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Testimony on Iraq's Humanitarian and Human Rights Crisis

Testimony by


 Presented to:

 The Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission James P. McGovern, Massachusetts, Co-Chairman Frank R. Wolf, Virginia, Co-Chairman

 United States Congress

 “The Humanitarian and Human Rights Crisis in Iraq”

 December 12, 2014


I. Introduction

II. Background

Founded in 1983, MADRE is an international women’s human rights organization that supports the development of networks of community-based women’s organizations in over 25 countries. MADRE has been working in Iraq for over a decade conducting trainings with the aim of building the capacity of local organizations to promote women’s rights and democracy in Iraq. Currently in partnership with both international and local organizations, MADRE offers humanitarian aid; safe passage and shelter for women and girls fleeing violence; and provides medical care as well as psychosocial support for victims of violence. MADRE works to build the capacity of local Iraqi women’s organizations by providing them with the necessary skills and tools to identify and document human rights violations and raise public awareness for the protection and promotion of the rights of marginalized and at-risk Iraqis.

As a result of our experience and extensive collaboration on multiple projects with our local partners in Iraq, we have identified the following issues as prominent factors that impede the provision of much needed humanitarian aid to vulnerable populations, and the protection of human rights.

II. Women’s Human Rights Violations in the Context of ISIL

The threats to civilians, particularly vulnerable groups such as women and girls, posed by ISIL and other militia groups should be understood as a continuing outgrowth of the deterioration of human rights over the last couple of decades in Iraq. Comprehensively addressing the rights and humanitarian needs of women and girls fleeing ISIL-controlled territories requires addressing the pre-existing threats to women and girls embedded in Iraq’s laws and social norms.

As men have either been killed or heeded calls to fight ISIL, women have become the heads of hundreds of thousands of households. Women and the children in their care are also the majority of the over two million people who have fled their homes in fear of ISIL and airstrikes. Although there are numerous provisions under Iraqi law that aim to protect women’s human rights, gaps and deficiencies within the law itself, the criminal justice system, and law enforcement allow for the continuation of human rights abuses in violation of international human rights standards.

For these reasons, we should not consider immediate violations committed against marginalized and at-risk Iraqis including women and girls by ISIL as isolated events. It is equally important to consider and respond to the context and underlying conditions that fuel women and girls’ vulnerability and undermine their capacity to survive and recover from the crisis.

The US Government has an opportunity to show strong leadership in this endeavor. Through targeted programming and strategic funding to local Iraqi women’s organizations the US State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor (DRL) is already making strides to promote the rights, protection and physical security of Iraqi women at-risk, as well as other marginalized and vulnerable individuals. Programming to support capacity building and technical assistance to local women’s organizations and vulnerable populations has strengthened knowledge of human rights, improved abilities to document and report on cases of abuse against marginalized and at-risk Iraqis, and to advocate for the human rights of these communities at both the national and international level. DRL has further supported programming to enhance immediate and direct service provision to women and other vulnerable victims, supporting safe housing to protect individuals from the current threat of ISIL, as well as lifetimes of violence and discrimination.  These safe houses have provided safe haven, physical and mental rehabilitation, life skills and training on human rights and fundamental freedoms to numerous marginalized and at-risk Iraqis. The support these individuals have received has allowed them to emerge from their experiences with a renewed sense of self-worth, pride, and energy to be active participants in the struggle to promote and defend human rights for all in Iraq.

Given the ongoing threats of violence and discrimination under the current context in Iraq, it is crucial to continue to support DRL to re-double its commitments to meet the urgent needs of women and other marginalized and at-risk Iraqis confronting ISIL violence. It is equally important to equip DRL with the resources to support the training and capacity building of marginalized and at-risk communities and the organizations that support them, to enable them to effect long-term change.

Iraqi NGO’s Unable to Provide Legal Shelter to Women Fleeing ISIL Related Violence

As the situation currently exists, local human rights organizations seeking to provide the shelter and support desperately needed by so many are forced to do so clandestinely. Iraqi officials maintain that the establishment and maintenance of private shelters by NGOs is illegal. Amending the shelter law to allow NGOs to run private shelters for displaced families and individuals would greatly aid the local Iraqi women’s organizations already mobilizing an emergency response to protect at-risk individuals. These local organizations are in the best position to reach displaced families and to provide shelter and aid. They are able to operate in areas unreachable by the government and/or international aid organizations. In order to advance the physical safety of women fleeing ISIL’s grip, the efforts of local Iraqi women’s organizations must be supported.

