Julian Pecquet / Al-Monitor.com – 2016-10-08 19:21:18
WASHINGTON (October 6, 2016) — One of the top human rights champions on Capitol Hill brought prominent activists together October 6 to urge the United States and Iraq to protect civilians in the coming assault on Mosul.
Rep. James McGovern, D-Mass., the co-chairman of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, pulled the briefing together just weeks ahead of the expected battle to retake Iraq’s second-largest city from the Islamic State (IS).
The briefing served as an urgent appeal to the Barack Obama administration to keep human rights and humanitarian needs top of mind as officials prepare for a conflagration that could displace a million people — and lay the groundwork for future conflict.
“I get it: Everyone’s all gung-ho about sending more American forces there, more military assistance, but here’s where there’s a shortfall,” McGovern told Al-Monitor after the hearing. “These are the people that we should be concerned about.”
The panel featured witnesses from Human Rights Watch, the International Rescue Committee, the Norwegian Refugee Council and the Center for Civilians in Conflict. McGovern said he agreed with all of their recommendations, and would pass them on to the Obama administration in a letter or memo.
“I don’t want anybody to say, ‘Nobody raised these issues to us,'” McGovern said. “This panel has raised some serious issues, and we’re going to make sure that everything that was said here today is passed on to the administration — the State Department, the White House and the Pentagon.”
Among those issues is the lack of preparation to receive civilians who are expected to flee Mosul en masse when the attack comes. The attack could trigger “one of the largest man-made disasters” in years, the UN refugee agency’s Iraq head, Bruno Geddo, said this week.
The United Nations made an emergency appeal this summer for $284 million to deal with the crisis but has received less than half so far, with the United States pledging $130 million. McGovern didn’t rule out Congress’ having to pass an emergency supplemental when it returns from its month-long recess after the election.
“If the funding is not there, if the resources are not there — not just from the United States, but from the international community — then a lot of people are going to be in even worse shape,” he said. “It makes a disastrous situation even more of a disaster.”
Activists also urged Iraq and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) to drastically improve their screening of potential IS militants’ hiding out among the fleeing population. Iraqi forces and their allies, especially the Shiite militias close to Iran, have been accused of wanton discrimination against Sunnis based on flimsy evidence.
“The standards by which they have been doing screening thus far have been horrific,” said Sarah Margon, the Washington director of Human Rights Watch, “and have led to preventative and abusive detention, have led to abuse, have led to deaths.”
Elisabeth Koek, an advocacy and information adviser for the Norwegian Refugee Council based in Iraq, said she was told Iraqis were checked against five different databases — but there’s no way to ascertain their reliability.
Human Rights Watch released a letter to Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi shortly before the briefing. It urges him, among other things, to require that only Iraqi security forces or KRG forces conduct screenings, not the mainly Shiite Popular Mobilization Units (PMU).
The letter says that because previous operations involving the PMU indicate that revenge attacks could occur in the planned Mosul operation, Iraqi security forces or the Kurdish peshmerga “should restrict the movement of abusive armed forces and militias in areas civilians will be fleeing to and provide heightened security to protect individuals in the camps.”
The panel also agreed on the right for Mosul residents to flee in search of shelter rather than stay in place. When an Iraqi Christian from Mosul asked what message the panelists would have him share with people back home, they recommended residents ignore Baghdad’s exhortation to paint white crosses on their homes; they all agreed that doing so doesn’t protect them from government shelling but only makes them targets for IS militants seeking human shields, as happened in Fallujah.
McGovern said he agreed with the witnesses’ assessment, even if it means the United States butting heads with Baghdad over tactics in the fight against IS.
“The focus of this commission is human rights,” McGovern said. “I’m not sure Baghdad’s main concern is the people we’re concerned about here today.”
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