Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person
a. Arbitrary Deprivation of Life and Other Unlawful or Politically Motivated Killings
There were numerous reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings (see also section 1.c., Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, case of Hisham Mohammed). Nongovernmental militias and ISIS affiliates also engaged in killings (see section 1.g.).
The country experienced large-scale protests in Baghdad and several Shia-majority provinces that began in 2019 and lasted through mid-2020. Sporadic protests continued during the year amid a continued campaign of targeted violence against activists. According to the Iraqi High Commission for Human Rights (IHCHR), 591 protesters were killed from October 2019 until the end of May. For the same period, the IHCHR stated 54 protesters were still missing and that there were 86 attempted killings of activists, 35 of which were carried out successfully.
The government took minimal steps to bring to justice those responsible for the deaths. The prime minister ordered an investigation committee to determine if prosecution should be pursued. The committee is composed of the Ministry of Interior, Ministry of Defense, the National Security Service (NSS), and the operations command where the incident took place. The judiciary also investigated incidents at the behest of families of the victims. Although there have been several arrests related to targeted killings, few cases appeared to have moved beyond the investigative phase.
Human rights organizations reported that Iran-aligned Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) militia groups engaged in killing, kidnapping, and extortion throughout the country, particularly in ethnically and religiously mixed provinces. Unlawful killings by unidentified gunmen and politically motivated violence occurred frequently throughout the country. On May 9, unidentified gunmen purportedly from PMF militias shot and killed prominent activist and protest movement leader Ehab al-Wazni near his home in Karbala. Wazni’s death sparked protests in Karbala that saw demonstrators block roads and bridges with burning tires; dozens of protesters also burned tires and trailers outside the Iranian consulate the same night. The government announced in May the arrest of two suspects based on a third suspect’s confession; the case remained ongoing.
During the year the security situation remained unstable in many areas due to intermittent attacks by ISIS and its affiliated cells; sporadic fighting between the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and ISIS strongholds in remote areas; the presence of militias not fully under the control of the government, including certain PMF units; and sectarian, ethnic, and financially motivated violence.
There were frequent reports of forced disappearances by or on behalf of government forces, including Federal Police and PMF units. In May UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) reported that at least 20 activists abducted by “unidentified armed elements” remained missing.
c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
Although the constitution prohibits torture and forced confessions, there is no law setting out the legal conditions and procedural safeguards to prevent torture. Consequently, noncompliance enabled the practice of torture in jails, detention facilities, and prisons to be hidden from effective legal oversight. Moreover, the types of conduct that constitute torture are not legally defined under the law, and the law gives judges full discretion to determine whether a defendant’s confession is admissible, often without regard for the way it was obtained. Courts routinely accepted forced confessions as evidence, which in some ISIS-related counterterrorism cases was the only evidence considered. Numerous reports from local and international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) indicated that government officials employed torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment. Federal Police, Popular Mobilization Forces, and certain units of Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) Asayish internal security services, operated with impunity.
For example on July 28, social media outlets circulated widely news of the death of a young man, Hisham Mohammed, who was severely beaten by police officers during his arrest by the anticrime directorate in Basrah Province. His lawyer asserted that Mohammed had been arrested because of a similarity in his name to that of a fugitive accused of murder. Mohammed died from his injuries after police officers reportedly employed torture to secure a confession. The Ministry of Interior formed an investigative committee, but its results were not published.
As in previous years, there were credible reports that government forces, including Federal Police, the NSS, and the PMF, abused and tortured individuals – particularly Sunni Arabs – during arrest and pretrial detention and after conviction. Former prisoners, detainees, and international human rights organizations documented cases of torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment in Ministry of Interior-run facilities and, to a lesser extent, in Ministry of Defense-run detention facilities.
Human rights organizations reported that both Ministry of Interior and Ministry of Defense personnel tortured detainees. According to government forensics officials, some victims showed signs of excessive beating, in addition to bone fractures. Local NGOs reported that deaths at pretrial detention facilities, deportation prisons, and prisons were due to the continuation of systematic torture and the poor conditions in detention centers.
