Civilian protection in the battle for Mosul: Critical priorities
Recent precedents from military operations to retake Iraqi cities from ISIS control, including Tikrit, Ramadi, Fallujah and Sinjar, demonstrate a pattern of repeated failures to implement sufficient measures for civilian protection, both in the conduct of hostilities and in planning for the humanitarian consequences. Given this weight of recent practice, it is feared that thousands of civilian lives in Mosul and surrounding areas are now at critical risk.
Since 2014, ISIS has deliberately targeted civilians on numerous occasions, but parties on both sides of the conflict, including the Iraqi Security Forces and allied Popular Mobilisation Units, are responsible for:
- launching indiscriminate attacks, which fail to distinguish between military objectives and civilians or civilian objects;
- the use of prohibited weapons, and attacks on places of special protection, including hospitals and medical facilities;
- the recruitment of child soldiers; and
- the inhumane treatment of detained civilians and fighters hors de combat in violation of Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions, including murder, mutilation, cruel treatment, torture and unfair trials.
Such conduct, together with the imposition of siege tactics on ISIS-held cities and the intensive bombardment of urban areas by Iraqi and international coalition forces, has combined with the ISIS tactic of using ‘human shields’ to result in thousands of civilian casualties and high levels of civilian suffering. The failure to ensure humanitarian access as well as safe corridors for population flight has also been compounded by the imposition on IDPs by Iraqi and Kurdish authorities of discriminatory documentation, screening and entry procedures at check-points and governorate border crossings.
In the context of military operations to retake Mosul, this report recommends:
- Members of the international coalition, including the US, UK and France, should take greater collective responsibility for ending gross violations committed by the Iraqi forces to which they provide operational military support; and should establish a civilian casualty tracking cell in Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve to ensure civilian casualties are acknowledged promptly and investigated rapidly and transparently;
- The Iraqi Security Forces and allied militias should actively suppress revenge attacks and collective punishments inflicted by their forces on communities perceived to have supported ISIS and ensure the perpetrators of any such attacks are held accountable;
- All parties to the conflict should adhere at all times to their obligations under international humanitarian law, including ensuring respect for the fundamental principle of distinction, and their obligations under international human rights law.