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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.

Civilian-led early warning systems have the potential to:

  • Ensure that information on a wide spectrum of violence or threatened violence is captured, including in particular sexual and gender-based violence, extortion, pillage and other exactions against local civilian populations, as well as communal violence and patterns of criminal violence linked to the conflict;
  • Provide real-time information from territories to which access is difficult or denied for official monitors;
  • Ensure that warnings quickly reach the communities that are most under threat;
  • Enable local community interests and perspectives to be regularly inputted into peace processes.

‘The early warning system has allowed us to bring civilian concerns to the attention of key national and international decision makers in the South Sudan peace process, concerns that would have otherwise been marginalised,’ said Edmund Yakani, Executive Director of CEPO.

‘Unfortunately the peace process has not been run with the interests of civilians in mind,’ he added.

Drawing on the experience of the pilot in South Sudan, the report finds that civilian-led early warning systems should be tailored to the social and political context of the conflict in which they operate, that they must be complemented by an effective advocacy strategy on civilian protection to enable rapid response, and that they should not be regarded as a cheap or easy alternative to official or international systems.

The report argues that civilian-led early warning systems are an important step toward peace processes that are more inclusive of the interests and perspectives of the civilians they claim to serve. They are well-suited to the majority of today’s conflicts, which frequently occur in populated areas and in which civilians are actively targeted or otherwise subject to serious harm.

‘Civilian-led early warning recognises the active role civilians themselves play in improving civilian protection and security,’ said Mark Lattimer, Executive Director of Ceasefire. ‘The technique is an important complement to official warning systems which sometimes move slowly and even fail to warn populations most at risk.’

To support the effective expansion of civilian-led early warning, this report recommends:

  • Key national and international decision makers in peace processes should support civilian-led early warning systems and recognize that they offer a means of prioritizing the protection of civilians and supporting the inclusion of civilian perspectives into processes relating to conflict prevention, de-escalation and resolution.
  • Policy makers should recognize that civilian-led early warning systems require a serious commitment of time and resources. They require significant political and material support, and protection.


Note for editors:

First to Know: Civilian-led early warning in armed conflict is published on 8 April 2021. The report was produced under the project ‘Strengthening civil society capacity for early warning on identity-based violence in South Sudan’, supported by the UK government (UK Aid Direct).

For further information or to arrange interviews, e-mail:

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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.

International law defines enforced disappearance as a phenomenon in which state actors deprive individuals of their liberty – through acts of abduction, arrest or detention – then refuse to acknowledge what has happened to them, leaving their loved ones in a state of prolonged uncertainty and distress.

Iraq’s disappeared range from the victims of Ba’ath Party-era state violence, to the thousands of Iraqi civilians and ‘ghost detainees’ held without charge over the course of the US-led occupation, to the scores of primarily Sunni men and boys abused and disappeared by pro-government militias in the course of the conflict with ISIS. Most recently, scores of demonstrators in the popular protests in Baghdad, Basra and other southern cities have also been forcibly disappeared.

But the report finds that up until now, victims of these abuses have not been treated equally.

‘While the Saddam Hussein violations are widely acknowledged, there has been near-complete impunity for abuses by coalition forces and the Iraqi security forces they established and trained,’ says Miriam Puttick, Head of Middle East and North Africa Programmes at Ceasefire and the report’s author. ‘These security forces, and the pro-government militias that operate alongside them, have been key partners of Western governments in the fight against ISIS.’

Despite the scale of the problem, Iraq is now facing an unprecedented opportunity to address it. Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, who came to office in the wake of widespread popular protests that followed the end of the conflict with ISIS, has made vocal commitments to addressing human rights abuses, including enforced disappearances.

‘Again and again the Iraqi government has announced investigations into recent alleged disappearances but with little result,’ says Mark Lattimer, Ceasefire’s Executive Director. ‘The government now has a chance to turn rhetoric into action by backing the new bill on ending enforced disappearance.’

New legislation addressing enforced disappearance is now before the Iraqi parliament. If passed, Iraq would be among the first in the region to criminalize the practice, setting a precedent in the struggle against impunity.

But overturning the legacy of enforced disappearance in Iraq will require more than criminalizing the offense. There are many factors that enable the practice, like the widespread use of secret detention centres, the involvement of different armed groups in carrying out unauthorized arrests and detentions, and the lack of a unified reporting mechanism or search procedure for missing persons.

‘Because there is no system in place to deal with disappearances at present, family members of the disappeared are forced to go from prison to prison, searching for information about their loved ones,’ says Puttick. ‘This treatment is inhumane and causes further suffering for families.’


