Exclusive: Survivors and witnesses bring case to human rights council over 2021 attack killing eight people
31 July 2023 | Patrick Wintour, The Guardian
Turkish airstrikes that allegedly targeted a civilian hospital and killed eight people in Iraq have been made the subject of a formal complaint to the UN human rights council.
It is the first case to be brought on the issue of Turkish airstrikes against the Yazidi people. The attack on 17 August 2021 destroyed the Sikeniye medical clinic in Sinjar and left more than 20 people injured.
The four claimants, either survivors or witnesses to the airstrikes, say they violated their right to life under international law, as guaranteed by article 6 of the international covenant on civil and political rights.
Further, the claimants allege that Turkey failed to investigate the killing of civilians resulting from the airstrikes and provide victims with effective remedies, constituting a violation of their rights to a prompt, independent and effective investigation under the same covenant.
The complaint was submitted late last week and took two years to prepare.
Turkey characterised the airstrikes at the time as an attempt to control the armed wing of the Kurdistan Workers’ party (PKK) as well as the Sinjar Resistance (YBS), a Yazidi self-defence force. The YBS denies Turkish claims that it is linked to the secular PKK.
The claim to the UN states that the hospital was near a YBS checkpoint but no armed units directly protected the facility, which was built in a civilian area. The claimants say all eight of those killed were hospital staff members.
It is claimed that since 2017 about 80 Yazidis have been the victims of “collateral damage” from Turkish airstrikes against PKK targets in Iraq, where many fighters have found refuge.
The legal claim asserts that Sikeniye was a purely civilian hospital run by the Sinjar council, with 10 beds and about 20 occupants. One of the complainants, a hospital staff member identified only as C1 in the claim, gave an eyewitness account of the attack, saying he had not recovered from the mental and physical consequences. A third witness, a relative of a victim of the strikes, said there were no PKK members at the site.
On 18 August 2021, the Turkish ministry of defence claimed to have neutralised 10 PKK terrorists in an air operation. Earlier that week, a Turkish airstrike targeted a vehicle in the centre of Sinjar, killing a commander and a YBS fighter and injuring three people.
The claim has been bought on behalf of four Yazidis by the Accountability Unit, a human rights NGO, and Women for Justice, a Yazidi NGO based in Germany that is being supported by human rights lawyers in the UK.
Aarif Abraham, the director of the Accountability Unit, said: “This is a critically important and symbolic case involving clearcut violations of the fundamental rights of Yazidi citizens by the Turkish state. There is no lawful excuse for targeting a civilian hospital with three successive airstrikes in 30 minutes, killing eight civilians and seriously injuring over 20 others.
“Turkey has long enjoyed impunity and the international community’s silence for targeting non-Turkish nationals outside its territories on the pretence of targeting terrorists. The human rights committee is the only body which holds the realistic prospect of holding Turkey accountable and providing the victims with meaningful redress.”
Dr Leyla Ferman, the chief executive of Women for Justice, said: “After the victory over Islamic State in Sinjar, the Turkish airstrikes pose the greatest security risk. The Yazidis were shocked that Turkey did not stop at a hospital.”
She said the case was a chance to show that the security of the Yazidis was a concern of the UN.
The continued security tensions have slowed the return of Yazidis in exile, after a genocide perpetrated against them by IS in 2014. In Sinjar and refugee camps in northern Iraq, the tens of thousands of displaced Yazidis blame the absence of a clear governing authority for the failure to ensure their safety and bring public services back to the province.
The complaints procedure against a state party is largely in written form, and can require the state party to provide compensation and guarantees of non-repetition.
The UK government has urged Turkey and the Kurds in Iraq to settle their differences but has not directly condemned the airstrikes by Turkey.