Millions of lives in the Middle East – and the very social fabric of entire countries – are at stake, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon warned this morning, calling for urgent action from the Security Council to end the religiously and ethnically-motivated violence sweeping the region and end impunity for those committing crimes against humanity.
“I am deeply concerned about the grave dangers faced by minorities in parts of the Middle East. Currently, thousands of civilians are at the mercy of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, (ISIL), also called Daesh,” Mr. Ban said at a high-level debate on victims of attacks and abuses on ethnic or religious grounds in the region, chaired by French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius.
“Its fighters kill systematically members of ethnic and religious minorities, those who do not share their misinterpretation of Islam and anyone who opposes their apocalyptic conception. They prey on women and children with unspeakable brutality. They destroy religious and cultural symbols that are the heritage of humanity,” Mr. Ban stressed.
The acts have spread to Syria, Iraq and now Libya and even in Yemen, where the bomb attacks perpetrated against mosques last week have further fueled sectarian violence. Condemning all acts of persecution, regardless of the reason - religious, ethnic, national, racial or other, the UN chief urged all parties to spare innocent lives.
Meanwhile, abuses in counter-terrorism are morally wrong and strategically counterproductive, Mr. Ban said, adding that combating terrorism never absolves governments of their responsibility to honour human rights.
In Iraq, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) cited information strongly suggesting that Daesh may have perpetrated genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes against different minorities, and especially women and girls.
“My Special Advisers on the Prevention of Genocide and on the Responsibility to Protect warned last August that acts committed by Daesh pointed to the risk of genocide. Now we also see sectarian violence against local populations in areas liberated from its control,” the UN chief told the Council.
However, it is important to note that violent extremism in the region, for instance in Iraq, preceded Daesh’s advance, Mr. Ban pointed out, welcoming steps by the Iraqi Government to further national reconciliation, strengthen social cohesion, and reform the security sector. To that end, the Government must do more to uphold human rights and restore the rule of law in areas liberated from Daesh and the international community must help Iraq in this effort.
Five years into the Syrian conflict, the lack of accountability has led to an “exponential rise” in war crimes, crimes against humanity and other human rights violations. Both Government forces and non-State armed groups in Syria, especially Daesh and Jabhat al Nusra, have committed such deplorable acts.
“As we consider the plight of minority communities, we must avoid highlighting differences and reaffirm the values of diversity and peaceful coexistence. I urge the international community, particularly the Security Council, to overcome differences and seek new ways to ensure the protection of all Syrian civilians,” Mr. Ban said.
Mr. Ban plans to travel to Kuwait in the next few days for an international pledging conference for Syria. He called on all countries to give generously to help the millions of Syrians who are suffering and to assist neighbouring countries which shoulder most of the burden. Humanitarian assistance is vital to the region’s political stability.
Expressing concern about recent developments in Libya, where Daesh-affiliated groups are targeting minorities and attacking religious sites, Mr. Ban called on negotiating parties to quickly reach an agreement to bring an end to the military and political conflict. It is crucial to “curb the danger of Libya falling in the hands of terrorist groups.” Ongoing tribal tensions in the South could ignite violence along identity lines, the Secretary-General warned.
“No strategy will succeed without strong regional cooperation and an empowered Libyan State. The United Nations is developing a Plan of Action on Preventing Violent Extremism which we will launch in September,” he said.
While governments have the primary responsibility to protect minorities, the international community must engage with partners in civil society, faith leaders and others with influence, including regional and other actors, as well.
To that end, the Secretary-General urged religious and community leaders to clearly remind their followers that religions are about peace, not violence and war.
Mr Ban also announced that next month, he and the President of the UN General Assembly would invite leaders from different faith communities to a special event at the United Nations.
“We will build on the experience of the UN Alliance of Civilizations to promote mutual understanding and reconciliation,” he said, underscoring that the Middle East is widely considered the cradle of many of the world’s great civilizations.
“Today, let us resolve to empower people – especially youth – to transform the region into the birthplace of a more stable and secure world.”