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December 2, 2019
Targeting of and Attacks on Members of Religious Groups in the Middle East and Burma
Consistent with Section 7033 of P.L. 114-113, this report describes targeting of and attacks against civilians, including members of religious and ethnic groups in the Middle East and in Burma. Although there is no universally understood or agreed upon definition of “mass atrocities” and the term is not defined as a matter of law, many of these acts committed by Da’esh in the Middle East constitute “mass atrocities,” meaning here “large-scale and deliberate attacks on civilians.” Secretary Kerry announced on March 17, 2016, that in his judgment “Da’esh is responsible for genocide against groups in areas under its control, including Yezidis, Christians, and Shia Muslims,” and “Da’esh is also responsible for crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing directed at these same groups and in some cases against Sunni Muslims and Kurds and other minorities.” Meanwhile, we remain concerned about current acts that constitute persecution of and discrimination against members of the Rohingya population in Burma.
Atrocities in the Middle East
This section of the report focuses primarily on discrimination against and attacks on members of religious groups in Iraq, Syria, and Libya, Middle Eastern countries where Da’esh and other violent extremist groups are actively committing atrocities against people from a wide variety of religious and ethnic backgrounds.
Da’esh continues to perpetrate atrocities in Iraq, including unlawful forced displacement, forced religious conversions, slavery, kidnapping, trafficking, and sexual violence, resulting in wide-scale fatalities and injuries. Da’esh has sought to displace Shia Muslims and religious minorities from seized Iraqi territory under its control. Victims – including women and children – come from across the spectrum of Iraq’s ethnic and religious groups, including Yezidis, Sunni Muslims, Shia Muslims, Christians, Turkmen, Shabak, and Sabaean-Mandaeans, among others. Da’esh has used public beheadings and other forms of summary executions, kidnapping, rape, forced marriage and sexual slavery, and has employed child soldiers from among its own recruits as well as captured children. Da’esh also continues to attack places of worship, schools, public spaces, economic infrastructure, and government buildings, including with suicide bombings and improvised explosive devices. Although many of these attacks have taken place in northern Iraq, Da’esh has victimized a broad segment of the population throughout the country including in the largely Sunni province of Anbar, Baghdad province, and the ethnically mixed province of Diyala. For example, local and international media reported that on July 17, 2015, Da’esh claimed responsibility for a truck bombing that killed 115 persons, including women and children, at a crowded marketplace in Khan Bani Saad in Diyala Governorate. The victims, the majority of whom were Shia Muslims, had gathered to celebrate the end of Ramadan. Da’esh forces have also threatened Sunni tribal leaders, Sunni Muslims who cooperated with the government, and Sunni Muslim clerics who refused to recognize Da’esh and its claim to be a caliphate, in some cases killing, kidnapping, burning homes, forcibly displacing, and attacking them with explosives.
More than 3.3 million Iraqis are internally displaced persons (IDPs), with 76 percent of these IDPs originally displaced from Anbar and Ninewa provinces.
In the summer of 2014, Da’esh overran Mosul, Sinjar District, and large portions of the Ninewa Plain resulting in widespread displacement, including approximately 450,000 Yezidis, 300,000 Turkmen, and 125,000 Christians, as well as Iraqi Arabs, Shia Muslims, Sunni Muslims, Shabak, and others. After its June 10, 2014, assault on the city of Mosul, Da’esh reportedly ordered Christians in the city to convert to Islam or pay a protection tax (a jizya). According to one report, failure to pay the tax resulted in the rape of two Christian women and the confiscation of property. On July 18, 2015, Da’esh issued a final ultimatum that Christians convert, pay the jizya, or give up all possessions and leave the city. Most Christians who had remained in the city after Da’esh’s initial offensive – reportedly, approximately 400 families – departed the city by July 20, 2015. Numerous religious buildings were seized and subsequently demolished, including Mar Behnam Monastery, the Tomb of Yunus (Jonah), a shrine inside a Sunni mosque on the site of a former church, and other religious sites. By August 8, Da’esh had captured much of the Ninewa Plains, including the towns of Qaraqosh, Tel Keppe, Bartella, and Karamlish. More than 100,000 Iraqi Christians fled their homes. On August 21 and 22, 2014, Da’esh reportedly gave Christian residents who had not been able to flee the opportunity to leave with no possessions.
In Nasriya in southern Iraq, Da’esh reportedly circulated flyers to approximately 300 Sabaean-Mandaeans demanding their conversion or exile from Iraq.
In June 2014, Da’esh reportedly killed as many as 670 Shia Muslims and other non-Sunni Muslim prisoners who had been detained in a prison in Mosul. Da’esh also imposed its strict interpretation of Sunni Islam wherever it had an active presence, such as Mosul, and targeted dissenters, including Sunni Muslims, with rape, execution, and other brutality. In multiple cases throughout the year, Da’esh and other armed groups attacked Sunni religious leaders whose ideology differed from that of Da’esh. On June 12, 2014, Da’esh reportedly executed approximately 1,700 Shia Muslim air force cadets at the former Camp Speicher, an Iraqi army training base near Tikrit. In the same month, Da’esh surrounded the mainly Shia Turkmen city of Amerli, 70 miles north of Baquba, resulting in rampant starvation. Although siege directed against enemy combatants is not necessarily prohibited by international humanitarian law, starvation of a civilian population as a method of combat is prohibited. Da’esh’s unlawful siege of Amerli was broken on August 31 by Iraqi Security Forces, with the assistance of Coalition airstrikes.