Note for editors:

  • The Forever Crime: Ending enforced disappearance in Iraq is published in English and Arabic on 19 January 2021.

For further information or to arrange interviews, e-mail:

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French authorities arrest Roger Lumbala, former militia leader, for crimes against humanity in DR Congo

January 2021

Congolese MP Roger Lumbala has been arrested in France and is under investigation for complicity in crimes against humanity committed in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in 2002-2003.

The charges relate to his responsibility for a military campaign in Ituri province named Effacer le tableau (‘Erasing the Board’) in which thousands of civilians were tortured and/or killed, including members of the indigenous Bambuti population. Violations including murder, forcible population transfer, torture, rape and persecution were documented by an investigative mission in 2004 conducted by Congolese civilian activists coordinated by Minority Rights Group International, Ceasefire’s partner NGO.

The French prosecutor announced on Monday 4 January that Lumbala had been arrested last Tuesday, but charges against him were only confirmed this weekend.

A UN-commissioned ‘Mapping Report’ published in 2010 detailed 617 incidents under the heading of war crimes, crimes against humanity and violations of international humanitarian law committed in the DRC wars from 1993 – 2003. The charges confirmed against Roger Lumbala mark the first time that any prosecution has been mounted for those crimes since the report’s publication.

‘Lumbala’s arrest is a significant step forward for international justice and a blow against impunity in the DRC’, said Joshua Castellino, Executive Director of Minority Rights Group International. ‘The indigenous Bambuti population was targeted in a campaign of extermination for which no-one has yet been held responsible. Crimes of that gravity demand justice.’

Effacer le tableau was a planned, systematic campaign of attack against the civilian population of the DRC’s Ituri province, carried out by two armed opposition groups, the Mouvement de libération du Congo (MLC) and the Rassemblement congolais pour la démocratie – National (RCD-N), the latter under the control of Roger Lumbala. From October 2002 until January 2003, the combined militia forces occupied territory in the areas of Epulu, Mambasa, Teturi, Byakato and Erengeti, carrying out a series of atrocities against the Bambuti and other local populations and forcing the displacement of over 100,000. After the signing of Congolese peace accords in 2003, the RCD-N forces were integrated into the Congolese army. Accused of supporting further rebel movements, Lumbala only returned to the DRC from exile in 2017 after another peace accord and was elected a parliamentary deputy.

‘Civilian victims have had to wait over 10 years since the UN Mapping Report catalogued atrocities in the DRC for this first prosecution,’ said Miriam Puttick, Head of Programmes at Ceasefire. ‘For the cause of justice and reconciliation it is vital that other prosecutions now follow.’

A group of over 180 mainly Congolese NGOs, led by Nobel laureate Denis Mukwege, have called for the identities of suspected perpetrators of the crimes in the Mapping Report to be disclosed in order to kickstart the stalled justice process.

Following the landmark Pinochet case 20 years ago, international criminal prosecutions under the principle of universal jurisdiction have gained ground. The trial of Anwar Raslan, a former colonel in Syria’s feared General Intelligence Directorate, is currently taking place in Koblenz in Germany. Other Syrian cases are expected to follow.

Notes for editors

  1. Erasing the Board: Report of the international research mission into crimes under international law committed against the Bambuti Pygmies in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, is available in English and French here:
  2. The UN ‘Mapping Report’, Report of the Mapping Exercise documenting the most serious violations of human rights and international humanitarian law committed within the territory of the Democratic Republic of the Congo between March 1993 and June 2003, is available here:
  • Minority Rights Group International is the leading international human rights organisation working to secure the rights of ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities and indigenous peoples. It works with more than 150 partners in over 50 countries.
  • The Ceasefire Centre for Civilian Rights is an international initiative to develop civilian-led monitoring of violations of international humanitarian law or human rights in armed conflict, to pursue legal and political accountability for those responsible for such violations, and to develop the practice of civilian rights.

For more information or to arrange interviews email or

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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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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.

The report, “Undermining the Future: Attacks on Yemen’s Schools,” includes attacks on and abuses against and impacting schools that occurred between March 2015 and December 2019. The documented incidents can be grouped into three main patterns: airstrikes impacting schools and educational facilities (153 incidents), attacks impacting schools during ground attacks (36 incidents) and military use and occupation of schools (171 incidents). In addition to these three primary patterns, Mwatana documented 20 other incidents of abuse impacting schools, such as laying landmines near schools and looting.

