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

A Rohingya woman travels to a hospital near Kutupalong, Bangladesh, after a landmine blew off her right leg while she was crossing the border from Burma, September 4, 2017.

© 2017 Bernat Armangue/AP Photo

(New York) – Burmese security forces have laid landmines during attacks on villages and along the Bangladesh border, posing a grave risk to Rohingya Muslims fleeing atrocities, Human Rights Watch said today. The Burmese government should immediately stop using antipersonnel landmines and join the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty.

“The dangers faced by thousands of Rohingya fleeing atrocities in Burma are deadly enough without adding landmines to the mix,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director. “The Burmese military needs to stop using these banned weapons, which kill and maim without distinction.”

According to witness accounts, independent reporting, and photo and video recordings, Burmese soldiers have in recent weeks laid antipersonnel landmines at key crossing points on Burma’s border with Bangladesh. Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that Burmese military personnel also planted mines on roads inside northern Rakhine State prior to their attacks on predominantly Rohingya villages. The Burmese government has accused the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) of using improvised explosive devices (IEDs) against infrastructure and security forces.

Placing landmines in the path of fleeing refugees and on roads where families are likely to travel is heartless beyond words.

Meenakshi Ganguly

South Asia Director

Two Rohingya refugees from inner areas of Rakhine State, one from Buthidaung and another from Rathedaung township, told Human Rights Watch they saw the Burmese military laying antipersonnel mines on roads as the military entered and attacked villagers. “Mohammad,” 39, said he saw a neighbor’s son step on one of the mines laid by the military. The mine blew his right leg off.

On September 4, 2017, a landmine detonated on a path used by many refugees near the hamlets of Taung Pyo Let Yar, about 200 meters from the Bangladesh border. Human Rights Watch witnessed smoke arising from the hamlets, suggesting burning by the military that caused villagers to flee. The next day, three Rohingya men were wounded in three separate landmine explosions near the same border point.

Two Rohingya refugees told Human Rights Watch that men in apparent Burmese military uniforms were seen in the northern part of Taung Pyo Let Yar performing some activity on the ground prior to the September 4 explosions. One described watching a Burmese military patrol on the road near the border on the morning of September 4. From a vantage point in so-called no-man’s land, he observed several soldiers from the patrol stop at least twice, kneel down on the ground, dig into the ground with a knife, and place a dark item into the earth.

Since late August, Burmese security forces, following a coordinated attack by ARSA militants, have carried out a campaign of ethnic cleansing involving mass arson, killing, and other abuses against the Rohingya population, causing the flight of more than 420,000 people to neighboring Bangladesh.

Human Rights Watch has called on members of the United Nations Security Council to hold a public meeting and adopt a resolution that condemns the Burmese military’s ethnic cleansing campaign and threatens to impose further measures, including targeted sanctions on military leaders and an arms embargo.

In April 2017, news media reported that the Burmese and Bangladeshi governments agreed to remove landmines and IEDs from the border area. On September 6, the Bangladesh government protested the recent use of landmines on the border by Burmese security forces. In her September 21 address to the UN General Assembly in New York, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina accused Burma of laying landmines along the border to prevent Rohingya from fleeing the violence. According to Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB) officials, at least five people have been killed and 12 injured from landmine blasts.

The Landmine Monitor reported that Burmese security forces have consistently used antipersonnel mines in numerous locations along the Bangladesh-Burma border since 1999, but this use had been abating in recent years. In September 2016, Deputy Minister of Defense Maj. Gen. Myint Nwe informed parliament that the army continues to use landmines in fighting with ethnic minority armed groups.

The use of antipersonnel landmines is banned by the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty. Bangladesh is a party to the treaty and destroyed its landmine stocks in accordance with its treaty obligations. Although Burma is not a party to the treaty, these weapons are unlawful because they cannot discriminate between civilians and combatants, and will kill and maim civilians long after they are placed. The Burmese government has not substantively responded to the allegations, but Zaw Htay, spokesman for de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi, suggested that Rohingya militants might be responsible. Rakhine State Security and Border Affairs Minister Col. Phone Tint denied allegations that government forces were laying landmines, and blamed ARSA: “There’s no landmine planted by the military in the area. The terrorists planted the landmines. The military will never do that.”

In a February 2011 statement on the landmine ban, Aung San Suu Kyi told the International Campaign to Ban Landmines:

I believe everyone is aware that landmines should not be used in Myanmar, considering the serious effects that they have not only on troops in combat, but also on non-combatant civilians who are tending to their daily survival and livelihood – mothers, fathers, and their children. In order to prevent this the Tat Ma Daw [Burmese armed forces], as well as soldiers in combat – meaning all parties engaged in armed conflict – must make their decision to cease the way of mines.

“Placing landmines in the path of fleeing refugees and on roads where families are likely to travel is heartless beyond words,” Ganguly said. “The Burmese government should immediately end its ethnic cleansing campaign against the Rohingya population, including by immediately clearing landmines in northern Rakhine State.”

Human Rights Watch is a co-founder and chair of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, which received the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize for its efforts to bring about the Mine Ban Treaty and its contributions to a new international diplomacy based on humanitarian imperatives.

Rohingya Crisis

Rohingya Crisis

Human Rights Watch reporting from the ground on the Burmese military’s ongoing campaign of ethnic cleansing.

Recent Cases of Landmine Use in Rakhine State

Sabikam Nahor, approximately 45, lost both of her legs below the knees after stepping on an antipersonnel landmine laid inside Burma near the Bangladesh border. She told Human Rights Watch that the incident occurred on the afternoon of September 4, 2017, after the Burmese military attacked her village, in the northern part of Taung Pyo Let Yar. Nahor said that she was in an outdoor latrine when she heard the shooting and ran toward the Bangladesh border nearby. She said that she had used the same path on many occasions before when she would go to markets across the border. Nahor said she was running when there was a sudden explosion as she stepped on the ground. She fell and, from the ground, saw one of her legs detached from her body. Several Rohingya picked her up and took her across the border, and from there she was transported to a hospital.

Subir Ahmed, 55, said that on August 28, his son, Azizul Huq, 15, stepped on a landmine and was killed within 60 meters of the Bangladesh border. Subir said that his son and his brother were separated from the family on August 25, after at least 30 Burmese soldiers arrived in their home of Taung Pyo Let Yar and opened fire on villagers who had just finished morning prayers. While waiting for his son at the border at Thiang Khali in Bangladesh, Subir heard a loud blast and then saw Azizul Huq lying on the ground near his brother. Subir rushed to where his son was lying on the ground and picked him up, leaving the remains of the boy’s shattered legs behind. Subir Ahmed noted that at least once a year, he had traveled on the same path to transport fish to markets in Bangladesh.

