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ISIS fighters and their families facing justice: Eight options and four principles

March 2019

Crimes under international law committed by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), including systematic attacks on civilian populations, have shocked the world. Now that the remaining ISIS-controlled territory in Syria is regained, attention is at last focusing on bringing ISIS leaders and fighters to justice. These include Iraqi and Syrian nationals, as well as the so-called ‘foreign fighters’ – nationals of other states in the Middle East and North Africa, as well as European, North American and other nationals. In particular, a global debate has begun about what to do with foreign fighters and their families, including a significant number of women and children.

This Ceasefire briefing considers eight accountability options potentially facing ISIS fighters and their families. It assesses the feasibility of each option and its implications, and then highlights four cross-cutting principles that should be taken into account in any decisions on justice mechanisms.

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Meet the civilian activists from Iraq

Film by NiiWorks for Ceasefire /MRG.

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Iraqi activists live in fear as death squad killings rise – new report

December 2018

Report PDF: Civilian Activists under Threat [PDF]

Civilian activists in Iraq are facing arbitrary detention, torture and premeditated assassinations, including at the hands of Shi’a militia members of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), reports a new bulletin published today by the Ceasefire Centre for Civilian Rights and Minority Rights Group International. Hundreds of human rights defenders have been detained and mistreated, and scores have been killed.

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Using law to protect civilians: launch of The Grey Zone

September 2018

“The main legal norm being eroded in conflicts today is the distinction between combatants and civilians”

How has the face of modern conflict changed? What happens to the civilian population caught in the grey zone between the traditional fields of application of human rights and the laws of war?

These were among the urgent questions considered on 12 September at a packed event at the Swiss ambassador’s residence in London to launch The Grey Zone: Civilian Protection between Human Rights and the Laws of War. Edited by Ceasefire director Mark Lattimer and Professor Philippe Sands QC of University College London, The Grey Zone includes contributions from some 20 leading international jurists on challenges and developments for the law protecting civilians.

Swiss Ambassador Alexandre Fasel opened the panel discussion on international humanitarian law and the protection of civilians in modern armed conflict, and Minister François Voeffray outlined Swiss initiatives regarding IHL compliance and the prosecution of starvation as a method of warfare.

‘The conditions on the ground in Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen show how much modern warfare has changed,’ said Ceasefire’s Mark Lattimer, introducing the discussion. ‘But they are often poorly reflected in legal definitions or indeed in the international media.’

‘Conflicts are becoming more complex, more fragmented, and more protracted,’ explained Helen Alderson, Head of the UK Delegation for the International Committee of the Red Cross. The urbanization of conflict, the impact of new conflict technologies and the targeting of civilians were other game changers in warfare she highlighted.

Contributors Philippe Sands, Liesbeth Zegveld and Mark Lattimer

Contributors Philippe Sands, Liesbeth Zegveld and Mark Lattimer

Professor Marco Sassòli, Director of the Geneva Academy, identified enforcement of international law as the greatest challenge. ‘The main legal norm being eroded in conflicts today is the distinction between combatants and civilians – which is the foundational principle of international humanitarian law.’

‘The international order created in 1945 is now under existential threat,’ warned Philippe Sands. ‘A systematic assault on the system is taking place – and it will soon include an assault on the Geneva Conventions.’

Professor Liesbeth Zegveld of Amsterdam University, a leading litigator for the rights of civilians and a contributor to The Grey Zone, said: ‘What most civilians want from legal action is not compensation, but an answer to the questions: What happened to us? And why?’

‘The Grey Zone: Civilian Protection between Human Rights and the Laws of War’, edited by Mark Lattimer and Philippe Sands, is published by Hart Publishing / Bloomsbury Professional.

@CeasefireCentre           @hartpublishing

Main photo: Swiss ambassador Alexandre Fasel introduces the London discussion

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Syrian refugee women and girls facing gender-based violence in Iraq’s Kurdistan region – new report

May 2018

Seven years after the eruption of the conflict in Syria, refugee women and girls are facing gender-based violence in host countries in the region, says a new report from the Ceasefire Centre for Civilian Rights and Asuda, a leading NGO combating violence against women in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.

It finds that the pressures associated with displacement, combined with the deteriorating economic situation of refugees in the Kurdistan Region, have led to higher levels of gender-based violence in the Syrian refugee community. In particular, intimate partner violence is on the rise, although other forms of violence within the family are also common.

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Reparations for the victims of conflict in Iraq – new report

As Iraq prepares to rebuild and recover from the conflict with ISIS, ensuring accountability for violations committed and reparations for victims is an immediate priority, says a new report from the Ceasefire Centre for Civilian Rights and Minority Rights Group International.

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Eyes on the Ground: Realizing the potential of civilian-led monitoring in armed conflict

July 2017

Technological advances have meant that civilians are now enabled to play a greater role than ever before in monitoring and documenting violations, finds a new report Eyes on the Ground: Realizing the potential of civilian-led monitoring in armed conflict.

As UN rapporteurs and other official international monitors are effectively denied access to a wide range of insecure territories around the world, civilian monitors have become a complementary, and in some cases the principal, source of information on what is happening on the ground to civilian populations.