On September 19, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Iraq at the UN Security Council Ministerial Debate on Iraq, Nickolay Mladenov noted in a statement that the “pressure on local communities across Iraq is growing” and the continuing influx of 1.8 million displaced Iraqis has created “a massive shelter crisis.” With the rapid increase in the number of displaced individuals over the last two months, on November 26, 2014, Mr. Mladenov further urged “the relevant authorities to create safe shelters for survivors of violence,” identifying the overwhelmingly female displaced population as “Iraq’s bleeding wound.”[1]

The arrival of winter creates further challenges for families and individuals affected by Iraq’s current shelter crisis. Reflecting on winter’s threat to vulnerable Iraqis, Will Parks, head of UNICEF in northern Iraq, stressed the need for adequate shelter, stating, “We’ve got military situations all around us right now, and those are threats to life. But winter takes lives. It doesn’t bargain… Winter just kills children”. IDPs in the Kurdistan region of Iraq – host to 47 percent of the total displaced community – will soon become acutely aware of winter’s hazards. Within its most recent situation report, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) noted that unfinished buildings are the most common of the critical shelter types occupied by displaced people in the Kurdistan region of Iraq. Adequate shelters and support must be provided to these displaced individuals to prevent further deterioration of health, and potentially death.

In the absence of government sponsored services and legal remedies to address gender-based violence, local Iraqi women’s organizations are at the forefront of providing necessary services. Local organizations have first-hand understanding of the current crisis in Iraq hence are best situated to identify and meet the needs of the communities they serve. However, even prior to ISIL’s invasion, Iraqi NGOs and women’s rights defenders encountered regular harassment, arbitrary surveillance, and warrantless searches. As a result, their efforts to provide protection to those fleeing violence are greatly hindered.

Honor Crime Vulnerability for Women Fleeing ISIL Conflict

Leniency toward honor-related crimes in the Iraqi Penal Code exacerbates the situation for potential victims of honor-based crimes and killings. Articles 128[2], 130[3], and 409[4], the combination of which allow for mitigated sentences as little as six months for honor-related crimes, are particularly concerning. This clemency on the part of the justice system sends a message to Iraqi women and society at large that such gross acts of violence are tolerated. In the absence of protection mechanisms and legal remedies, people threatened with honor crimes have limited recourse; some are forced to flee cities under siege with no guarantee of safe haven.

The current human rights and humanitarian crisis in Iraq greatly increases the vulnerability of women and girls to honor crimes. In particular, traditional notions of “honor” have led to calls from some Iraqis for the government to bomb the schools and hospitals that serve as makeshift ISIL prisons. Occupants of these prisons include women and girls who may have been raped. In advocating for the government to destroy these prisons, some Iraqis hope that the death of these rape victims will “save the honor” of the people from besieged towns.

Additionally, honor is often perceived as compromised when a woman is abducted or kidnapped. The frequency with which ISIL kidnaps women and children from their home creates issues beyond the period of abduction, if the lives of those kidnapped are spared. For those that have escaped ISIL’s clutches and have returned home, many face a lasting stigma fueled by the presumption that abductors rape or sexually assault the women kidnapped. The shame and perceived loss of honor associated with these women sometimes compel family or community members to target these individuals in efforts to restore collective honor. For those that do not fall victim to honor killings, the stigma associated with their kidnapping can compel them to delay treatment or go without medical care altogether. Opting out of or delaying treatment for injuries sustained through an abduction presents a host of potentially deadly health risks unique to women and girls.

In order for Iraqi women to experience safety and protection from honor killings – a human right to which they are entitled – the Iraqi Penal Code must be amended to equate killings motivated by “honor” with all murder under law, in compliance with international standards. It is only through the unmitigated criminalization of honor killings that meaningful steps to eliminate the practice can truly take hold.

Obstacles to Women Obtaining Identification Documents  

Women fleeing from different forms of violence including honor killings, domestic violence, trafficking, sexual slavery or forced marriage, cannot obtain legal identification without verification from a male family member. The Civil Status Identification Document, considered to be the most important official document in Iraq, is required to access public services including food assistance, healthcare, education and housing, as well as employment. The Civil Status ID is also necessary to obtain a passport in order to travel abroad.[5]

According to credible reports[6], although not codified in the country’s law, an Iraqi woman can only be granted a Civil Status ID if a male relative vouches for her. However, in many cases, women seeking to obtain IDs have escaped GBV imposed by male relatives. Additionally, in the current context, many men have either been killed or joined the fight against ISIL. As a result, women cannot provide verification from a male family member, rendering it impossible for them to receive the Civil Status ID.

Without such identification documents, women cannot travel, find housing, obtain employment, access health services, or enroll in education institutions. In such cases, women could become stateless and are left more vulnerable to violence and discrimination. According to reports on the ground, thousands of stateless women reside in every major city in Iraq.

