By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
“Kurdish forces destroyed Arab homes” in Iraq, blared the headlines. They were acting on cue from the organization Amnesty International, which like Human Rights Watch, places itself as an arbiter of human rights abuses around the world.
The report was published on January 20th titled “Satellite images back up evidence of deliberate mass destruction in Peshmerga-controlled Arab villages.” The opening sentence illustrated the agenda of the report, “Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and Kurdish militias in northern Iraq have bulldozed, blown up and burned down thousands of homes in an apparent effort to uproot Arab communities in revenge for their perceived support for the so-called Islamic State (IS), said Amnesty International in a new report published today.” The 46 page document was filed under Amnesty’s “Iraq” reports and under “war crimes and crimes against humanity.”
Amnesty claimed that it visited 13 villages between October 2014 and November 2015, but claims that increasingly it is barred from visiting these areas by the KRG. Hence it has resorted to satellite images. From the very start of the report it is clear that this was a hatchet-job written to deceive and manipulate the reader into believing that somehow the Kurdish forces fighting ISIS are the perpetrators of war crimes, whereas ISIS, is just another player in the conflict. The report portrays the conflict as being over by assuming residents should have returned by now, instead of admitting that most of the areas examined are still close to the frontline, and the report is representative of the style of imbalance inherent in many Amnesty reports whereby countries portrayed as “allies” of the West are held to a different standard than other groups and countries. Ironically here, the KRG is not an independent state, but its connections to the Western powers clearly irk Amnesty, which calls on Western powers to be careful not to “contribute to violations of international humanitarian law”through training of the Kurds.
Ignoring the context and ISIS war-crimes
The report glosses over the violations committed by ISIS. It claims that “Initially many residents of areas captured by IS did not leave for fear that their homes would be taken over by IS fighters and be bombed by the Iraqi army as a consequence.” In fact millions fled the ISIS advance, including 300,000 Yazidis forced from their homes in August of 2015. Those Yazidis who did not flee in time were murdered and put in mass graves or sold into slavery. Mosul’s Christians and Christians in the areas around Mosul were ordered by ISIS to convert to Islam or leave, and their houses and businesses were marked in July of 2014. They still cannot return home either. Amnesty would have the reader believe that residents had a choice to stay, rather than the fact that ISIS was committing one massacre after another of every non-Sunni minority.
Even when the report notes ISIS atrocities it minimizes them: “Most notoriously on 3 August 2014 IS forces stormed the Sinjar region and abducted thousands of civilians from the Yezidi minority, massacred hundreds of men and subjected women and girls to sexual slavery and other forms of torture.” It isn’t “hundreds of men” but more than 1,600 whose mass graves have been found. It is 3,500 missing women and another 3,000 who have been released so far.
The report claims “Ten of the 12 villages surveyed in field research and satellite image review were completely or almost completely destroyed, and two others sustained extensive damage and destruction a significantly higher level of damage than would be expected in the context of even intense ground fighting.” What is the evidence that the destruction is “higher” than would be expected from ground fighting? Did Amnesty volunteers visit Sinjar (Shingal) town to see the destruction wrought by fighting, or Rabiah? Amnesty doesn’t provide a comparison of a city that has witnessed intense fighting, such as Kobani or Ramadi and one of the towns it claims suffered “higher” damage by Kurds, because any aerial photo of Kobani or Ramadi and one of the towns they investigated would show that the damage inflicted by ground fighting is far worse than they found.
The agenda of the Amnesty report is to blame almost all damage on Kurdish forces, with meager, one-sided or manipulative evidence. Instead Amnesty relies on “testimony” to claim “testimonies of residents and witnesses who told Amnesty International that Peshmerga forces and Yezidi militias had used bulldozers to destroy the villages.” These are of course the same residents who may have remained under ISIS in some cases, who may have actively supported ISIS. What do we know about their bias and views or reliability? These same “residents” then claim it is the Yazidis, the very people who were completely ethnically-cleansed by ISIS, who destroyed their village. Why didn’t the organization interview many Arab residents who did return, such as those of the Shammar tribe, or those who resisted ISIS? Because they don’t fit the narrative.
Notice here that Amnesty did mention in the report a visit to any of the Yazidi villages to note the damage done by ISIS, or use satellites to investigate ISIS war crimes against the Yazidi population. In Diyala Amnesty notes that houses were destroyed, “some deliberately by IS fighters, some in the fighting, and some by Peshmerga forces and Shi’a militias after the areas were recaptured from IS,” but concludes the fault lies with Kurdish peshmerga. Why? Based on “testimony.” No where does the report cast a critical eye on the “testimony”, probing whether those testifying have an agenda to exaggerate Kurdish transgressions, either because of their support for the Shia-dominated central government, or their former support for ISIS.
