One million Iraqis victims of forced disappearances, UN says

Five decades of violence have taken a huge toll on the country's population

Demonstrators hold pictures of missing and killed relatives during a protest in Najaf in 2008. Reuters
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The UN on Wednesday called on Iraqi authorities to take action after a report highlighted that one million Iraqis were victims of forced disappearances over the past five decades.

The report, by the UN Committee on Enforced Disappearances, comprises 10 independent experts who said they were "deeply concerned" that the practice has been continuing with impunity since the late 1960s.

The UN Committee on Enforced Disappearances urged Iraq to immediately establish the basis to "prevent, eradicate and repair this heinous crime".

Following decades of conflict and political violence, disappearances — including enforced disappearances such as kidnappings by secret police or militia groups — have been identified as “a problem of massive proportions in Iraq”.

Official estimates indicate that since 1968, between 250,000 and 1,000,000 people have "disappeared," although it is impossible to provide more precise figures.

"During the Baath era in the Federal Iraq and Kurdistan region, up to 290,000 people, including some 100,000 Kurds, were forcibly disappeared as part of Saddam Hussein’s genocidal campaign in Iraqi Kurdistan," said the report.

The findings are based on a visit by the experts to Iraq from November 12 to 15.

"We are deeply concerned that enforced disappearance has been widespread over different periods, and that impunity and revictimisation prevail," said the report.

“The visit constitutes a new step in the Committee’s interaction with Iraq, one of the first countries to ratify the Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance,” the report said, adding that much more needs to be done.

During their visit to Iraq, the experts met with senior officials, victims and civil society representatives.

Members heard numerous testimonies from victims, including a mother whose son disappeared after being stopped at a checkpoint while going to visit a cousin.

“My son went to visit his cousin. I called him soon after he left because he had forgotten the bread I wanted him to offer my nephew. He replied, saying that he was at a checkpoint and some men in uniform were checking him, and that he would call me immediately afterwards. He never did," she said.

The mother has been searching for her son everywhere in hospitals and prisons but has not been able to find him.

The committee of experts said the mother's account represents a continuing pattern in Iraq.

The report has been divided into "five waves” of disappearances over the past 50 years.

The first wave covered the rule of Saddam until 2003.

The second “wave” of disappearances covers the 2003 invasion to the pre-ISIS period.

During this time, the United States military and allies detained at least 200,000 Iraqis. Of this number, 96,000 were held at some point in prisons administered by the US or the United Kingdom.

“It is alleged that detainees were arrested without a warrant for their involvement in insurgency operations, while others were ‘civilians in the wrong place at the wrong time’”, the Committee said.

In other instances, violent groups had a clear idea of whom they wanted to target, including civilians. During Iraq's civil conflict between 2004 and 2009, militia groups loyal to Iran infiltrated the police force and kidnapped, tortured and killed tens of thousands of suspected terrorists. Analysts say many were innocent, including teachers, health workers and other ordinary members of the public.

On August 3, 2014, in the Yazidi-majority district of Sinjar, ISIS abducted and disappeared thousands of women and girls for forced marriage or sexual slavery, while men and boys were separated, massacred and buried in mass graves.

It is estimated that around 6,800 Yazidis were abducted and around 3,100 killed over a few days.

An estimated 3,000 are still missing.

Updated: April 05, 2023, 4:48 PM