Staff members of MADRE’s local partner organization in Iraq, while assisting a female Iraqi minor whose entire family had been murdered, were informed that due to provisions in the Iraqi Personal Status law, she could not obtain identification documents without the presence of male relatives until she reached 18 years of age.[7] Consequently, she was unable to attend school, obtain social care or access a range of other public services.

Such discriminatory and gendered identification practices are conducive to further exclusion of women and girls from the public sphere, forcing them to forfeit their rights to education, employment, legal and other public services. Considering the current state of the crisis in Iraq, it is all the more critical to establish a mechanism for displaced women and girls to obtain identification documents without the need for verification from a male family member. Establishing this mechanism would greatly facilitate women in their efforts to access housing, health services, employment and education.

The Critical Need for Public Education

In an effort to raise awareness of, and accessibility to, services and shelters for marginalized and at-risk Iraqis as well as promote respect for human rights and equality, MADRE and its local partner have launched a public awareness and outreach campaign through Al Mousawaat radio station and newspaper. Over the course of the last two years, Al Mousaawat Radio (Equality Radio) has been successful at raising awareness about shelters and services offered to vulnerable groups. It has also succeeded in educating listeners about peace, tolerance, and the inherent link between respect for human rights and the achievement of democracy in Iraq.   

Despite these efforts, Iraqi society as a whole remains in great need of public education and sensitization around issues confronting marginalized and at-risk women and girls. The radio is an integral mechanism for combating societal discrimination to counter the current climate of hostility.

Public education is advanced through a number of radio’s initiatives. Specifically, call-in sessions allow listeners to freely discuss peace and tolerance. Radio skits dramatize complicated human rights scenarios and model progressive conclusions, providing many Iraqis with their first exposure to peaceful resolution. Additionally, informational shows address topics such as the importance of pluralism and women’s economic rights.

The radio also serves as a powerful tool for discouraging sectarianism and seeks to prevent civil society from being swept into the ISIL-imposed violence and division that has taken hold of many Iraqi provinces. In addition, the radio station frequently employs shelter residents, offering them opportunities to obtain job skills and facilitating their transition from victim to agent for positive change.  

Despite the station’s overwhelming success, Al Mousaawat radio station has been shut down as a result of a government crack down on media campaigns since June 2014. Although the station has submitted all requisite paperwork to obtain the legal permit necessary for the station’s re-opening, the Communication and Media Commission has refused to grant the permit without providing an official legal reason.

Considering the devastating scale of the current crisis and the growing sectarian violence, it is critical to exploit varied public education mechanisms to promote peace, tolerance, and to provide examples of non-violent methods to resolve conflict. Supporting such domestic initiatives will greatly contribute to creating long-term positive social change and fostering a culture of democracy and respect for human rights in Iraq.

The Persecution of LGBT Iraqis

Compared to the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis facing persecution and threats to their livelihoods today, LGBT Iraqis may be the least protected in terms of threats to their safety because their persecutors range across society at large; they have little to no family, community support or government protection and their physical appearance may put them at risk in public. In addition they face risk and hostility in refugee circumstances. The current conflict has only exacerbated this issue.

Human rights abuses against this persecuted minority have been documented for over a decade. The most common threats to gender non-conforming Iraqis come from their families, communities, and tribes who view their existence as damaging to their collective honor. Consequently, family members often commit physical abuses such as severe beatings; force these individuals into heterosexual marriages or make death threats to supposedly defend their honor.

LGBT Iraqis have also faced organized, deadly persecution instigated, inspired, or tolerated by state actors and members of militia. Such “pogroms” peaked in 2009[8] and again in 2012[9]. Two militias in particular, the Mahdi Army and the League of the Righteous, are strongly suspected to be behind attacks against and killings of LGBT individuals. In addition, since 2007, Iraq’s security forces have become increasingly enmeshed with militias.[10] As a result, the close coordination between security forces and sectarian militias means the police is a source of threat, not protection for persecuted LGBT individuals in Iraq.

