Escaping Fallujah: from one hell to the other

On 7th June 2016, Geneva International Centre for Justice (GICJ) sent an urgent appeal to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, to the competent mandate holders and to all UN member states to express its distress in regards to the deteriorating security situation in Fallujah, city located in the Al Anbar province of Iraq. On the 22nd May 2016 a destructive military offensive against the city has started under what was the blatant pretext of “fighting terrorism”, according to the Iraqi authorities. The battle to “liberate Fallujah” from the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is being carried out by the Iraqi army and affiliated militias, supported by U.S. air cover and Iranian military advisors on ground, who have provided weapons and arms to the al-Hashd al-Shaabi militia umbrella organization (Popular Mobilization Forces).

A few days after the military campaign started, GICJ sent an urgent appeal to the United Nations Secretary-General and to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (24th May 2016)1 , as well as a letter to the President of the United States of America (27th May 2016)2 , to express its deep concern towards the growing number of civilian casualties resulted from the deadly attacks at the hands of the security forces as well as the American air forces, in what was pronounceable as the umpteenth sect-oriented offensive.

Indiscriminate shelling

Such military operations are being carried out through the indiscriminate shelling of air missiles and other artillery over a wide range of buildings. These bombardments are most obviously affecting the many civilians who are still in the city: a precise estimate of the number of residents remaining in Fallujah is not available – Iraqi authorities stated there are about 50,000 civilians, whereas various local sources place this number to approximately 196,000. Regardless of what information is correct, the number of people whose life is in extreme danger is dramatically high compared to the mere 500 Islamic Sate fighters that are claimed to be in the city.

As it is openly recognized by the US and Iraqi authorities, ISIS targets are extremely dynamic and move rapidly around the city, mixing up with civilians. For such reason, conducting a campaign of indiscriminate shelling and using such kind of weaponry could not be less counterproductive, if the purpose was really that of “fighting terrorism and protect civilians”, as claimed by the Iraqi authorities.

Bombardments, as technologically accurate as they might be, are not suitable for such dynamic targets, especially since they are using weapons with great destructive power, ultimately resulting in the complete destruction of vast areas of the city, which have almost completely been swept away, and, as a consequence, in a rising number of civilian casualties and injuries, including people getting trapped under the rubble without any kind of rescue operation provided.

In addition to indiscriminate shelling, the Fallujah Hospital has also been repeatedly bombed by aerial missiles on Wednesday 25th May 2016 and Thursday 26th May 2016, causing several damages to the building as well as the destruction of essential medical equipment. This has deeply undermined the possibility of injured or sick civilians to receive healthcare.

Such actions are in clear contravention of the 1949 Geneva Conventions, and, in particular, of the Fourth Convention relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War.

War crimes and crimes against humanity

GICJ is receiving numerous testimonies, on a daily basis, coming from Fallujah neighbourhoods and surrounding areas reporting the grave abuses committed by the militias involved in the conflict against those who manage to flee the fighting.

As of the 2nd to 5th June 2016, during the fighting in Saqlawiya (a small city, 20 km west of Fallujah) more than 1,000 civilians escaped the conflict to the nearest unit, which belongs to al-Hashd al-Shaabi militias.

Instead of providing support and assistance to the survivals of the conflict, these people have been detained on the claim to allegedly belonging to ISIS, in areas where they have no access to food or water, where they have been subjected to torture and other degrading and inhuman treatment, which have resulted in about 200 deaths. Most of the dead bodies were reported to be burnt or thrown in the Euphrates.

Those who managed to be released, roughly 650 persons, carry signs and marks of torture on their bodies, and stated that militias have been practicing all kinds of ill-treatments, including slaughtering them with knives and other weapons, beating them up, as well as verbal and psychological abuse of sectarian connotation. Among them, 150 presented body fractures, such as broken legs and arms, and other 100 persons presented signs of severe burns on their back and their chests. Many women have also reported to have been separated from their families without knowing when they will be able to see their loved-ones again and harassed by the militias. According to the survivals, however, there is a large number of persons still missing and, therefore, the exact figures of people still in the custody of militias are difficult provide.

Not too long ago, on the 27th May 2016, GICJ received documented proof that a militia organization called Risaliyon, under command of the Iraqi parliament member Adnan Al Shahmani, slaughtered 17 civilians in the city of al-Karmah. Those were part of a 73 men group who were abducted after escaping ISIS and then detained and taken to the Rashad area, north-east of al-Karmah. The fate of the remaining 56 persons of the group is unknown.

All of the atrocities committed by militias and some army units are part of a systematic policy of revenge that intentionally targets the population of these cities. In these regards, al-Hashd al-Shaabi has been reported to have bombed mosques on a pure sectarian basis. Such actions are classifiable as not less than war crimes and crimes against humanity and deeply contravene international law and human rights law.

Humanitarian situation

The already fragile humanitarian situation has rapidly deteriorated following the attacks on Fallujah. Most displaced people who managed to escape the city and the vindictive fury of the militias have faced many challenges. So far at least 18 people have been reported to have died while they were trying to cross the Euphrates.  Many others are living in degrading conditions. Most of them have to sleep in open-air and lack support for the satisfaction of their basic needs to keep themselves alive. Such inadequate conditions are affecting mostly children and women, whose lives are day after increasingly at risk.

This underlies the failure of the government to prepare the necessary assistance and shelter to displaced people before starting the campaign. Despite some humanitarian organizations managed to deliver some food and tents, this has not proved enough to assist the thousands of displaced persons escaping Fallujah.

