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Protecting human rights of vulnerable civilians in Iraq

25 April 2017

‘The problems of minorities had been going on a long time. There are a lot of legal problems and issues of discrimination against minorities

and the fact that ISIS was able to grow shows how exclusionary society was,’ says Miriam Puttick, civilians rights officer of the Ceasefire project. Since the rapid spread of ISIS in 2014, there has been a massive increase in attacks against ethnic and religious minorities in Iraq, including Christians, Kaka’i, Shabak, Turkmen and Yezidis.

The growth of ISIS led to more than 3 million Iraqis being displaced. Says Puttick, ‘I’ll never forget interviewing minority families who had just been displaced from the places that they have been living for thousands of years and just hearing the utter distress and complete hopelessness that they felt.’

‘The areas of focus and priorities shifted,’ says Mays Al-Juboori, civilians rights officer of the Ceasefire project. ‘The content of our reports and what we were researching and what we were investigating, became more conflict based. It transitioned from civil and political rights to humanitarian needs and displacement. It’s freedom of movement, access to return home, reparation. It’s different than, “What language are you taught in school?”’ With 8 million in need of humanitarian assistance, some of the primary objectives became peripheral.

The team had to re-evaluate what this incursion meant for every aspect of the project. ‘You can never predict something like this is going to happen. Flexibility is really important,’ says Puttick. ‘When things like this happen, we had to think about what does this mean for the project? What things do we have to change, what things are not going to be practical anymore? Also, we had to be really transparent with the donors and communicate with them and say “This is the issue we’re facing and although we said we would do this, now we need to do that.”’

This conflict not only affected the goals and content of the project but, additionally, who was conducting it as well. One of the original partners, the Iraqi Minorities Council (IMC), had to be replaced by the Hammurabi Human Rights Organization because the chair of IMC was an Iraqi MP preoccupied by the invasion. Therefore he did not have the time to devote to the project.

MRG also partnered with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Essex University and ASUDA. ASUDA was also acutely affected by the invasion. In Mosul, it lost operational capacity and one of its researchers had to flee the city for their own safety.

It became especially important for the project to monitor and collect instances of human rights violations throughout the country. This required penetrating conflict zones controlled by ISIS, in addition to distant rural areas. ‘Human rights organizations can’t go everywhere, especially conflict areas, where a lot of human rights abuses are committed,’ says Dr Ayman Alhelbawy, a research associate at the University of Essex. Alhelbawy, along with two University of Essex professors, co-developed the online database, which allows victims or witnesses of human rights violations to report incidents directly to the database. This is a tremendous supplement to the more traditional method of having researchers in the field who collect in-person reports and upload them to a database.

Since the database is electronic, someone in Mosul or any other conflict zone, can reach out and report a human rights violation. This empowers people on the ground who know what is happening to share their information. ‘We have created a whole new database that doesn’t exist elsewhere. You’re enabling the victims to report what’s happened to them but also you’re creating a database that is useful for NGOs, government members, officials, decision-makers, researchers, academics, anyone who wants to know what is happening, how frequently it is happening, the areas it is happening in, so it is a useful tool both ways,’ explained Al-Juboori. The map provides disaggregated data in real time.

This electronic reporting can even aid in-person reporting. ‘The online database is good because when you have a form in your hand and you ask a question, maybe the victim will feel it is difficult for her [to talk about the incident] and it may be a problem. So if you tell her she can put her information in this online database, it is easy for collecting data,’ says Rebwar Mahmoud, project coordinator for ASUDA. These abuses can be difficult and painful to share with a stranger, like a field-researcher, so this online submission is less personal and preferable for some women.

The Ceasefire team is using even more sophisticated technology to identify human rights violations. ‘We are developing some techniques to mass detect the human rights abuses on social media because people may just post something about what’s happening,’ says Dr Alhelbawy. ‘They don’t have the intention to report that to human rights organizations. Social media is a place where people feel safe.’ With the social media scanner, the Ceasefire project can detect human right violations that victims are choose to share on Twitter, even if the victim does not purposefully notify activists or the authorities. This social media mining for identifying violations is unprecedented in the human rights field.

The social media scanner tool seizes all the tweets, with specifically targeted words like violence or kill. ‘We get the tweets, we run our techniques, classifiers, to detect if the violence is a human rights abuse or not. We use machine learning to train the classifiers how to classify a human rights abuse. We train it, because while there might be a lot of violence not everything is a human rights abuse,’ says Dr Alhelbawy. The social media scanner is not perfect yet but it is making progress. About 85 per cent of the time, the scanner correctly identifies violence in a human rights context, from other acts of violence.

The online database and the social media detection tool, are both trying to reach people and places that researchers and activists cannot, giving a voice to the victims who are not currently heard.

Puttick, Al-Juboori and Dr Alhelbawy agree that this online database and social media mining could be used in other conflicts and human rights situations. ‘In the short-term it was about Iraq, but it has so many wider applications. That was very exciting as well. We are also thinking about, where else can we use this? What other types of situations would this be useful? We’re thinking about Syria, Yemen and South Sudan,’ says Puttick.

The project also published nine reports monitoring the human rights abuses in the country that reached an audience of 20,000 people. Following the No Way Home: Iraq’s Minorities on the Verge of Disappearance report, the project received effusive praise. ‘For the first time I felt there was such a positive response to the report that people were actually including decision- makers, stakeholders and government officials. They were requesting the report, they were requesting information, they were requesting these policy recommendations or any kind of recommendations to deal with the crisis. I think that was rare and that’s quite an achievement, when you have MPs coming to you and saying “Can you advise us what to do?”, “Can we see the information you collated?”’, says Al-Juboori.

Another report was so effective that it was used to influence the refugee asylum process in Canada. When asked why the reports had such a big impact Puttick replied, ‘We were there working in Iraq long before the ISIS crisis started. We were able to put out a report on minorities very soon after the events of the summer of 2014, so we were the first ones there and paying attention to the issues that people were not aware of or working on before.’

MRG has also done a lot of advocacy work at the UN, arranging two side events which were attended by several influential UN representatives. However, MRG is also extremely committed to empowering minorities to advocate for themselves. Both Al-Juboori and Puttick learned first- hand how beneficial this strategy is. Says Puttick, ‘There were a couple instances of where we did bring people from Iraq to the UN and it was very successful. They achieved a lot of awareness of their issues and went on to do a lot more advocacy without our support. I think that was really a lesson learned. When we go and do advocacy it has a lot of weight, but when we use that position to support our partners and to support Iraqis to go and do advocacy themselves, I think that can have a lot of impact as well.’

One of those instances was at the 2015 UN Forum on Minority Issues, when six Iraqis delivered interventions about minorities in the Iraqi criminal justice system. One of the participants, a former ISIS Yezidi captive, spoke about the abuses she and her family faced. The entire room fell silent and was deeply moved by her story. Her testimony was the most captivating moment of the Forum and she then felt empowered by her UN experience to participate in further activism on a global stage. The Iraqi government recognized her contribution by nominating her for the 2016 Nobel Peace prize. Says Al-Juboori. ‘I was surprised that was more powerful than having the Special Rapporteur on this issue speaking about it.’

Says Mark Lattimer, executive director of MRG, ‘I think this is just the start, because the scale of problems in Iraq is so great and also because of the challenge of developing local capacity is so complex. You can’t solve those problems or devise a solution which works in three years but I think we made a good start.’