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Syria’s minorities used in war of narratives, at the cost of civilian lives – new report

June 2021

Syria’s minorities have been caught in a war of narratives waged by the Syrian state, regional and international actors, according to a new report by the Ceasefire Centre for Civilian Rights. Most notably, the Assad-led government’s narrative that it is a ‘protector of minorities’ has been used to justify ongoing violations against civilians and activists.

In the Name of Protection: Minorities and identity in the Syrian conflict draws on 14 in-depth interviews with Syrian activists and civilians of diverse religious minority backgrounds to explore the multifaceted and layered experiences of minorities during the conflict. Their testimonies challenge and complicate widespread assumptions made about religious minorities in Syria.

‘While the Assad-led government would like to project an image of monolithic support from Syrian religious minorities, the testimonies of opposition activists arbitrarily detained by state forces dismantle this myth,’ says Miriam Puttick, Head of Middle East and North Africa Programmes at Ceasefire. The report reveals that detained activists of minority background are subjected to severe physical and psychological torture by the Syrian state security apparatus, though the scale of abuse differs from person to person.

The report also explores the complicit role of regional and international actors, such as Iran, Russia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the U.S, in exploiting fears of religious minorities. ‘All parties to the conflict have played a role in politicising, weaponizing and co-opting minority identities,’ says Yomn Al-Kaisi, Middle East and North Africa Programme Officer at Ceasefire.

According to the report, regional and international actors have financed and propped up armed groups and militias to further their own political interests, leaning on the narrative of ‘protecting minorities’ to justify their interventions.  Russia has staged photo ops in Christian Orthodox churches in Damascus to legitimise its actions, while Iran has created militias of Shi’a fighters to fight in the conflict.

The spread of extremist armed groups on the ground has only heightened sectarian tensions. One civilian testimony in the report documents the trauma of being raided by the former Islamist armed group, Jabhat Al-Nusra, which targeted religious minorities in an apartment building.

‘Playing on minority fears, the Assad-led government deliberately conflates the actions and views of extremist Islamist groups with those of millions of Sunni protestors’ says Yomn Al-Kaisi, Middle East and North Africa Programme Officer at Ceasefire. ‘This demonisation process paints millions of Syrians as ‘terrorists’ rather than citizens seeking political, economic and social justice.’

Ultimately, Syrians have paid the price of their identities being politicised and weaponised. The report finds that civilians from minority backgrounds frequently adapt their accents and their appearance to avoid being targeted based on their assumed identity.

‘The use of sectarian narratives has real-life consequences,’ says Mark Lattimer, Ceasefire’s Executive Director. ‘These narratives continue to put the lives of Syrian civilians at risk today.’

Note for editors:

In the Name of Protection: Minorities and identity in the Syrian conflict is published in English and Arabic on 9 June 2021.

For further information or to arrange interviews, e-mail: contact@ceasefire.org

 

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The Yazidi Survivors’ Law: A step towards reparations for the ISIS conflict

On 1 March 2021, after nearly two years of deliberations, Iraq’s parliament passed the Yazidi Female Survivors’ Law, a major step forward in addressing the legacy of violations committed by ISIS against members of religious minorities in Iraq. The law (Law No. 8 of 2021) provides a comprehensive programme of reparations to Yazidi, Christian, Shabak, and Turkmen survivors of sexual violence and other ISIS crimes, including both individual and collective measures.

The law comes in the aftermath of more than three years of armed conflict in Iraq, which left thousands dead and millions displaced. While ISIS targeted many of Iraq’s ethnic and religious minorities during the conflict, the group’s treatment of the Yazidi community was particularly brutal. It is estimated that around 6,800 Yezidis were abducted and around 3,100 killed over a few days in early August 2014. Men and boys were massacred and buried in mass graves while thousands of women and girls were forced into sexual slavery, in a campaign that has been recognized as genocide by numerous international bodies.

Since the end of the conflict, there has been extensive debate about the criminal prosecution of the perpetrators of these violations, and a wave of actual prosecutions of mostly junior suspects on terrorist charges. However, the duty to provide reparation to survivors of violations is an equally important part of recovery from the conflict. Reparations are among the most victim-centric of transitional justice measures, and when properly designed, can have a transformative effect on those victimized and the societies in which they live.

