Where We Work | Iraq

PHR has been investigating human rights violations in Iraq for three decades.

In 1991, PHR investigators traveled to Iraqi Kurdistan to help exhume, identify, and determine the probable cause and manner of death of victims found buried in single and mass graves.

Between December 23 and December 29 of 1991, our delegation traveled from Zakho, the northernmost town in Kurdish-controlled Iraq, to cities of Erbil and Sulaymaniyah in the south. In each of these cities, we interviewed relatives of the disappeared, former political prisoners, and Kurdish investigators and political leaders. We took testimony from grave diggers who, years earlier, had been ordered by Iraqi officers to secretly bury the bodies of executed political prisoners. We also interviewed a 15-year-old boy whose testimony may hold the key to one of the greatest mysteris in Iraqi Kurdistan: what happened to at least 100,000 men, women, and children who the Kurds say have disappeared without trace? Our findings were published in the report, “Unquiet Graves.”

Also that year, PHR conducted an investigation into the serious medical consequences of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. Our team found evidence of assaults on health professionals, interference with the delivery of health care, the stripping of medicine and medical supplies from health facilities, and the stationing of military personnel in hospitals – all violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law.

In 1989, PHR’s report, “Winds of Death,” contained evidence that Iraq’s army had attacked Kurdish villages with bombs containing mustard gas and an unknown lethal nerve agent.

In the report, PHR investigators used a survey and medical examinations to corroborate accounts of chemical weapons attacks. In 1993, their findings were further supported by soil samples taken by a PHR and Human Rights Watch team investigating casualties of the Anfal Campaign. Those samples were analyzed by the British Chemical & Biological Defence Establishment (CBDE), a British Ministry of Defence laboratory. The CBDE tests found trace amounts of the compounds that comprise mustard gas and sarin.

In the post-9/11 period, PHR warned of the serious risk to the health and human rights of the Iraqi people in the event of war. We also highlighted the grave health consequences and legal requirements surrounding the interrogation, torture, and ill-treatment of detainees, and called on the U.S. government to clarify the involvement of health professionals in these brutal methods.

PHR’s current work in Iraq is spearheaded by our Program on Sexual Violence in Conflict Zones and is centered on building up the country’s ability to investigate international crimes and acts of sexual violence. This includes documentation of crimes against the long-persecuted Yazidi people, who suffered a brutal 2014 attack by ISIS in which thousands of men, women, boys, and girls were killed, forced into flight, or abducted, raped, and enslaved.

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