Open Debate on Protection of Minorities in the Middle East
On Friday (27 March), French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius will chair a ministerial-level open debate on the situation of persecuted ethnic or religious minorities in the Middle East. The Secretary-General will brief in person along with High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Zeid Al Hussein, via video teleconference from Geneva. Vian Dakhil, an Iraqi parliamentarian of the Yazidi faith, and Louis Raphaël I Sako, the head of the Chaldean Catholic Patriarch of Babylon, will also address the Council.
France, as president of the Security Council in March, chose to focus on this issue following distressing reports of widespread and systematic human rights violations by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), such as the attacks against the Yazidi community in Iraq, which may amount to genocide; the massive flight of Kurds from Syria to Turkey when ISIS attacked Kobane; the abduction of hundreds of Assyrian Christians from northeast Syria; and the beheading of 21 men, including 20 Coptic Christian Egyptians, in Libya. The deliberate destruction by ISIS of religious shrines, artifacts and pre-Islamic cultural heritage, as well as the trafficking in artifacts to finance terrorist activity, is expected to also be among the issues highlighted. France circulated a concept note to member states in preparation for the debate (S/2015/176).
No Security Council outcome is envisaged following Friday’s open debate; however, it is expected to build momentum toward the development of a UN action plan which could galvanise the UN system’s efforts to specifically address religious and ethnic minorities’ needs in terms of physical protection, humanitarian response and building political inclusiveness in their home countries. The Secretary-General may announce preliminary planning in this regard when he addresses the Council on Friday. The open debate would offer member states an opportunity to lend support as well as to outline priorities for such an initiative.
The briefing by the High Commissioner for Human Rights will likely reinforce the findings of his office’s 13 March report on ISIS—in particular that the group may have committed war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide (A/HRC/28/18). The report details the group’s threat to ethnic and religious minorities including killings, torture, rape, sexual slavery, forced conversions and conscription of children. Zeid is also likely to point out that ISIS has targeted the Shi’a population as well as Sunnis perceived to be aligned with the Iraqi government.
Council members will likely want more information from Ms. Dakhil about the plight of the Yazidi community since ISIS attacked Nineveh province in August 2014. At that time, men and boys over the age of 14 were separated and killed while women and girls were sold into sexual slavery. Young boys were forced to convert and were conscripted into ISIS forces.
Patriarch Sako will likely emphasise the challenges of the Iraqi Christian community in ISIS controlled areas. Following ISIS’s lightning advance last summer, Christians have fled Mosul under threats of death and pressure to convert or pay a “religious tax”. He is also likely to underscore—given the heightened sectarian tension in Iraq—that the forcible displacement of minorities will have dire consequences for future peaceful coexistence.
Council members may also be interested in Ms. Dakhil’s and Patriarch Sako’s assessment of gaps in the UN system’s and the Iraqi government’s response to the needs of their respective communities due to ISIS persecution.
Regarding Syria, Council members will want to hear more from Zeid about the work of the Human Rights Council’s Commission of Inquiry on Syria that has echoed some of the trends identified in Iraq. The Commission found that when ISIS occupies areas with diverse ethnic and religious communities in Syria, minorities have been forced to either assimilate or flee. ISIS has forcibly displaced Kurds in Raqqa and Aleppo and has also destroyed Christian churches and Shi’a shrines.
Several Council members expect that Syria, which is ruled by a minority Alawite sect of Shi’a Islam, will use this debate as another opportunity to depict itself as a secular government fighting terrorism and protecting minorities. However, these Council members give little credence to Syria’s claim that it protects its civilians as the scale of government violations continues to outpace that of extremist groups with widespread reports of aerial bombardment, deaths, sexual violence and torture in government detention centers and extra-judicial killings, beatings and enforced disappearances. Most Council members are unlikely to frame Friday’s debate as a choice between the brutal Syrian regime and the brutal tactics of ISIS and may be expected to point out that the Syrian regime is a primary driver of conflict in its own territory.
Other issues likely to be raised during the open debate are how to ensure that counterinsurgency efforts against ISIS and other extremist groups do not exacerbate the vulnerabilities that these minorities face. For example, Zeid is likely to draw attention to allegations of violations by Iraqi forces and affiliated militias during counter-ISIS offensives—such as extrajudicial killings, torture, abductions and forcible displacement.
Several Council members also expect that the High Commissioner will reiterate the recommendation that the Security Council refer both the situations in Iraq and Syria to the International Criminal Court.
The situation of religious minorities in areas under the control of ISIS affiliates in Libya will also be of interest. The beheading of Coptic Egyptians spurred a Council meeting on 18 February. At that meeting, Special Representative Bernardino León reminded the Council of previous instances where ISIS and Al-Qaida affiliate Ansar al-Sharia have targeted Copts in Libya. The High Commissioner for Human Rights also documented the October 2014 attacks by gunmen against the Othman Pasha Madrasa which served the Sufi community in Tripoli. Concerns that ISIS may be spreading in North Africa may also be raised given that ISIS claimed responsibility for the 18 March attack against the Bardo Museum in Tunisia—though it seems more likely the attack was carried out by those affiliating themselves with ISIS rather than following a directive from ISIS command.
Some Council members may also take advantage of the focus on ISIS to broaden the discussion beyond religious and ethnic minorities and interject into the debate the confluence with violent extremism’s impact on other vulnerable groups such as women and children.
The phenomenon of mass abductions of children by extremist groups was raised by a number of speakers in the 25 March open debate on child victims of non-state armed groups. The abduction of 153 Kurdish boys from Kobane in Syria in May 2014 by ISIS and the abduction of hundreds of Yazidi children by ISIS in western Iraq in July 2014 are likely to provide members with an opportunity to reiterate the importance of strengthening protection mechanisms to address the activities of these extremist non-state armed groups.
Similarly, the Secretary-General’s latest report on conflict-related sexual violence, circulated in advance version on 23 March, will likely inform some Council members’ approach to Friday’s debate. The report describes how terrorist groups such as ISIS use sexual violence to achieve tactical objectives, dispelling the notion that sexual violence is just an incidental by-product of conflict. Sexual violence by extremist groups, the report concludes, terrorises communities into compliance, displaces populations from strategic areas and generates revenue through trafficking, slave trade and ransoms. The report also highlights the vulnerability of displaced or refugee women and girls to sexual exploitation, such as human trafficking, early marriage and forced marriage. In this context, the sexual enslavement of Yazidi women and girls in Iraq by ISIS will figure prominently in Friday’s debate. However, several Council members are likely to point out that such abuses have been widely visited upon Iraqi and Syrian women and girls, irrespective of whether they belong to a religious or ethnic minority.
Finally, the fact that extremist groups target individuals based on their perceived sexual orientation is also likely to come up at Friday’s debate, echoing the findings of the Commission of Inquiry and following the widely reported incident from Raqqa in February of ISIS blindfolding a gay man and throwing him from a seven story building.