In August 2014, Da’esh forces assaulted the Sinjar District of Ninewa Province, killing several thousand Yezidi civilians, displacing hundreds of thousands, and trapping tens of thousands for several days on Mt. Sinjar. Da’esh’s unlawful siege of the mountain was relieved when U.S. airstrikes and Syrian Kurdish ground forces opened a lane from the northern slope of Mt. Sinjar to Syria, but an unknown number of Yezidis had reportedly died of thirst or other causes by that point. More than 5,600 people were taken captive by Da’esh, including over 5,000 Yezidis, approximately 500 Turkmen, and dozens of Assyrian Christians. Approximately 4,000 were women and children. Abducted women and girls were subject to rape, sexual slavery, forced marriage, forced conversion, and killing, while young males have reportedly been subjected to forcible indoctrination and are reportedly being trained as suicide bombers. Older males were frequently killed. In one example, after seizing the Yezidi village of Kocho on August 15, 2014, Da’esh executed men and boys older than 10 years of age – reported numbers range from 84 to 300 killed – and kidnapped as many as 300 women and girls for sexual slavery. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) used eyewitness reports as well as contact with captives to compile aggregate numbers of those who had died or who Da’esh had captured; in early 2015, as Da’esh more frequently transported captives to Syria, NGOs and the KRG no longer had access to those sources.
In the area around Mosul and Tel Afar, Da’esh reportedly kidnapped, forcibly displaced, killed, raped, electrocuted, and crucified members of other ethnicities and religious groups, including Shabak, Turkmen, and Shia of all ethnicities. Da’esh also destroyed homes, places of business, and places of worship of members of these communities. Human Rights Watch reported that during a violent three-day period that began on June 23, 2014, Da’esh fighters kidnapped at least 40 Shia Turkmen, dynamited four Turkmen places of worship, and razed two villages near Mosul. On June 25 and 26, Da’esh destroyed seven Shia places of worship in the predominantly Shia Turkmen city of Tal Afar, 50 kilometers west of Mosul, which it captured June 16, four sources from the area told Human Rights Watch. In Tal Afar, according to Human Rights Watch and media reports, Da’esh destroyed the Shia shrines of Imam Sa’ad and Khider al-Elias, a historic shrine to a figure associated with Elijah the Prophet, on a site where Christians and Yezidis also worshipped. Da’esh also destroyed numerous mosques in Tal Afar.
According to local media source BasNews and the Turkmen Women Association, a local NGO, Da’esh militants have kidnapped 500 Turkmen women and children from Tal Afar and Mosul following the June 2014 capture of the area. Of the 500 kidnapped, the association claimed that Da’esh militants brutalized some, tying 25 of the women to electricity poles and raping them in front of their family members.
In other cases, Da’esh has reportedly targeted government workers, military, and police, with a disproportionate impact on certain ethnic or religious minorities. In June 2015, Da’esh published a list of the approximately 2,000 people it had killed in Mosul over the course of its occupation, predominately those associated with the Iraqi government or security services. Among the 2,000 were 700 Turkmen, according to the Turkmen Rescue Foundation.
As a result of Da’esh’s initial assaults against Iraqi cities and provinces and subsequent armed clashes between Da’esh and Iraqi forces, including the Kurdish Peshmerga, the number of IDPs since January 2014 rose to more than 3.3 million by February 18, 2016.
Mass graves reportedly containing the bodies of those killed by Da’esh have been discovered in Iraq and organizations are engaged in documentation and preservation efforts. In August 2014, just after Da’esh’s invasion of Sinjar District, the since-disbanded Iraqi Ministry of Human Rights reported the discovery of one grave containing 500 bodies, with no further details available. In May 2015, media outlets reported the discovery of a mass grave in western Mosul containing the remains of 80 Yezidis. Habdi Dobani, a representative from the Yezidi Affairs Council in KRG, reported that these individuals were likely victims of Da’esh’s August 2014 attack on the city, and the remains showed signs of brutal treatment. In addition to the mass graves associated with the Yezidi massacres, in June 2015 the Ministry of Human Rights announced that the government exhumed close to 1,000 bodies from mass graves in Tikrit, mainly those whom Da’esh executed at the former Camp Speicher in June 2014.
In December 2014, portions of the Sinjar District north of Mount Sinjar – referred to as the Sinuni sub district – were liberated from Da’esh. In March 2015, the Daily Beast and other media outlets reported the discovery of mass graves in the Sinuni sub district and the Peshmerga’s exhumation of bodies, including, in one site, the bodies of 21 men, one woman, and one child. In August 2015, investigators from Human Rights Watch visited seven sites in the Sinuni sub district where Da’esh fighters are believed to have executed Yezidi Iraqis. Human Rights Watch reported that the bodies from these sites had been exhumed by Peshmerga or local residents.
