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GENEVA October 29, 2019 – UN human rights experts* today urged the Iraqi authorities to prevent and cease violence immediately against protesters, and ensure that those responsible for unlawful use of force are investigated and prosecuted.
The experts said it was of paramount importance that Iraqi authorities take additional steps to prevent violence and enable a safe environment for peaceful protests.
In two waves of protests from 1 to 9 October and 25 to 27 October over 220 civilians were reportedly killed, and thousands injured when Iraqi security forces used excessive force to disperse protesters, including the use of live ammunition, rubber bullets and armoured vehicles. Experts said there had also been indiscriminate use of less lethal weapons such as tear gas, water cannons and stun grenades.
Since 25 October, Iraqi security forces, particularly in Baghdad, appear to have shown more restraint than in the earlier demonstrations, however, reports continue of excessive use of less lethal means, causing injuries and some deaths. The majority of injuries over the weekend are linked to tear gas inhalation and stun grenade fragmentation.
The situation in some southern governorates, in which armed individuals have used live fire against demonstrators while protecting political offices requires urgent attention.
“We express our utter dismay at the use of excessive force and violence by Iraqi security forces and other armed elements against demonstrators,” said the experts. “It is incomprehensible – and heart-breaking – that such a brutal response can be levelled against Iraqis simply wanting to express their rights to freedom of speech and peaceful assembly.
“The Iraqi State has a duty to protect those exercising their right to peaceful assembly, including from violent non-state actors, and a responsibility to seek out, investigate and prosecute those responsible for killing demonstrators under international human rights law.”
People in cities and governorates across central and southern Iraq, including central Baghdad, have been demonstrating against high levels of unemployment, corruption and poor public services. Many of those taking part were youth and the unemployed.
On 22 October 2019, a government Investigative Committee into the early October violence found that 149 civilians and eight security personnel had been killed, with 70 percent of them showing wounds in the head or upper torso. The government report acknowledged, inter alia, that security forces had used excessive force and had lost control of the demonstrations and recommended disciplinary and judicial investigations against identified perpetrators, but found that there were no official orders to open fire at protesters.
“While we take note of the findings of the Investigative Committee, we deeply regret and deplore the further violence, loss of life and injuries over the weekend,” the experts said.
“The Government must demonstrate the effectiveness, independence and impartiality of these investigations. This means that it must identify all perpetrators with a view to prosecuting them. This also applies to officials failing to prevent such violations from occurring in the first place.”
The experts also expressed their shock at reports in early October of sniper fire targeting both protesters and those tending to the injured, allegedly coming from behind the line of security forces. The sniper shooters remain unidentified.
Consistent reports suggest that human rights defenders received explicit warnings and death threats not to participate in demonstrations, amidst allegations that security forces arbitrarily arrested and detained hundreds of protesters, journalists and civil society activists.
Restrictions to media freedoms have also been widely reported, including the intimidation and harassment of journalists, attacks against media outlets, and intermittent internet and blocks to social media platforms.
The experts are in a dialogue with Iraqi authorities on this issue and will continue to closely monitor the situation.
(*)The experts: Mr. Michel Forst, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders; Mr. David Kaye, Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression; Mr. Clement Nyaletsossi Voule, Special Rapporteur on the right to peaceful assembly and association; Ms. Agnes Callamard, Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions; Mr. Nils Melzer, Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment; Mr. José Antonio Guevara Bermúdez, Chair, Working Group on Arbitrary Detention.
The Special Rapporteurs, Independent Experts and Working Groups are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.