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2013 Peoples under Threat survey: Risk of sectarian killing in Pakistan, Syria, Yemen reaches critical level. Eight most at risk states out of top ten subject to recent or prolonged foreign military interventions.

9 July 2013

Sectarian killing between Sunni and Shi’a has risen dramatically and presents an urgent threat to life across much of the Middle East and into Asia, says Minority Rights Group International (MRG) in the 2013 Peoples under Threat global ranking, which lists countries where communities are most at threat of genocide or mass killing.

According to authoritative indicators factored into the Peoples under Threat analysis, Pakistan, Syria, Yemen and Egypt have all risen significantly in the table, with religious minorities at particular risk.

‘Muslim groups, of various denominations, are now at risk of mass killing in nine out of the top ten states in the index. They may find themselves targeted because of their religion, but more often on account of their sect, or their ethnicity,’ says Mark Lattimer, MRG’s Executive Director.

Eight out of ten states identified in the index as being most at risk have been subject to recent or decades-long foreign military interventions.

While it is possible that foreign military action may halt an episode of mass civilian killing or decrease its intensity, it may also prolong or intensify killing, or even initiate a conflict where there was none before. In some cases, it may have the effect of shifting violence away from one people or population group onto another or others, says MRG.

‘Foreign armed intervention is now the norm in states with peoples at risk, but there is a widespread failure to track the effect on civilians,’ says Mark Lattimer. ‘If we fail to count the dead, how can we be sure that interventions are not doing more harm than good?’

Pakistan and Syria, the two states that have risen most prominently in the index this year, are both at the centre of intense controversy concerning international intervention.

The recent general election in Pakistan saw fierce criticism of US military action, in particular the systematic use of unmanned drones to drop bombs in the north and west of the country, which have caused intense resentment among communities in the tribal areas. While the elections were hailed as the first transfer of power from one elected government to another in Pakistan’s history, they were marked by violence and the outcome shows deep regional divisions.

Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and other sectarian extremists, widely believed to be funded from abroad, have intensified a murderous campaign against the Shi’a and other religious minorities in the country, and have operated with almost complete impunity.

At least 93,000 people are now estimated by the UN to have been killed in Syria’s conflict. This is the third year in a row that Syria has risen in the index, and previous fears expressed in Peoples under Threat that Shi’a, Alawites, Assyrians, Kurds and Palestinians would become at risk of sectarian killings are sadly being increasingly realised.

In June 2013 the US announced for the first time that it would provide direct military support to Syrian rebels, joining states, such as Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Russia and Iran, already engaged in supporting one or other side in the war. The involvement of the Lebanese group Hezbollah in support of the Syrian government has also increased the danger of the conflict spilling further into Lebanon, which itself rose in the index this year.

In Yemen in 2012, a major military offensive, supported by the US, targeted Islamic militants in the south, and the conflict displaced tens of thousands of civilians. The US continued a separate campaign of drone strikes across the country. In the north, scene of an earlier Saudi Arabian military intervention in 2009, continuing conflict between al Houthi rebels and the government and Sunni tribes caused casualties and displacement in both Zaydi Shi’a and Sunni communities.

Yemen, and its communities most under threat, now have the dubious distinction of having risen in the Peoples under Threat index seven years in a row.

Libya and Mali are two recent cases where success has been claimed for large-scale foreign military interventions, the first in support of rebels, the second in support of the government. Both countries have risen sharply in the index this year, following major rises last year too.

MRG urges the international community to first consider peaceful means of influencing a state’s human rights performance.

‘Foreign military intervention lies at one end of a spectrum of possible international engagement, such as diplomatic pressure, expulsion from international organisations, severance of diplomatic relations, economic sanctions, arms embargoes, international prosecutions of military or political leaders, and travel bans or asset freezes,’ says Mark Lattimer.

Somalia, Sudan, Afghanistan and Iraq have topped the Peoples under Threat index for six years in a row.

Notes to Editors

  • Interview opportunities:
    • UK: Mark Lattimer, Executive Director, Minority Rights Group International
    • Syria: Aref Gabeau – YASA – Kurdish Centre for Studies & Legal Consultancy – [email protected]
    • Pakistan: Moazzam S. Bhatti, Advocacy Outreach Advisor, Sustainable Development Policy Institute – [email protected]
    • Egypt: Mamdouh Nakhla, Chairman of Board of Trustees, Al-Kalema Centre for Human Rights – full briefing here and the full table here.
    • Minority Rights Group International is the leading international human rights organisation working to secure the rights of ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities and indigenous peoples. We work with more than 150 partners in over 50 countries.

    For more information or to arrange interviews, please contact the MRG Press Office on [email protected].

    Peoples under Threat is funded by the European Union. This content is the sole responsibility of Minority Rights Group International and can under no circumstances be regarded as reflecting the position of the European Union.