While Iraq has significant experience in administering reparations programmes, the Yazidi Survivors’ Law is the only initiative that is specific to the conflict with ISIS and is the first to provide reparations to survivors of sexual violence. In Iraq and many other contexts, acts of sexual violence have long been viewed as a side effect of war and excluded from the harms addressed by post-conflict reparations schemes. By enacting the law, Iraq has become part of a steadily growing field of practice in redressing the harm inflicted on individuals as a result of conflict-related sexual violence.

The Ceasefire Centre for Civilian Rights has been closely involved over recent years in supporting civilians in documentation and advocacy and in providing technical advice to parliamentarians on the new law (together with our partner the International Institute for Law and Human Rights). As we continue working on its implementation, this briefing describes who and what is covered by the law, how it will work, and outlines the gaps that remain as Iraq takes an important step towards delivering reparations to survivors.

Read the report: Yazidi Survivors’ Law Briefing (PDF)

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First to Know: promoting civilian-led early warning in armed conflict – new report

April 2021

Civilian-led early warning of violence in armed conflict is a viable technique that has significant potential to save lives by alerting both responsible authorities and civilian populations of impending threats, finds a new report. ‘First to Know: Civilian-led early warning in armed conflict examines the lessons learned from a pilot early warning system in South Sudan implemented by Ceasefire and the Community Empowerment for Progress Organisation.

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After decades of disappearances, Iraq preparing to turn the page – new report

January 2021 

Iraq’s disappeared persons might finally have a chance at justice, according to a new report by the Ceasefire Centre for Civilian Rights.

The report, entitled The Forever Crime: Ending enforced disappearance in Iraq, argues that Iraq is at a historic juncture in the struggle against enforced disappearance, a practice which has gone on for decades and left virtually none of Iraq’s communities untouched. Draft legislation to suppress enforced disappearances is now under consideration by the Iraqi parliament.

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Official figures reveal only one prosecution of UK armed forces personnel for war crimes overseas since 2001

Official figures reveal only one prosecution of UK armed forces personnel for war crimes overseas since 2001

December 2020

Official figures released by the Ministry of Defence to Ceasefire Centre for Civilian Rights reveal that since 2001 there has only been one prosecution of UK armed forces personnel for war crimes overseas.

Despite lengthy engagements in Afghanistan and Iraq, and evidence of serious abuses by UK service personnel against local civilians, data supplied to Ceasefire under the Freedom of Information Act show that only one war crimes prosecution has been conducted, in over nearly two decades, under the International Criminal Court Act 2001, which brought within UK law those offences of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity within the jurisdiction of the ICC. No prosecutions against UK personnel were brought under either the Geneva Conventions Act 1957, which first criminalized war crimes in UK law, or under Section 134 of the Criminal Justice Act 1988, which criminalizes torture.

‘These figures contradict the argument by defence ministers that the Overseas Operations Bill, currently going through Parliament, is required to put an end to “vexatious prosecutions” for war crimes,’ said Rose Burke, Policy Officer at Ceasefire Centre for Civilian Rights. ‘In reality, there have been none. There should no longer be any doubt that war crimes and torture, along with sexual crimes, should now be exempted from the Bill’s “triple lock” on prosecutions after five years.’

The sole war crimes prosecution relates to the killing of Mr Baha Mousa, an Iraqi civilian from Basra, which later formed the subject of a judicial inquiry. Three members of the Queen’s Lancashire Regiment were charged, and one convicted in 2007, of inhumane treatment as a war crime under the International Criminal Court Act 2001. An autopsy on Mr Mousa’s body recorded 93 separate injuries.

The MoD figures show that, in addition to the one war crimes prosecution, five prosecutions were conducted for other offences allegedly committed against members of the local population in Iraq (this includes one in relation to the Baha Mousa case) and nine for other offences against the local population in Afghanistan.