In November 2015, areas south of Mount Sinjar, including Sinjar city, were liberated from Da’esh. In late November and in additional trips in December, a documentation team from Yazda Human Rights Organization, a U.S.-based organization working to support the Yezidi ethno-religious minority, assessed 35 potential sites of mass graves based on survivor reports and other evidence. Based on its assessment, including site visits, Yazda confirmed 19 mass grave sites. In addition to the sites they have confirmed, Yazda investigators reported three other survivor-reported sites that they have not been able to confirm as mass graves. A further three sites were identified as potential mass graves but have not yet been visited. Other mass graves in and around Mosul not yet liberated from Da’esh will likely be uncovered as the conflict progresses. Based on reports of mass killings by survivors, Yazda has identified an additional ten potential sites that remain inaccessible to investigators.
Both Human Rights Watch and Yazda found little or no protection of the sites and no preservation of evidence at the sites they investigated and have called on both the Iraqi government and the KRG to provide protection until forensic or other examination can take place. The KRG has requested assistance for forensic examination of the sites. Justice Rapid Response is considering an assessment of the sites.
Violent extremist organizations, such as the Ansar al-Sharia and Da’esh, expanded their influence in Libya, controlling large swathes of territory, primarily in the areas around Benghazi, Sirte, and Derna. Da’esh effectively controlled Sirte for most of 2015.
On February 15, 2015, Da’esh published a video on social media depicting the beheading of 21 men on an unidentified Libyan beach. The “Tripoli Province” of Da’esh claimed responsibility for the killings. The Egyptian government confirmed the deaths of 20 Egyptian citizens, and the Ghanaian government confirmed that a Christian Ghanaian was one of the persons who were beheaded. This was followed by another video, published on April 19, 2015 which showed the killing of 28 Ethiopian and Eritrean Christians in Libya by beheading and gunshot. Da’esh claimed responsibility for these killings. On October 18, 2015, a video was published depicting the killing of a Christian man from South Sudan in Libya, for which Da’esh claimed responsibility.
On August 12, 2015, members of Da’esh killed a popular local imam in Sirte after he refused to relinquish control of his mosque, according to United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL). This was followed by an uprising against Da’esh in Sirte sparked by quietist Salafists (Salafists who do not engage in direct political action, including violence) – reportedly outraged over the execution of a Salafist imam whom Da’esh had declared an apostate – after which Da’esh suppressed the uprising, killing its leaders and many members and hanging their corpses from street lights. Families of the dead, considered apostates by Da’esh, were ordered to bury their own dead in ordinary ground outside Sirte. UNSMIL additionally reported that Da’esh crucified five men and displayed their bodies in the town square. On October 16, 2015, Da’esh beheaded two Libyan men in Sirte accused of sorcery.
On October 28, 2015, Da’esh claimed responsibility for a bomb that killed a Sunni Salafist imam in Ajdabiya who was known to have been critical of Da’esh. Da’esh is also believed to be responsible for the November 26, 2015, killings of two Salafist preachers (as well as an Ajdabiya police official), according to media reports.
The eastern city of Derna was controlled by the Shura Council of Mujahideen in Derna, an umbrella organization consisting of Salafist groups opposed to Da’esh, including the U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organization Ansar al-Sharia. This group was widely reported to have severely hindered Derna’s Sunni Muslims’ exercise of freedom to worship, and reportedly publicly executed and flogged residents accused of violating Da’esh’s interpretation of sharia.
In March 2015, Da’esh published pictures on social media depicting its fighters destroying Sufi shrines outside of Tripoli with sledgehammers and construction equipment.
Violent extremist groups, including Da’esh, have committed appalling atrocities in Syria. In 2015, extremists groups targeted Shia, Alawites, and members of other religious groups with killings, kidnapping, and other brutality in the areas of the country under their control. Da’esh reportedly killed more than 60 members of religious minority groups – including men, women and children – through public executions, crucifixions, and beheadings, claiming that they had committed apostasy, blasphemy, and cursing God. It imposed other brutal punishments, including lashing, on individuals it “charged” with committed lesser religious offenses such as insulting the Prophet or failing to comply with its standards of grooming and dress. Da’esh reportedly required Christians to convert, flee, pay a jizya, or face execution, and has destroyed churches, Shia shrines, and other religious heritage sites. Da’esh employed what it deemed its own “police force,” “court system,” and revised school curriculum to enforce and spread its interpretation of Islam.
According to NGO and media reports, prior to the war in Syria, approximately 1,500 Christian families lived in Raqqa, where Da’esh is currently headquartered. By the summer of 2015, virtually all Christians had fled Raqqa, according to media reports. While estimates of the numbers of Christian families remaining in the city vary, media and civil society reporting from as recently as February 2016, including estimates from former and current residents, have suggested that as few as 30 individual Christians and as many as 50 Christian families remain, paying an unknown amount in jizya with no access to public places of worship.
In February 2015, Da’esh overran the Khabour river region forcing thousands of Assyrian Christians and others to flee and kidnapping over 200 Assyrian Christians. Three of these hostages were murdered on video in August 2015. The remainder were held hostage for months and released in small groups following lengthy and difficult negotiations. The last of the hostages, with the exception of two women (one of whom had reportedly been forcibly married to a Da’esh fighter), were released on February 21, 2016.
In August 2015, Da’esh moved into the mostly-Christian town of Qarytain in Homs province and began targeting residents for discriminatory treatment on the basis of religion. In October 2015, Da’esh released a video in which the group asserted that it had converted some residents to Islam and imposed a jizya on others. Da’esh fighters also reportedly desecrated Christian holy sites in the town.
