under ISIS control. Anti-ISIS forces should take all feasible precautions to minimize harm when carrying out attacks and ensure that civilians can safely evacuate the Old City and get humanitarian assistance both inside and outside the besieged area. With the offensive to take west Mosul entering its 109th day, the situation for civilians trapped there is growing increasingly perilous. Those fleeing Mosul have told humanitarian and human rights organizations that markets are being emptied of food, with civilians subsisting on little more than wheat and rainwater.

In mid-February, the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) supported by the US-led coalition, known as the Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF-OIR), began the offensive to retake west Mosul, a densely populated set of urban neighborhoods.

Rising civilian casualties from aerial operations have heightened concerns regarding coalition and Iraqi forces’ use of airstrikes. The use of explosive weapons with wide-area effects such as air-dropped bombs of 500lbs and above, which have been used in the context of the operation, in densely populated civilian areas of western Mosul may be resulting in civilian casualties and damage to civilian objects that is excessive to the anticipated military objectives of the strikes. Such disproportionate military attacks are prohibited under international humanitarian law.

Iraqi forces have also been launching locally fabricated rockets, commonly known as improvised rocket-assisted munitions (IRAMs), into west Mosul. Images published by media outlets and the US military also depict US forces and Iraqi forces firing mortars and unguided artillery rockets into western Mosul. Both of these weapons are inaccurate and can be unlawfully indiscriminate if used in heavily populated areas.

The difficulty of detecting civilians in the packed city, even with advanced targeting systems and continuous observation, make it difficult to determine accurately the number of civilians occupying a target area prior to approving strikes. The dangers are increased by ISIS’s use of civilians as “human shields,” which is a war crime.

Dozens of newly displaced people from west Mosul, including the Old City, have told humanitarian and human rights organizations that ISIS fighters forced them and their families to move with them up to three times, packing large numbers of families into small neighborhoods still under their control. They witnessed fighters summarily killing dozens of men as punishment as they and their families tried to flee ISIS control. They also saw ISIS fighters fire on groups of civilians as they fled; and some saw fleeing civilians shot and killed.

As the fighting intensifies and ISIS increases its use of civilians as shields, anti-ISIS forces should use all available means to verify the presence and location of civilians in the immediate vicinity of any fighters or military objectives targeted. In December 2016, US forces made procedural changes in its targeting that may increase the likelihood of civilian casualties.

All parties to the conflict are prohibited under the laws of war from conducting deliberate attacks against civilians or civilian objects, as well as indiscriminate, or disproportionate attacks. Indiscriminate attacks are attacks that strike military objectives and civilians or civilian objects without distinction. An attack is disproportionate if it may be expected to cause incidental loss of civilian life or damage to civilian objects that would be excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated from the attack.

Individuals who commit serious violations of the laws of war with criminal intent – that is, deliberately or recklessly – are responsible for war crimes. Individuals also may be held criminally liable for attempting to commit a war crime, as well as assisting in, facilitating, aiding, or abetting a war crime.

The laws of war require that the parties to a conflict take constant care during military operations to spare the civilian population and to “take all feasible precautions” to avoid or minimize the incidental loss of civilian life and damage to civilian objects. When used in populated areas, munitions with large payloads of high explosives can have a wide-area destructive effect, and it is not possible when using them to distinguish adequately between civilians and combatants, almost inevitably resulting in civilian casualties.

Weapons such as mortars and multi-barrel rocket launchers when firing unguided munitions and IRAMs are fundamentally inaccurate. This can make discriminating between civilians and combatants during an attack on a densely populated area virtually impossible. Human rights and humanitarian organizations and journalists have documented the use by Iraqi forces of IRAMs that lack the ability to be aimed beyond a basic orientation toward the target and are inherently indiscriminate.

Mortars and multi-barrel rocket launchers firing unguided munitions used by anti-ISIS forces can be aimed and adjusted by an observer, but are area-fire weapons and, when used in densely populated areas, are prone to unlawful indiscriminate use. Iraqi and US-led coalition forces should avoid all use of these weapons in the densely populated Old City of west Mosul.

