Last week, the Department of Defence released its latest data on Australian Defence Force Operations in Iraq. The data showed that a record number of munitions had been dropped on targets in Mosul. In total, 119 munitions were dropped in May, up from 60 in April. This figure is in line with recent statements by Defence Minister Marise Payne, in which she described a preference for members of Da’esh to be killed on the battlefields of Iraq and Syria. The government is so far not pursuing a policy of investigating and charging foreign fighters from Australia with war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide, the Minister said “we would rather that they were eliminated as part of the process of the self-defence of Iraq and the operations being undertaken in Syria.”
Australia has obligations under the Rome Statute, and our own legislation on the International Criminal Court to investigate and prosecute the worst crimes under international law including crimes against humanity and genocide. The United Nations and Human Rights Watch have published definitive reports showing Da’esh perpetrating these crimes. At the end of 2016, Australia co-sponsored a General Assembly resolution on the investigation and prosecution of the worst crimes under international law in the war in Syria. But the government has so far been unwilling to follow through with those obligations.
Aerial bombardment of densely populated urban areas is unlikely to prove a successful strategy in counterinsurgency. While Da’esh’s strength in both Mosul and Raqqa gives rise to the need to consider operations as more than a counterinsurgency, aerial bombardment does not provide the precision required to defeat an enemy so immersed in highly populated terrain. Indeed, unlike other coalition partners in Iraq, Australia has proven unable to prove it has undertaken sufficient battle damage assessments to even calculate civilian casualties.
Similarly, several significant Australian Da’esh operatives have been considered killed in airstrikes but later discovered alive. Such operatives include Neil Prakash and Khaled Sharouf, amoung others. There is significant evidence that these individuals have perpetrated international crimes for which Australia is obliged to investigate and prosecute. Neil Prakash is likely guilty of genocide, and even more likely to be guilty of inciting genocide. At present, Prakash’s arrest warrant is only for terrorism related offences. There is significant evidence Khaled Sharrouf perpetrated sexual violence as war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity, as well as having breached Australia’s human trafficking laws. It seems unlikely Sharrouf will face any charges since the Immigration Minister revoked his citizenship earlier this year.
While thousands are dying in an aerial battle designed with a strategic imperative in mind, thousands of civilians are dying in the wreckage. Families are starving and economically devastated. Even families who are opposed to Da’esh are having trouble keeping young men from taking up arms when Da’esh are the only ones offering an income and food rations. Mainstream media commentary, including in publications like The Australian, has argued that it is just and right for these foreign fighters to be killed on the battlefield. But what that argument lacks is a grasp of the driving ideology, and the desperate calls for gender justice of the survivors of Da’esh’s crimes.
Survivors of Da’esh’s genocide of the Yazidi are crying out for justice. Military operations make no account for sex slaves still held captive, nor provision for their testimony. Evidence is being bombed and land operations make no consideration for its preservation or documentation. Police in Mosul may well have returned to directing traffic, but they are not documenting and investigating the sexual violence that has driven this conflict, nor any of the other crimes that have been perpetrated that are recognised under international law. In a speech at the UN earlier this year, international human rights lawyer Amal Clooney noted that ‘there is still not one ISIS militant who has faced trial for international crimes anywhere in the world’.
The final glaring flaw in the logic of annihilation is the willingness of Da’esh fighters to die as martyrs on the battlefield. Many of them not only prepare for this eventuality, but hope for its occurrence. The belief in martyrdom has long held the imagination of those in the west so it seems odd now that coalition strategy would bear it to fruition. Rather than bringing these fighters down to the level of common criminal, stigmatised as war criminals and génocidaires, we are giving them exactly what they want, a martyrs death in a battle for a caliphate.