Reporting on what it calls “Nineveh governorate, villages east of Mount Sinjar” the report claims “The Nineveh governorate is among the most diverse regions of Iraq, home to a plethora of ethnic and religious communities whose members were displaced in their hundreds of thousands between June and August 2014, when IS captured much of the region.” These communities were not “displaced”, they were methodically cleansed, massacred, exterminated and forced to leave by ISIS. Amnesty’s whitewashing of ISIS war crimes would be equivalent to claiming the Jews were merely “displaced” from Poland, or Bosnians “displaced”. It’s not “displacement” when men are lined up and beheaded or shot and thrown in mass graves.
Reading the report you’d think that the Yazidis were the real perpetrators of crimes since 2014, rather than being the main victims of ISIS. In a convoluted explanation, Amnesty claims “Many Yezidis accused the KRG and the Peshmerga of abandoning the Yezidi population to the mercy of IS fighters, after the Peshmerga’s withdrawal from the Sinjar region on the night of 2-3 August 2014, hours before IS stormed and captured the area. Such accusations may have contributed to the Peshmerga’s reluctance to act to stop and prevent abuses committed by Yezidi militias and their YPG and PKK allies against Arab residents.” Notice, no mention is made of the Yazidi villages destroyed, or the 300,000 Yazidis forced from the area and still living in refugee camps, or the 20,000 Yazidis still living in tents on Mount Sinjar. Instead it is several Arab villages Amnesty studied. Why didn’t Amnesty study the entire province, including Christian and Yazidi villages? Because that would paint a picture of the reality of destruction of life and the real victims of atrocities. Instead Amnesty seeks to turn history on its head, as if the Germans were the real victims of the Second World War, rather than being its perpetrators.
Reading between the lines of the report one can find tidbits of what really happened, “Arab villagers acknowledge that some of their neighbours joined or supported IS, but they say that they should not have to pay for crimes committed by others.” It is always “my neighbors”, never “me”, much as in Germany in 1945 all the Germans feigned no knowledge of the Holocaust. “My neighbors were Nazis, not me.” Every genocide is like that. In the Rwandan genocide the Hutu perpetrators also all pretended afterword they were the victims of “Tutsi ethnic-cleansing”. Arabs interviewed by Amnesty presented Yazidis as a “problem”, one said he hoped the “problems with our Yezidi neighbours would be solved so that we could go back and look after the fields.” The problem is that they were massacred by ISIS and forced to flee.
Disproportionate focus on Kurdish actions rather than KRG’s hosting of Arab refugees
The most damning evidence that Amnesty came up with, besides suspicious testimonies and aerial photos, is that “In two majority Kurdish towns, which were recaptured by Peshmerga forces after brief IS incursions in August and September 2014, Kurdish residents have long returned to their homes whereas Arab residents continue to be denied permission to return.”
The whole report has one agenda, to portray all the Kurdish forces as perpetrators and the responsible party for the destruction of villages, while minimizing, or even not mentioning, the totality of what happened. While it may be true that peshmerga forces or the PKK destroyed some houses, or did not allow residents to return, let’s ask about the overall population of these districts? Why are almost 2 million refugees now living in the KRG? The KRG which is accused of displacing Arabs in the disputed areas of Diyala, Kirkuk and Sinjar, is hosting more than a million Arab Muslims. Where did people flee Mosul to when ISIS came? They fled to Kurdistan. Arabs, Assyrians, Yazidis, and all the people of Iraq seem to have found refuge among the Kurds. Yet Amnesty would have us believe that the Kurds are the problem, not ISIS.
Amnesty’s track record on Iraq whitewashes ISIS
Since ISIS appeared in force in Iraq’s Sunni cities in June of 2014, Amnesty has had ample time to document its massive war crimes. But where are those reports. The organization has written 22 reports on Iraq since June of 2014. Consistent whitewashing of the nature of ISIS and its actions are present again and again. On 11 June Amnesty called ISIS an “insurgent” group that had taken over Mosul. Noting that 500,000 people had fled, it called ISIS an “armed opposition group.” One imagines if Amnesty had reported on the KKK’s abuses against African-Americans they would have called it an “armed opposition”? Instead of condemning ISIS for forcing minorities from their homes, Amnesty’s Said Boumedouha said “both sides” must not harm civilians. Both sides? What was the other “side” to the expulsion of 500,000 people and cleansing of minorities? According to the report the Iraqi government was “indiscriminately” shelling Tikrit and Fallujah. But what about ISIS, how about it’s “indiscriminate” killings of Shia at Camp Speicher? No where to be found in the report.