Mohammad said that the son of his neighbor, Noor Islam, was a victim of antipersonnel mines on August 29 at about midday in Buthidaung township. He said they were not aware that mines were in the area. “I saw his right leg was gone,” Mohammad said. “I saw the mines explode with my own eyes on the road.” Mohammad said he had traveled on the same road the day before the fighting broke out, and that at that time it was safe.

Military Placing of Landmines

The refugee who witnessed soldiers digging in the northern part of Taung Pyo Let Yar which borders Bangladesh said that he continued to monitor the activities of the military patrol, and went to several sites where he observed similar activities. He said that from September 4 to 10 he removed several antipersonnel mines from the ground, and used rocks to detonate another three mines.

A landmine is seen near the Bangladesh-Burma border, September 10, 2017. 

© 2017 Private

Senior Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB) officers said that they observed similar activities by Burmese soldiers over several days before September 4. They alleged that Burmese officials acted contrary to border agreements and protocols by failing to notify their Bangladeshi counterparts in advance of entering the border area.

Refugees also described seeing landmines on other paths in no-man’s land. Human Rights Watch obtained images of emplaced PMN-1 type antipersonnel blast mines along the fence on the Burma side of the border. From the images alone, Human Rights Watch was not able to determine the origins of these PMN-1 type mines, particularly whether they were copies of the Soviet design produced by China (Type 58) or by Burma (MM-2).

In addition to mine-laying on the border, Human Rights Watch received credible accounts from two Rohingya who described the use of antipersonnel landmines on roads in Buthidaung township after August 25, just before the military started attacking villages, hindering flight from the villages.

“Rohim,” 52, described soldiers arriving by foot and in trucks to Chut Pyin, Rathedaung, in the early morning of August 25. He said that the soldiers were working in teams and placed landmines on the road outside his large, mud-walled house. “When they are coming, some are in four-man teams, some in 10-man teams, and some were sitting, digging, and putting mines in the roads,” said Rohim. He said they only laid mines in the roads, which prevented villagers from using the roads as they fled heavy gunfire and other attacks by the military.

Mohammad said that in addition to attacking his village with gunfire and other explosive weapons on the night of August 26, the military emplaced antipersonnel mines on the road in Taung Bazar, Buthidaung. He said that mines were placed near the hospital. 

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Satellite imagery recorded before and after the destruction of Myar Zin village. Satellite imagery © 2017 DigitalGlobe

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Satellite imagery recorded before and after the destruction of Nwar Yon Taung village. Satellite imagery © 2017 DigitalGlobe

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Satellite imagery recorded before and after the destruction of Yae Twin Kyun village. Satellite imagery © 2017 DigitalGlobe

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

The winner of the Nobel Peace Prize Jody Williams bows in front of Cambodian Tun Channereth, who holds the International Campaign to Ban Landmines diploma and medal, on her way to receive the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo City Hall, December 10, 1997.

© 1997 Reuters

On this day 20 years ago, I was in Oslo with the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL), watching as countries formally adopted the hard-fought treaty prohibiting antipersonnel landmines. These weapons injure or kill their victims long after wars have past.

The creation of new international law is a rare and memorable occasion. We cheered the diplomats present for producing such a strong treaty in record time, describing it as “a gift to the world.” The ground-breaking Mine Ban Treaty not only prohibits a weapon that was once widely used, but also requires clearance of mined areas and assistance to mine victims.

The ICBL, which Human Rights Watch co-founded and now chairs, returned to Norway less than three months later to accept the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize. The Norwegian Nobel Committee described the ICBL’s efforts as “a convincing example of an effective policy for peace” that it hoped would provide “a model for similar processes in the future.”

Since then, the Mine Ban Treaty has continued to secure broad support as its 162 states parties implement its provisions with vigor and determination, collectively destroying more than 51 million antipersonnel mines from their arsenals and clearing vast huge swaths of mine-affected land. Some face implementation challenges, but overall, compliance with the Mine Ban Treaty remains impressive.

Moreover, most of the three dozen countries that have yet to join the treaty are abiding by its provisions. This stigmatizes any use of antipersonnel mines. Again, challenges remain, but overall antipersonnel mines have been shunned and their use now relegated to a handful of states such as Burma and Syria.

The Mine Ban Treaty and the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions are the humanitarian disarmament standard bearers for efforts to prevent and reduce harm from indiscriminate weapons. “Humanitarian disarmament” contrasts with traditional disarmament, arms control and non-proliferation initiatives, which have been driven by countries seeking to advance narrower national security interests. This humanitarian focus seeks to strengthen international humanitarian law and protect civilians from the suffering caused by armed conflict.

These treaties have also inspired the development of new law, most recently the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, adopted on July 7, which will open for signature at the United Nations in New York on September 20. This treaty prohibits nuclear weapons and addresses the consequences of nuclear weapon use and testing by requiring assistance to victims and remediation of environmental contamination.

Countries that have not signed the nuclear weapons ban treaty will, with time, face an uphill struggle in opposing the treaty. As with landmines and cluster munitions, one can expect that they will eventually be faced with a weapon so stigmatized that they will have no excuse but to give it up. 

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

President Emmanuel Macron’s diplomatic vision presented to his ambassadors this summer does honor to France. The president, who believes the country has an “unprecedented responsibility” in the face of a “profoundly disturbed” world order, made a commitment to defend human rights “ceaselessly.”

People stand at the site of a Saudi-led air strike on an outskirt of the northwestern city of Saada, Yemen, August 4, 2017. 

© 2017 Reuters

Saying he would uphold “independence without arrogance but taking full responsibility,” for French policy with relation to governments in the Gulf, he stated that he had “established extremely frank relationships with all the governments in the Gulf.”

According to President Macron, “We can reconcile realism with the defense of our values.” He rightly stated: “Our diplomatic and economic exchanges with Russia, Turkey or China cannot justify concealing human rights issues behind a veil of modesty. Otherwise, we would be betraying ourselves.”  But what about Saudi Arabia?

For the past two and a half years, Saudi Arabia has been leading a military coalition in Yemen that has committed multiple war crimes and contributed significantly to bringing the country to its knees. According to the UN, more than 5,000 civilians have been killed and 8,700 injured, most of them in strikes by the Saudi coalition.  The forces of the Houthi rebels and former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, against whom the coalition is fighting, have also been responsible for numerous crimes.

As a result of this conflict, which has shown no pity toward civilians, the country is currently suffering from the worst humanitarian crisis today:  more than 80 per cent of the population depends on international aid, with aid groups  facing many obstacles to delivering it.

