Thursday, 17 November 2016, presented an uncomely anniversary for the inhabitants of Mosul, the second largest Iraqi city, located about 400 kilometres north of Baghdad. It was one month since the Battle of Mosul began, with Iraqi government forces under Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi seeking to recapture the city from ISIL, also known as Da’esh. The extremist group has held control over the city for more than two years now, subjecting civilians there to despicable atrocities and untold suffering.
UN agencies and partners responded accordingly, marshalling humanitarian efforts to protect and provide urgent assistance to civilians who would get caught up in, or be displaced by the fighting. In the lead up to the military onslaught, ISIL reportedly started forcibly displacing civilians in large numbers, with the intention of using them as human shields.
The UN spoke strongly against this, with the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein expressing concern about the use of vulnerable people as human shields.
Another senior UN official who spoke against the terrorist practice, stressing the need to protect civilians, was Ján Kubiš, Special Representative of the United Nations Secretary-General for Iraq, and head of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI).
In the wake of these events, Mr. Kubiš stated, “The United Nations again emphasises that all actions necessary must be undertaken to ensure the protection of the civilian inhabitants from the effects of armed conflict and violence.”
For us, heated rhetoric is something not very helpful because it’s happening at the same time as the conduct of the liberation operation.
Earlier this month, on 1 November, UNAMI issued its monthly casualty figures report, indicating that 1,792 Iraqis were killed and another 1,358 were injured in acts of terrorism, violence and armed conflict in Iraq in October 2016.
The Battle of Mosul certainly took a huge toll on civilians, but it was difficult to get the exact figure of civilian casualties. UNAMI made this clear in its statement, by noting: “Since the start of the military operations to retake Mosul and other areas in Ninewa, UNAMI has received several reports of incidents involving civilian casualties, which at times it has been unable to verify.”
At the time, Mr. Kubiš noted, “With the military operations in Mosul and other areas of Ninewa underway while Daesh continues to apply its terrorist tactics using civilians as human shields and executing those that resist, civilians are once again in harm’s way, and the figures show high numbers of deaths among the civilian population.”
Mr. Kubis was at the UN headquarters recently to brief the Security Council about the situation in Iraq. After the briefing, he spoke to UN News Service, where he began by describing the situation on the ground, and the Mosul’s liberation campaign.
Ján Kubiš: First of all, indeed, the situation is such that we can congratulate the Iraqi security forces, the Peshmerga security forces, different tribal volunteers and others. The operation is going according to plan and it was very important in its planning and conduct that it has taken into account one imperative: protection of civilians. In Mosul there’ve been a lot of civilians that are leaving, many of them, taking refuge in suburbs and distant territories. Also, unfortunately Da’esh is taking tens of thousands of civilians to use them as human shields. Therefore, protection of civilians in the context of military operations is very important.
UN News Service: You just mentioned Human shields, where Dae'sh is holding many civilians hostage. Are there any operations on the ground to liberate them as soon as possible?
Ján Kubiš: Well, of course we are speaking about the military operation, and it’s focusing on the objectives of the day. Whenever they take action – any part of the liberating forces – they’re always making sure that civilians are not in harm’s way. If there is a chance to liberate some civilians [they get liberated], as it happened in some suburbs and neighbouring villages. It happened that the liberating forces indeed managed to liberate some civilians that were concentrated in some locations or even imprisoned in some places.
UN News Service: Now you praised, in your briefing to the Security Council, the fact that Iraqi federal forces and the Peshmerga are fighting shoulder-to-shoulder. What is next? What follows after recapturing territory and power from Dae’sh?
Ján Kubiš: The next thing, if you wish, the future already started. Both [Iraqi] Prime Minister [Haider] al-Abadi and [Iraqi Kurdistan Region] President [Masoud] Barzani are also discussing different issues that are very important for the post-Da’esh relations between Baghdad and Erbil; issues of oil and revenues, disputed territory, principles on which they will rebuild their relations, and indeed, in the foreseeable future, this is their objective: to find solutions, including what kind of principles will regulate their working together and living together in one Iraq.
UN News Service: Turkish troops have been in Bashiqa Camp since last December, and the heated rhetoric between Baghdad and Ankara continues to escalate. Do you see any solution to the situation?
Ján Kubiš: Well, I would say that indeed the solution is, first of all to tone down the rhetoric. It’s not helpful, and I believe it’s better to give way to diplomacy and bilateral contact. If needed, discussions, such as we had at the level of the Security Council, but the most important are the bilateral contacts through diplomatic channels, and to be aware that such contacts are taking place. So far, they haven’t yielded any visible success, but we are hopeful because both sides are discussing particulars of how to resolve this issue of Camp Bashiqa, and we hope very much that it will happen.
For us, heated rhetoric is something not very helpful because it’s happening at the same time as the conduct of the liberation operation and you know this is a very fluid, sometimes unpredictable, operation. So it is better if there is no distraction from what is the primary objective of everyone, which is fighting Da’esh.
UN News Service: In this regard, in the context of the fluidity that you just mentioned, what is your message today?
Ján Kubiš: The message is, first of all, congratulations, because in spite of all the problems and challenges and in spite of stiff resistance from Da’esh, and in spite of their terrorist tactics of using civilians as human shields, pro-government forces are getting more and more ground, liberating more and more parts, including some parts of Mosul. They are moving forward very carefully. Every step, every stage they are performing from the perspective of how to not harm civilians. We witness a steady progress.
This is good, even though it is still the initial phase of the operations. We must be careful, we hope very much that the operation will continue, but again, Mosul is still ahead. The majority of people live in the center of Mosul. We keep our fingers crossed while indeed acknowledging good work, a hard job of the liberating forces and also acknowledging the martyrs that paid the high sacrifice in fighting Da’esh.