The next reports on 27 June and 14 July also portrayed ISIS as almost a victim of the Iraqi government. A 27 June report claimed that the Iraqi government and Shia militias carried out “extrajudicial” killings before withdrawing from Mosul and Tel Afar. This was in retaliation for “ISIS gains”, but no focus was made of ISIS mass murder of Shia or its attacks on Christians and minorities. On 14 July of 2014 Amnesty published a report that once again equated ISIS actions with others, claiming there were “spiraling sectarian killings,” as if the victims of ISIS were also perpetrators. “Such atrocious assaults on civilians have sent a clear message to non-Sunni communities that they are not safe in areas controlled by ISIS,” said Amnesty’s Donatella Rovera. A “clear message” to non-Sunni communities that they are not safe? Wasn’t the clear message the fact that ISIS ordered them to leave or convert and market their houses with an ‘N’ for “Christian”? But once again, no focus or even mention of who the targets were, no report on all the Christian villages cleansed by ISIS. In fact the report worked hard to excuse ISIS and pretend that it was merely a “side” to a conflict. “ISIS is not the only side that has committed war crimes,” wrote Amnesty. That’s true, it’s not the “only side,” but the vast majority of crimes were committed by ISIS, and where are the reports on those crimes?
On the 5 of August Amnesty did a report on Yazidis who were “displaced” by ISIS. The report claimed “Along with Christians and other minorities in Iraq, they are increasingly vulnerable to attacks since ISIS took control of parts of north-western Iraq in June.” What is “vulnerable” to attack? How about being targeted for extermination? Every Yazidi under ISIS control was killed to sold into slavery. It wasn’t “vulnerable” anymore than Jews were just “vulnerable” to Nazis. It was total extermination, which Amnesty didn’t bother to report or research fully. The excuse was: “Access is currently impossible to the areas under ISIS control and to surrounding areas where armed confrontations are ongoing between ISIS militants and Kurdish Peshmerga forces.It is therefore difficult to obtain and verify information about the exact circumstances in which individuals and families have gone missing.” But access is not closed in January of 2016 and yet Amnesty has not done even ONE report on the 20 mass graves of Yazidis.
At every opportunity the concept was to obscure ISIS atrocities and even mock the victims. “Many members of minorities are even fleeing areas where there seems to be no imminent danger of an ISIS attack as they are so traumatized by their recent displacement. They are gripped by panic and fear,” Amnesty’s Donatella Rovera said on August 7. Panic and fear? When 300,000 people, over 85% of a community, are forced to flee, of course there is panic and fear. But Amnesty concluded on August 7 “no danger of an ISIS attack”, even as almost every area inhabited by Yazidis was overrun. One can only conclude that from the outset Amnesty International sought to minimize ISIS crimes and manipulate its readers into believing ISIS was merely part of a “cycle” of violence.
Finally in September of 2014 it concluded there was evidence of ethnic-cleansing. But once again Amnesty sought to blame the Iraqi government and case doubt on ISIS crimes. “The fate of most of the hundreds of Yezidis abducted and held captive by the Islamic State remains unknown. Many of those held by IS have been threatened with rape or sexual assault or pressured to convert to Islam. In some cases entire families have been abducted,” they wrote. Rovera, claimed “Instead of aggravating the fighting by either turning a blind eye to sectarian militias or arming Shi’a militias against the Islamic State as the authorities have done so far, Iraq’s government should focus on protecting all civilians regardless of their ethnicity or religion.” So the burden was on the Iraqi government, not ISIS. The problem was Shia militias, not ISIS mass murder.
Since September of 2014 the track record of Amnesty has continued to be to ignore the magnitude of ISIS crimes, despite ample time to investigate, and point fingers at others. In June 2015 Amnesty’s Rovera was once again claiming that ISIS was merely part of a “deadly spiral” of violence and “the heinous crimes of IS have been met by growing sectarian attacks by Shia militias.” Once again it was “a plethora of appalling violence by all sides that has heightened sectarian tensions and taken an unimaginable toll on civilians from all communities.” But it isn’t “all sides”. The Yazidis had not engaged in sectarian cleansing of Sunnis before August of 2014. Christians in Mosul had not been slaughtering Sunnis. Amnesty couldn’t find victims, had it been investigating the Holocaust it would have concluded “all sides of the conflict” committed crimes, rather than notice that there were particular victims and particular aggressors fueled by extremist ideology. At every twist and turn from 2014 onward, Amnesty has obscured the scale of ISIS crimes. In December of 2014 their reporter Rovera claimed “hundreds of Yazidi women and girls have had their lives shattered…in IS captivity.” But the number was not “hundreds” it was 5,000. Even in January of 2016 according to the UN there were still 3,500 Yazidi women held by ISIS in an unprecedented act of sexual abuse and slavery. So why did Amnesty stick by the “hundreds” figure when Yazidis and the international community have been saying thousands are missing? There is photographic evidence of the thousands murdered in mass graves since July of 2015 and yet Amnesty does not sift through the evidence.
