Australia has an obligation to stop human rights abuses by Iraq

Given Australia’s involvement in Iraq, Tony Abbott cannot dismiss human rights abuses by Iraqi security forces fighting Islamic State militants. AAP/PMO

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, has told states that are supporting parties to the conflict between Iraqi security forces (ISF) and Islamic State (IS) that international law obliges them to take action on human rights abuses by the ISF and its associated Shi’a militia.

Zeid released a report detailing gross abuses of human rights and international humanitarian law by IS and groups associated with it. The report, released at the end of last week, noted widespread and shocking abuses by IS amounting to crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide against Christian, Yazidi and Shi’a groups.

The report also said that the ISF and associated armed groups, mainly Shi’a militia, have:

… carried out extrajudicial killings, torture [and] abductions and forcibly displaced a large number of people, often with impunity.

The ISF and Shi’a militia had shown a pattern of “indiscriminate attacks against civilians” and “looting and destruction” in areas re-taken from IS. Among many details of abuses, the report said that Sunni civilians fleeing IS and attempting to find refuge in Kurdish-held areas had to wait at a Kurdish checkpoint for 15 days. During this time:

Many witnessed children dying of cold while their families waited to be allowed through.

The report said that it is difficult to assign responsibility for particular violations to either the ISF or its associated armed groups. Different armed groups have become an integral component of the government’s response to IS. This has led to the line between regular and irregular pro-government forces, and particularly between Shi’a volunteers and militia, becoming increasingly blurred.

This is particularly dangerous. The Shi’a militia have a violent record. The government lacks any control over the “volunteers”.

In his report, Zeid told states that are giving support to any parties in the conflict in Iraq that international law obliges them:

… to determine whether such support is compatible with their obligations under international law.

What does this mean for Australia?

International law obliges Australia to take action on these abuses. The four Geneva Conventions, to which Australia is a party, have a Common Article 1 which compels parties to:

… undertake to respect and to ensure respect for the present Convention in all circumstances.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) explains that the parties:

… should not be content merely to apply their provisions themselves, but should do everything in their power to ensure that the humanitarian principles underlying the Conventions are applied universally.

The ICRC stresses that:

Article 1 has been deliberately invested with imperative force. It must be taken in its literal meaning.

The ICRC states that:

When a violation occurs, not just the injured state, which is the direct victim, but every state may and indeed must take measures to restore respect.

Australia is giving substantial support to Iraq in its conflict with IS. Prime Minister Tony Abbott recently announced that Australia would send 300 defence force personnel to Iraq for a “building partner capacity training mission”. This commitment is in addition to 170 Special Forces troops who are already in Iraq and RAAF air support, which Abbott said has “been playing a key role”.

However, Australia has the responsibility and the capacity to tell the Iraqi government that it must stop human rights abuses by the ISF and Shi’a militia.

The need to take action on these abuses is also demanded by Australia’s objective in committing forces to the fight against IS. The support IS has received from Iraqi Sunnis is due to the “hardline pro Shiite agenda of former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki”. This alienated Sunni Iraqis throughout the country.

Zeid told the UN Security Council in a statement in November 2014 that one of the root causes of the IS crisis was the:

… clear marginalisation and persecution of large segments of the Sunni population; targeted killings; and cold-blooded attacks on innocent passers-by, many perpetrated by Shi’a militias acting with impunity.

Unless the new Iraqi government brings an end to abuses against Sunni Iraqis, support for IS will grow. Many Sunni Iraqis will see IS as their sole protector against the ISF and Shi’a militia.

Abbott cannot dismiss these abuses as he did allegations of torture by the Sri Lankan military against Sri Lankan Tamils because “we accept that sometimes in difficult circumstances, difficult things happen”. Australia has a clear obligation under international law to take action to stop abuses of human rights and international humanitarian law by the ISF and Shi’a militia. Our objectives in helping Iraq to combat IS also demand that we do so.