Iraqi gov't called upon to take action against enforced disappearance

Iraq has one of the highest disappearance rates in the world.

Iraqi security forces gather in a street, during a curfew imposed to prevent the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Baghdad, Iraq (photo credit: REUTERS/KHALID AL MOUSILY)
Iraqi security forces gather in a street, during a curfew imposed to prevent the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Baghdad, Iraq
 Human Rights Watch (HRW) called on the Iraqi government to find people who have been subject to enforced disappearance and to bring the perpetrators to justice.
The group singled out Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, who had pledged to deal with the illegal abductions.
Iraq has one of the highest numbers of missing people in the world, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross.
Enforced disappearance is a secret abduction, and sometimes murder, by a state or political organization, often used as a tool to repress political opponents.
The demand by HRW on Monday was spurred by a repeated lack of response from Iraqi authorities, the most recent being correspondence sent on November 5 asking for further information about eight people who had gone missing between December 2019 and October 2020. In addition, no serious progress has been made in the six months since Al-Kadhimi announced that the government would initiate a system to find people missing due to enforced disappearance.
HRW’s action comes against the backdrop of next year’s parliamentary elections, which could end Al-Kadhimi’s tenure.
Belkis Wille, a senior researcher at HRW with the Conflict and Crisis division, who previously served as senior Iraq researcher, says that a multitude of parties in Iraq are responsible for enforced disappearances, such as: the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), a government-sponsored militia; the National Security Service; the police; and the Ministry of Interior’s Counter Terrorism Service.
“Enforced disappearances are carried out by many, many different actors. That’s because you’ve got so many different military and security actors involved in detaining people who then disappear and their families can’t find any information about them,” she told The Media Line.
The practice has taken place in Iraq for some time.
“Historically the problem of enforced disappearances is extremely old. This is an issue that has plagued Iraq since the 1980s,” Wille said.
Baghdad also has a history of lack of transparency about people taken into custody illegally.
HRW never received an official answer to its 2018 query on the whereabouts of 63 individuals. That year, HRW published a report documenting at least 78 cases of male enforced disappearance victims, including children, between April 2014 and October 2017. Wille says that many of those who went missing under duress were a result of counter-terrorism operations.
She says that the actual number of people who disappeared by force is unknown because the Iraqi government does not keep accurate records, a practice HRW urged it to start two years ago.
Human rights groups often rely on information from family members who many times need help locating their loved ones. 
Wille believes, based on cases reported to HRW, that 2014-2017 was a peak period for these types of disappearances. The number of cases also spiked during anti-government protests which began in October 2019 and lasted for around six months.
Farhad Alaaldin, a former adviser to Iraqi presidents and now chairman of the Iraq Advisory Council, a Baghdad-based non-profit organization, says that the danger is still very present even though the protests have died down.
“Activists remain in danger of reprisals and have been attacked, such as the kidnapping of Sajjad Al-Iraqi in Nasiriyah. The government has not been able to locate the kidnappers nor find Sajjad to date,” he told The Media Line, referring to the enforced disappearance of a young activist leader, who was taken against his will in September in southern Iraq, that touched off riots.
“There are reports of others going missing, however, the media attention is no longer on the plight of the protesters and therefore we hear less and less about such incidents,” Alaaldin added.
Baghdad Febahl, a young Iraqi who took part in the protests in early 2020 and spoke to The Media Line on condition we use a pseudonym to protect her identity, also fears being kidnapped.
“There is certainly a problem of enforced disappearances in Iraq, and the authorities do not intervene and take action, knowing that they are aware of the perpetrators of these crimes,” she told The Media Line. “It is really hard. Anyone in Iraq who defends human rights or is an activist is concerned” about being taken.
The Human Rights Office of the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq reported in May that it recorded 123 victims between Oct. 1, 2019 and March 21, 2020.
Globally, Baghdad has one of the worst rates of abductions, despite being a signatory to the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, which prohibits the action and lists actions governments are required to take to prevent it.
“Iraq definitely stands out as having a very high number in the region,” Wille said. She added that Syria also has a high number of enforced disappearances and, to much a lesser extent, Yemen.
HRW hopes the pressure of next year’s countrywide parliamentary elections in Iraq will spur Prime Minister Al-Kadhimi to make good on his commitment to fight enforced disappearances.
With a number of groups taking people forcibly, one action the organization recommends is for state authorities to clearly identify who can legally hold people.
“We’ve been recommending the government to publicly clarify which powers in Iraq and security military and otherwise have the legal mandate to detain so that people would know based on uniforms whether this unit is allowed to detain [a family member],” Wille said.
Once that is established, HRW’s second recommendation is for leaders to compel those who do have the authority to provide the detainee’s family with a receipt of sorts which would identify who was taking the family member and his destination.
“If intelligence forces come to your house and arrest your husband, they would give you a slip of paper saying who they are as a detaining authority and where they are taking him. That would mean that families then would know where to go to look for their loved ones and it would also mean that if a group detains your loved one without giving you that slip of paper then you know that it’s a group that doesn’t actually have the legal authority to do the detention,” Wille said.
These steps would “play a significant role in minimizing the risk of enforced disappearance,” she added.
Wille contends that these actions would also help determine the number of people being held by groups like the PMF, which inaccurately claim that they do not engage in the practice and do not have secret prisons.
Preventing actors like the PMF from such behavior, however, is an entirely different matter.
“In terms of then limiting the ability of the PMF to disappear people, that would obviously take a lot more power and might in cracking down on their secret prisons and limiting their…role in law enforcement,” Wille said.
 “The issue comes from the fact that the PMF, who should theoretically have just been involved in military operations based on their own reasons for forming, but then suddenly got involved in law enforcement, and it’s in that context that the risk is high that they are unlawfully detaining people,” she added.
Read more at The Media Line.