Prison and Detention Center Conditions
Prison and detention center conditions were harsh and occasionally life threatening due to food shortages, gross overcrowding, physical abuse, inadequate sanitary conditions and medical care, and the threat of COVID-19 and other communicable illnesses. In June the Ministry of Justice announced it had carried out a vaccination campaign of its entire prison population against COVID-19. The ministry spokesperson confirmed that prison staff were vaccinated and that there had been no positive cases recorded since May.
Physical Conditions: Overcrowding in government-run prisons was a systemic problem exacerbated by the number of alleged ISIS members detained by the government. The Iraqi Correctional Service, a part of the Ministry of Justice, administered 29 facilities in the country. The Justice, Defense, and Interior Ministries operated 24 detention facilities. In August a senior Ministry of Justice official warned that the overcrowding at Ministry of Justice-administered prisons could lead to the spread of communicable diseases.
In September a senior Ministry of Justice official reported that the five correctional facilities for juveniles held more than 150 percent of their maximum capacity, with more than half of juveniles held for terrorism-related convictions. Local NGOs published photos of overcrowded prison cells and called on the government to improve prison conditions, especially juvenile prisons. According to Ministry of Justice data, in prisons that held alleged ISIS-affiliated women, authorities also detained children up to 12 years old with their mothers. The Iraqi Observatory for Human Rights published photos of juveniles being held with adults at detention centers in Ninewa Province.
In October the Ministry of Justice released 68 juveniles under a special amnesty, and in August a senior ministry official stated that 1,300 inmates, including 86 juveniles, received special pardons to reduce overcrowding.
Across the Iraqi Kurdistan Region (IKR), there were six correctional centers: three for male prisoners and three for women and juvenile pretrial detainees and prisoners. The centers designated for women and juveniles held both pretrial detainees and prisoners, while male pretrial detainees were held at police station detention sections throughout the IKR. The total number of detainees incarcerated exceeded the designated capacity of each facility. The Independent Human Rights Commission Kurdistan Region (IHRCKR) reported in September that the Erbil Correctional Center, for example, which was built to house 900 detainees, held 1,875 inmates. In some detention centers and police-run jails, KRG authorities occasionally held juveniles in the same cells as adults.
The IHRCKR reported that IKR correctional centers suffered from long-term problems of overcrowding, inadequate water, sanitation, and hygiene facilities, use of violence during preliminary detention, and outdated infrastructure at women’s and juvenile centers. The spread of the COVID-19 pandemic also adversely affected prisoners’ health, and several died in custody. Limited medical staff was unable to provide adequate medical services to all prisoners.
Administration: The government reported it took steps to address allegations of mistreatment in government-administered prison and detention facilities, but the extent of these steps was not known. Both local and international human rights organizations asserted that judges frequently failed to investigate credible allegations that security forces tortured terrorism suspects and often convicted defendants based solely on coerced confessions. In addition, despite their concerns being raised, authorities ignored physical signs of torture, and the complaints procedures appeared to be neither fair nor effective. Many detainees chose not to report such treatment due to a lack of trust or fear of reprisals.
Prison and detention center authorities sometimes delayed the release of exonerated detainees or inmates due to lack of prisoner registration or other bureaucratic problems, or they extorted bribes from prisoners prior to their release at the end of their sentences. International and local human rights groups reported that authorities in numerous instances denied family visits to detainees and convicts. Guards allegedly demanded bribes or beat detainees when detainees asked to call their relatives or legal counsel.
The KRG inconsistently applied procedures to address allegations of abuse by KRG Ministry of Interior officers or the Asayish security forces. The United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) reported in August and December some IKR prisons failed to respect basic standards and procedural safeguards and that the mechanisms in place to receive complaints of torture did not appear to be effective or to provide remedy.
Independent Monitoring: Corrections Service prisons allowed regular visits by independent nongovernmental observers. Following virtual monitoring visits due to COVID-19 in 2020, observers during the year again were permitted physical visits to prisons. While such visits were irregular due to COVID-19 concerns early in the year, by December the Ministry of Justice reported 40 visits to adult correctional facilities and 20 visits to juvenile correctional facilities had taken place. Visits also included the provision of technical, health, and training support.
d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention
The constitution and laws prohibit arbitrary arrest and detention and provide for the right of any person to challenge the lawfulness of his or her arrest or detention in court. Despite such protections there were numerous reports of arbitrary arrests and detentions, predominantly of Sunni Arabs, including internally displaced persons (IDPs).
Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees
The law prohibits the arrest or remand of individuals, except by order of a competent judge or court or as established by the code of criminal procedures. The law requires authorities to register the detainee’s name, place of detention, reason for detention, and legal basis for arrest within 24 hours of the detention – a period that may be extended to a maximum of 72 hours in most cases. For offenses punishable by death, authorities may legally detain the defendant as long as necessary to complete the judicial process. The Ministry of Justice is responsible for updating and managing these registers. The law requires the Ministries of Defense and Interior and the NSS to establish guidelines for commanders in battlefield situations to register detainees’ details in this central register. The law also prohibits any entity, other than legally competent authorities, to detain any person.
Human rights organizations reported that Iraqi Security Forces, among them the Federal Police, NSS, PMF, as well as the Peshmerga and Asayish security forces in the Kurdistan Region, frequently ignored the law. Local media and human rights groups reported that authorities arrested suspects in security sweeps without warrants, particularly under the antiterrorism law, and frequently held such detainees for prolonged periods without charge or registration. The government periodically released detainees, usually after concluding that it lacked sufficient evidence for the courts to convict them, but many others remained in detention pending review of other outstanding charges.
The law allows release on bond for criminal (but not security) detainees. Authorities rarely released detainees on bail. The law provides for judges to appoint free counsel for the indigent. Attorneys appointed to represent detainees frequently complained that insufficient access to their clients hampered adequate attorney/client consultation. In many cases detainees were not able to meet their attorneys until their scheduled trial date.
Arbitrary Arrest: There were numerous reports of arbitrary arrest or unlawful detention by government forces, including by the ISF, NSS, PMF, Peshmerga, and Asayish security forces. There were no reliable statistics available regarding the total number of such acts or the length of detentions. Authorities often failed to notify family members of the arrest or location of detention, resulting in incommunicado detention if not enforced disappearance. Humanitarian organizations also reported that, in many instances, federal authorities did not inform detainees of the reasons for their detention or the charges against them. Many reports of arbitrary or unlawful detention involved suspected members or supporters of ISIS and their associates and family members.
There were reports of Iran-aligned PMF groups also arbitrarily or unlawfully detaining Kurds, Turkmen, Christians, and other members of minority groups in Ninewa Province. There were numerous reports of 30th and 50th PMF Brigades’ involvement in extortion, illegal arrests, kidnappings, and detention of individuals without warrants. Credible law-enforcement information indicated that the 30th PMF Brigade continued to operate secret prisons in several locations in Ninewa Province, which held unknown numbers of detainees arrested on sectarian-based and reportedly false pretenses. Leaders of the 30th PMF Brigade allegedly forced families of the detainees to pay large sums of money in exchange for the release of their relatives.
Human rights organizations reported frequently that KRG authorities arbitrarily detained journalists, activists, and protesters. These detentions included individuals who came to be known as the Badinan detainees, arrested in Duhok Province in 2020 for exercising their right to freedom of expression. Many were denied access to their lawyers and were not informed of the charges against them, nor were their families informed of their whereabouts in a timely manner. Many of those arrested were held in detention for lengthy periods without being brought before a judge, in violation of the law, only to be released without charges (see section 2.a.).
Pretrial Detention: The Ministries of Justice, Defense, Interior, and Labor and Social Affairs are authorized by law to hold pretrial detainees. The NSS intelligence agency and the Counterterrorism Service, which both report directly to the Prime Minister’s Office, may also hold pretrial detainees in limited circumstances, for a brief period. Lengthy pretrial detentions without due process or judicial review were a systemic problem, particularly for those accused of having ties to ISIS.
The Ministry of Justice ran five pretrial detention facilities, the Ministry of Defense ran two, and the Ministry of Interior ran 17 such facilities. In its annual report for 2020, the IHCHR reported 28,853 detainees held in detention facilities under the authority of the Ministry of Interior, 197 under the Ministry of Defense, and 116 under the Counterterrorism Service, the latter of which reported directly to the prime minister and were in the Counterterrorism Command. There were no independently verified statistics, however, concerning the approximate percentage of the prison and detainee population in pretrial detention, or the average length of time held.