Amnesty International has turned its sights on the arming of Shia militias, on the depredations of the Baghdad government, and now on the Kurds. But it has never concentrated with the same lens on ISIS. Why is that? Why is it that time and again the millions of victims of ISIS who have been displaced, the hundreds of thousands of Kurds, Yazidis and Christians forced from their homes, have not received any justice from this organization? Nothing can explain the continued manipulation and constant misrepresentation of the numbers of victims of ISIS, and foisting of blame onto others, than an extreme bias by Amnesty International. Since June of 2014 Amnesty has decided that the narrative is “spiraling sectarian violence” and that it is “both sides” that are to blame. It has refused to acknowledge that the crimes, and acts of ISIS and the ideology of ISIS are a unique attempt to exterminate minority cultures. There is an unwillingness to investigate its crimes and document them, to document the Yazidi villages destroyed. Why are satellites only pointed at Arab Sunni areas? What about the Shammar tribe that resisted ISIS and which is Arab and which has remained in its villages in northern Iraq?
There is no doubt that some Arab villages have been depopulated, mostly due to the conflict, and that their residents have not returned. The peshmerga and PKK forces are not perfect and there are old grievances at work. But overall the KRG has been the recipient of Arab refugees, not the ethnic-cleanser of Arabs. The KRG has the burden of taking in millions, it has not been the one cleansing them. ISIS was the one that conquered Sinjar and attacked toward Kirkuk. There is an ongoing warzone not far from Kirkuk, an active frontline. The areas of Sinjar have not seen Yazidis return. Why should Arab villages that supported ISIS receive priority over the victims of ISIS?
On a recent trip to Kurdistan I drove the long road from Duhok to Sinjar, and also to the frontlines south of Mosul dam. There are abandoned villages, there are some inhabited villages and there are villages and towns destroyed in war and some that are the base of peshmerga and Kurdish forces. There are refugee camps along the road. To pretend like this is a peaceful area, that ISIS is defeated and that the KRG is a perpetrator is to ignore the reality. Only hundreds have returned to Snune, the Yazidi town. There are no services in this region. The KRG should at some point take responsibility for rehabilitating it, but not in the midst of a war. Were the allies expected to allow all refugees to return while in the midst of fighting the Second World War? And some did not return. War causes changes in demographics, especially when one group seeks to exterminate another. Did Serbs return to Croatia after 1995? Did Germans return to Poland? Ethnic-cleansing allegations should be examined in context, and if one group has cleansed 300,000 people, and those people have not returned, it is manipulative to claim that the group supporting the cleansing is the real victim.
When the war is over and ISIS is defeated and the problems between the Baghdad government and KRG are sorted out (which may also result in sectarian violence as was the case at Toz Khurmato), then it is reasonable to expect that Arab refugees be re-settled or that some return.
Amnesty International has proved time and again that it cannot be trusted when it comes to Iraq. It had ample opportunity to invest resources in documenting the fate of communities that ISIS cleansed after those areas were re-conquered. Instead it sought to “balance” the ISIS aggression and ISIS crimes by portraying those fighting ISIS as perpetrators. Instead of looking at the entire district of Nineveh and documenting village by village, it focused its recent report on only Arab Sunni villages, ignoring Yazidis and Christians. It ignored Kurdish victims. Of course abuses by Kurds should not be ignored, but a proportionate amount of reports on human rights abuses in Iraq would concentrate primarily on ISIS, with Shia militias also deserving attention and actions of Kurds being the least. In fact the KRG should be praised for taking in refugees, rather than skewered for its actions closer to the frontline. The KRG is the one place in Iraq at the moment where every group has taken refuge from ISIS and also from the Shia militias.
Until Amnesty’s reports reflect a proportionate response to ISIS crimes, by fully documenting them alongside other abuses, it should not be considered unbiased on Iraq. There is evidence that it has consistently taken the side of Arab Sunnis as opposed to Kurds, Shia. It would be tantamount to having written that the main victims of the Second World War were the Germans who were cleansed from Poland and Czechslovakia, rather than looking at the harm that befell them in light of the larger context.