Of the documented incidents in the report, the Ansar Allah (Houthi) group bears responsibility for 22 ground attacks, 131 incidents of military occupation and use of schools, and 18 other incidents of abuse or attacks, such as laying mines around schools. The Saudi/UAE-led coalition is responsible for all 153 documented airstrikes, while armed forces and groups of the internationally recognized Yemeni government bear responsibility for 8 ground attacks and 30 incidents of military occupation and use of schools. UAE-backed Southern Transitional Council forces are also responsible for 8 incidents of military occupation and use of schools. Ansar al-Sharia bears responsibility for one of the documented incidents.

The report includes a series of recommendations to Saudi Arabia, the UAE, other coalition member states, the internationally recognized government of President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, the Ansar Allah (Houthi) group, and the UAE-backed Southern Transitional Council, most notably calling on these warring parties to fully adhere to the principles and provisions of international humanitarian law to minimize harm to civilians and civilian objects, including schools. The report also recommends that Iran, the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and others immediately stop selling or transferring weapons to warring parties in Yemen. The report also recommends that the UN Human Rights Council renew and strengthen the mandate of the UN Group of Eminent Experts, with a view to laying a better groundwork for accountability and redress. The report also recommends the Saudi/UAE-led coalition be re-added to the UN Secretary-General’s annual “List of Shame” for abuses against children during armed conflict.

Download the reports:

Undermining The Future Arabic PDF
Undermining The Future English PDF


Note for editors:

The report, “Undermining the Future: Attacks on Yemen’s Schools,” is published by Mwatana for Human Rights and the Ceasefire Centre for Civilian Rights on 18 August 2020. It is based on investigative field research conducted by the Mwatana team in 19 Yemeni governorates, including more than 600 interviews with witnesses, victims’ families, parents, and education workers.

For further information or to arrange interviews, e-mail:

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In the name of national security, Iranians pay a heavy price – new report

June 2020

Measures taken in the name of national security and combating terrorism have led to grave and widespread violations of human rights in Iran, according to a new report published jointly by Minority Rights Group International and the Ceasefire Centre for Civilian Rights.

Read the report here: In the Name of Security: Human Rights Violations under Iran’s National Security Laws (in English) and in Farsi.

In the Name of Security: Human rights violations under Iran’s national security laws details how Iranian authorities have imprisoned, tortured and killed their own citizens in pursuit of a national security imperative that has dominated public life in Iran since the Islamic Revolution of 1979. Those targeted for the worst treatment include political dissidents, ethnic and religious minorities, dual nationals, and migrants.

‘Iran’s securitised worldview sees all political challenge as an existential threat,’ says Drewery Dyke, the report author. ‘This has led to unfettered and illegal killings during recent state-wide protests over the dire economic situation and botched efforts to deal with Covid19 effectively.’

The report finds that the threat posed by COVID-19 was treated by the Iranian authorities not just as a public health challenge but also as a national security issue, with state media reporting that the virus could be a US-manufactured ‘bioweapon.’ The security services detained thousands of people for challenging the government’s narrative of its handling of the virus, including over social media.

The dominance of the national security narrative in Iran has led to the growth in power of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), which plays a decisive role in the intimidation and prosecution of those whom it considers a threat. Its anti-riot units, formed by the paramilitary Basij, are the country’s most important units to suppress public protests and riots.

Its conduct has exacerbated poor relations with minority communities in Kurdistan and Baluchistan, as well as with Arabs, Azerbaijani Turks and Turkmen, all located on Iran’s borders. Minority rights activism in Iran is often falsely and deliberately conflated with separatism and terrorism, the report argues.

The report also reveals the IRGC’s shocking role in trafficking and forcibly recruiting large numbers of Afghan and Pakistani migrants to fight on its behalf in the Syria conflict. While the IRGC promised recruits a good income and the possibility of acquiring Iranian citizenship, many Afghans and Pakistanis died in the fighting and never returned to Iran.

‘The Supreme Leader, government and new parliament must work to end this approach to restore dignity to Iran’s varying ethnolinguistic, religious and other communities that are suffering,’ urges Dyke. ‘The Islamic Republic does face real security threats, but for how long can it continue treating its own people as the enemy?’

Note to editors:

For more information or to arrange interviews:

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Ceasefire partner addresses UN Security Council on South Sudan peace process

Patrick Gruban / CC BY-SA

23 June 2020   

The head of Ceasefire’s partner organisation in South Sudan presented a joint list of priorities for civilian protection to the United Nations Security Council today.  

