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July 16, 2014

The Fight against ISIS Shows Why Human Rights and the Leahy Laws Matter

By John Rodriguez

As the crisis in Iraq continues, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has shown a disregard for human rights when dealing with the threat posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Maliki has contributed to sectarian conflict by using indiscriminate force against ISIS and enlisting the support of violent Shiite militias. These human rights abuses may actually contribute to ISIS’s cause, and the United States must consider any aid we offer within the context of the Leahy Laws.

Regardless of the abuses perpetrated by ISIS, Maliki and the Iraqi Security Forces must take on an inclusive approach, with strong regard for the rule of law and respect for human rights if he wants to “defeat al-Qaeda and  ISIS.”  As the U.S. military has painfully learned over the last ten years in Iraq and Afghanistan, in counterinsurgency operations the “center of gravity,” or "the hub of all power and movement on which everything depends," is the population."  In contrast to conventional warfare, with its focus on an opponent's military forces, in counterinsurgency the support of the population is the vital factor, and respect for human rights is one of the most important ways to maintain this popular support.

In a counterinsurgency  like the battle between the Maliki government and ISIS, the civilian population is caught in the middle and must decide whether to support a side or to remain neutral.  Violating their human rights is one of the quickest ways to push them to side with an opponent. Even though the insurgents are bad-actors themselves, to members of the population they may appear to be the least bad option, which is precisely what is occurring in Iraq.

Human Rights Watch issued a report last week confirming that Iraqi Security Forces have carried out extrajudicial executions of at least 255 Sunni prisoners in six different incidents since June 9th, 2014.  In addition, Sunni men have been abducted and executed in Baghdad, presumably by Shiite militias.  ISIS has also committed gross human rights violations, which as Human Rights First recently discussed, were carried out with the deliberate intention of prompting a brutal response from the Maliki government in order to spark a sectarian conflict.  

Now Sunnis who are not Islamic Fundamentalists are siding with ISIS against Maliki's regime because the regime’s conduct has made them feel like “Sunnis have nothing to lose.”  The great hope of the West is that we can repeat the success of the Awakening and pull the Sunni tribes away from ISIS.  However, the Maliki regime’s human rights abuses only drive Sunnis closer to the Islamic State. 

What can the United States do to steer the Iraqi Security Forces away from committing human rights abuses and thereby strengthening ISIS?  In addition to diplomatic and political pressure, we must condition any military aid on compliance with human rights and the rule of law.  It is not only right from a moral perspective, it is fundamental for effective counterterrorism practices. 

The Leahy Laws “prohibit the provision of U.S. security assistance to foreign security force units that have been credibly implicated in gross violations of human rights” such as murder, torture, and rape.  Last week Human Rights First’s President and CEO, Elisa Massimino, testified in support of the Leahy Laws before the House Subcommittee on Africa, Global Human Rights and International Organizations.  As Massimino stated at the hearing, refusing to support abusive units is “a common sense-proposition,” which reinforces effective counterterrorism.

The importance of human rights goes far beyond just this situation in Iraq; it should be central to all of our security partnerships. As seen in Iraq, we tolerate human rights abuses by allies at our own peril.  As Massimino told Congress, the “respect for human rights is… a cornerstone, a foundation on which to advance other national priorities.”  While the concept of the Counterterrorism Partnership Fund to assist our allies in combating terrorism is laudable, the current request proposes that the Secretary of Defense can use these funds “notwithstanding any limitation in a provision of law that would otherwise restrict the amount or recipients of such support or assistance” which appears to be inserted in order to bypass the human rights vetting required by the Leahy Laws.  Therefore, as the House of Representatives considers the FY2015 Overseas Contingency Operations request this week, Human Rights First urges Congress to strip this clause from any legislation funding counter-terrorism partnerships.   America is strongest when it lives up to its values, and this must include our fight against terrorism.