Amnesty International
Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC)
Human Rights Watch
International Network on Explosive Weapons (INEW)
War Child

Human Rights Watch’s Investigation on Weapons Being Used and their Dangers to Civilians


Mitigation of Civilian Harm

When operating in densely populated areas where civilians and combatants are comingled, commanders should take all feasible steps to minimize the harm to civilians and civilian buildings. Where feasible, commanders should require those that maintain the ability to approve the release of weapons (terminal attack controllers) to maintain the highest level of direct control over each strike, including both seeing the target and attacking aircraft. Commanders should also limit the use of indirect-fire weapons (mortars, artillery, and rockets) using unguided munitions – meaning that the firing unit does not see the target, but relies on spotters to provide targeting information. In all cases, commanders and targeting officers should select weapons and specific munitions to minimize civilian casualties to the maximum extent possible.

Use of Airstrikes

On June 2, CJTF-OIR published its monthly civilian casualty report. The report found that: “To date, based on information available, CJTF-OIR assesses that, it is more likely than not, at least 484 civilians have been unintentionally killed by Coalition strikes since the start of Operation Inherent Resolve.” During the same period, Airwars, a UK-based nongovernmental organization that monitors airstrikes, estimated that the minimum number of civilian casualties from US-led coalition strikes was more than 3,800, approximately eight times the number reported by the coalition. Following an investigation into a March 17 strike, the US has admitted that its forces killed at least 105 civilians in just one strike when targeting two ISIS fighters. US military officials have said that non-US coalition members are responsible for at least 80 of the 484 fatalities, but none of the coalition members have publicly admitted responsibility.

Frontline medical workers have said they are seeing a higher number of traumatic injuries among civilians, including crush injuries on civilians stuck under rubble after attacks in west Mosul, than they saw in east Mosul and during previous operations in Iraq. One doctor estimated that, since the beginning of the Mosul operation in October, medical facilities have seen at least 12,000 wounded civilians, with more than 50 percent coming from west Mosul. An aid worker keeping a tally of bodies coming out of west Mosul said that, since mid-March, 650 bodies had been pulled out of the rubble of destroyed buildings in the aftermath of attacks by both sides.

Human Rights Watch analysis of satellite imagery of western Mosul identified more than 380 distinct impact sites in the Tanak neighborhood, west of the Old City, consistent with the detonation of large, airdropped munitions occurring between March 8 and April 26, 2017.

A review of damaged locations showed a majority of these airstrikes most likely targeted mixed residential and commercial buildings, with a substantial minority of strikes targeting main roads and road intersections across the neighborhood. Human Rights Watch has no information as to whether there were any military targets in or near the buildings and roads.

Although this apparently accurate targeting pattern of the road network is consistent with the use of guided munitions, Human Rights Watch found that the majority of impact craters in Tanak measured 10 or more meters in diameter, consistent with the use of conventional airdropped bombs weighing between 500 and 1,000 lbs.

Airstrikes on roads consistently resulted in impact craters impeding vehicle traffic as well as secondary damage to hundreds of residential and commercial buildings within the blast zone.

The use of explosive weapons with wide-area effects such as air-dropped bombs of this size on probable military targets in densely populated civilian areas of western Mosul may be resulting in civilian casualties and damage to civilian objects that is excessive to the anticipated military objectives of the strikes. Such disproportionate military attacks are prohibited under international humanitarian law.

Use of Improvised Rocket-Assisted Munitions

Two international observers told Human Rights Watch they had witnessed the presence of IRAM launchers as well as IRAMs being fired on numerous occasions from May 5 to 14. They saw Federal Police-marked and Emergency Division-marked launchers mounted on wheeled vehicles in areas northwest of west Mosul, and in a western and southern neighborhood of west Mosul. In the village of Badoush, 10 kilometers northwest of the city, one observed IRAMs and IRAM launchers at an Emergency Response Division military workshop.

Three other observers and at least one media outlet confirmed that the munitions were being fired. One observer said the Emergency Response Division fired multiple munitions from Haramat neighborhood west of the Old City in the direction of the Old City in early May, while another said he saw the Federal Police fire at least 13 IRAMs from a neighborhood just south of the Old City into the Old City over two days in mid-April. They said that the armed forces would not allow any photos of the munitions being fired. The third said that in mid-May he saw the Emergency Response Division fire at least six into the Old City from Badoush.