In May 2015, al-Nusra Front (al-Nusra) leader Abu Mohammed al-Julani told media sources that Druze would not be targeted by al-Nusra but that representatives would be sent to Druze villages to “inform them of the doctrinal pitfalls they have fallen into,” as conservative Islamic schools considered Druze to be apostates. In June 2015, a Tunisian al-Nusra commander in Idlib province reportedly ordered his fighters to open fire, killing 20 Druze villagers, who he referred to as “infidels.” Al-Nusra also reportedly killed seven Druze clerics and eight other Druze in August 2015. In October 2015, al-Nusra abducted members of religious minority groups, including a Catholic priest and 20 other Christians in Quenyeh village.
Syrian Regime Atrocities
Although actions of the Syrian government are not included in the reporting requirement, its conduct has helped contribute to the rise of violent extremist groups in the region. While violent extremist groups continue to commit appalling abuses in Syria, the scale of killing by the Syrian regime, which has particularly affected Sunni communities in the country, far exceeds that of any other party to the conflict.
We assess that violent extremists have committed mass atrocities in the Middle East and that Yezidis, Christians, and Shia Muslims and members of other ethnic and religious minority groups are among the victims. It is important that the international community collectively support the victims of all Da’esh atrocities. We continue to work on responding to the situation on the ground and we continue to investigate and assess all relevant information as it becomes available. Secretary Kerry announced on March 17, 2016 that in his judgment “Da’esh is responsible for genocide against groups in areas under its control, including Yezidis, Christians, and Shia Muslims,” and “Da’esh is also responsible for crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing directed at these same groups and in some cases against Sunni Muslims and Kurds and other minorities.”
The Situation in Burma
The situation in Rakhine State is grim, in part due to a mix of long-term historical tensions between the Rakhine and Rohingya communities, socio-political conflict, socio-economic underdevelopment, and a long-standing marginalization of both Rakhine and Rohingya by the Government of Burma. The World Bank estimates Rakhine State has the highest poverty rate in Burma (78 percent) and is the poorest state in the country. The lack of investment by the central government has resulted in poor infrastructure and inferior social services, while lack of rule of law has led to inadequate security conditions.
Members of the Rohingya community in particular reportedly face abuses by the Government of Burma, including those involving torture, unlawful arrest and detention, restricted movement, restrictions on religious practice, and discrimination in employment and access to social services. In 2012, intercommunal conflict led to the death of nearly 200 Rohingya and the displacement of 140,000 people. Throughout 2013-2015 isolated incidents of violence against Rohingya individuals continued to take place.
Discrimination and Attacks by Non-State Groups
There is little public support for the rights of members of the Rohingya population, including among members of other ethnic minorities. Even the term “Rohingya” is disputed, and a source of tension and mistrust. In addition, U Wirathu, and several other monks and Buddhist leaders, inflame anti-Muslim sentiment through hate speech, and call for protecting the country’s Buddhist identity by limiting the population growth and rights of Muslims.
There have been numerous acts of violence against Rohingya over the last few years. For example, in late September and early October 2013 in Thandwe Township, Rakhine State, mobs inflamed by Buddhist extremist hate speech surrounded and attacked Muslim villages following a private dispute between individuals of different faiths that escalated rapidly into mob violence against Muslims. Ensuing attacks reportedly left between five and seven dead, a roughly equivalent number injured, and destroyed more than 100 homes, businesses, and religious buildings. In the months leading up to the violence, some Buddhist Rakhine in Thandwe Township reportedly called for boycotts of Muslim businesses and issued warnings to Muslims to leave their villages or face serious repercussions.
Government discrimination against members of the Rohingya population has also contributed to their vulnerability and enabled discrimination and targeting of members of the Rohingya population. Rakhine State authorities and security officials impose severe and disproportionate restrictions on Rohingya villagers and IDPs, including those living in officially recognized camps and settlements. Government policies restrict IDPs’ freedom of movement and limit the ability of members of the Rohingya population to exercise other fundamental freedoms and access vital services, such as healthcare and education. State and government authorities also restrict access for humanitarian agencies providing life-saving services to the various IDP camps and communities. The government has not yet established a voluntary path to citizenship or restored the previous citizenship status for stateless persons, including Rohingya, that does not require them to identify as members of an ethnic group or nationality to which they do not believe they belong. In 2015, the government announced plans to return or relocate 40,000 of the roughly 140,000 people displaced by violence in 2012. In 2015 more than 1,800 households were returned to single-family homes in their villages of origin. The government is allocating funding to assist some IDPs to build new homes, and the government has launched some initiatives to address poverty and underdevelopment in Rakhine and Rohingya communities. While tensions between communities are far from resolved, there are signs that many community leaders recognize the need to work together through quiet dialogue to end the current impasse in their own community’s interest.
In 2015, the Government of Burma invalidated the legal identity document (often called a “white card”) held by the majority of Rohingya. This document had previously conferred temporary legal status, access to some social services, and allowed card holders to vote in the 2008 constitutional referendum and the 2010 nationwide election. In 2015, the Constitutional Tribunal ruled that temporary registration card holders could not legally vote. Analysis of official voter lists from 2010 and 2015 suggests that at least 418,000 Rohingya who participated in previous elections were removed from voter lists by the Union Election Commission and disenfranchised during the November 2015 elections. Local election officials also rejected the applications of virtually all Rohingya political candidates.