And yet this crisis was not mentioned in President Macron’s speech on France’s diplomatic priorities. Why not? Human Rights Watch has documented these extremely grave crimes for several months, but Saudi Arabia has not hesitated to use its financial power as a weapon to push back against its critics, even within the UN.

In fact, Saudi Arabia is one of the main clients of the French arms industry. According to an article published in Le Point on March 20,  “François Hollande authorized the sale of 455 million euros’ worth of arms to Riyadh, a large part of which could be intended for the war in Yemen.”  According to Le Point, the current foreign affairs minister, Jean-Yves le Drian, then minister of defense, allegedly defended these sales vigorously and continues to act as a de facto ambassador for French arms exports.

Will President Macron have the courage to put an end to these arms sales for as long as Saudi Arabia continues killing civilians in Yemen illegally, with complete impunity?  Or will France continue to conceal the Yemeni tragedy behind a “veil of modesty”?

At the very least, French foreign policy ought to support diplomatic efforts at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, so that the full truth can be revealed about all the crimes committed in Yemen. The Dutch government, now with the support of Canada, took the brave initiative of calling for the creation of an international commission of inquiry. This proposal is supported by the United Nations high commissioner for human rights and the UN Security Council Group of Experts on Yemen, as well as 67 national and international nongovernmental organizations, including Human Rights Watch.

So what about France? Will President Macron’s government join these initiatives in a bid to defend the values he claims to uphold?  If he continues to hide behind a wall of silence and wait-and-see attitude, he would be betraying his country’s values, as he rightly said himself. The time has come for France to prove it can reconcile pragmatism and values, and that the soul of its foreign policy is not for sale.   

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

Saudi-led coalition aircraft struck three apartment buildings in Sanaa on August 25, 2017, killing at least 16 civilians, including seven children, and wounding another 17, including eight children. After an international outcry, the coalition admitted to carrying out the attack, but provided no details on the coalition members involved in the attack. 

© 2017 Mohammed al-Mekhlafi

Members of the Saudi-led coalition have sought to avoid international legal liability by refusing to provide information on their role in alleged unlawful airstrikes in Yemen, Human Rights Watch said today. In 2017, Human Rights Watch wrote to the coalition and its current and former members urging them to release information on their investigations and findings of laws-of-war violations as required by international law. None have replied.

The coalition’s unwillingness to conduct serious investigations into alleged violations of the laws of war was evident in its response to airstrikes on apartment buildings in Sanaa, the capital, on August 25 that killed or wounded more than two dozen civilians. 

“No coalition member can claim clean hands in Yemen until all its members explain their role in scores of documented unlawful attacks,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “It borders on the absurd for the coalition to claim its own investigations are credible when it refuses to release even basic information like which countries participated in an attack and whether anyone has been held accountable.”

Two family members of victims of the August 25 attack reported that coalition aircraft struck three apartment buildings in Faj Attan, a densely populated neighborhood of the capital, killing at least 16 civilians and wounding 17. After an international outcry, the coalition admitted carrying out the attack, but, as in previous apparently unlawful airstrikes, did not provide details on the coalition members joining the attack or the countries undertaking any investigation.

At about 2 a.m. on August 25, Muhammad Mea’sar, in his thirties, went up to the roof of his home in Sanaa after hearing an airstrike. He said there were four airstrikes, each about two to three minutes apart. The first three hit the Faj Attan mountains on the outskirts of Sanaa, where there are stockpiles of Yemeni army weapons under the control of the opposing Houthi-Saleh forces, who control the area. The coalition has hit the mountains repeatedly during the two-and-a-half-year conflict.

The fourth strike hit the neighborhood below, Mea’sar said: “People live there, people from Sanaa, and a lot of displaced people from different governorates. I saw the smoke coming from the middle of the houses.” Mea’sar later learned that the coalition had hit a three-story building he owned, and two four-story buildings his aunts owned. He said his aunt’s buildings “were gone.” The buildings “became only rubble, dust, and casualties.”

Ali al-Raymi, a 32-year-old Ministry of Oil and Minerals employee, was messaging his younger brother as the August 25 attacks began. Six months earlier, his brother, with his wife and six children, had moved to a cheaper apartment in the neighborhood below the mountains. His brother texted him that the sounds of the first attacks terrified his children.

Ali al-Raymi said that when his brother stopped messaging him: “I took my mom’s phone and started calling my brother. He was not answering. I called him many times, but the phone was ringing and there was no answer… I felt very nervous. I felt something bad may have happened.”

Al-Raymi called a friend in the area and “heard the noise of ambulances and people saying take him out! … Take him out! … Help this one … Help that one.” Al-Raymi immediately walked to the area and “found destruction.” He said the area was so chaotic and the devastation so complete that he could not tell which home was his brother’s. Another brother guided him over the phone to the spot where the house should be. “It was rubble,” al-Raymi said. “I told him not to call our mother.”

The airstrike killed al-Raymi’s brother, his sister-in-law, five of their six children, ages 2 through 10, and his sister-in-law’s brother. Only the family’s 6-year-old daughter survived. Al-Raymi stayed to help with the rescue effort. The rescuers found his brother last, at about 5 p.m., after more than 14 or 15 hours of continuous searching.

Mea’sar compiled for Human Rights Watch a list of the names, ages, genders, and hospitals where people were taken: 16 people were killed in the attack, including 7 children ranging in age from 2 to 13, and 17 wounded, including 8 children. Two of Mea’sar’s cousins, ages 3 and 12, were among those killed.

The coalition said that it carried out the attack, but asserted that the civilian casualties were the result of a technical error and that it had targeted a “legitimate military objective” – a command-and-control center that Houthi-Saleh forces built “with the sole purpose of using the surrounding areas as well as its civilians as shields to protect it.” The coalition spokesperson said it had referred the case to the Joint Incidents Assessment Team (JIAT), the coalition’s investigative mechanism, which has, to date, largely absolved the coalition of wrongdoing. The coalition spokesperson did not provide any details regarding which countries’ forces may have participated in the attack. The International Committee of the Red Cross called the attack “outrageous,” and said there was no apparent military target in the area.

The coalition currently consists of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates (UAE), Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, and Sudan; Qatar withdrew in June. The coalition has conducted thousands of airstrikes in Yemen since March 2015, including scores that appear to violate the laws of war, some of which may be war crimes, yet JIAT and coalition members have provided no or insufficient information about the role that particular countries’ forces are playing in alleged unlawful attacks.

