THE CONTINUING HUMANITARIAN CRISIS AND VIOLATIONS OF HUMAN RIGHTS IN ISIS-HELD AREAS IN IRAQ AND SYRIA
By René Wadlow
In an August 25, 2014 statement, the United Nations (UN) High Commissioner for Human Rights condemned the “appalling, widespread, and systematic violations of human rights” by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The violations mentioned included targeted killings, forced conversions, abductions, trafficking of women, slavery, sexual abuse, destruction of religious and cultural sites of significance and the besieging of entire communities because of ethnic, religious and sectarian affiliation.
Among those directly targeted have been the religious communities of Christians, Yezidi (also written Yazidi) and Sabeans (also called Sabean-Mandaeans). In addition to the violation of human rights, the High Commissioner cited other UN reports stressing the humanitarian crisis and the severe shortages of food, water and the lack of medical services.
One year later, the situation remains much the same, but with an increased number of people uprooted as internally displaced persons and refugees. The political situation has grown more complex, with Turkey playing an increasing if unclear role. Efforts at mediation by the UN of the Syrian aspects of the conflict have not given visible results. Russian diplomats have been meeting with some Syrian factions as well as with the Syrian government, but there seem to be no advances toward broader negotiations. The political and military actions of ISIS have effectively linked Iraq and Syria so that each conflict is linked to the other. A global approach for conflict resolution is needed.
The conflict has increased religious sectarian attitudes. It is hard for an outsider to know to what extent religious differences are deeply felt or if religion is used as a “cover” for ethnic, tribal, and economic interests. It is certain that ISIS has tried to give a religious coloring to its policies, with forced conversions and destruction of non-Islamic communities which refused conversion. Therefore, there needs to be an emphasis on freedom of religion or belief as set out by the United Nations.
One of the major UN declarations confirming a deep sense of inherent dignity is the Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief, adopted by the General Assembly on November 25, 1981 after a number of years of study and discussion in which the Association of World Citizens (AWC) took an active part. The Declaration states “that it is essential to promote understanding, tolerance and respect in matters relating to freedom of religion and belief and to ensure that the use of religion or belief for ends inconsistent with the Charter, other relevant instruments of the United Nations and the purposes and principles of the present Declaration is inadmissible.”
Article One states clearly that “No one shall be subject to coercion which would impair his freedom to have a religion or belief of his choice.”
World law as developed by the UN applies not only to the governments of Member States but also to individuals and non-governmental organizations. The ISIS has not been recognized as a State and is not a member of the UN. Nevertheless, the AWC is convinced that the terms of the Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief applies to the ISIS and that the actions of the ISIS are, in the terms of the Declaration, “inadmissible”.Life in the emerging world society requires world law and certain common values among all the States and peoples of the world. The challenges which face us all require inclusive ethical values based on a sense of responsibility for both present and future generations. Such values are, I am sure, in the heart of many individuals who are now living in areas under the control of ISIS in Iraq and Syria. We must find ways to reach such people with the message that the policies of the ISIS leaders are deliberate violations of world law and ethical standards. The majority of the world society is not hostile to the people living under ISIS rule and we look forward to the time when human rights standards will be the law of the land. In the meantime, they need to work as best they can for a tolerant and open society.
Prof. René Wadlow is President and Chief Representative to the United Nations, Geneva, of the Association of World Citizens.