The Government of Burma continues to require all Rohingya applicants for citizenship to identify as “Bengali” as a condition to participate in the process, an identification that is unacceptable to most Rohingya. Despite Rohingya objections to the term “Bengali”, the government initiated a pilot “citizenship verification process” for Rohingya and other Muslim minorities in Myebon Township, Rakhine State, in June 2014 and launched the verification process throughout Rakhine State in January 2015. As of September 2015, the government had verified the full or naturalized citizenship of 937 of the 1,300 applicants in the pilot process. In addition, more than 650 minors between the ages of 10 and 18 years of age automatically acquired naturalized citizenship through their parents who qualified under the verification process. Civil society organizations point out that recipients of naturalized citizenship are ineligible to participate in some political activities and some professions due to restrictions in Burma’s legal code which distinguish between naturalized and full citizens. The Government of Burma has not yet allowed those who have received citizenship status to freely move out of internally displaced persons (IDP) camps, although they allowed some of these citizens to vote in the 2015 election.
In 2015, the Government of Burma adopted four laws purportedly designed to “protect race and religion” that could be used to infringe on the human rights, including religious freedom, of members of minority groups, including Rohingya. Implementation of these laws remains unclear; while some charges have been made against individuals violating the laws, none thus far have occurred in Rakhine State. The Population Control Law authorizes the government to enact population control measures in specially designated emergency health zones that would require the promotion of a 36 month interval between childbirth. Separately, a local order exists in two townships in northern Rakhine State that allows Rohingya only to officially register the births of two children, although its enforcement has also been inconsistent. Government restrictions also impede the ability of Rohingya to construct houses or religious buildings, and local authorities require members of the Rohingya population to obtain special permission to marry.
Rule of law in Rakhine State is generally poor, and police reportedly failed to investigate crimes motivated by intercommunal tension and in some instances allegedly discouraged family of victims from pursuing legal action in Rakhine State. The government did not grant access to independent forensic experts to examine the scene after military, police, and paramilitary security forces allegedly killed dozens of individuals for the death of a police officer in early 2014. This made a credible, independent investigation into this purported event impossible.
Reports of abuses are often connected to the presence of security checkpoints in Northern Rakhine State. For example, on December 7, 2015, the Border Guard Police (BGP) allegedly shot and killed Mohammed Musa (aka Maung Maung), a 25-year-old Rohingya male, in Buthidaung Township, Rakhine State, after he and two passengers reportedly refused to stop their vehicle at a checkpoint. According to credible reports, one BGP officer shot Mohammed Musa in the head after he resisted paying a bribe. The two passengers and the BGP officer were detained, and the BGP officer was charged with causing death by negligence.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates there have been 160,000 Rohingya maritime departures to neighboring countries since 2012, and this group remains exceedingly vulnerable to human trafficking. Experts report that the networks facilitating these migrations, often in collusion with local authorities, include Rakhine and Rohingya.
We assessed that the 2012 intercommunal violence targeted against the Rohingya civilian population resulted in approximately 200 deaths and over 140,000 displaced. We remain concerned about current acts that constitute persecution of and discrimination against members of the Rohingya population in Burma. The Department of State will continue to investigate and assess information as it becomes available.
U.S. Government Responses
The Atrocities Prevention Board, consistent with its mandate to coordinate the U.S. Government’s efforts on atrocity prevention and response, has studied and issued recommendations on both of these cases, as have other interagency policy committees. Relevant lines of effort include the following:
Responses to atrocities in the Middle East:
The United States supports accountability efforts for those responsible for atrocities, human rights violations and abuses and violations of international humanitarian law. The United States strongly supports a comprehensive approach towards transitional justice, including accountability for atrocities, compensation and rehabilitation for victims, and steps towards national reconciliation.
In August 2014, after Da’esh trapped tens of thousands of Yezidis on Iraq’s Mt. Sinjar with no food or water, President Obama announced that the United States would engage in military action in the Mt. Sinjar region. During August 8-14, 2014, the United States conducted air drop operations to deliver humanitarian assistance supplies in the vicinity of Sinjar Mountain. In September 2014, President Obama announced the U.S. strategy to degrade and defeat Da’esh in Iraq and Syria, supported by a global Coalition of over 60 partners committing themselves to the goal of eliminating the threat posed by Da’esh. Targeted airstrikes by the Coalition have been used to protect vulnerable populations and sites. The counter-Da’esh strategy has made progress, and the global Coalition has grown to include 66 nations. Since September 2014, Da’esh has lost approximately 40 percent of the territory it once controlled in Iraq and approximately 11 percent of its territory in Syria. Many challenges remain, and the effort will require strategic patience, but the United States remains committed to leading this international effort to defeat and degrade Da’esh.
Over the past year, in response to Da’esh’s atrocities against civilians in the region, including ethnic and religious minorities, the State Department has worked to promote respect for the human rights of persons belonging to religious minorities in these areas, including through increased engagement and staffing of the Office of International Religious Freedom on relevant issues; the work of Special Advisor for Religious Minorities in the Middle East and South and Central Asia Knox Thames; and increased foreign assistance programming focused on advocating for and promoting religious freedom around the world. U.S. officials also sought out members and leaders of Syrian religious groups in Syria, the United States, and throughout the world to promote the full inclusion and respect for human rights of the members of their communities in Syria, both currently and in a future free and democratic state. The Special Envoy for Syria and other high-ranking U.S. officials met with members of the Christian, Sunni, Druze, and Shia communities, focusing on providing assistance to vulnerable populations and countering sectarian violence.
Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom David Saperstein and Assistant Secretary Tom Malinowski traveled to Iraq in February 2015 and heard from the Government of Iraq, the Kurdistan Regional Government and community leaders from various ethnic and religious groups about the experiences of the survivors and how we may best assist them. In 2015, the Department gave its Trafficking in Persons Hero Award to Ameena Saeed Hasan, who has worked tirelessly to raise awareness about Yezidi captives and secured the release of over 100 women and children from Da’esh captivity.
In February 2016, Assistant Secretary Tom Malinowski and Special Advisor Knox Thames traveled to Iraq and met in Baghdad with Chief Justice Medhat, Minister of Defense Obeidi, members of parliament and civil society organizations; and in the Iraqi Kurdistan Region with Chief of Staff to President Barzani Fuad Hussein, Head of the Department of Foreign Relations Falah Bakir, Kurdistan Minister of the Interior Karim Sinjari, and Christian leaders including Archbishop Warda. As the highest delegation to visit with the U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, they travelled to the Yezidi Shrine of Lalish and discussed what assistance the United States might be able to provide the Yezidi community as well as the continued plight of the Yezidi women still held in captivity by Da’esh.
In the Syria context, the United States supports Syrian civil society-led efforts to document atrocities, which may serve to lay the groundwork for future accountability efforts.
Humanitarian Assistance: The Department of State has a longstanding commitment to providing support for the urgent humanitarian needs of conflict-affected populations in Iraq, Syria, and across the world, including but not limited to members of ethnic and religious minorities. In light of the massive human suffering resulting from the five year conflict in Syria, the United States is providing more than $5.1 billion in humanitarian assistance for Syrians in Syria and the region, more than any single donor. Additionally, since Fiscal Year (FY) 2015, the United States has provided nearly $604 million for vulnerable Iraqis in the region.
The Department of Defense provided approximately $115 million worth of humanitarian supplies (including transportation costs) for refugees and internally displaced persons in Iraq, Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria, which was distributed from Lebanon by the United Nations.
Because less than one percent of all refugees worldwide are resettled to a third country, our emphasis remains on providing assistance in the location to which vulnerable people have fled. However, the United States has also resettled those fleeing Syria and Iraq. The United States has resettled nearly 129,000 Iraqis since 2007 and more than 2,700 Syrians since 2011. We are committed to admitting at least 10,000 Syrians during FY 2016.
Documentation and Accountability: The Department of State supports a number of initiatives focused on the documentation of atrocities, which aim to lay the groundwork for future accountability for atrocities committed in Syria. To that end, the U.S. Government supports efforts by funding various initiatives by Syrian civil society groups to document atrocities, including those committed by Da’esh, other violent extremist groups, and the Assad regime. For example, the United States and eight other governments support the Syria Justice and Accountability Centre (SJAC) as one of the premier Syrian-led institutions leading this effort through its database, analysis, training, and networks inside Syria. The SJAC gathers information from multiple sources, including oral and written reporting, videos, and other resources. The SJAC investigates and documents a wide range of violations and abuses, including those involving sexual and gender-based violence, and torture. It is positioned to feed into future Syrian-led accountability and transitional justice efforts, which are not limited to potential international criminal accountability mechanisms.
In Iraq, Justice Rapid Response has produced a concept of operations to conduct an initial requirements assessment for the investigation and processing of the mass grave sites in Sinjar District. This effort is currently unfunded. The State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor currently has a $3 million grant to the International Committee for Missing Persons, an organization with significant expertise in securing gravesites and DNA analysis to support the identification of missing persons. However, the security situation and the current budget would not be adequate for a large expansion in project scope to include work at Sinjar. Furthermore, as the Sinjar District is outside the Iraqi Kurdistan Region, such a request for technical assistance should most appropriately be channeled through the central government in Baghdad. No such request has been made by the central government to the United States, specifically, or the international community more generally, and it is our understanding that no other government or organization has received an official request. In the event that such a request is made, any project to process the graves – including exhumation, forensic analysis, identification, returning remains to families of missing, training/capacity building for relevant regional or national agencies, and other tasks – will require significant resources to implement.
Stabilization: In the aftermath of Da’esh’s 2014 expansion, the Department has leveraged planning and analysis capabilities in a space where countering violent extremism, countering political violence, and preventing atrocities converge. Advising, embedding, and working closely with the Counter-ISIL coalition and Embassy Baghdad, the State Department has taken concrete steps to mitigate the risks of further atrocities growing out of the political situation in Iraq. The Department crafted a policy framework that considers Da’esh’s growth in the broader context of former Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki’s marginalization of Sunni Arabs and puts first the resolution of legitimate Sunni grievances and the human security of those in liberated areas.
