On November 13, 2021, hundreds of protestors from the adjacent Assyrian villages of Shiyyez and Mar Yaqo located in Dohuk Province in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) took to the streets protesting longstanding and systemic inequalities in the allocation of public resources and infrastructure—including water distribution and poor road conditions—as well as the privatization of electricity and a confluence of factors advancing demographic change. Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) authorities responded by deploying riot police to suppress the protest, and protestors were met with unlawful force in a flagrant disregard for the right to freedom of peaceful assembly.
The protest was sparked by public concern about the installation of new electrical meters in these villages. The new metering units are part of a broader effort to privatize the KRI’s electricity sector and control the consumption of electricity amid chronic electricity shortages. However, local Assyrians fear that privatization will lead to rate increases and a reduction in access to electricity for those struggling financially due to ongoing public-sector salary cuts and delays, among other concerns.
KRG riot police used physical force as a first resort tactic against peaceful protestors rather than as a response to any sort of actual threat or violence. The officers used excessive force in order to disperse protestors and deter future demonstrations, to harm protestors, or, at the very least, knowing this would be the result. This unlawful use of force included beatings using batons and riot shields. Such tactics are particularly effective at deterring minoritized groups from exercising free speech, as they already feel more vulnerable and are more susceptible to terrorization and intimidation.
To evaluate this incident, the API gathered verified videos and photographs of the protest from eyewitnesses and social media platforms. In addition, API researchers were also able to interview victims, other protestors, and relevant officials by phone and video call. Verified video evidence shows unnecessary and disproportionate use of force by KRG riot police. The API has documented 17 eyewitness accounts of abuses perpetrated by the security forces at the protest. At least 11 protestors sustained injuries varying in severity. The API’s analysis shows that KRG security forces violated human rights instead of fulfilling their obligations to respect and facilitate the right of people to peacefully protest.
Crowd control measures and other actions taken by KRG security forces against Assyrian communities have frequently violated the rights of protestors and international standards on the policing of protests, including human rights violations committed against Assyrians protesting land confiscations in Nahla in 2016 and the suppression of protests in Alqosh following the unilateral replacement of its mayor in 2017.
“We are deeply troubled by the disproportionate response of riot police against peaceful protestors,” said Reine Hanna, API Executive Director. “Communities should not live in fear of being harmed by security forces when exercising their rights. This latest incident is yet another example of how the KRG uses its security forces to quell dissent in areas under its jurisdiction. Officers responsible for the use of excessive force must be held accountable—but that in itself is not enough. What’s needed is systemic reform of KRG security forces that brings an end to the highly-partisan nature of KRG forces.”
Together with other related rights, the right to freedom of peaceful assembly constitutes the very foundation of a system of participatory governance based on democracy, human rights, the rule of law, and pluralism. The right to peaceful assembly helps ensure economic, social, and cultural rights are upheld. Moreover, protest is often one of the only tools available for marginalized groups to successfully advocate for change and peaceful resolutions.
According to international law, state authorities may only disperse assemblies when ‘strictly unavoidable,’ such as when there is clear evidence of an imminent threat of serious violence that cannot be addressed through other measures. Any use of force must be proportionate to a legitimate law enforcement objective, such as meeting any threat of violence.
In order to fulfill its human rights obligations, the KRG should not only refrain from suppressing protests, but also needs to create a safe and enabling environment for members of the public to exercise their rights to peaceful assembly and freedom of expression. Authorities should promptly, effectively, impartially, and independently investigate this incident to ensure that perpetrators are held accountable.
Further, the U.S. and its partners must reevaluate their approach to military aid to the KRI and make the continuation of support to the KRG armed forces conditional, including contingencies on the protection of human rights and the fair treatment of minority communities.
The villages of Shiyyez and Mar Yaqo are located in Simele District in Dohuk Province in the KRI. The API estimates the villages are together home to upwards of 1000 families, including significant IDP populations displaced by the ISIS takeover of parts of Ninewa Governorate in 2014. Most Assyrian villages inside the KRI lack proper infrastructure including but not limited to electricity, hospitals, adequate schools, acceptable roads, water supply, waste management, parks, bridges, and other public services.