The United Nations has published a report that reveals the horrifying extent of the so-called Islamic State’s activities in Iraq. The joint report, between the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, estimates that there are 202 mass grave sites in areas formerly controlled by IS. From initial excavations of the gravesites, the UN suggests that there could be anywhere between 6,000 and over 12,000 victims in total. The report, which was released on Tuesday, noted the increased frequency of mass graves in areas populated by the Yazidi minority.
The UN Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet said that: “These graves contain the remains of those mercilessly killed for not conforming to ISIL’s twisted ideology and rule, including ethnic and religious minorities. Their families have the right to know what happened to their loved ones.” The report developed this point, emphasising the importance of “appropriate preservation, excavation and exhumation of mass grave sites and the identification of the remains of the many victims and their return to the families.” The report stated that the pursuit of “truth, justice and reparation” would be key to a “lasting peace”.
The report recommends the protection of the gravesites, so that they may be accessed to identify missing persons and gather evidence in an attempt to bring suspected members of IS to justice. Whilst this is commendable in its goals, there are problems that stand in the way of a systematic effort to provide some peace to the families of the victims. Many of the gravesites are riddled with explosive devices, left behind by retreating IS fighters. Furthermore, there are institutional concerns. The Iraqi Mass Graves Directorate has expressed its concern over a lack of resources to undertake programme recommended by the UN. A combination of the physical dangers and the enormity of the task in an unstable country could hinder this process.
From June 2014, IS seized large swathes of Iraq, incorporating these areas into its self-proclaimed “Caliphate”. Members of IS targeted and persecuted those they deemed incompatible to their ideology and those who opposed their rule. The report notes that the earliest mass gravesite dates from September 2014, containing the bodies of 14 Yazidi men, women and children. Many have been found in and around the largest city that came under IS authority, Mosul. The largest gravesite is known as the “Khafsa sinkhole”, south of Mosul, and is thought to be resting place of 4,000 persons. Iraqi authorities, supported by an international coalition, recaptured Mosul in July 2017, which symbolised the effective collapse of widespread IS control. It is estimated that 30,000 civilians perished in this conflict, with 55,150 injured.
Whilst the details of the UN report are harrowing, its very existence is a positive sign of the continued decline of IS. It looks forward to a new period of peace in Iraq and seeks to make sense of the destruction that has been meted out on its population in the recent past. However, the limitations that it outlines regarding the preservation of gravesites and pursuit of justice show the fractured state of peace that exists in Iraq. The nation is mired by sectarian tension, corruption, extremist attacks, and the effects of an almost continuous state of war, whether between western powers or jihadist ideologues. The very fact that the report has to warn of mistaking mass grave sites left by Saddam Hussein’s persecution of Kurdish and Shiites populations in the 1980s and 90s and those left by IS members in recent years, exemplifies the troubled nature of Iraq’s past.
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