Assistance for Survivors of Gender-Based Violence: As part of its commitments to Safe from the Start and the Gender-Based Violence Emergency Response and Protection Initiative, and as per the U.S. Strategy to Prevent and Respond to Gender-Based Violence, the United States supports the provision of critical, immediate, short-term emergency assistance to survivors of extreme forms of gender-based violence or harmful traditional practices. This has included the provision of emergency assistance to more than 130 women and girls formerly held captive by Da’esh, who suffered the most egregious forms of sexual and gender-based violence. The United States supports a range of support activities for survivors of gender-based violence through implementing partners, including local community-based organizations, UN agencies, and international NGOs. Through its local and international partners, the United States is currently supporting case management for survivors, safety planning, psychosocial assistance, support with accessing justice, community-based protection, and engaging in survivor-centered advocacy. It is through these services that most survivors of captivity are accessing life-saving support, and are able to safely recover and reintegrate back into their families and communities.
The Department of State remains concerned for the welfare of those who remain in the hands of Da’esh, including thousands of Yezidi captives, as well as those who have escaped or have been otherwise released. Department officials have met numerous times with representatives of ethnic and religious minorities in Iraq and Syria, including Yezidi community leaders, advocates, and survivors of Da’esh captivity. We are working to identify persistent gaps and improve coordination with likeminded countries to provide vital services to survivors. We continue to advocate for additional funding to help more survivors as we are learning of cases of returnees and other victims. At this time, we can only help those captives who have been freed or escaped, though the protection of minorities, especially the most vulnerable women and girls, is a critical consideration in all liberation efforts.
Religious Freedom Programming: We have strengthened our religious freedom-focused foreign assistance programs over the last year. Our programs work to support the human rights of all members of all religious groups; protect victims of blasphemy laws; ensure governments provide political and legal protections for members of religious communities; address intolerance, including documenting and combating anti-Semitism and intolerance in the media; increase public awareness of religious freedom issues; reform educational curricula with the aim of countering violent extremism; strengthen the capacity of religious leaders to promote cooperation across religious and sectarian lines and to empower religious minorities to participate in political processes. Additionally, the Department, in consultation with the White House, also appointed a Special Advisor to focus specifically on the vital work of promoting religious freedom for minorities in the Middle East and South and Central Asia.
Multilateral Response: The United Nations Security Council (UNSC), via resolutions such as 2249, has condemned in the strongest terms the continued gross, systematic and widespread abuses of human rights and violations of international humanitarian law committed by Da’esh, and has called upon all member states that have the capacity to do so to take all necessary measures in compliance with international law – in particular with the UN Charter, as well as international human rights law, international refugee law, and international humanitarian law – to redouble and coordinate their efforts to prevent and suppress terrorist acts committed by Da’esh, al-Nusra, and others. The United States co-sponsored the United Nations Human Rights Council resolution requesting that the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights dispatch a mission to Iraq to investigate alleged abuses of human rights by Da’esh and associated terrorist groups. The Office has investigated and reported on Da’esh abuses, improving the ability of local authorities to promote and protect the human rights of members of affected communities. On December 23, 2015, the United States supported a UN General Assembly resolution on Syria that emphasizes the need to promote accountability for violations and abuses of international human rights law and international humanitarian law.
Response to the Situation in Burma:
The U.S. Government remains gravely concerned about ongoing violations and abuses of human rights in Rakhine State. To respond to the situation effectively, the Government of Burma will have to meet the political, social, and economic challenges facing Rakhine State through a framework that stresses respect for human rights for all equally as essential to achieving the common security, economic progress, and social stability to which all individuals and communities are entitled. The U.S. Government has regularly urged the Government of Burma to pursue comprehensive and just solutions to the problems of Rakhine State. This includes addressing human rights abuses, upholding rule of law, ensuring and facilitating humanitarian access, promoting voluntary resettlement of IDPs, ensuring access to life-saving basic services, protecting religious expression, guaranteeing freedom of movement, non-discrimination between people on the basis of race or religion, and implementing socio-economic plans that benefit all people of Rakhine State. It also includes developing a voluntary path to citizenship or restoring citizenship for stateless persons, including Rohingya. The U.S. Government has also advocated for an end to racially and religiously motivated discrimination, and for the Government of Burma to take steps to bring those responsible for violence to justice under the law.
The position of the U.S. Government on these issues has been consistent and clear. The resolution of these issues in Rakhine State is a critical component of Burma’s transition to a stable, inclusive democracy, and the U.S. government regularly raises these concerns at the highest levels of the Burmese government.
Diplomatic Response: The U.S. Government has been consistent in applying diplomatic and public pressures to urge the Government of Burma to comply with its international human rights commitments. The United States, along with other members of the diplomatic community, regularly engages with leaders within the Government of Burma, as well as a range of Rakhine and Rohingya community leaders, to urge them to seize the opportunity to address the problems of Rakhine State proactively, justly, and through dialogue in the interest of all people in the state.
During the second U.S.-Burma Human Rights Dialogue in January 2015, the Government of Burma acknowledged the importance of implementing a comprehensive, transparent, and inclusive reconciliation process in Rakhine State. The Government of Burma and the U.S. Government acknowledged that this process should prioritize equal protection for all under domestic laws and respect human rights. We encourage the Government of Burma to implement these commitments.
