Iraqi Kurdish forces blocked displaced Arabs from returning to their homes in disputed territories that Kurdish regional authorities and Iraq’s central government stake claim, a human rights watchdog said Thursday.
Human Rights Watch said Kurdish forces confined thousands of Arabs for months in parts of northern Iraq that they have captured since last August from Daesh, Arabic acronym for ISIL.
Iraq has been gripped by a security vacuum since last summer when militants with Daesh overran large swaths of Iraq's north and then declared a caliphate straddling Iraq and Syria.
The UN says more than 2 million Iraqis have been internally displaced by fighting, many of them taking refuge in the Kurdish regions.
Human Rights Watch said Kurds freely returned to the recovered areas in Ninewa and Erbil provinces while displaced Arab citizens who wanted to go back to their homes in these provinces faced harsh restrictions.
It said regional authorities also allowed Kurds to move into homes of Arabs who fled the Daesh insurgency.
“Cordoning off Arab residents and refusing to let them return home appears to go well beyond a reasonable security response to the ISIS threat,” said Letta Tayler, a senior researcher on terrorism issues at Human Rights Watch. “The US and other countries arming the Iraqi Kurdish forces should make clear that they won’t stand for discrimination under the guise of countering terrorism.”
The watchdog urged the Kurdish regional government in Erbil to lift restrictions of movement "that were imposed on the basis of ethnicity"
"The Kurdish authorities should also follow through on their commitment to carry out a prompt, impartial, and transparent investigation into all other potentially unlawful conduct in areas it controls and appropriately prosecute or discipline any officials, forces or individuals responsible," it said.
Since the Iraqi army fled at the onset of the Daesh insurgency, Iraqi Kurdish forces, backed by U.S.-led airstrikes, have asserted control over many areas they had been in dispute with Baghdad.
Kurdish Regional Government, also known as KRG, is an ally of the U.S. in the international coalition fighting the militant group. Washington has pledged $350 million to create three new brigades of the peshmerga.
"In December, Human Rights Watch saw peshmerga and members of the KRG’s Asayish intelligence service turning away all civilians – including Arabs and Kurds – from some parts of these districts that they had captured, saying they were still too dangerous to resettle or visit because of the proximity of ISIS, ongoing fighting, and unexploded ordnance including booby-traps in homes," the wathcdog said.
"However, Human Rights Watch found that peshmerga and Asayish forces were allowing Kurdish residents who had fled the fighting to return to other towns and villages in these same districts that they deemed relatively safe, while denying displaced Arab residents re-entry to these same areas."
The group said some restrictions were eased in January, after it communicated with the authorities in Erbil about the issue.
“While the KRG did the right thing in starting to ease these restrictions, it has further to go to curtail discrimination against Arabs,” Tayler said. “The atrocities committed by ISIS, no matter how unconscionable, can’t justify collective punishment of entire Arab communities.”
The rights group also called on the UN Human Rights Council to broaden its ongoing investigation into abuses by the Daesh to include violations by all sides, including Iraqi Kurdish forces.
"International law allows forced displacement of civilians during an armed conflict only as a temporary measure to protect local populations or for imperative military needs," the watchdog said, warning Iraqi Kurdish authorities that their actions could be counted as "collective punishment or discriminatory detention" under international law.
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