In relation to military operations in Iraq:

  • Five prosecutions in total were conducted, in which a total of 25 defendants were charged, and six convicted at court martial. This includes the sole war crimes prosecution.
  • In total seven members of the Queen’s Lancashire Regiment were tried for the killing of Mr Mousa, the most senior being a colonel. Three were charged with the war crime of inhumane treatment, and five were charged with other offences. All were acquitted except Cpl Donald Payne who was convicted of inhumane treatment but acquitted of manslaughter.
  • It is understood that the convictions listed under ‘other offences committed against the local population’ include those of three members of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers who were given custodial sentences of up to two years in 2005 after photographs emerged of them abusing Iraqi civilians at Camp Bread Basket, in Basra in 2003.

In relation to military operations in Afghanistan:

  • Nine prosecutions in total were conducted, with a total of 16 defendants
  • Of those 16, none faced prosecution for war crimes or crimes under the International Criminal Court Act 2001, but were prosecuted for ‘other offences against the local population’. Nine convictions were secured at court martial.
  • The killing of a wounded Taliban fighter, who was hors de combat, in Helmand province in September 2011 led to the prosecution of three members of the Royal Marines, of whom two were acquitted. Sgt Alexander Blackman was convicted at court martial of murder in 2013, reduced on appeal to manslaughter on grounds of diminished responsibility. Despite being recorded at the time of the killing as saying ‘I just broke the Geneva Convention’, he was never charged with a war crime.

It emerged in June that the Service Prosecuting Authority had closed all but one of the remaining legacy investigations from Iraq and that any further prosecutions were now unlikely.

The sole prosecution and conviction for a war crime committed in UK overseas military operations demonstrates that the Overseas Operations Bill, which includes a ‘presumption against prosecution’ after five years for alleged war crimes committed by British troops abroad, is fundamentally misguided.

Although there have been few prosecutions, the MoD has approved payments totalling £20 million to settle over 300 cases of alleged violations committed by UK service personnel in Iraq alone, including in relation to conduct which falls within the definition of war crimes. The Overseas Operations Bill introduces an absolute long-stop of six years on claims against the MoD from either service personnel or civilians who have suffered harm.

‘With the release of these figures, the real purpose of the Overseas Operations Bill has now become obvious. It is not to protect UK armed forces from prosecution, but to shield the government from liability,’ said Mark Lattimer, Ceasefire’s Director. ‘It should be renamed the MoD protection bill.’

The new data form a more comprehensive account than the one given to the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights on 5 October by Damian Parmenter, Director of Defence and Security Industrial Strategy at the MoD, and follow a review of the historic prosecutions before the establishment of the Service Prosecuting Authority in 2009. Ceasefire wrote last week to the Prosecutor at the International Criminal Court to provide her with the latest figures.

This information comes as the Prosecutor at the International Criminal Court has announced the closure of her preliminary examination of the UK’s record in Iraq. The Prosecutor found that there was a reasonable basis to believe that UK servicemen committed war crimes including wilful killing/murder, torture and inhuman/cruel treatment, but declined to pursue a full investigation because it was not shown that the UK had acted to shield perpetrators from justice.

Notes for editors:

  1. The updated MoD response to Ceasefire’s FOI request is available here.
  2. Ceasefire’s briefing on the Overseas Operations Bill is available here. Ceasefire argues that the bill will not only limit accountability for abuses by UK armed forces but will also remove avenues for redress for civilian victims, violating the UK’s legal obligations under international humanitarian law and human rights law.
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UK Overseas Operations Bill violates civilian rights

September 2020

Draft legislation in the UK will restrict the rights of civilian war victims to claim compensation for the harm they have suffered, further marginalising some of the most vulnerable people in the world.

The Overseas Operations Bill, which will be debated in Parliament on September 23rd, not only creates a de facto statute of limitations for crimes committed by the UK’s armed forces overseas, including for war crimes and crimes against humanity, but it also creates an absolute statute of limitations or ‘longstop’ of six years for civil claims and claims under the Human Rights Act brought against the Ministry of Defence (MoD).

For years, successive UK Defence Secretaries have sought to introduce legislation which they claim will prevent ‘vexatious claims’ against the MoD, and limit the application of the European Convention on Human Rights to UK military operations overseas. Defence ministers have repeatedly stated that the law of armed conflict- not human rights law- is the appropriate and applicable law to military operations. Yet in the Government’s attempt to put IHL at the fore, they have introduced a Bill which would violate some of the fundamental principles of IHL.

