The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has just released a report on the condition of civilians living under ISIS rule. The document is based largely on first-hand victim and witness accounts, which in many cases were confirmed by the group’s own use of social media and publications. Even for those who have been following the issue closely, and who harbor no illusions about the brutality and extreme ideology of ISIS, the extent of the human rights violations detailed in the report---and the awful picture that the first-hand accounts paint of daily life in ISIS-controlled Syria---is simply staggering.
The report begins with a key observation: ISIS is unlike other belligerents in the Syrian Civil War, who seek to conceal evidence of atrocities when committed. Instead ISIS not only revels in brutality, but also uses social media and modern communications so as to broadcast it, and thus to generate new recruits and spread terror throughout the region. The campaign of systematic violence therefore is advertised to the world deliberately, as a part of ISIS' overall strategy. This distinguishes ISIS from many other modern terror regimes---North Korea comes to mind---where the true extent of atrocities committed is denied publicly.
The full report is certainly worth a read. Here are some of other significant portions:
- In addition to the violence that it imposes on the broader civilian population, ISIS also interferes with the work of doctors seeking to aid the injured and sick. One witness reported that ISIS would arrest people that sought to leave ISIS-controlled areas in order to get medicine. (Para. 22)
- Actions taken against the Kurdish civilian population amount to forcible displacement, a crime against humanity. (Para. 29)
- ISIS has attacked and destroyed churches, historic monuments and other religious buildings, in violation of customary international law. (Para. 31)
- Public executions in city squares---widely documented in news reports---are often accompanied by public displays of corpses, sometimes for days on end. One witness described the body of a 16-year old boy, hung on a cross in a public square “for people to see what it looks like to be punished by ISIS.” Witnesses also described severed heads placed on spikes along park railings. (Para. 33, 34)
- A strict dress code is enforced against women, requiring full covering, and regular checkpoints are set up to ensure compliance. (Para. 48). These reports recall Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’s takeover of Northern Mali in 2012-2013, where female residents were brutally punished for not conforming with dress code requirements.
- The curriculum in area schools has been reformatted to conform with ISIS ideology, with education being used as a tool of indoctrination, including weapons training for future ISIS fighters. (Para. 60)
Perhaps the most chilling portions of the OHCHR Report concern the systematic use of sexual violence and sexual slavery, both as weapons of war and as means of terrorizing the civilian population. According to witness accounts, “[m]any families marry their daughters (including those under 18) to ISIS members because of their fears [of being] arrested or killed.” There are accounts of fighters taking girls as young as 13 away from their families, and of women and girls being sold into slavery in public squares, or serving as comfort women for ISIS fighters returning from the battlefield. During its August attack on Sinjar in Northern Iraq, hundreds of Yazidi women were abducted and brought across the border into Syira, where they have been subjected to sexual violence and forced pregnancy.
The report concludes that, to the surprise of no one, these practices constitute gross violations of international human rights law and crimes against humanity. The report also points out that ISIS---as an organized armed group exercising effective control over the territory in question---is bound by principles of international humanitarian law, and that individual ISIS commanders can be held responsible for these war crimes.