Government measures

The Iraqi authorities are trying to convince the international public opinion that they are against the above-described militia violations, and claimed in multiple occasions that these are isolated cases of misbehaviour and that they will work to investigate into these crimes and bring those responsible to justice. However, there has been no real effort or actual commitment to hold those responsible of the abuses accountable. Perpetrators not just enjoy impunity, but also benefit from the full support the government in what is now most clearly a systematic sectarian policy applied on the large-scale, especially directed against the Sunni component of the Iraqi society.

In this context, it is enough to think that Prime minister al-Abadi claimed he is committed to avoid casualties in Fallujah, nevertheless the incidents show his is just pure rhetoric while facts on the ground are in fact proving quite the opposite.

The atrocities committed against civilians are under everyone’s eyes and could not be more evident: in these regards, many prominent Iraqi figures have expressed their concerns and made appeals for the violations to stop.

Even those tribes who are participating in the fight against ISIS have explicitly called on the Iraqi authorities to impede the militias from taking part to the conflict, because their sectarian behaviour is damaging civilians. The Chairman of the Anbar Tribe Council, Mr Rafia Abdulkarim Al Fahdawi, in particular, made a public statement to confirm that a lot of civilians were subjected to different types of violations, including killing and degrading treatment at the hands the militias.

A Member of the Security Committee in the Anbar Governorate, Mr Rabih Barakat Al Isawi, also called for an international investigation to all the violations that happened in the cities of Fallujah, al Karmah and Saqlawiya since the beginning of the military operations against ISIS. He added that the violations are affecting a large number of civilians who are registered with the Committee, as well as many other people whose identity is not yet known.

From his part the Mayor of Fallujah, Mr Sa’doun Al Sha’lan has expressed concern towards the displaced persons from Fallujah and surrounding areas, stating that civilians had been subjected to severe violations by al-Hashd al-Shaabi militias, including mentioning the killing of the 17 persons in al-Karmah.

A meeting held on the 4th of June 2016 by the President of the Mutahidoun Coalition in Iraqi Parliament, and former Vice-President Mr Osama Al Nujaifi, together with the Chairman and Members of the Council of the Governorate of al-Anbar, and members of the Iraqi Parliament from Al Anbar province, confirmed the responsibility of the Prime Minister al-Abadi for the violations and the killing of the people of Fallujah and that he should take all necessary measures to prevent that and bring perpetrators to justice. They also called on him as the Commander in Chief to take effective control on all the army and security units as well as other units including the militia of al-Hashd al-Shaabi, in order to prevent further violations.

Conclusion and recommendations

In light of the increasingly dramatic situation inside Fallujah and the surrounding areas, where innocent people are getting killed by indiscriminate shelling at the hands of the Iraqi army and affiliated militias, and the so-called U.S.-led “International Coalition”, GICJ urgently reiterates its calls on the international community, and, in particular on the United Nations relevant bodies to take urgent action in order to pressure the Iraqi authorities, as well as the U.S.-led Coalition, to immediately stop the indiscriminate bombing over the area, as this is not helping reduce terrorism but only threatening the lives of the thousands of residents left behind.

In these regards, GICJ wants to express, once again, its strong opposition to terrorism. However, as mentioned in our previous press releases, the policies so far adopted, not just in the country but in general across the globe, have only proved ruinous to civilians and their cities and have only resulted in the increase of terrorist activities.

Furthermore, due to the grave human rights violations inflicted upon civilians, who managed to escape the fighting, by various militia organizations, GICJ urgently calls on the United Nations relevant bodies to do whatever is in their power to pressure Iraqi authorities to immediately stop supporting and cooperating with militias, and instead proceed to delegitimize and depower them in order to ban such criminal organizations. In addition, all those countries that have representation in Iraq must do whatever they can to delegitimize these groups by immediately refraining from engaging with them, including receiving and holding meetings with their leaders.

Although GICJ very much appreciates the appeal made by the High Commissioner for Human Rights on the 7th June 2016 that urged “the Iraqi Government to take immediate measures to ensure that all people fleeing the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)-occupied city of Fallujah are treated in strict accordance with international human rights and international humanitarian laws”3 and considers this as an important step in the right direction, it is also convinced that more must be done to ensure that enough pressure is put on the Iraqi authorities to allow citizens still trapped in the city to freely escape the conflict. In addition, GICJ demands that once they have managed to do so, a greater degree of humanitarian assistance, including water, food and shelter is provided. In these regards, the contribution of the United Nations must be relevant to ensure that all basic needs of the displaced persons are fully satisfied.

Finally, GICJ appreciates the call of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, in this previously mentioned appeal, on the Iraqi Government to show its commitment to protecting civilians by fully investigating into these violations. However, GICJ strongly believes that the Iraqi authorities cannot be relied on in conducting this task as they are in fact complicit of the violations and have demonstrated too many times they will not change such behaviour. GICJ therefore calls on the United Nations relevant bodies, and in particular the OHCHR, to dispatch an independent mission of enquiry instead to investigate into all violations committed by the militias and the security forces that cooperate with them, in particular for what concerns the allegations of extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, torture and other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, arbitrary detention and enforced disappearance.

GICJ will never stop reminding that the violations committed against the innocent and unarmed people in Fallujah, as well as in many other places of Iraq, by the above-discussed variety of actors constitute grave war crimes and appalling crimes against humanity. They contravene international law and international human rights law, and therefore the international community as a whole must do everything in its power to stop them once for all and with immediate effect.

1.To see the press release published following the urgent letters sent to the UNSG and the UNHCHR, please click on the following link: With US cover and Iranian support, a war of extermination against Fallujah starts

2.To see the press release published following the urgent letter sent to the President of the United States Barack Obama, please click on the following link: Geneva International Centre for Justice to president Obama: It is a shame to cooperate with militias and Qasem Soleimani

3.To read the High Commissioner for Human Rights’ urgent appeal: Civilians fleeing Fallujah ‘facing double jeopardy’ – UN rights chief


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