The prohibitions of war crimes, crimes against humanity, torture, and genocide have long been considered peremptory norms of international law. The special status of these jus cogens norms means that statutes of limitations for prosecution cannot be applied to them- as confirmed in the Rome Statute, and the right to remedy for victims of these norms cannot be restricted.

In fact, there has been a growing recognition of the individual right to reparation for civilian harm over the past two decades. The USA’s Department of Defense, for example, is currently developing a comprehensive policy addressing civilian casualties resulting from US military operations. Yet despite claiming to be a global leader in the respect of human rights and humanitarian law, it appears the UK is going backwards.

The Overseas Operations Bill discriminates against civilians who have been subjected to rights violations overseas, who will be left with no avenue to claim reparation for the harm they have suffered after six years. There are many reasons why civilians in countries where the UK has recently conducted military operations- like Iraq and Afghanistan- may not be able to make a claim within six years. In Afghanistan, for example, the country remains in a state of armed conflict up to this day, with fraught peace negotiations ongoing. The plight of many civilians who have been subjected to decades of warfare, is compounded by practical issues such as language barriers and lack of awareness of the UK’s legal systems.

Legislation which would introduce a de facto statute of limitations for war crimes and restrict the right of civilians to reparation for violations of IHL, goes against the values at the core of IHL, as well as who the UK claims to be as a country. Rather than causing further harm to civilians overseas, the UK should introduce a policy on reparations for civilian harm, which would allow civilians to access their rights, and prevent the UK from violating international law.

For more information on the Overseas Operations Bill and how it violates the UK’s legal obligations, see CEASEFIRE’s briefing.

See also CEASEFIRE’s submission to the UK Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights, which highlights the impact of the civil litigation longstop on the right to reparation for victims of IHL violations.

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Warring Parties Undermine Students’ Future in Yemen – new report

August 2020

Warring parties carried out more than 380 attacks impacting schools and educational facilities in Yemen between March 2015 and December 2019, Mwatana for Human Rights and Ceasefire Center for Civilian Rights said in a new report published today. Attacks and other abuses completely or partially destroyed dozens of schools, disrupted the educational process, and contributed to undermining students’ future in Yemen.

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UK overseas operations bill: ‘Suppress the violations, not those who expose them’

March 2020

Described by defence ministers as an attack on ‘lawfare’, the UK government today introduced a new bill creating limits on accountability for violations of international humanitarian law and human rights committed by UK armed forces overseas. CEASEFIRE believes the proposals undermine the UK’s international obligations to suppress war crimes and the crime of torture.

‘Defence ministers have set up the straw man of the “vexatious lawyer” to justify limiting accountability for war crimes,’ said Mark Lattimer, CEASEFIRE’s director. ‘But the records of UK public inquiries, court judgments and civil settlements all demonstrate that the cases of abuse are real and serious. The Ministry of Defence should be supporting the armed services to stop violations, not going after those working to expose them.’

To understand the UK’s record in Iraq, read CEASEFIRE’s briefing ‘Seven myths about UK military abuses against civilians in Iraq.

The new bill:

  • creates a statutory presumption against prosecution of current or former service personnel for alleged offences committed more than five years ago while deployed abroad;
  • requires courts to take into account the ‘operational context’ when extending normal time limits for civil claims for personal injury and/or death in connection with military operations overseas;
  • imposes an absolute limit or ‘longstop’ of six years on bringing claims for personal injury and/or death in connection with military operations overseas;
  • requires governments to consider derogating from the European Convention on Human Rights in relation to future overseas operations.

Under the Geneva Conventions, the UN Convention against Torture and under human rights law the UK is obliged to investigate violations of the laws of war and cases of torture and to suppress them. By legislating to limit accountability for such violations – potentially contributing both to impunity and to a lack of redress – the UK will likely be in breach of its obligations under international law.

Certain sexual offences are excluded from the provisions in the bill limiting criminal prosecutions, but not other serious offences – including murder and torture. The measures may also create incentives to prolong or obstruct investigations in order to benefit from the new time limits.

