The crumbling Islamic State: Its desperate violations of humanitarian law
By Rene Wadlow*
In simultaneous, if not necessary coordinated operations, there are attacks against the forces of the Islamic State (ISIS or Daech in its Arabic abbreviation) in Syria and Iraq. ISIS had, in practice, abolished the frontier between Iraq and Syria which had been created in 1916 by the agreement of Sir Mark Sykes for the UK and Francois Georges-Picot for France.
When the Allied forces landed in North Africa in 1942, Winston Churchill was asked if this was the beginning of the end of the Axis. He replied to the effect that it was perhaps not the beginning of the end, but it was certainly the end of the beginning of the Second World War. Current events, however, may be the beginning of the end of ISIS but not of its capacity for violence and continuing violations of humanitarian law.
The United Nations Secretariat has raised an alarm concerning the fate of some 400 Iraqi families held by the ISIS forces for possible use as “human shields” in the battle for the city of Fallujah, held by ISIS since January 2014. The use of civilians as “human shields” is a violation of the laws of war set out in the Geneva Conventions. ISIS leaders have been repeatedly warned by the International Committee of the Red Cross, who, by treaty, is responsible for the respect and application of the Geneva Conventions.
In addition to the some 400 families who have been rounded up and are being held as a group in the center of Fallujah, there are a large number of children − UNICEF estimates 20,000 − trapped in the city and who may be used in military ways, either to fight or as suicide bombers.
The danger from the disintegrating ISIS is that there are no longer the few restraints that existed among some of the ISIS leadership for the laws of war. As Iraqi troops have drawn closer to Fallujah , they have found mass graves with both soldiers and civilians killed. One of the fundamental aspects of the laws of war is the protection of prisoners of war. Once a person is no longer able to combat, he must be treated as a prisoner and no longer a combatant. Not killing a prisoner is a core value of humanitarian law, and ISIS has deliberately violated this norm.
The Association of World Citizens has stressed the need for accountability, including by investigating alleged violations of the laws of war. These grave violations by ISIS must be protested by as wide a coalition of concerned voices as possible. There is a real danger that, as the Islamic State disintegrates and no longer controls territory, it will increase terrorist actions. Only by a wide public outcry in defense of humanitarian law can this danger be reduced. The time for action is now.