The lack of judicial review resulted from several factors, including the large number of detainees, undocumented detentions, slow processing of criminal investigations, an insufficient number of judges and trained judicial personnel, authorities’ inability or reluctance to use bail or other conditions of release, lack of information sharing, bribery, and corruption.
Lengthy pretrial detentions were particularly common in areas liberated from ISIS, where the large number of ISIS-related detainees and use of makeshift facilities led to significant overcrowding and inadequate services. There were reports of detention beyond judicial release dates and unlawful releases. In May a local human rights organization reported that PMF-affiliated militias ran two makeshift detention facilities in Diyala and Salah al-Din Provinces, reportedly holding more than 7,000 ISIS-related detainees without due process or judicial review.
Authorities reportedly held numerous detainees without trial for months or years after arrest, particularly those detained under the antiterrorism law. Authorities sometimes held detainees incommunicado, without access to defense counsel, presentation before a judge, or arraignment on formal charges within the legally mandated period.
KRG authorities also reportedly held detainees for extensive periods in pretrial detention (see section 1.d.). KRG officials noted prosecutors and defense attorneys frequently encountered obstacles in carrying out their work and that trials were unnecessarily delayed for administrative reasons.
According to the IHRCKR, some detainees remained in KRG internal security service facilities for extended periods even after court orders were issued for their release. Lawyers provided by an international NGO continued to have access to and provide representation to any juvenile without a court-appointed attorney.
The constitution and law grant detainees the right to a prompt judicial determination on the legality of their detention and the right to prompt release. NGOs widely reported detainees had limited ability to challenge the lawfulness of detention before a court and that a bribe was often necessary to have charges dropped unlawfully or gain release from arbitrary detention. While compensation is a constitutional right, the law does not allow for compensation for a person found to have been unlawfully detained.
The constitution provides for an independent judiciary, but certain articles of law restricted judicial independence and impartiality. The country’s security situation and political history left the judiciary weak and dependent on other parts of the government. The Federal Supreme Court rules on matters related to federalism and the constitution, and a separate Higher Judicial Council manages and supervises the court system, including disciplinary matters. The parliament amended the Federal Supreme Court law in March and replaced the entire Supreme Court bench in April. The amended law was criticized by both political parties and civil society for formalizing politicized and sectarian appointments to the court, while minority and other civil society groups blocked an effort by Islamist parties to add Islamic jurists to the bench. The amendment and replacement process also removed the only Christian judge from the bench and created a new secretary general position, without voting powers, that was filled by a Christian judge.
Corruption or intimidation reportedly influenced some judges in criminal cases at the trial level and on appeal at the Court of Cassation.
Numerous threats and killings by sectarian, tribal, extremist, and criminal elements impaired judicial independence. Judges, lawyers, and their family members frequently faced death threats and attacks. For example, in January unknown gunmen killed the head of the Dhi Qar Advocates Chamber, Ali al-Hamami, while another lawyer survived an attempted killing two days later in the same province.
The Kurdistan Judicial Council is legally, financially, and administratively independent from the KRG Ministry of Justice, but KRG senior leaders reportedly influenced politically sensitive cases. The IKR’s strongest political parties also reportedly influenced judicial appointments and rulings. A December 22 joint UNAMI and OHCHR report raised concerns regarding documented statements by KRG officials that “may amount to undue influence in the judicial process, including over the outcome of any subsequent appeal proceedings.”
f. Arbitrary or Unlawful Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence
The constitution and law prohibit such actions, but there were numerous reports that the government failed to respect these prohibitions. Government forces often entered homes without judicial or other appropriate authorization.
Authorities reportedly detained spouses and other family members of fugitives – mostly Sunni Arabs wanted on terrorism charges – to compel the fugitives to surrender.
g. Conflict-related Abuses
Killings: Iraq Body Count, an independent NGO that records civilian deaths in the country, reported 417 civilians killed during the year due to internal conflict, a drop from 848 civilian deaths reported in 2020. An IHCHR commissioner attributed the drop in deaths to reduced protest activity.