While Saudi Arabia leads the coalition, available information shows that other countries have participated in the military campaign to varying degrees. In March 2015, the Emirati State news agency reported that Saudi Arabia had deployed 100 aircraft to take part in coalition operations, the UAE had deployed 30, Kuwait 15, Bahrain 15, and Qatar 10. Media and policy reports have provided some detail on specific incidents in which coalition members have played a role in the air campaign: In May 2015, a Moroccan F-16 aircraft crashed while on a mission in Yemen. In December 2015, both a Bahraini F-1 jet and a Jordanian pilot flying an F-16 carrying out coalition operations crashed. In 2015, Egypt conducted airstrikes on Yemen’s western coast. In March 2017, after a helicopter attacked a boat carrying Somali migrants and refugees off the coast of Hodeida, killing and wounding dozens, a member of the UAE armed forces said the UAE was operating in the area but denied the UAE carried out the attack.

In July, the United Nations Panel of Experts on Yemen, established by the Security Council, expressed concern that coalition members “seek to hide behind ‘the entity’ of the Coalition to shield themselves from state responsibility for violations committed by their forces. … Attempts to ‘divert’ responsibility in this manner from individual States to the Saudi-Arabia led coalition may contribute to further violations occurring with impunity.” A month later, Foreign Policy reported that US officials had said that instead of looking at the whole coalition as a single entity, the UN should identify the individual countries directly responsible for atrocities in its annual “list of shame” of violations against children. A US official denied the account.

Saudi-led coalition aircraft struck three apartment buildings in Faj Attan, a densely populated neighborhood in Sanaa, on August 25, 2017. Two of the buildings were completely destroyed and the third suffered extensive damage.

© 2017 Mohammed al-Mekhlafi

The failure of the coalition or any coalition member to credibly investigate violations by their own forces for more than two years of armed conflict underscores the need for an independent international investigation into alleged violations of international human rights and humanitarian law by all parties to the conflict, Human Rights Watch said.

“Yemeni civilians who are paying the price of this war deserve far more than blanket denials or generic expressions of sympathy,” Whitson said. “UN member countries should make crystal clear to coalition members that they are failing to meet even basic standards for transparency, and that – as none of the warring parties seem willing to do so – the Human Rights Council will step in and make sure these violations are investigated.” 

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

Evidence keeps mounting that Syrian government forces were behind a chemical attack that killed nearly 100 people in Khan Sheikhoun in northern Syria in April. Today, a United Nations-appointed commission of inquiry released a report in which it concluded that “the Syrian air force used sarin in Khan Shaykhun, Idlib, killing dozens, the majority of whom were women and children.” The commission based its findings on interviews with 43 witnesses, satellite imagery, photographs, and videos, and says it has evidence the attack was conducted by a Sukhoi SU-22 aircraft, a type that only Syrian government forces use.

This is consistent with findings from other investigations. The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) found that victims in the Khan Sheikhoun attack were exposed to sarin, a deadly nerve agent, and a Human Rights Watch investigation found that all available evidence strongly suggests that Syrian government forces were responsible for the attack.

The Khan Sheikhoun attack was horrific, but it’s not the only time Syrian forces have used chemical weapons this year; the commission’s report details three similar attacks between March and July. Human Rights Watch concluded in May that the government’s use of chemical weapons has become widespread and systematic, and may amount to crimes against humanity.

However, so far those responsible for chemical attacks in Syria have faced no real consequences. After a joint UN-OPCW probe last year found that Syria had repeatedly used chemical weapons, Russia, together with China, vetoed a UN Security Council resolution imposing sanctions. The OPCW also responded to the findings by merely condemning the attacks and imposing more stringent inspections.

More evidence is likely to surface, as the UN-OPCW Joint Investigative Mechanism is also investigating the Khan Sheikhoun attack. As evidence of Syrian responsibility for chemical attacks mounts, both the UN Security Council and the OPCW should increase pressure on the Syrian government, and do more to bring those responsible to justice.

Syria’s repeated chemical attacks are a major challenge to the ban on chemical weapons, one of the strongest weapon prohibitions in international law. Unless there are real consequences for those who use chemical weapons, the perpetrators will likely view the world’s inaction as a green light to continue using them. 

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

The stockpile destruction deadline for the first States Parties to ratify the Convention on Cluster Munitions is now less than one year away. It is therefore an appropriate time to check if States Parties with cluster munitions are on track to destroy them within the convention’s eight-year deadline. This time next year we hope to be able to highlight an untarnished record of compliance with this core obligation of the Convention on Cluster Munitions that so visibly demonstrates progress toward a world without cluster munitions.

To date, there has been impressive progress as 29 States Parties have completed destruction of their stocks, collectively destroying 1.4 million cluster munitions containing more than 175 million submunitions. This represents the vast majority of the total reported global stocks of cluster munitions once held by States Parties.

In 2016 alone, three States Parties (Spain, Slovakia, and Switzerland) destroyed 56,171 cluster munitions and 2.8 million submunitions. We are pleased to have heard from all these states today on their progress and are glad they are on track to complete destruction of their stocks within the treaty’s deadlines.

We welcome the progreee made by Croatia since March 2017 and its pledge to complete the destruction of its cluster munitions by the end of this year. We were glad to hear that South Africa commenced the destruction of its cluster munitions in 2016. And to hear from new State Party Cuba that it is preparing to begin the destruction of its stockpiled cluster munitions in accordance with relevant environmental and safety measures and applicable standards and procedures.

Yet, it is not all good news and we therefore flag the following for your attention.

Momentum to destroy stocks by the deadline, or even much earlier, appears to be waning. While 20 States Parties have completed stockpile destruction since the convention entered into force in August 2010, no State Party did so in the second half of 2016 or first half of 2017.

Other States Parties with cluster munition stocks do not appear to have a plan in place to destroy them and have not started. We were hoping to hear today from Cameroon, Guinea, and Guinea-Bissau. Guinea-Bissai that has indicated that it requires financial and technical assistance to destroy its stocks.

We were also hoping to hear from signatories with stockpiled cluster munitions, such as Cyprus, Indonesia, and Nigeria, as they appear to have taken few, if any, steps to ratify the convention or to declare and destroy their cluster munitions.

Many States Parties have transferred their cluster munition stocks to neighboring countries for destruction at specialist facilities, but until those cluster munitions are destroyed they are still under the responsibility of the country that originally possessed them. Therefore, it was with regret that the Monitor has added Slovenia back on to the global list of countries with cluster munition stocks to destroy. We are however glad to have heard from Slovenia as well as Bulgaria that work is underway to destroy their respective cluster munition stockpiles.

As always, our members stand ready to help States Parties to find ways to overcome financial, technical, and other challenges inhibiting the swift and safe destruction of their stockpiled cluster munitions.