Edmund Yakani, head of the Community Empowerment for Progress Organisation (CEPO), was invited to address the council remotely from Juba in a session that discussed the peace process in South Sudan by the current French Presidency of the council.  

The list of CEPO and ceasefire’s joint recommendations for civilian protection includes 

  • A proactive approach to early warning that identifies and addresses both the proximate and underlying structural causes of the outbreaks of violence that have blighted South Sudan since the Cessation of Hostilities Agreement was signed in December 2017 
  •  The immediate establishment of the three institutions of transitional justice stipulated in the September 2018 Revitalised Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in South Sudan, namely the Commission for Truth, Reconciliation and Healing, the Hybrid Court for South Sudan and the Compensation and Reparation Authority.  
  • The continuing engagement and active support of the international community for South Sudan to deal with the direct and indirect effects of the Coronavirus pandemic. This support should explicitly address wider protection needs and not be focused exclusively on humanitarian issues 

Read CEPO and Ceasefire’s priorities for civilian protection in the South Sudanese conflict here.  

Watch Edmund Yakani’s presentation to the United Nations Security Council here.

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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:

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

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Iraq joint statement: Stop the killing of activists

December 2019 update

Civilian activists across cities in central and southern Iraq have been targeted deliberately with live fire, bringing the death toll in the latest protests by early December to over 400, with thousands injured. The killings have been carried out by militia members of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) and by Iraqi Security Forces, protestors report.

Read the joint appeal issued by CEASEFIRE and 14 other human rights organisations here: Authorities must immediately end the use of lethal force against protestors and stop targeting activists, journalists and the media

Read our October joint letter here: Freedom of speech and assembly under attack in Iraq

‘CEASEFIRE called for effective investigations into a wave of targeted assassinations by alleged PMF members a year ago’, said Executive Director Mark Lattimer. ‘The government’s failure to investigate and prosecute perpetrators means that the militias now feel they can shoot with impunity.’

Read the CEASEFIRE report in English here: Civilian Activists under Threat in Iraq

And in Arabic here نشطاء مدنيون تحت التهديد في العراق

Drawing on thousands of accounts of violations uploaded on CEASEFIRE’s violations reporting platform, the report details a pattern of attacks on civilian activists in 2018 including protestors, journalists and media workers, lawyers, women in public life, and other human rights defenders. In addition to the use of excessive force against protestors on the streets, the report documents a campaign of systematic death threats and premeditated assassinations.

Killings of unarmed protestors continue to be reported by official sources in Iraq as being carried out by ‘unknown assailants’. PMF militias aligned with Iran have, however, made little secret of their willingness to use force to end the protests.

Created in 2014 as an umbrella for militias fighting ISIS, the Hashd al-Sha’abi or Popular Mobilization Forces are now believed to number over 100,000 fighters. They include powerful militias supported by Iran such as the Badr Organisation, Kata’ib Hezbollah and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq. They were given official status by former prime minister Haider al-Abadi and now operate with the authority of the Iraqi state.

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Peoples Under Threat 2019: The role of social media in exacerbating violence

4 June 2019

PDF: Peoples under Threat 2019 briefing.

Website: Peoples under Threat

The use of social media by repressive states and extremist groups is adding directly to the threats faced by some of the world’s most vulnerable populations and can exacerbate violence where atrocities have occurred or risk transpiring, according to new data analysis provided by Minority Rights Group International (MRG) and the Ceasefire Centre for Civilian Rights.

The analysis, known as the Peoples under Threat index, uses authoritative indicators to identify those countries around the world most at risk of genocide, mass killing or systematic violent repression. This year’s index draws attention to the numerous instances where social media is being used in an organized way to disseminate hate and incite killing.

‘Unequal access to modern technology by way of social media creates an accelerated process through which hate and xenophobia can spread,’ says Joshua Castellino, MRG’s Executive Director. ‘The immediacy of the medium facilitates opinion without need for context or nuance. The sensationalist nature of some of these communications, designed to shock and awe, inevitably aids their spread.’

Syria, where social media platforms are used actively by all sides in the war, heads this year’s Peoples under Threat index. The power of hashtags persists in Syria, where supporters of President Bashar al-Assad popularized a #SyriaHoax hashtag on Twitter to discredit the overwhelming evidence of horrific chemical attacks on civilian targets. Numerous videos uploaded to YouTube by many parties to the conflict have received hundreds of millions of views, leading the Syrian conflict to be dubbed the ‘social media war’.

Somalia maintains its position behind Syria in the index. As it relates to social media, Al-Shabaab has been known to use Twitter and Facebook as propaganda and recruitment tools in an environment where mobile phone use has steadily risen in recent years.

