Human rights abuse and Islamic extremism

Human Rights Watch has released its 644-page World Report 2015, reviewing human rights practices in more than 90 countries.

In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth says, “Human rights violations played a major role in spawning or aggravating many of today’s crises. Protecting human rights and ensuring democratic accountability are key to resolving them.”

The rise of the extremist group Islamic State (also known as ISIS) is among those global challenges that have sparked a subordination of human rights, Human Rights Watch said. But ISIS did not emerge out of nowhere. In addition to the security vacuum left by the US invasion of Iraq, the sectarian and abusive policies of the Iraqi and Syrian governments, international indifference to them, have been important factors in fueling ISIS.

While Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi of Iraq has pledged a more inclusive form of governance, the government still relies primarily on Shia militias, who carry out killing and cleansing of Sunni civilians with impunity. Government forces also attack civilians and populated areas. Reforming a corrupt and abusive judiciary, and ending sectarian rule so Sunnis feel they have a place in Iraq, will be at least as important as military action to stop ISIS atrocities, but al-Abadi has so far failed to implement essential reforms.

In Syria, President Bashar al-Assad’s forces have deliberately and viciously attacked civilians in opposition-held areas. Their use of indiscriminate weapons – most notoriously, barrel bombs – has made life almost intolerable for civilians.

Yet the United Nations Security Council has largely stood by, because of Russia and China using their veto power to stop unified efforts to end the carnage. The United States and its allies have allowed their military action against ISIS to overshadow efforts to push Damascus to end its abuses. This selective concern allows ISIS recruiters to portray themselves to potential supporters as the only force willing to stand up to Assad’s atrocities.

A similar dynamic is at play in Nigeria, where human rights concerns are central to the conflict. The militant Islamist group Boko Haram attacks civilians as well as Nigeria’s security forces, bombing markets, mosques, and schools and abducting hundreds of girls and young women. Nigeria’s army has often responded in an abusive manner, rounding up hundreds of men and boys suspected of supporting Boko Haram, detaining, abusing, and even killing them. But winning the “hearts and minds” of the civilian population will require that the government transparently investigate alleged army abuses and punish offenders.

Human Rights Watch World Report 2015