Before concluding, we would like to highlight the fact that most States Parties have chosen not to retain any cluster munitions for training and research purposes. Many have told us they see no compelling reason to retain live cluster munitions and explosive submunitions for these purposes

Yet, 11 States Parties are retaining cluster munitions for training and research purposes, of which several (Italy, the Netherlands, Slovakia, and Sweden) have yet to consume any of their retained cluster munitions.

Some of these States Parties retaining cluster munitions for research and training have significantly reduced the number retained since making their initial declarations. That would indicate that the initial amounts retained were likely too high, but it is still not clear if current holdings constitute the “minimum number absolutely necessary” for the permitted purposes, as required by the convention.

Thank you.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

(Geneva) – Most countries are making steady progress to eradicate cluster munitions, but stronger effort is required to deter use in countries that have not joined the international treaty to ban these weapons, Human Rights Watch said today during the release of the Cluster Munition Monitor 2017 report.

Cluster munition attacks by Syrian government forces on opposition-held areas that began in 2012 have continued unabated. Russia has participated in a joint military operation with Syrian forces since September 30, 2015. Evidence recorded by local activists, journalists, first responders, medical personnel, and others points to at least 238 separate attacks using cluster munitions in Syria between August 2016 and July 2017. From the cluster munition remnants that could be identified, 115 attacks involved the use of AO-2.5RT submunitions and 65 attacks used ShOAB-0.5 submunitions delivered by air-dropped Soviet/Russia-made RBK-series bombs.

Trained technicians from Syria Civil Defense (“White Helmets”) identify and mark unexploded submunitions and other explosive remnants of war for clearance and destruction in Idlib governorate on June 8, 2017.

© 2017 Syria Civil Defense
“The past five years of cluster munition use in Syria is an outrage and contributes to the country’s ever-worsening legacy of contamination from landmines and explosive remnants of war,” said Mary Wareham, arms division advocacy director at Human Rights Watch and an editor of the report. “Local actors are making heroic efforts to clear and destroy these weapons, which pose a fundamental obstacle to aid access across the country.”

Cluster Munition Monitor 2017 is the annual report of the Cluster Munition Coalition (CMC), the global coalition of nongovernmental organizations co-founded and chaired by Human Rights Watch. The group works to ensure that all countries join and adhere to the 2008 treaty banning cluster munitions and requiring clearance and victim assistance.

Cluster munitions can be fired from the ground by artillery systems and rockets or dropped from aircraft. They typically explode in the air, dispersing multiple bomblets or submunitions over a wide area. Many submunitions fail to explode on initial impact, leaving unexploded duds that can act like landmines for years to come unless cleared and destroyed. There are 102 states parties to the Convention on Cluster Munitions, while 17 countries have signed but not yet ratified.

The Cluster Munition Coalition recorded at least 971 new casualties from cluster munitions during 2016, including 860 in Syria and 38 in Yemen. Most casualties in Syria and Yemen occurred during cluster munition attacks, while others were caused by unexploded submunitions, which first responders and local deminers are working to clear and destroy on an emergency basis.

In December, the Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, provided Human Rights Watch with a position paper on cluster munitions in Syria that did not explicitly deny or admit to Russia’s involvement in the cluster munition attacks. But it makes the general claim that cluster munitions have been used in accordance with international humanitarian law and not indiscriminately.

In Yemen, over the past year, there were fewer reported cluster munition attacks by a Saudi-led coalition of countries that has conducted a military operation against Houthi-Saleh forces in Yemen since March 2015. That decrease comes after strong public outcry, global media coverage, and widespread condemnation.

There is evidence that cluster munitions may have been used in Iraq by Islamic State forces (also known as ISIS) and in Libya since mid-2016, but it has not been possible to verify this alleged use. There have been no confirmed reports or allegations of new use, production, transfers, or acquisitions of cluster munitions by any state party to the Convention on Cluster Munitions since it entered into force on August 1, 2010. There is no evidence to indicate that the United States, which has not joined the treaty, or its coalition partners have used cluster munitions in their operation against ISIS in Syria and Iraq.

“Stronger efforts are required to deter new use of cluster munitions, and there is no better response than to embrace and adhere to the international treaty,” Wareham said. “States parties should work diligently to carry out the treaty’s core provisions and redouble their efforts to convince more countries to join the international ban.”

Madagascar and Benin ratified the Convention on Cluster Munitions in 2017, but no country has acceded since Cuba joined in April 2016. In December, dozens of non-signatories voted for a key United Nations General Assembly resolution supporting the convention, while only Russia and Zimbabwe voted against it and 37 non-signatories abstained, including Israel, Saudi Arabia, Syria, the US, and Yemen. The non-binding resolution calls on all countries outside the convention to join “as soon as possible.”

According to Cluster Munition Monitor 2017, 28 states parties had destroyed a total of nearly 1.4 million stockpiled cluster munitions containing 175 million submunitions through the end of 2016. This is 97 percent of all cluster munitions reported stockpiled by the treaty’s states parties and 98 percent of all their submunitions.

Slovakia, Spain, and Switzerland collectively destroyed 56,171 cluster munitions and 2.8 million submunitions in 2016, while 10 states parties with stocks did not destroy any in 2016 and several indicate they require financial and technical assistance to do so.

In August 2016, the private US company Textron Systems announced it is stopping cluster munition production, effectively ending US manufacturing of cluster munitions, as it was the country’s last producer. Yet, 16 countries – all non-signatories – still produce cluster munitions. The Monitor will continue to list the US as a producer state until the government makes a formal commitment not to produce cluster munitions in the future.

“Claims by countries like Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Russia that cluster munitions can be used discriminately under the laws of war are just plain wrong,” Wareham said. “Evidence shows the cluster munition ban treaty is making a positive impact, but countries that haven’t signed need to do so without delay and stop closing their eyes to the horrific suffering these weapons cause.”

Cluster Munition Monitor 2017 will be presented at the Seventh Meeting of States Parties to the Convention on Cluster Munitions, which opens at the United Nations in Geneva on September 4.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Unexploded AO-2.5RT/RTM submunitions collected after cluster munitions struck the outskirts of Termanin village, Idlib, on July 11, 2016.

© 2016 Hussam Al-Termanini

Today’s armed conflicts are generating an increasing number of devastating photos and videos of violence and its victims, usually civilians. Such images do not have to depict lifeless or badly wounded people to have an impact.

One photo that tells a powerful story shows men in a field using shovels and their bare hands to pick up small scraps and put them in a cardboard box. The seemingly ordinary photo becomes horrific when you learn they were carefully collecting the body parts of a 12-year-old boy, killed hours before the photo was taken, after a submunition remaining from a cluster munition attack exploded in his hands.

My colleague took that photo in south Lebanon immediately after Israel’s massive use of cluster munitions in August 2006. The cluster munition attacks generated international outrage at the time and were a key catalyst for the subsequent creation of the 2008 treaty banning these weapons.

