Canada’s Kurdish allies in the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq are being accused of war crimes by destroying large numbers of Arab homes, and sometimes entire villages, as they reclaim territory from the jihadi group.
Human Rights Watch, in a report released Sunday, says hundreds of Arab Iraqi homes have been destroyed by the ethnically distinct Kurds in Iraq. Kurdish leaders are pledging a referendum on independence from Iraq and the razing of these houses will help make the areas in question more Kurdish and less Arabic, the report says.
The human-rights group is calling on Western allies of the Kurds, including Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom, to publicly speak out and seek an end to what are violations of international law.
Canada’s Department of National Defence said on Sunday that it is “concerned by reports that civilians in northern Iraq have been evicted and their houses destroyed by Iraqi Kurdish forces.”
Spokesman Evan Koronewski said the Canadian military has not seen this razing of homes take place and takes any allegations of atrocities seriously. He added the military is constantly monitoring the situation in Iraq. “[We] are committed to meeting our obligations under international and domestic law.”
Mr. Koronewski said the safety of civilians and the future stability of Iraq means that “military progress in the war against Daesh must be accompanied by strict respect for human rights and international humanitarian law.” Daesh is another term for Islamic State jihadis.
Canada and other Western allies provide military assistance to the Kurds as they wage war to rout the Islamic State from the region. In Canada’s case, the aid includes as many as 210 special-forces soldiers acting as military advisers in the fight, which currently includes liberating the city of Mosul, the last remaining Islamic State stronghold in Iraq.
“The destruction, which took place after [Kurdish] peshmerga forces routed Islamic State fighters, targeted Arab homes while leaving Kurdish homes intact,” Human Rights Watch says.
The Kurds already have considerable autonomy within the northern reaches of the Iraq, which was overrun by Islamic State fighters in 2014.
The destruction of Arab homes will discourage displaced Arab Iraqis from returning, leaving these disputed regions more ethnically Kurdish and making it easier for the Kurds to press for full control over these areas.
The 80-page Human Rights Watch report analyzed the demolition of homes over the 20 months leading up to May, 2016.
These incidents took place in the outer limits of the Kurdistan government’s control – disputed areas known as the Kirkuk and Nineveh governorates, which are nominally under the control of the Iraqi leadership in Baghdad but are in reality under Kurdish control.
Human Rights Watch says the Kurds carried out “unlawful demolitions” of Arab buildings and homes in 17 villages and towns in Kirkuk and four in Nineveh governorate over the period studied. In many of these cases, “[Kurdistan Regional Government] security forces destroyed Arab homes – but not those belonging to Kurds – for no legitimate military purpose,” says Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.
The report is based on field visits by Human Rights Watch researchers, more than 120 interviews with witnesses and officials, and extensive analysis of satellite imagery. Human Rights Watch said it closely examined home demolitions in the Kirkuk and Nineveh governorates, and travelled through other destroyed villages in Nineveh.
It says there were a further 62 villages that researchers were unable to visit but where satellite imagery provides evidence of destruction after Kurdish security forces recaptured them.
The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) blamed the destroyed homes on Islamic State bombs left over after the jihadis retreated. The Kurds said they had to detonate the explosives to rid the region of such hazards. It also said the destruction was caused by aerial bombardment by the U.S.-led air campaign against the Islamic State.
Human Rights Watch says this excuse does not make sense. It says the destruction in question often took place after the Kurdish peshmerga forces had taken over.
The group also says the bomb-clearing rationale is weak. “The KRG’s claims regarding the need to destroy homes to defuse improvised explosive devices in villages they captured from ISIS does not stand up to scrutiny. For example, in villages in Nineveh governorate visited by Human Rights Watch researchers, it appears that the KRG destroyed only Arab homes while leaving Kurdish ones intact.”
Human Rights Watch said it appears the Kurds also plan to prevent displaced Arab Iraqis from returning to their villages in these disputed areas.
“KRG President Masoud Barzani told Human Rights Watch in July, 2016, that the KRG would not allow Sunni Arabs to return to villages that had been ‘Arabized’ by former president Saddam Hussein. He said these were, in his view, rightfully Kurdish lands. Such territorial claims lend credence to the belief of many Arabs that KRG security forces may have carried out demolitions for the purpose of preventing or dissuading Arabs from returning there.”
Human Rights Watch said the laws of war prevent the Kurds from doing what they have done.
“Central to the laws of war is the principle of distinction, which requires parties to a conflict to distinguish at all times between military and civilian objectives. Civilian objects may not be the target of attack unless they are being used for military purposes. The parties to an armed conflict have a duty to spare the civilian population and civilian objects from the effects of hostilities and to minimize damage to civilian objects.”
The group says Western allies appear to be staying silent on the matter. It noted governments of several countries in the international coalition against Islamic State, including Canada, the United States, Germany, France and the United Kingdom have supported the Kurds with military hardware and training. Some carry out joint military operations with KRG forces.
“No officials of these countries have publicly spoken out about the need for the KRG to end unlawful building demolitions in violation of the laws of war and international human rights law and to hold those responsible to account.”Report Typo/Error