25 Aug 2014

UN on Islamic State: ‘Grave, horrific human rights abuses’

The UN human rights chief says Islamic State’s actions in Iraq and Syria are “appalling and widespread” and may contribute to “war crimes and crimes against humanity”.

United Nations human rights chief Navi Pillay has condemned “appalling, widespread” crimes being committed by Islamic State (Is) forces in Iraq, including mass executions of prisoners and “ethnic and religious cleansing”.

The persecution of entire communities and systematic violations by the terrorist organisation, documented by UN human rights investigators, would amount to crimes against humanity and war crimes under international law, she has said in a statement.

Citing targeted killings, forced conversions, abductions, slavery, sex crimes, forced recruitment and destruction of places of worship, Ms Pillay said “grave, horrific human rights violations are being committed daily”.

“They are systematically targeting men, women and children based on their ethnic, religious or sectarian affiliation and are ruthlessly carrying out widespread ethnic and religious cleansing in the areas under their control.”

Is insurgents have captured a third of Iraq with little resistance and declared a caliphate in the areas of Iraq and Syria it controls. It has drawn the first American air strikes in Iraq since the end of the occupation in 2011.

‘Guilty until proven innocent’

Earlier in the day the Mayor of London, who has overall responsibility for the Metropolitan Police, has called for a “swift and minor change” to the law introducing “rebuttable presumption” that those visiting war areas without notifying the authorities had done so for a terrorist purpose.

Joining calls over the weekend for foreign fighters to lose their British citizenship, Boris Johnson said Britain must take on the Islamic State (Is) and “try to close it down”, warning that doing nothing would mean a “tide of terror will eventually lap at our own front door”.

Mr Johnson also called for the death of the murderer of US journalist James Foley. “Young men such as this killer are famously told that if they die in ‘battle’ they will be welcomed in heaven by the sexual ministrations of 72 virgins,” he wrote in his Daily Telegraph column.

“Many of them believe it – even though scholars have suggested that the reference to ‘black-eyed virgins’ is in fact a promise of 72 raisins. I suspect most of us don’t give a monkey’s what happens to this prat in heaven, whether he meets virgins or raisins – we just want someone to come along with a bunker buster and effect an introduction as fast as possible.”

Meanwhile it has emerged that security services have almost certainly identified the killer of Mr Foley through a combination of imaging and voice recognition technology.

The British ambassador to the US, Sir Peter Westmacott, told NBC’s Meet the Press programme on Sunday: “I cannot say more than this but I know we are close”.

It came amid suggestions that the video of Mr Foley’s execution may have been digitally manipulated, with the moment of murder taking place off camera. Noises allegedly made by Foley do not appear consistent with what may be expected, voice recognition experts told The Times.

During Foley’s speech, there appears to be a blip which could indicate the journalist had to repeat a line. One expert commissioned to examine the footage was reported as saying: “I think it has been staged. My feeling is that the execution may have happened after the camera was stopped.”

Diplomatic response

Moves meanwhile are underway to strengthen the international response to Is. The UN Human Rights Chief Navi Pillay condemned the brutal killing of Iraqi prisoners and said their actions may amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Downing Street has despatched a new security envoy for Kurdistan to Baghdad in a bid to help form a unity government. Iraq’s Prime Minister-designate Haider al-Abadi said the first stage of talks held this morning were constructive and predicted a “clear vision” on a unified administration that would emerge within the next two days, according to state television.

Mr Abadi is tasked with forming a power-sharing government that can ease sectarian tensions and counter Is militants who pose the biggest security threat to Iraq since the US led invasion of 2003.

Isis moves on

Meanwhile Is fighters captured a major military air base in northeastern Syria on Sunday, eliminating the last government-held outpost in a province otherwise dominated by the terrorist group, activists and state media said.

Tabqa airfield is the region’s third military base to fall to the extremists since last month. The siege of the airbase marks the end of a long-anticipated offensive last week to seize the sprawling Tabqa facility, located some 45 kilometres (25 miles) from the extremists’ stronghold in the city of Raqqa along the Euphrates River.

Government warplanes carried out waves of airstrikes to try to beat back the attack, but those ultimately proved unable to stem the assault. “Some of the Syrian regime troops pulled out, and now the Islamic State is in full control of Tabqa,” said Observatory director Rami Abdurrahman. “This makes Raqqa province the first to fully fall out of government hands.” Another activist group, the Local Coordination Committees, also said the extremist group was in control of Tabqa.

Meanwhile, news emerged late on Sunday that a US journalist held hostage in Syria had been freed. Theo Curtis, who was handed over to UN representatives in the Golan Heights on the border with Israel, was abducted in Antakya, Turkey in October 2012. He had been held by the Jabhat Al-Nursa militant group, which is allied to al-Qaeda.

Mr Curtis’s mother, Nancy Curtis, has appealed to those holding the remaining hostages in Syria to release then with the “same humanitarian spirit” that had been shown towards her son. The US Secretary of State Johan Kerry, said Ms Curtis had “simply refused to give up and… worked indefatigably to keep hope alive that this day could become a reality.”