And a decade on, cluster munitions are still claiming lives and limbs, and provoking a horrified public reaction. This is especially true with regards to Syria, where over the past five years I have helped to document unnecessary suffering caused by the incessant use of these weapons.

Two men collect the remains of 12-year-old Rami ‘Ali Hassan Shebli, who was killed on October 22, 2006 by a submunition leftover from a cluster munition attack on Halta in Lebanon. Rami unwittingly picked up the submunition while playing with his brother only a couple of hours before this photo was taken.

© 2006 Bonnie Docherty/Human Rights Watch
Cluster munitions are fired from the ground in rockets and artillery or dropped from aircraft and land over a wide area, harming civilians at the time of attack. But cluster munitions always leave behind submunitions that don’t explode on impact and, like landmines, pose a deadly explosive threat to this day, despite ongoing efforts to clear and destroy them.

Israel has not used cluster munitions since 2006, but it has continued to acquire and produce them. Recently, the government sought to upgrade artillery systems for the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and reportedly rejected artillery made in Germany because of the German government’s insistence that Israel not use the weapon system to deliver cluster munitions. Instead, Israel decided to purchase an artillery system made by the Israeli company Elbit, apparently because this delivery system will allow it to use cluster munitions in the future.

What could have been an uncontroversial weapons purchase now carries the bad odor of trying to reserve space for a stigmatized weapon. Why “sidestep the international ban on cluster bombs?” asked one commentator in a critical Haaretz article that called Israel “The Cluster Bomb Nation.”

Germany’s refusal to allow its artillery to be used in cluster munition attacks demonstrates how Germany and the 118 other countries that have banned cluster munitions are sticking closely to their strict obligation to never use, develop, produce, acquire, stockpile or transfer cluster munitions.

As Cluster Munition Monitor 2017, the new annual report by the Cluster Munition Coalition that details progress under the ban treaty, confirms, there have been no reports or allegations of any States Parties engaging in new use or other activities prohibited by the Convention on Cluster Munitions. These countries are implementing the treaty’s provisions with vigor and determination. To date, 28 States Parties have destroyed a collective total of 1.4 million cluster munitions containing more than 175 million submunitions.

Even without the participation of major powers such as China, Russia, and the United States, the Convention on Cluster Munitions is having a big impact in reducing harm and preventing new use.

Yet, the civilian harm continues, especially in Syria, a non-signatory to the ban treaty, where cluster munition attacks by Syrian government forces on opposition-held areas continued unabated throughout 2016 and the first half of 2017, in cooperation with Russia.

Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov provided Human Rights Watch with a position paper on cluster munitions in Syria last December that did not explicitly deny or admit to Russia’s involvement in the use of cluster munition in Syria. Rather the paper makes the general claim that cluster munitions in Syria have been used in accordance with international humanitarian law and not indiscriminately.

I disagree strongly with that claim. If anything, the injuries and deaths in Syria have made it abundantly clear that cluster munitions cannot discriminate, and therefore cannot be used in accordance with the laws of war.

The best way to respond to the use of cluster munitions in Syria is to condemn it and ensure that the Convention on Cluster Munitions succeeds. By stigmatizing cluster munitions, the treaty represents the public’s revulsion to these weapons and desire to protect civilians from further suffering.

It will undoubtedly take time, but eventually countries like Israel, Russia, and Syria will recognize the futility of clinging to cluster munitions and adhere to the ban treaty, if not take steps to join it.

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

Thank you Ambassador Biontino for convening this event and to both speakers for your presentations. I would like to make a few remarks in my capacity as coordinator of the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots with respect to the process to address concerns over weapons systems that, once activated, would select and attack targets without human control.

We draw your attention to the open letter issued by technology leaders, which has received wide media attention over the past week, as it is specifically addressed to the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW).

The letter has been signed by more than 100 founders and directors of “companies building the technologies in artificial intelligence and robotics that may be repurposed to develop autonomous weapons” who state that they “feel especially responsible in raising this alarm.”

The signatories “warmly welcome the decision by the Convention on Conventional Weapons to establish a Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) on lethal autonomous weapons systems” and state that their “researchers and engineers are eager to offer technical advice to your deliberations.”

The signatories commend the appointment of Ambassador Amandeep Singh Gill of India as chair of the GGE and express regret that the GGE has not met yet due to a small number of states failing to pay their financial contributions to the UN. They state: “We urge the high contracting parties therefore to double their efforts at their first meeting planned for November.”

The signatories outline specific concerns at the prospect of lethal autonomous weapons systems, stating that “once the Pandora’s box is opened, it will be hard to close.” They conclude: “we implore high contracting parties to find a way to protect us all from these dangers.”

Many signatories to this letter signed a previous call issued in 2015 demanding a ban on lethal autonomous weapons systems. This latest letter should be viewed as supporting that earlier call due to the multiple concerns expressed and demand for preventative action by the Convention on Conventional Weapons.

We urge you to heed this latest call to action. Our Campaign to Stop Killer Robots viewed the decision earlier this year to cancel the first planned round of the GGE as deeply disappointing. Now we are dismayed and appalled that there has been no progress to resolve that financial situation dilemma. It is unacceptable that the technologies that will enable the development of lethal autonomous weapons systems bound ahead while the last substantive deliberations on concerns over fully autonomous weapons was in April 2016.

Remember how this topic first came to multilateral attention when special rapporteur Christof Heyns presented his in-depth report on the topic at the Human Rights Council in May 2013. Our Campaign to Stop Killer Robots was there that day and we heard two dozen countries welcome the report and acknowledge the need to discuss the many ethical, legal, operational, proliferation, technical and other challenges raised by fully autonomous weapons. Several states however said this was “a disarmament issue,” which led to the agreement at the end of that year to begin discussions at the Convention on Conventional Weapons.

We participated in the three informal CCW meetings on questions relating to lethal autonomous weapons systems. Our Campaign to Stop Killer Robots worked for and supported the decision taken by states at the CCW Review Conference last December to establish the Group of Governmental Experts on these weapons. At that time, we said the move took the deliberations to a formal, action-oriented setting from which states could begin negotiations on new international law. We expressed our sincere hope that this formal process would result in a new protocol to preemptively ban lethal autonomous weapons systems.

Yet months later there has been no progress toward a meeting of the CCW GGE, let alone a start on negotiations of such a legal instrument.

What is the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots doing while this diplomatic process falters? We are engaging with the major debtors to the CCW and urging them to pay without delay. We are preparing a publication on country policy and practice on lethal autonomous weapons systems, drawing on the statements made in multilateral for as well as from national policies and related developments. We are intensifying our outreach in capitals to increase legislative and public awareness and encourage actions to ban fully autonomous weapons.