Despite its territorial defeat in 2017, ISIS remained a major perpetrator of abuses and atrocities. The remaining fighters operated out of sleeper cells and strike teams that carried out sniper attacks, ambushes, kidnappings, and killings against security forces and community leaders. These abuses were particularly evident in Anbar, Baghdad, Diyala, Kirkuk, Ninewa, and Salah al-Din Provinces. On March 13, ISIS claimed responsibility for killing seven members of a single family in the Albu Dor region south of Tikrit in Salah al-Din Province.
Abductions: There were frequent reports of enforced disappearances by or on behalf of government forces, including the ISF and PMF, as well as non-PMF militias and criminal groups.
A 2020 UNAMI report released and shared with government officials on enforced disappearances in Anbar Province called for independent and effective investigations to establish the fate of approximately 1,000 civilian men and boys who disappeared during military operations against ISIS in Anbar during 2015-16. As of October the IHCHR had not received any information regarding these individuals, and the government had not added the names to their databases of known missing persons.
On August 1, the KRG Office for Rescuing Kidnapped Yezidis stated that 2,763 (1,293 women and 1,470 men) of the 6,417 Yezidis kidnapped by ISIS in 2014 remained missing.
Members of other minority populations were also victims of human rights abuses committed by ISIS forces. In February Ali Hussein of the Iraqi Turkmen Front reported a revised estimate of kidnapped Turkmen at 1,300 since 2014. Among the abductees, 470 were women, 130 children, and 700 men.
Physical Abuse, Punishment, and Torture: Reports from international human rights groups stated that government forces, including Federal Police, NSS, PMF, and Asayish, abused prisoners and detainees, particularly Sunni Arabs. In May, Afad Center for Human Rights reported that the detainees who were most frequently subjected to torture were Sunnis from the northern and western provinces, Baghdad belt region, and other areas that were subjected to ISIS occupation.
Child Soldiers: There was one verified report of recruitment and use of children by the Popular Mobilization Forces. The government and Shia religious leaders expressly prohibited children younger than 18 from serving in combat.
In previous years ISIS was reported to have recruited and used children in combat and support functions. Due in part to ISIS’ territorial defeat, little information was available on its use of children in the country during the year.
In August the United Nations Security Council Working Group on Children and Armed Conflict published its annual report on children and armed conflict, in which the UN Secretary General commended the government for its continuing discussion with the United Nations on developing an action plan to prevent the recruitment and use of children by the Popular Mobilization Forces; however, it noted that one new case of recruitment and use of a child soldier by the Popular Mobilization Forces was verified.
See also the Department of State’s annual Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.
Other Conflict-related Abuse: Conflict disrupted the lives of hundreds of thousands of persons throughout the country, particularly in Baghdad, Anbar, Diyala, Salah al-Din, and Ninewa Provinces.
Government forces, including the ISF and PMF, established or maintained roadblocks that reportedly impeded the flow of humanitarian assistance to communities in need, particularly in disputed territories such as the Ninewa Plain and Sinjar in Ninewa Province. ISIS continued to attack religious observances, including funerals, and civilian electricity and other infrastructure. In 2017 the UN Security Council, in cooperation with the government, established the UN Investigative Team to Promote Accountability for Crimes Committed by Da’esh/ISIL (UNITAD) to support domestic efforts to hold ISIS accountable by collecting, preserving, and storing evidence, to the highest possible standards, of acts that may amount to war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide committed by ISIS.
In May Special Adviser Karim Khan presented to the UN Security Council that UNITAD had established “clear and convincing evidence” that the crimes committed by ISIS against the Yezidis constituted genocide. UNITAD reported that ISIS was “responsible for acts of extermination, murder, rape, torture, enslavement, persecution, and other war crimes and crimes against humanity perpetrated against the Yezidis.” In September the UN Security Council extended UNITAD’s mandate for another year. In October government authorities, in cooperation with UNITAD, completed the excavation of a mass grave site in Bir Mantiqa al-Halwat, Anbar Province, where ISIS atrocities had reportedly occurred in 2014. The general director of mass graves at the IKR Ministry of Martyrs and Anfal Affairs confirmed in a public statement on December 8 that there were 90 mass graves in the Sinjar region. UNITAD-supported exhumation and identification activities continued throughout the year.
