Delivered Monday, August 18, 2014
By Alen Mirza
Good morning members of the Committee,
My intervention today will discuss the Government of Iraq’s obligations under the ICERD as they relate to the country’s indigenous Assyrian Christian population and other similarly situated minority communities.
Assyrians, referred to also as Chaldeans or Syriacs, represent a distinct, ethno-religious and linguistic community in Iraq with a heritage linked to the pre-Islamic and pre-Arab civilizations of Mesopotamia. They are politically non-dominant, profess to various ancient traditions of Christianity, and were historically the first to settle in many of the territories they currently reside. They speak Syriac, a dialect of Aramaic known commonly as “Sureth” which served as the lingua franca of Western Asia before the advent of Arabic. But now, the language once spoken by Christ has been designated as “definitely endangered” by UNESCO and faces the threat of extinction in the lands where it originated.
Their heritage as one of the oldest Christian communities in the world serves as a justification for violent attacks by members of the Islamic State (IS) and their affiliated armed groups. Following IS’s capture of Mosul in early June 2014, an edict was issued to all non-Muslims in the city to either convert to Islam, pay a tax, flee or be killed. As nearly all of the city’s 35,000 Assyrian residents escaped Mosul, members of IS marked their homes with the Arabic letter “noon” to symbolize the word “Nasrani,” meaning “Christian.” Each of the 30 churches and monasteries inside the city are believed to be in the hands of IS militants, who have reportedly removed the building’s crosses and burned, looted, or destroyed much of the property. In late June, the Chaldean Catholic Church’s Archbishop of Erbil stated that for the first time in 1,600 years, mass was not celebrated in Mosul.
Many initially sought refuge in the Nineveh Plain region, one of the only places within the country historically dominated by native non-Muslim and non-Arab populations and which houses the greatest concentration of Assyrian in Iraq. Earlier this month, nearly all of the roughly 200,000 residents in the Nineveh Plain, including many who have endured repeated displacement, fled the region as IS militants advanced. Now this culturally unique and historically significant territory is nearly empty of its indigenous inhabitants. The resulting humanitarian crisis has garnered the highest level emergency designation by UN officials as tens of thousands of perpetually uprooted ethno-religious minorities struggle to access food, water and shelter from the scorching summer heat.
As disastrous as their situation may be, their fate is immeasurably better than those unable to escape the advances of IS militants. In a recent joint statement, the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence (SRSG) in Conflict and the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Iraq noted that members of IS may have forced as many as 1,500 Christians and other minorities into sexual slavery.
The rampant rate of emigration is indicative of the reality that Assyrian will no longer remain a viable component of Iraq’s once vibrant social fabric. While Assyrian were believed to number 1.4 million before the 2003 invasion, current estimates place the community at less than half that size. Their population continues to dwindle as church officials claim that roughly six Assyrian families leave Iraq everyday. In 2011, Assyrian represented 52 percent of new UNHCR-registered Iraqi refugees in Turkey and more than half of new UNHCR-registered Iraqi refugees in Lebanon. The statistic is alarming when considering that the community represented just 3 percent of Iraq’s population before 2003.
The persecution of Assyrian at the hands of the Islamic State is compounded by a longstanding legacy of discrimination targeting non-Arab communities within Iraq. While such a legacy emerged under the regime of Saddam Hussein, much of this discrimination against Assyrian Christians persists – and is even reinforced at times – by various levels of Iraq’s new democratic government. For instance, despite provisions within Iraq’s Constitution requiring that security services maintain a balanced representation of the country’s various components, Assyrian Christians constitute an inequitable proportion of local security forces in the Nineveh Plain as well as high-ranking law enforcement positions. Systematic policies of unlawful expropriation, disproportionately large waves of mass displacement and state-sponsored efforts to effectively alter the demographic characteristics of their indigenous territories have both violated Constitutional safeguards and served to undermine the right of Assyrian Christians to own property free from discrimination. These and many other violations of ICERD are detailed in our submission to the Committee.
While the Government of Iraq and those throughout the international community have condemned such atrocities, little action has been taken to cure the injustices. Iraq’s commitments under ICERD go beyond passive obligations to refrain from engaging in discrimination but includes an affirmative duty ensure that all of the country’s racial and ethnic components enjoy genuine equality, both in law and in fact. Such targeted persecution warrants swift and effective action to ensure that the indigenous Assyrians and other minorities in Iraq are afforded equal enjoyment of their rights contained within this treaty, including but not limited to freedom from discrimination in their right to security of person, political rights, right to own property and manifest their religion or belief.
Now is a critical moment for the future of these ancient communities. It is for these reasons that the AUA recommends the following:
- The establishment of a competent local security force to protect the Nineveh Plain and other indigenous territories with members comprised of those native to the region.
- The establishment of special measures in the realm of political participation, religious freedom and the security of person aimed at ensuring the adequate advancement of the rights of indigenous Assyrians in their ancestral homeland of the Nineveh Plain and throughout Iraq.
- Lastly, I share the recommendations put forth by Minority Rights Group in urging the safe and full return of displaced Assyrians and other minorities back to the Nineveh Plain region and further urge the establishment of an internationally mandated safe haven to guarantee the continued survival of these communities within Iraq.