We will not rest until the concerns that continue to multiply have been addressed through the creation of a new treaty banning fully autonomous weapons. We call on states to heed the call for action and get the diplomatic process back on track urgently.

Thank you.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am


We, the undersigned nongovernmental organizations, urge you to support the creation of an independent international investigation into violations and abuses of international human rights law and international humanitarian law in Yemen since the start of the current conflict. This is a call that has been made since 2015 by national, regional, and international civil society organizations, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, and the Security Council Panel of Experts on Yemen. The number of abuses, and the need for credible international investigations, has only increased since 2015.

Yemen is now enduring the world’s largest humanitarian crisis, with at least seven million people on the brink of famine and hundreds of thousands suffering from cholera. This crisis is manmade, with the war deepening and exacerbating the humanitarian situation in the Middle East’s poorest country, and both sides impeding the delivery of humanitarian aid. As the president of the International Committee of the Red Cross said at the end of his visit to Yemen in July 2017, “Unless the warring parties improve their respect of the laws of war, I am afraid we must expect more epidemics in the future.”

Since March 2015, at least 5,110 civilians have been killed and at least 8,719 wounded in the armed conflict, according to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). Serious violations of international humanitarian law and violations and abuses of international human rights law by parties to the conflict have continued to be committed with impunity. The Saudi Arabia-led coalition has conducted scores of unlawful airstrikes, some of which may amount to war crimes, that have killed thousands of civilians and hit schools, hospitals, markets, and homes. The Houthi armed group and forces loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh have fired weapons indiscriminately into populated areas in Yemen and southern Saudi Arabia and used explosive weapons with wide-scale effects in cities such as Taizz and Aden, killing and maiming scores in attacks that may amount to war crimes.

Both sides have harassed, arbitrarily detained and forcibly disappeared Yemeni activists, human rights defenders and journalists, shrinking the space for civil society groups and the media to operate throughout the country. The number of the “missing” is also growing: Houthi-Saleh forces, forces affiliated with the Yemeni government of President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, and the United Arab Emirates and UAE-backed Yemeni forces have arbitrarily detained or forcibly disappeared hundreds, denying family members access to their loved ones or even information on the fate of those detained.

Parties to the conflict are recruiting and deploying child soldiers. Both sides have used widely banned weapons that can endanger civilians long after a conflict ends. The Saudi-led coalition has used at least seven types of cluster munitions, and the Houthi-Saleh side has laid antipersonnel landmines in a number of Yemeni governorates.

In September 2015, the Human Rights Council called on the Yemeni government, with support from the OHCHR, “to ensure the effective investigation, with a view to ending impunity, into all cases of violations and abuse of human rights and of violations of international humanitarian law.” In September 2016, the Council strengthened the mandate of the OHCHR, requesting the High Commissioner “to allocate additional international human rights experts to the Office of the High Commissioner in Yemen to complement the investigatory work of the national commission, while collecting and preserving information to establish the facts and circumstances of alleged violations and abuses.” 

While the 2016 resolution sought to strengthen the OHCHR presence in Yemen, this has been difficult in practice. The Houthi-Saleh side has publicly refused to cooperate with the Yemeni national commission or OHCHR in its capacity implementing the resolution. In March 2017, the Deputy High Commissioner expressed concerns about the National Commission, noting it has failed “to comply with internationally recognized standards of methodology and impartiality,” and has “yet to clarify how its work could facilitate viable mechanisms of accountability.” The Saudi-led coalition’s investigative mechanism (JIAT) has also failed to conduct credible investigations into alleged violations and abuses. The coalition has called into question its purported commitment to accountability with continued blanket denials of violations and abuses documented by a number of  credible sources. Last year, Saudi Arabia threatened to withdraw funding from critical UN programs if the Secretary-General did not remove the coalition from his annual “list of shame” for violations against children.

For two years, the High Commissioner has called for and continues to call for an independent international investigation.

The victims of abuses in Yemen cannot afford to wait longer for credible investigations into ongoing grave violations and abuses to be undertaken. We therefore call on the Human Rights Council to establish, during its thirty-sixth session, an independent international inquiry to investigate alleged violations and abuses of international human rights law and violations of international humanitarian law committed by all parties to the conflict in Yemen. The inquiry should be given the mandate to establish the facts and circumstances, and to collect and preserve evidence of, and clarify responsibility for, alleged violations and abuses of international human rights law and violations of international humanitarian law, with a view to ending impunity and providing accountability.

We urge you to support the creation of such an inquiry by the Council during upcoming session.

Please accept, Excellency, the assurances of our highest consideration,

  1. ALQST Advocating for Human Rights in Saudi Arabia
  2. Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB)
  3. Amnesty International
  4. Arab Program for Human Rights Activists
  5. Arabic Federation for Democracy, Palestine
  6. Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI)
  7. Association for Human Rights in Ethiopia (AHRE)
  8. Avaaz
  9. Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD)
  10. Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies
  11. CARE
  12. Center for Constitutional Rights
  14. Conectas, Brazil
  15. Control Arms
  16. Corporación Humanas
  17. Corruption Watch
  18. Defense for Children International (DCI)
  19. Defend Defenders (the East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project) 
  20. Dove Tales
  21. English PEN
  22. European-Saudi Organisation for Human Rights (ESOHR)
  23. Friends Committee on National Legislation, US
  24. Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect
  25. Gulf Centre for Human Rights
  26. Human Rights Clinic (Columbia Law School)
  27. Human Rights and Democracy Media Centers (SHAMS)
  28. Human Rights Defenders Network, Sierra Leone
  29. Human Rights Law Centre, Australia 
  30. Human Rights Watch
  31. InterAfrica Group
  32. International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH)
  33. International Platform against Impunity
  34. International Service for Human Rights (ISHR)
  35. MADRE
  36. Marib Dam Foundation for Social Development, Yemen
  37. Medecins du Monde
  38. Migrant Forum in Asia
  39. Mwatana Organisation for Human Rights, Yemen
  40. NGO Working Group on Women, Peace and Security
  41. Oyu Tolgoi Watch, Mongolia
  42. Pan African Human Rights Defenders Network
  43. Partnership for Justice, Nigeria
  44. PAX
  45. PEN International
  46. Physicians for Human Rights
  47. Reporters Without Borders (RSF)
  48. Reprieve
  49. Rivers Without Boundaries, Mongolia
  50. Saferworld
  51. Sisters Arab Forum for Human Rights (SAF)
  52. Society for Threatened Peoples, Germany
  53. Win Without War, US
  54. World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT)
  55. Yemen Humanitarian Forum
  56. Yemen Peace Project, US
  57. [Name withheld], Yemen*
  58. [Name withheld], Yemen*
  59. [Name withheld], Yemen*
  60. [Name withheld], Yemen*
  61. [Name withheld], Yemen*
  62. [Name withheld], Yemen*
  63. [Name withheld], Yemen*
  64. [Name withheld], Yemen*
  65. [Name withheld], Yemen*
  66. [Name withheld], Yemen*
  67. [Name withheld], Yemen*

*Eleven other Yemeni organizations endorsed the letter, but asked for the names of their organizations to be withheld from the public list due to fears of retaliation. Their names are on file with Human Rights Watch.