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Ending enforced disappearance: from Baghdad to Belfast

January 2018

Pooling international best practice to support Iraq in ending enforced disappearances was the theme of a combined study and advocacy tour to Belfast and London undertaken by leading Iraqi MPs last month, organized by the Ceasefire Centre for Civilian Rights in partnership with the Institute for International Law and Human Rights.

Iraq has faced the recurring problem of enforced disappearances at many times in its recent history, and all Iraq’s communities have been affected. Thousands of people remain missing, even just from the latest phase of the conflict. In 2010 Iraq acceded to the International Convention on Enforced Disappearance but it has yet to enact any implementing legislation.

Following an agreement with the Human Rights Committee of the Iraqi Parliament, Ceasefire and IILHR have provided technical assistance in reviewing draft legislation in line with international standards.

In December, key members and officials of the Iraqi Human Rights Committee responsible for the bill came to London and Belfast to hold discussions with academics specializing in transitional justice from the School of African and Oriental Studies – University of London, Queen’s University Belfast, MPs and Peers, UK Foreign Office officials, relevant NGOs and the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission and the Independent Commission for the Location of Victims’ Remains (NI).

Photo caption: MPs from the Iraqi delegation meet in Belfast with Ceasefire and IILHR staff and the lead forensic investigator for the Independent Commission for the Location of Victims’ Remains (December 2017)

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Justice for Syria: Small steps forward

July 2017

Recent months have seen a number of small steps forward in the struggle to achieve justice for atrocities committed in Syria. Criminal proceedings are now underway in a number of European countries, including Germany, Sweden and Spain, targeting perpetrators of torture and war crimes in Syria. For the first time, such proceedings target not just opposition fighters, but also senior individuals in Syrian military intelligence.

In a separate development, Catherine Marchi-Uhel of France was appointed this month as the head of the UN independent panel to assist in the investigation and prosecution of those responsible for the most serious violations of international law in Syria.

With pro bono support from a major international law form, Ceasefire has been undertaking feasibility work to support extra-territorial cases, both criminal and civil, concerning gross violations of the rights of civilians in Syria. [INSERT LINK TO ‘Accountability in Syria’ PAGE] Depending on the national laws in place, cases may be brought in European, North American or other jurisdictions, including those where Syrian perpetrators may have fled or Syrian victims may have sought refuge.

A Step towards Justice: Current accountability options for crimes under international law committed in Syria was the first report to offer a detailed examination of the mechanisms available to deliver justice to the Syrian people while the conflict goes on.

Drawing on comprehensive legal analysis, the joint report by the Ceasefire Centre for Civilian Rights and the Syria Justice and Accountability Centre (SJAC) evaluates the potential avenues towards securing accountability for war crimes and crimes against humanity in Syria, including massacres of civilians, indiscriminate aerial bombardment, enforced disappearances, systematic torture, rape, and the use of children in hostilities.

While there are constraints on the current feasibility of the most prominent mechanisms, including domestic courts and the International Criminal Court, as well as alternative mechanisms such as hybrid tribunals, the use of foreign national courts remains open.

‘European jurisdictions are increasingly prosecuting those charged with supporting ISIS in Syria, but not those from the government side who commit atrocities,’ said Mark Lattimer, Ceasefire’s Director. ‘The challenge now is whether foreign courts or other mechanisms can bring to justice perpetrators from all sides of the conflict, including those with responsibility for the gravest crimes.’

‘Some countries might be able to utilize their domestic jurisdictions to prosecute a few perpetrators,’ said Mohammad Al Abdallah, Executive Director of the Syria Justice and Accountability Center. ‘While this is a good first step towards justice, and may be the only available one at the moment, it is not sufficient and does not respond to the magnitude of the violations occurring in Syria.’

In the context of very widespread impunity in Syria, a strategic approach to pursuing available accountability options is urgently needed. Improving the capacity of Syrians to document, prepare and bring cases will also prepare the ground for any larger, more comprehensive justice and reconciliation process in the future.

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Raqqa: Will the lessons from Mosul be learnt in time?

July 2017

As US-led coalition forces in partnership with a non-state armed group, the Syrian Democratic Forces, continue their attempt to take Raqqa from ISIS control, up to 200,000 civilians remain at risk, including some 70,000 inside the city.

In June the chair of the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria warned that the intensification of coalition air strikes had already led to a ‘staggering loss of civilian life’. Syrian human rights groups have recorded some 1,400 civilian deaths in total over the last eight months including those from air strikes, artillery fire, and hundreds killed by ISIS on the ground.

The pattern of killing in Raqqa is tragically beginning to resemble that during the nine-month assault on Mosul in neighbouring Iraq, which ended this month.

A survey of recent practice by Iraqi and international coalition forces published by the Ceasefire Centre at the start of the Mosul campaign warned then that the lives of thousands of civilians were at critical risk.

Report PDF: Civilian protection in the battle for Mosul: critical priorities

Civilian protection in the battle for Mosul: Critical priorities found that 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. In the event, thousands of civilians were killed in Mosul and, according to the most recent figure from the International Organization for Migration, over one million were displaced.

In particular, the imposition of siege tactics on ISIS-held cities and the intensive bombardment of urban areas by 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 operation to encircle Raqqa and lay siege to the city threatens to concentrate the battle in neighbourhoods that remain heavily populated with civilians.

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, prohibiting indiscriminate attacks, and taking all feasible precautions to avoid, or in any event minimise, civilian death or injury or damage to civilian objects.

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