‘Most of the cases of proven and alleged violations in Iraq were perpetrated against civilians – the very people UK armed forces were mandated to protect,’ added Mr Lattimer. ‘Introducing incentives not to undertake genuine investigations into cases of abuse will obstruct justice for civilian victims, both now and in the future.’

Notes for editors: The Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill was published on 18 March 2020 and is available here: https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/bills/cbill/58-01/0117/20117.pdf

For further information or for comment, please contact e-mail: contact@ceasefire.org or call Tel: 07970 651342.

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Two years after ‘liberation,’ civilians in Mosul denied justice, reparations – new report

January 2020

Over two years since the recapture of Mosul from the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), Iraqi civilians have been largely denied the right to reparations they are owed by parties to the conflict, according to a new report by the Ceasefire Centre for Civilian Rights and Minority Rights Group International.

Read the report here: Mosul after the Battle: Reparations for civilian harm and the future of Ninewa

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Study finds displacement, economic hardship drive domestic abuse among Syrian refugees in Iraq   

March 2019

PDF: Combating Sexual and Gender-Based Violence in Refugee Crises: Lessons from working with Syrian refugees in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq: ENGLISH, ARABIC, KURDISH

A two-year programme on sexual and gender-based violence among Syrian refugees in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq found that displacement and economic hardship have led to an increase in physical and emotional abuse, with one focus group of women reporting that as many as half of husbands yelled at and hit their wives.

The programme, a joint project run by the Ceasefire Centre for Civilian Rights and Asuda, an Iraqi women’s rights group, surveyed Syrian refugees in the governorates of Erbil, Dohuk and Suleymania in Iraqi Kurdistan. The lessons learned from this study are highlighted in Ceasefire’s report: “Combating sexual and gender-based violence in refugee crises: Lessons from working in with Syrian refugees in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq”.  

‘This report clearly highlights the psychological impact forceable displacement, exile and economic hardship has on vulnerable refugee populations,’ said Ceasefire’s Head of Middle East/North Africa Programmes, Miriam Puttick. ‘The most vulnerable sections of the refugee community – women and children – bear the brunt of this trauma.’

Almost half of the participants reported ‘bad’ or ‘very bad’ mental health. Both male and female Syrian refugees said stresses related to displacement, especially financial stress and the inability to find work, had led to an increase in physical and emotional violence against women by their husbands, and to women taking out their stress and frustration verbally on their husbands and verbally and physically on their children.

Some women in Suleymania said many men were angry at how the men were treated by the host community — often taken advantage of at work, suffering physical and verbal abuse, being underpaid and forced to work long hours. These abuses were hard to address as Syrian refugees had inadequate access to legal protection.

‘However, the programme also made a strong case for the effectiveness of early and proactive intervention to address this issue, to change perceptions and start open discussions within the refugee community,’ Puttick noted. ‘The engagement of men and boys in this programming is critical – both to engage them as allies in sexual and gender-based violence programming and as potential victims of emotional and physical abuse.’

Key findings and recommendations of the programme include the importance of building trust in target communities, linking anti-SGBV efforts with livelihood and job creation schemes, ensuring services reach all of the affected community, including those living outside of refugee camps, and engaging host communities.

Recommendations for the INGO community engaged with SGBV include engaging the local government and building its capacity to effectively address this issue, and improving cooperation mechanisms between INGOs themselves.

Key project lessons: 

  • Project activities should be designed in a way that facilitates trust-building;
  • Anti-SGBV efforts should be combined with livelihoods assistance and job creation programmes;
  • Men and boys should be included in anti-SGBV programming by engaging them as allies in combating violence, but also by ensuring that services are available to male victims of SGBV;
  • Anti-SGBV programming should be extended to non-camp residents in a more sustained and targeted manner;
  • The quality of and access to shelter facilities for survivors of SGBV should be improved;
  • Host communities should be engaged with awareness sessions to reduce SGBV against refugees and create social cohesion between host and refugee communities.

Key lessons for INGOs: 

  • Building the capacity and involvement of the government should be a priority;
  • Cooperation mechanisms between NGOs need to be improved.

 

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