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Bodies float down the Tigris as the international system crumbles

Locals living downstream from Mosul intercepted hundreds of bodies in the Tigris River over recent months, with many bearing evidence of summary execution and torture. When questions were raised about these decomposed corpses, Iraqi security forces shrugged: They were probably Daesh sympathizers. They deserved it.

Latest estimates suggest that at least 40,000 civilians may have been killed in the battle for Mosul, yet when I recently wrote about an epidemic of human rights violations inside the city, some respondents accused me of being a Daesh mouthpiece — which anyone who has read my articles will see is ridiculous. One reply even claimed that Iraqi and Syrian children deserved everything coming to them, because their parents were collectively responsible for the carnage.

Daesh militants are the godless scum of humanity and must face justice for their evil atrocities. Yet they are, among other things, the culmination of decades of brutalization in Iraqi society; a cycle perpetuated and exacerbated by militias and security forces who believe it is normal to torture and murder suspects who fall into their hands.

Let us for a few minutes countenance claims that Daesh members and their extended families deserve the vengeance being visited upon them. Let us also (just for a moment) accept the assertion that indiscriminate coalition bombing raids which killed hundreds of Mosul civilians were the only means of defeating Daesh. On a practical level, what are the consequences?

Extremist groups are already milking the violence waged against them as propaganda to radicalize a new generation of disaffected youths.

When thousands of people are accused of being Daesh sympathizers simply based on their tribe or religion, this risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophesy among dispossessed and brutalized citizens of “liberated” Mosul who are more familiar with Daesh’s savagery than any of us.

With the political wings of Shiite militias responsible for mass atrocities already campaigning to dominate Iraq’s Parliament after next year’s elections, Sunni communities risk becoming more disfranchised, vulnerable and disempowered than ever. Hundreds of residents even reported being forced to pay security forces to escape Mosul unmolested, with the going rate being around $1,000.

Vicious collective punishment and indiscriminate atrocities against entire stigmatized communities are not just immoral according to dusty text books in The Hague. It is stupid and self-defeating, because these injustices are sowing the seeds of Daesh’s successors before our very eyes.

Extremist groups are already milking the violence waged against them as propaganda to radicalize a new generation of disaffected youths.

Baria Alamuddin

It is not only Iraqi authorities who shrug and say: “These people were all Daesh.” The international community has scarcely made a whisper of concern about mass abuses which (apparently deliberately) rival Daesh in their viciousness. Patrick Cockburn, in a recent Independent newspaper article, gave his own shrug about Daesh suspects being thrown off buildings, quoting officers justifying these executions because “their own government is too corrupt to keep captured ISIS (Daesh) fighters in detention.” As if that explained everything!

The rest of the world has been quick to shirk its responsibilities, reintroducing the law of the jungle where gangster regimes get away with anything and “might makes right.” Iraqi paramilitaries using Daesh’s terrorist techniques against civilians to avenge Daesh is just one example. Israel’s provocative restrictions at Al-Aqsa Mosque and legislation to allow expansion of settlement activity also indicate how we are entering a post-international-law age — abandoning the (admittedly flawed) liberal consensus of the latter half of the 20th century.

The beneficiaries are rogue states like Iran which is fast-tracking executions, while entrenching allies and proxies in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen. Russian President Vladimir Putin — thanks to his romance with his US counterpart Donald Trump and Chinese facilitation — gets away with murder to expand Russian influence across the global chessboard.

We have just passed the anniversary of the 2016 failed coup in Turkey, a landmark moment exploited by Recep Tayyip Erdogan to accelerate the rollback of civil freedoms. Meanwhile European nations flout obligations toward refugees by closing borders, restricting aid and returning vulnerable migrants to war-ravaged countries. Composed in the same spirit, Trump’s travel ban on citizens from several Muslim-majority countries was rightly challenged by the courts. Poland’s authoritarian government — days after Trump’s visit — sought to purge its Supreme Court and install pliant judges; observers warn that Polish democracy “hangs in the balance.” In Brexit Britain, right-wing MPs talk wistfully about divesting themselves of the obligations of the European Court of Human Rights.

As a species, we either live within an enforced system of international law — or not. The alternative is a new dark ages where atrocities are committed under our noses with impunity. The implications are terrifying. As a journalist, each year I see more colleagues detained, harassed and killed. I fear the world our grandchildren will grow up in. As we enjoy our summer holidays, a lack of serious media coverage gives us a false sense of insulation from conflicts, famines, drug epidemics, population displacement and weapons proliferation.

NATO, the Arab League and the UN Security Council have been undermined by chronic failures and are unfit for purpose. The world is in dire need of genuine leadership by figures who understand the complexities of the international system, with the wisdom to ensure reform of international institutions to address these existential challenges.

When we abdicate our global responsibilities and vote for the law of the jungle, in the form of leaders who claim that all we need for a safer world are bigger walls — then we should not be surprised when in years to come, we look outside our own windows and watch the bodies floating past us down the river.

• Baria Alamuddin is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster in the Middle East and the UK. She is editor of the Media Services Syndicate, a foreign editor at Al-Hayat, and has interviewed numerous heads of state.