Militias and local authorities in some areas, including Ninewa and Diyala Provinces, tried to exercise control over NGO activities and staff recruitment. During August two humanitarian organizations reported to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs that security actors requested names and personnel details of employees as a condition for continuing humanitarian operations.
There were reports of physical harm to humanitarian staff operating in the country. Three staff of an international NGO were reportedly injured during Turkish military operations in and around Sinjar, Ninewa Province in August. Press outlets reported that these Turkish operations included airstrikes on what may have been a makeshift medical facility, killing four medical staff in addition to members of a militia affiliated with both the PKK and elements of the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces.
Section 6. Discrimination and Societal Abuses
Rape and Domestic Violence: The law criminalizes rape and sexual assault of women, men, and children, but does not specifically mention spousal rape; it permits a sentence not exceeding 15 years, or life imprisonment if the victim dies. The rape provisions of the law do not define, clarify, or otherwise describe “consent,” leaving the term up to judicial interpretation. The law requires authorities to drop a rape case if the perpetrator marries the survivor, with a provision protecting against divorce within the first three years of marriage. The survivor’s family sometimes agreed to this arrangement to avoid the social stigma attached to rape. There were no reliable estimates of the incidence of rape or information on the effectiveness of government enforcement of the law.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, UNAMI reported a significant increase in the reports of rape, domestic violence, spousal abuse, immolation and self-immolation, self-inflicted injuries due to spousal abuse, sexual harassment of minors, and suicide due to increased household tensions because of COVID-19 lockdowns, as well as economic hardship due to the country’s declining economy. In February the Federal Police stated that domestic violence increased by nearly 20 percent because of the pandemic.
In the absence of legislation to combat domestic violence, each relevant central government ministry devised its own way to respond to domestic violence. Although the constitution prohibits “all forms of violence and abuse in the family,” the law does not specifically prohibit domestic violence. Men may discipline their wives and children “within certain limits prescribed by law or by custom” and reduced sentences for violence or killing are applicable if the perpetrator had “honorable motives” or if the perpetrator caught his wife or female relative in the act of adultery. Domestic violence remained a pervasive problem.
Harassment of legal personnel who sought to pursue domestic violence cases under laws criminalizing assault, as well as a lack of trained police and judicial personnel, further hampered efforts to prosecute perpetrators.
The central government and KRG also struggled to address the physical and mental trauma endured by women who lived under ISIS rule. The Yezidi Survivors’ Law, passed by the COR in March, mandates a new Survivors’ Affairs Directorate under the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs to provide psychosocial support to victims of ISIS, including women and members of minority groups.
The Ministry of Interior maintained 16 family protection units under police authority, located in separate buildings at police stations around the country, designed to resolve domestic disputes and establish safe refuges for victims of sexual or gender-based violence. These units reportedly tended to prioritize family reconciliation over victim protection and lacked the capacity to support survivors. NGOs stated that survivors of domestic violence feared approaching the family protection units because they suspected that police would inform their families of their testimony. Some tribal leaders in the south reportedly banned their members from seeking redress through police family protection units, claiming domestic abuse was a family matter. The family protection units in most locations did not operate shelters.
KRG law criminalizes domestic violence, including physical and psychological abuse, threats of violence, and spousal rape. The KRG implemented the provisions of the law and maintained a special police force to investigate cases of gender-based violence and a family reconciliation committee within the judicial system, but local NGOs reported these programs were not effective at combating gender-based violence.
Throughout the year the KRG General Directorate for Combatting Violence against Women and Families provided workshops and seminars to its law-enforcement officers and awareness campaigns about the impact of domestic violence on individuals and society. There was also a 24/7 hotline that received reports of violence: an average of 11,000 calls annually. Furthermore, the directorate, in coordination with the UN Population Fund, developed a mobile phone app to facilitate access to the hotline, which provided access to live consultations with psychologists and psychiatrists.