Engagement has come from all levels of the U.S. Government. President Barack Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry, Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken, former U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) Administrator Rajiv Shah, Assistant Secretary Danny Russel, Assistant Secretary Tom Malinowski, Assistant Secretary Anne Richard, Ambassador Derek Mitchell, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Thomas Harvey, and Pacific Command Deputy Commander Lieutenant General Anthony Crutchfield have all raised these issues with the Government of Burma as urgent areas for action. The Department of Defense also continues to raise these issues in its limited engagements with the Government of Burma.
Multilateral Strategy: In addition to raising human rights concerns and humanitarian needs directly with the Government of Burma, U.S. Embassy Rangoon continues to work consistently with other foreign Heads of Missions to engage collectively with the Government of Burma and the communities of Rakhine State to address common challenges, including the plight of the Rohingya population. U.S. officials also engage with other governments on related issues. In 2015, a State Department delegation led by Assistant Secretary Anne Richard attended several multilateral meetings to advocate for international cooperation to protect vulnerable irregular migrants, including Rohingya. They emphasized the United States’ commitment to support regionally-led efforts to address the root causes of irregular migration while meeting the humanitarian needs of migrants across the region.
The U.S. Government regularly raises concerns about the human rights of members of the Rohingya community in international fora. The U.S. Government has co-sponsored annual resolutions in both the UN Human Rights Council and the UNGA for the past several years calling attention to the human rights situation in Burma. The situation in Burma has been on the agenda of recent interagency meetings, and in meetings with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and the European Union (EU). U.S. officials have consulted with Japanese and EU counterparts to inform their respective human rights dialogues with the Government of Burma. In April and May 2015, the UNSC discussed human rights in Burma. During Burma’s 2015 Universal Periodic Review before the Human Rights Council, the United States called upon Burma to end discrimination against members of the Rohingya population and members of other minority groups, including by providing a voluntary pathway to or restoring citizenship for stateless persons without requiring them to accept ethnic designations they do not agree with, removing restrictions on freedom of movement, and revising discriminatory legislation, including the 1982 Citizenship Act and the four “race and religion” laws.
Foreign Assistance: In addition to diplomatic efforts, the United States has taken a leadership role in providing humanitarian and development assistance. U.S. foreign assistance to Rakhine State is calibrated to address factors that may contribute to conflict and human rights abuses and to work to meet the needs of members of all vulnerable populations, and is closely coordinated with the UN and other donors providing assistance. In FY 2015, the United States provided more than $50 million in humanitarian assistance for vulnerable populations in Burma and displaced Burmese throughout the region, including conflict-affected and flood-affected populations and Rohingya. These U.S.-funded programs provide life-saving humanitarian assistance to Rohingya and other IDPs, refugees, and asylum seekers from Burma in the areas of health and medical care, shelter and food, nutritional services, water, sanitation and hygiene, and access to services for people with disabilities. These funds assist vulnerable migrants and help the Government of Burma improve its efforts to combat trafficking in persons, including forced labor. In addition, the United States has resettled more than 140,000 refugees from Southeast Asia in the past decade, including more than 4,700 Rohingya since 2010. The United States remains committed to these efforts. Resettlement, however, is not the primary solution to this current crisis.
U.S. humanitarian assistance in Rakhine State includes support to improve sustainable access to healthcare, shelter, and safe drinking water; to rehabilitate and construct new sanitation facilities; and to conduct hygiene promotion activities for IDPs. U.S. funds support the distribution of locally and regionally procured food to conflict-displaced and other vulnerable persons, and supports coordination and logistics for humanitarian agencies. In addition to humanitarian programs, the United States provides assistance through small grant activities that are increasing participation and inclusion in reform and peace processes, countering hate speech, mitigating inter-communal violence, promoting interactions and economic growth between diverse communities, and strengthening conflict prevention mechanisms in Rohingya and neighboring Rakhine communities in northern Rakhine State. USAID is a donor and on the board of the multi-donor Livelihoods and Food Security (LIFT) Trust Fund overseeing a food security and poverty reduction program serving all communities, including Rohingya, in Rakhine State. The United States also recently started a new program which seeks to reduce displacement by supporting early recovery, livelihood, water and sanitation, and trust-building initiatives for voluntarily returned or relocated Rohingya IDPs and vulnerable neighboring communities.
Support of Human Rights in Rakhine State: The U.S. Government supports community leaders in Rakhine State willing to advocate for human rights for all people, and has consistently and strongly advocated on the behalf of members of the Rohingya population. U.S. assistance furnishes local civil society networks with resources to monitor and mitigate the potential for intercommunal conflict and violence, monitor hate speech used to incite violence, and track the sources of public defamation campaigns against activists who promote human rights. U.S. assistance provides support for inter- and intra-faith dialogue; training on tolerance and diversity; and programs with interfaith speakers to help local organizations develop advocacy strategies. U.S. assistance also supports small-scale activities to develop economic linkages and joint marketplaces for Rakhine and Rohingya communities, along with jointly-implemented community development projects, in an effort to build trust between the communities as a basis for improved reconciliation and advancing respect for human rights. The United States also conducts workshops and exchanges on human rights, human trafficking, and international humanitarian law for members of the Government of Burma, including members of the military, through the Defense Institute of International Legal Studies (DIILS) as well as the Daniel K. Inouye Asia Pacific Center for Security Studies (DKI APCSS). The Department of Defense supports the continuation of these types of programs to address the underlying causes of conflict and human rights abuses, and will continue to work with the Department of State on these efforts.