The rapid advance of the ISIL and its takeover of large swaths of Iraq has spelled the beginning of a new chapter of deadly risk for LGBT Iraqis. Although little concrete information is known about the daily suffering of LGBT persons in the ISIL-controlled areas, the group has made clear that there is no place for gender non-conforming individuals under its rule. These views are expressed in the group’s published interpretation of the Islamic law as well as in practice. In a statement apparently from June 2014, the ISIL said that in Syria it had condemned a man to death for homosexuality and carried out the punishment. Therefore, based on its own legal interpretations and its own claim to having carried out such sentences, coupled with reports of widespread sexual violence and instances of summary and arbitrary executions of persons believed to have engaged in homosexual acts, anyone believed to be LGBT under the ISIL control is likely at imminent risk of death.[11]

What makes today’s situation lethally dangerous to LGBT Iraqis and a matter of humanitarian crisis is the lack of formal state protection mechanisms such as shelters and law enforcement as well as a breakdown of law and order in the Iraqi society at large. In addition, inner-Iraqi escape routes have either been cut off due to ISIL’s territorial control over the northern areas or filled with high-risk checkpoints. Most organizations keep their distance, one international NGO worker surmised, because it is “dangerous for NGO activists to deal with LGBT [persons] as they themselves would be stigmatized and threatened.”[12]

Therefore, due to the diminished access of LGBT Iraqis to safe places, it is essential to increase resettlement spaces for LGBT individuals and to expedite direct resettlement of LGBT individuals fleeing violence and persecution.


Among global donors, the United States government stands in a unique position to support a rights-based approach in delivery of humanitarian aid in Iraq. There are practical steps that the United States government can take to reduce human rights abuses and defuse sectarian violence in the current crisis. MADRE recommends the following actions for the consideration of the distinguished Commission and the Government of the United States to ensure the respect and protection of human rights in Iraq.

1. Urge the Iraqi government to amend the shelter policy to allow local NGOs to run private shelters for displaced families and individuals. Local Iraqi women’s organizations are mobilizing an emergency response to protect people at severe risk as the threat of sectarian violence grows. They are in the best position to reach displaced families and to provide shelter and aid and their efforts must be supported.

2. Urge the Iraqi government to amend the honor crimes law to equate killings motivated by “honor” with all murder under law, in compliance with international law. Norms of “family honor” recognized in Iraq’s Penal Code, which allow for mitigated sentences, are a grave threat to women and girls who have been detained or abused by ISIL fighters. Hence the law must be amended to protect women and girls from targeted killings by their family and community in the name of honor.

3. Urge the Iraqi government to allow women and girls to obtain identification documents without the permission of a male family member. Acquiring identification documents enables women and girls to benefit from much needed social services. It also plays an important role in their ability to transition out of shelters.

4. Invest in public education programs that promote peace, tolerance, and respect for human rights. Public education tools such as Al Mousawaat radio and newspaper are essential to inform marginalized and at-risk populations about shelters and services offered. Furthermore, they play a central role in the vernacularization and domestic appropriation of international human rights standards and concepts such as democracy. The Iraqi government should allow media promoting democracy and human rights to continue working.

5. Urge the United Nations, local and international NGOs to increase safe and sanitary resettlement spaces for LGBT individuals. Considering the growing threat to the LGBT community due to the current crisis, it is all the more critical to ensure that LGBT individuals fleeing violence have access to safe shelters as well as medical and psychosocial services.

6. Expand funding to DRL for continued support to programs that meet the immediate needs of communities in crisis and enhance local capacity to effect long-term change. It is crucial to continue to establish and maintain safe spaces to promote and protect the rights and physical security of at-risk populations. It remains equally critical to act in the present moment to promote programs that fortify the voices and build the capacity of progressive citizens and organizations within Iraqi society who demand an end to violence and discrimination, and promote the establishment of a truly rights-based and democratic Iraq.

[1] United Nations in Iraq, Captive Women and Girls at the Hands of Terrorist Groups are Iraq’s Bleeding Wound, November 26, 2014. <> [accessed December 9, 2014.]

[2] Iraq Article 427 Penal Code 1969, see also United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), UNHCR Eligibility Guidelines for Assessing the International Protection Needs of Asylum Seekers from Iraq, 31 May, 2012.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Middle East Consultancy Services (MECS).  "Iraqi Civil Status Identification Card or al-Bitaqat al-Shikhsiya." 9 September 2012. [Accessed 1 Dec. 2014]

[6] Institute for War and Peace Reporting, Passport Misery Highlights Iraqi Women's Plight, 29 June 2011, available at: [accessed 8 December 2014]

[7] MADRE, Submission to the United Nations Universal Periodic Review, 20th Session of the Working Group on the UPR Human Rights Council. November 2014.

[8] Human Rights Watch, They Want Us Exterminated, August 2009. 

[9] MADRE, When Coming Out is a Death Sentence; Persecution of LGBT Iraqis, November 2014.

[10] Myriam Benraad, “Iraq’s Tribal Sahwa: Its Rise and Fall,” Middle East Policy Council (vol.18, no.1), Spring 2011, httpp:// [accessed October 1,2014.]

[11] MADRE, When Coming Out is a Death Sentence; Persecution of LGBT Iraqis, November 2014.

[12] Ibid.