The United Nations Human Rights Commission and Amnesty International are among a group of international actors currently raising concerns over the number of civilian deaths, resulting from the fight to retake Mosul from ISIS. Amnesty officials have accused Iraqi and U.S.-led coalition forces of not taking adequate precautions to prevent civilian deaths. Similarly, the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Raad Al Hussein, has called for forces to review their tactics out of concern for civilians caught up in combat.
Between February 17th and March 22nd, 307 civilians have been killed and 273 injured in the battle for Mosul. These numbers have increased as fighting intensifies and forces advance on the ISIS stronghold. Officials have reported that coalition airstrikes have been coming more quickly as the U.S. administration pushes for a win and has allowed for American military advisers to make calls on airstrikes without going through headquarters. Some are concerned that this tactic is resulting in less consideration for civilian safety and are asking that forces remember their obligation to international humanitarian law when planning their strategy.
Under the Geneva Convention, international law requires that parties respect the principles of precaution, proportionality, and protection of civilians. Some argue that airstrikes in Mosul have violated these principles by not taking adequate measures to ensure the least impact on civilians and using disproportionate force. Airstrikes targeting a small number of ISIS snipers have resulted in hundreds of civilian deaths – a number that has left many wondering if the amount of force being used is justified by the damage being done to the local population.
ISIS militants and Iraqi forces have engaged in street-to-street combat within the city, where large numbers of residents remain, making military strategies difficult. There have also been reports of ISIS fighters rounding up civilians and using them as human shields, herding men, women, and children into homes from which they fire upon advancing Iraqi troops. Because of this tactic, international actors are calling for Iraqi and coalition forces to reconsider their use of airstrikes in heavily populated areas and to use greater precaution when determining if taking out a few fighters is worth hundreds of civilian lives.
The situation has been further complicated by the fact that the Iraqi government has asked residents to stay put rather than flee from the city. Residents were asked to remain in their homes until reached by Iraqi troops. This has left many in an extremely vulnerable position, at risk from both ISIS militants and coalition airstrikes.
While the intricate urban setting has made the battle for Mosul a complicated one, it is imperative that Iraqi and coalition troops do not lose sight of their goal. If they continue to use disproportionate force and fail to adjust their strategy, they put at risk the very lives that they claim they are trying to save.