Two observers who were able to examine the munitions closely said they saw a small metal barrel containing an unknown type of propelling charge, attached to the sawn-off nose of a 105mm artillery projectile, equipped with a fuze. The warhead was welded to a shaft, which included a rocket. Small homemade fins were bolted and welded to the shaft near its base. The launching pods were elevated using a hydraulic system from the rear deck of the wheeled vehicles. One observed that the rockets did not fit snuggly into the launcher tubes, which could lead to an uneven distribution of the rocket motor’s blast when initiated, leading to an unstable launch and subsequent deviation of the trajectory. The observers said that there was no visible sighting or laying system on the vehicles or launching pods, which would allow the position of the weapon to be shifted to hit a specific target, making even attempting to aim the rockets with any accuracy impossible.

Use of Mortars

Recent photos and a video posted by the US military and Reuters depicting the firing of mortars outside Mosul raise concerns about the firing of unguided and inaccurate weapons into the densely populated Old City. The photos, posted to a US military web account, are dated March 18 and 19. They depict the use of three different mortar systems: the M224, which fires a 60-milimeter projectile; the M252, which fires an 81-milimeter projectile; and the M120, which fires a 120-milimeter projectile. In the photos, the projectiles used appear to be standard high-explosive rounds.

In the video posted by the US Military on May 19, both the M252 and M120 mortars are observed. In the photos and video available, the projectiles used appear to be standard high-explosive rounds. Photos posted by Reuters on May 27 show Iraqi Emergency Response Division forces loading and firing an Al-Jaleel 82mm mortar system on the outskirts of Mosul. A larger system, the Al-Jaleel 120mm mortar, appears off to the side. None of the projectiles for the mortars depicted in either the photos or video were guidance munitions.

Mortar systems using unguided projectiles are fundamentally inaccurate weapons and can only hit the area near an identified target. As such, the location each round strikes cannot be determined with a high degree of accuracy before its use. Rounds are fired by mortar teams and a “spotter” is used to observe each impact and recommend adjustments in aim to the crew to adjust the fire and eventually achieve desired effects on the intended target, be it suppression, incapacitation, or destruction. The first round fired after a mortar tube and baseplate are set-up is called a registering round, which allows the weapon to settle and for the spotter to see how accurate the initial calculation was.

If the initial round does not strike the target, additional rounds will be fired and their impacts observed until the right calculation is made. Common methods for ensuring the round strikes the intended target include “walking” the round onto the target or “bracketing.” The former method involves firing one round and then making incremental lateral or vertical adjustments to the weapon until the round strikes the target. The latter method involves making broader lateral or vertical adjustments so that the round strikes either side of the target until an accurate calculation can be made and the target is hit.

Use of Multi-Barrel Rocket Launchers

Recent photos published by Reuters depict Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces, also known as Hashd al-Sha’abi, utilizing a variant of the BM-21 Grad multi-barrel rocket launcher on the outskirts of Mosul. Use of this weapon compounds concerns about the use of area-fire explosive weapons in the densely populated Old City. Grad systems fire 122-milimeter artillery rockets launched from up to 40 launch tubes. Most Grad rockets have a range of 1.5 to 20 kilometers. The rockets vary in length from 1.9 to 3.3 meters and weigh 45 to 75 kilograms. Most types of Grad rockets are unguided and can only be targeted on an area, and are often fired in salvos by their launchers to rapidly saturate an area.

Grad rockets can be equipped with various types of warheads. The most common is a high explosive/fragmentation type, which contains approximately 6.4 kilograms of high explosive and is designed to produce 3,150 fragments, which can kill or injure within a radius of 28 meters from its impact point. At its maximum range of some 20 kilometers, the most common rocket (9M22U) with the basic high explosive/fragmentation (M-21-OF) warhead is only accurate within a rectangle of 336 meters by 160 meters. In other words, from its aim point, the rocket could land anywhere within a rectangle of approximately 54,000 square meters.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am