UPDATE: The original letter had listed 57 organizations and has since been updated to reflect an additional five signatories, now totaling 62. 

UPDATE II: The updated letter had listed 62 organizations and has since been updated to reflect an additional five signatories, now totaling 67. 


Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Author interviewing local Tabqa residents after ISIS had been pushed out of city (July 2017).

© 2017 Ole Solvang/Human Rights Watch

The Raqqa Civilian Council building was full of people with complaints when I visited in July. The council, based in the Syrian town of `Ayn Issa, was set up in April to govern the areas in Raqqa province that US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) retake from ISIS. A local sheikh had come to seek the release of a relative who the SDF had detained on suspicion of being an ISIS member. Another local man was upset that the SDF had not arrested his neighbor, who he says had joined ISIS and had used his association with them to confiscate some of the local man’s property.

The scene that unfolded before me in rural Syria was not just about predictable local complaints. It illustrated a difficult policy question that runs all the way from the battlefields of Iraq and Syria through key international capitals: what should justice look like after ISIS? In other words, who should be prosecuted, by whom, and for what?

The question is a complex one. While the imperative for justice is overwhelming, existing justice mechanisms are underwhelming. Sorting through and properly prosecuting the grave crimes committed by ISIS in Iraq and Syria would be a challenge for any well-resourced and fully functioning judiciary. Some of the challenges include the sheer number and types of crimes, the difficulty gathering evidence for crimes that took place in the chaos of war, and the inevitability of having to conduct these investigations in a highly politicized and polarized environment.

For the judiciaries in Iraq and Syria – weak to begin with and now depleted by years of conflict and corruption – it is a nearly impossible task. And to make things worse, each of those countries has different judicial systems operating in various parts of the country that either do not cooperate or are openly hostile toward one another.

To face the challenge, the authorities in Iraq and Syria have opted to go with a blunt instrument. For the most part, they have relied on their counterterrorism laws and special counterterrorism courts to prosecute ISIS members as well as their suspected accomplices. An Iraqi judge at the Nineveh governorate’s counterterrorism court, which has jurisdiction over cases from the Mosul area, told Human Rights Watch recently that the court was working through about 2,000 cases involving people suspected of being ISIS members or affiliates. Across the border in Syria, the People’s Protection Court, a local court in charge of terrorism cases in the Democratic Union Party (PYD)-led autonomous administration in northern Syria, has handled more than 700 cases, a local judge told me last month.

It is easy to see why counterterrorism laws appeal to prosecutors. They can lock people up for a long time simply by proving membership in ISIS or that someone materially assisted the group or its members, without having to prove they committed specific criminal acts. But these laws and the courts that apply them are too blunt for the challenge at hand. They do not sufficiently distinguish between ISIS members who may have committed rape or executions, and those who simply worked as traffic police. And the definition of assistance is so broad that it has been applied to large swathes of the population that lived under ISIS. For instance, the laws in force could penalize doctors who worked in ISIS-run hospitals, lawyers who participated in ISIS courts, local shop owners who sold food to ISIS or filled their cars with gas. This is not just a hypothetical; in the past two weeks, Iraq has issued arrest warrants against at least 15 lawyers, apparently for the “crime” of practicing law in ISIS courts.

The overwhelming reliance on this counterterrorism framework is showing its limits. Judges and local officials in Iraq and Syria are realizing that you cannot lock everyone up. In June, the Raqqa Civilian Council pardoned 83 captured ISIS fighters whom it described as “low-ranking members without blood on their hands.” The council said that it was a goodwill gesture designed to promote stability and reconciliation.

Iraq passed a law in August 2016 that offers amnesty to anyone who joined ISIS or another extremist group against their will, and did not commit any serious offense such as torture, killing, or the use of explosives. The head of the Iraqi parliament’s legal committee, Mohsen al-Karkari, told Human Rights Watch during a meeting on February 7 that it was a roundabout way to limit the scope of Iraq’s wide-reaching counterterrorism law. According to the Iraqi Justice Ministry, authorities have released 756 prisoners since the law was passed.

Amnesties may be a necessary correction to expedited and often flawed trials as well as overflowing prisons, but the overall process is not delivering justice. Several Raqqa residents told me that they feared that those who benefitted from the June amnesty were not necessarily those with “clean hands” but rather those who had strong advocates among the key clans that the SDF is trying to accommodate to promote stability. In Iraq, the amnesty has failed to convince many judges or promote local reconciliation. A judge in the Nineveh counterterrorism court told Human Rights Watch that in his opinion those who supported ISIS even with the simplest actions like cooking, were as culpable as the fighters, and that he had no interest in claims from defendants that they joined the group against their will.

It is time to recognize that the overreliance on counterterrorism laws and courts to judge acts conducted during ISIS rule is producing a failed outcome. What is needed is to apply the judicial equivalent of medical triage: prioritize the prosecution of serious crimes and explore alternative avenues to address lesser crimes. Authorities in Iraq and Syria should concentrate the limited judicial resources on investigating the gravest crimes committed by ISIS members. They should encourage victims to participate in such proceedings. Terrorism charges can still be relied on when appropriate but it will be essential to investigate and prosecute serious underlying crimes such as rape, execution, and kidnapping, to establish accountability for specific acts, and to provide victims with a sense of justice for the crimes committed against them.

Given the scale and nature of crimes committed by ISIS, efforts to introduce international crimes, such as war crimes and crimes against humanity, into Iraqi and Syrian law should be a priority so that these crimes can be properly prosecuted. Without proper international support and political backing, it is doubtful that Iraqi and Syrian courts would be able to successfully prosecute such cases.

For lesser crimes, notably nonviolent crimes, alternatives to criminal prosecution are needed. The intent is not to sweep certain crimes under the rug but rather to seek alternative ways, such as financial compensation to victims, public apologies, and property restitution to promote victims’ rights and ensure reconciliation. Justice and the notion of triage do not always sit well together but given the actual judicial options and resources available, it would be a vast improvement over the current approach.

Nadim Houry is the terrorism/counterterrorism program director at Human Rights Watch.

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