Afghanistan is among those states where threat levels have increased this year. The civilian death toll in Afghanistan reached an all-time annual high in 2018, with 3,804 killed and another 7,189 injured. Government-controlled territory also shrank to its lowest since the fall of the Taliban in 2001. To mitigate this discouraging picture, the Afghan Ministry of Defense publishes daily figures of Taliban fighters who are killed or captured to its Twitter feed. The Taliban, in turn, widely uses WhatsApp and Twitter to recruit, plan, fundraise and claim responsibility for its attacks.

Myanmar is a stark example of the link between social media and the commission of atrocities. In this instance, dehumanizing language and outright incitement to mass murder was amplified via Facebook and Twitter, contributing to the widespread targeting of the Muslim Rohingya minority.

Iraq remains vulnerable to outbreaks of violence, and during its most intense and violent repression of minority communities, ISIS used the Twitter hashtag #AllEyesOnISIS to publicise its atrocities. While the hashtag has recently lost much of its currency, its deliberate use demonstrates how social media has become an important conduit for spreading hate and fear.

The threat level has also risen in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), as the country now holds more than 5 million displaced people within its borders and represents the largest displacement crisis on the African continent. Authorities in Kinshasa have engineered internet and social media bans to assist in denials of government mismanagement and insecurity.

’In country after country, social media platforms are now being used to spread hate, recruit the killers, and organize mass killing,’ said Mark Lattimer, Executive Director of the Ceasefire Centre for Civilian Rights. ‘For years we have thought of social media as the friend of civil society, but it is now being used against them on an unprecedented scale.’

India is among the highest risers this year, moving up 16 places in the Peoples Under Threat Index in 2018. Violence has been escalating in Kashmir since 2016 when a separatist commander with a major social media following among Kashmiris was killed. With increased militarisation by the government, 2018 saw the highest death toll in the region in a decade, along with greater coooperation between several Islamist separatist groups. Meanwhile, across India, it is important to note that social media has played a significant role in advancing Hindu nationalism and intolerance towards minorities and perceived outsiders in the lead-up to the 2019 general elections. Members of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), supporters and ‘bots’ ratcheted up the production of inflammatory, anti-Muslim messaging. The BJP’s president Amit Shah called Bangladeshi migrants ‘termites’, and the party’s Twitter account echoed his words. The BJP won the election returning Prime Minister Narendra Modi to power with a renewed mandate. However, in the few days since the BJP’s victory, Muslims have already been targeted by numerous hate attacks.

Cameroon has also leapt up the index amid escalating political violence. Peaceful demonstrations in 2016 against decades of political and economic marginalization of the country’s Anglophone regions by the largely French-speaking government led to a separatist movement for an independent state. Facing prolonged internet shutdowns and scant international attention, protestors, and later separatists, have relied heavily on Twitter hashtags to mobilize. President Paul Biya, in power since 1982, even labelled social media used by separatists ‘a new form of terrorism’. Meanwhile, Boko Haram attacks persist in the far north, adding to the growing numbers of internally displaced and deepening the humanitarian crisis.

‘Regulating hate and false news is an imperative, with collective responsibility: of technology companies, states and politicians, but also of a responsible civil society and general population’, says Castellino. ‘Failures, as this report demonstrates, increase the threats that vulnerable communities face, which becomes ever more acute in a context of heightened competition for limited resources.’

Social media promises to increasingly influence how violence is perceived or responded to. Upheaval and conflict can no longer be dislocated from the use of social media by an array of actors. It is also important, however, to consider how these expansive communication tools can be equally used to mitigate hate and combat the spread of misinformation.

This is the 14th year that the Peoples under Threat index has been released by MRG, joined now by the Ceasefire Centre. It is based on indicators from authoritative sources and continues to provide early warnings of potential mass atrocities.

Notes to editors

  • Visit the online map which visualizes data from Peoples under Threat. View the map by year or by country, and find links to reports, press releases and further information on the communities under threat.
  • Download the full Peoples under Threat 2019 briefing.

Interview opportunities: 

  • Joshua Castellino, Executive Director, Minority Rights Group International (London, UK)
  • Mark Lattimer, Executive Director, Ceasefire Centre for Civilian Rights (London, UK)
  • Minority representatives from Syria, Somalia, Iraq, DRC and other countries featured in the index.

For more information or to arrange interviews please contact:

ceasefirePeoples Under Threat 2019: The role of social media in exacerbating violence
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