Case study

Thematic case study - ISIL

A case study from the 2014 Human Rights and Democracy Report.


This section covers human rights concerns relating to ISIL only. For broader human rights concerns relating to Iraq and Syria please see their country of concern sections.

2014 saw ISIL make substantial territorial gains in Iraq and Syria. The UK government has been horrified by the brutality and inhumanity of ISIL, and the worsening humanitarian situation in Iraq and Syria.

ISIL fighters routinely use beatings or lashings, stoning, amputations and crucifixions as punishments. There are numerous reports of murder, unlawful detention, sexual violence enforced disappearances, and torture, inhuman and degrading treatment of civilians, including children.

ISIL uses extreme brutality to repress populations. There have been widespread reports of massacres against civilians, including of Yezidis and Christians in Mosul and Sunni tribesmen in western Anbar Province, both in Iraq, and mass executions in Ar-Raqqah and Homs in Syria. Mass graves have been discovered in Deir ez Zour in Eastern Syria.

ISIL routinely conduct executions, including of children. Residents are encouraged to attend and bodies are often displayed for days. The UN Commission of Inquiry (COI) on Syria has said that there are “reasonable grounds to believe that [ISIL] has committed the war crime of execution without due process”. Numbers are difficult to obtain or verify but the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has documented 1,175 executions of civilians by ISIL in Syria.

ISIL have kidnapped and murdered hundreds of innocent people, including international journalists and humanitarian workers.

Freedom of expression is severely restricted in ISIL-controlled areas. The COI found that ISIL “systematically targeted sources of dissent”. ISIL has attacked or imprisoned those who speak out, or do not adhere to the group’s ideology. Journalists have been abducted and killed and Reporters Without Borders say ISIL-controlled areas are now media “black-holes”.

ISIL routinely persecute human rights activists, including Sameera Salih Ali al-Nuaimy, an Iraqi human rights lawyer, who was abducted, tortured, and publicly executed in Mosul.

ISIL has imposed a twisted interpretation of Sharia law, enforced by its Al-Hisbah morality police. The COI found that harsh penalties are summarily meted out on the principle of “guilty until proven innocent” and detainees “have no access to lawyers and are afforded none of the due process rights inherent in a fair trial”. Punishments, including lashings, execution and crucifixion, are often carried out publicly as a deterrent.

ISIL’s attacks on civilians are not just confined to Iraq and Syria. In addition to attacks in the region, attacks have also taken place in Europe, Australia and Canada, including the first attack in Europe which took place in Brussels in May, killing four people. While the extent of ISIL’s involvement is yet to be determined, it is clear that these attacks were ISIL-inspired, and that at least one was carried out by an ISIL returnee from Syria.

Minorities in Iraq and Syria – including Christians, Turkmen Shi’a, Yezidis and Kurds – have been systematically targeted by ISIL, placing the long-term survival of some communities at risk. Amnesty International reported that ISIL has carried out ethnic cleansing “on a historic scale” in Iraq. The COI noted ISIL’s targeting of minorities has forced communities to assimilate or flee. ISIL enforce their ideology strictly and brutally. There have been widespread reports of minorities being pressured to convert to Islam or risk execution. ISIL fighters have also destroyed sites holy to non-Sunni Muslims in both Iraq and Syria.

Women and girls have seen their freedom appallingly restricted by ISIL. Women have been banned from public life and those who do not adhere to ISIL’s strict rules risk brutal punishment, including lashings and stoning. There have been widespread reports of women and girls, including several thousand Yezidis in northern Iraq, being abducted by ISIL fighters, subjected to forced marriage, rape and other sexual violence, and sold into slavery. Displaced women and girls are also vulnerable in and outside internally displaced persons (IDP) camps. They are exposed to increased levels of domestic violence as well as sexual harassment, organised prostitution, and sex trafficking.

Children have been indoctrinated by ISIL in school and trained as child soldiers. There are reports of children being used as executioners, checkpoint guards and suicide bombers.

UK action

The UK condemns the brutal human rights abuses perpetrated by ISIL fighters, and is committed to defeating ISIL through a comprehensive and sustained international strategy, as part of the efforts of the global anti-ISIL coalition. In Iraq, the UK is working closely with regional, US, European and other partners to defeat ISIL in Iraq and Syria, and to help prevent and manage the impact of ISIL on the region, particularly in Lebanon and Jordan. And, at home, we are taking action to prevent attacks and identify those who are planning them.

Cutting off ISIL’s access to funding and foreign fighters is key to defeating ISIL. We have led efforts to reinforce sanctions against those who try to recruit fighters, and strongly supported multilateral initiatives including UN Security Council Resolutions (UNSCRs) 2170 and 2178. UNSCR 2170, a UK initiative, was adopted unanimously in August 2014, condemning ISIL, the Al- Nusra Front (ANF) and other terrorist groups listed under Al Qaeda sanctions. In Iraq, UK airstrikes, surveillance and support to the Iraqi Security Forces and the Peshmerga forces have contributed to halting the advance of ISIL and its brutal practices. The UK cosponsored the resolution passed by the UN Human Rights Council on 1 September, which highlighted ISIL’s abhorrent actions, and committed to a fact-finding mission to Iraq to investigate these atrocities. The mission’s findings will be discussed in March 2015. We have called for the situation in Syria to be referred to the International Criminal Court and supported a UNSC resolution to that effect in May, which was vetoed by Russia and China.

We have pledged £700 million in aid to Syria and the region. The Department for International Development is supporting partners to protect and support survivors of sexual and gender-based violence. We are also working with the Canadian government to build the capacity of Iraqi organisations to prevent and respond to sexual violence.

In both Iraq and Syria, we will continue to look at every available option to ensure accountability, and to work with our international partners on what can be done both to assist the victims and to bring those responsible to justice. We will work closely with coalition partners to continue the international fight against ISIL.

This case study is part of the 2014 Human Rights and Democracy Report.

Published 12 March 2015