Two privately operated shelters and four KRG Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs-operated shelters provided some protection and assistance for female survivors of gender-based violence and human trafficking. Space was limited, and NGOs reported psychological and therapeutic services were poor. NGOs played a key role in providing services, including legal aid, to survivors of domestic violence, who often received no assistance from the government. Instead of using legal remedies, authorities frequently mediated between women and their families so that the women could return to their homes. Other than marrying or returning to their families, which often resulted in further victimization by the family or community, there were few options for women accommodated at shelters.
The Council of Ministers of the Kurdistan Region formed a judicial body after ISIS took control of the Sinjar Region and surrounding areas to investigate and document claims of ISIS crimes including with recorded testimonies of victims, survivors, claimants, and witnesses. Cases filed with the courts through November totaled 4,206, including 1,191 cases that pertained specifically to ISIS crimes committed against women during the period of ISIS’s control over Sinjar district and other areas in the Mosul Province. Similarly, in Duhok Province an additional 2,036 cases of ISIS violence against women were filed with the courts; the cases were elevated to the level of the International Criminal Court.
The KRG also maintained a genocide center in Duhok for treatment, support, and rehabilitation for women who survived ISIS captivity, including investigating and documenting rape crimes; provides health and psychological services within camps; and ran a center through the KRG Directorate of Yezidi Affairs in the Ministry of Religious and Endowment Affairs for the rehabilitation of approximately 163 liberated women.
Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C): NGOs and the KRG reported the practice of FGM/C persisted in the IKR, particularly in rural areas of Erbil, Sulaymaniyah, and Kirkuk Provinces, despite a ban on the practice in IKR law. Rates of FGM/C, however, reportedly continued to decline. NGOs attributed the reduction in FGM/C to the criminalization of the practice and sustained public outreach activities by civil society groups. FGM/C was not common outside the IKR.
Other Harmful Traditional Practices: The law permitted “honor” as a lawful defense in violence against women, and so-called honor killings remained a serious problem throughout the country. A provision of the law limits a sentence for a murder conviction to a maximum of three years in prison if a man is on trial for killing his wife or a female dependent due to suspicion that the victim was committing adultery or engaged in sex outside of marriage. UNAMI reported that several hundred women died each year from honor killings. Some families reportedly arranged honor killings to appear as suicides.
The KRG Ministry of Interior’s Directorate General of Combating Violence against Women confirmed 19 honor killing cases in the IKR as of September.
There were reports that women and girls were sexually exploited through so-called temporary, or pleasure, marriages, under which a man gives the family of the girl or woman dowry money in exchange for permission to “marry” her for a specified period. Young women, widowed or orphaned by ISIS offensives, were especially vulnerable to this type of exploitation. In similar cases NGOs reported some families opted to marry off their underage daughters in exchange for dowry money, believing the marriage was genuine, only to have the girl returned to them months later, sometimes pregnant.
Government officials and international and local NGOs also reported that the traditional practice of nahwa, where a cousin, uncle, or other male relative of any woman may forbid or terminate her marriage to someone outside the family, remained a problem, particularly in southern provinces. Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani called for an end to nahwas and fasliya (where women are traded to settle tribal disputes), but these traditions continued, especially in areas where tribal influence outweighed that of government institutions.
Sexual Harassment: The law prohibits sexual harassment, including in the workplace. Penalties for sexual harassment include fines of up to only 30 dinars (approximately two cents), imprisonment, or both, not to exceed three months for a first-time offender. The law provides relief from penalties if unmarried participants marry. No information was available regarding the effectiveness of government enforcement, but penalties were very low. In most areas there were few or no government-provided women’s shelters, information, support hotlines, and little or no sensitivity training for police. Refugees and IDPs reported regular sexual harassment, both in camps and cities.
Female political candidates suffered harassment online and on social media, including posting of fake, nude, or salacious photographs and videos meant to harm their campaigns and their reputations – often labeled as “staining their family’s honor.” The Iraqi Women’s Network NGO cited several cases of women candidates being targeted because of their gender during the election campaign. Local human rights NGOs stated that the harassment was particularly targeted against independent women candidates or those from new political parties that lacked recourse or political connections to government security services.
During the year NGOs reported security personnel asked female IDPs for sexual favors in exchange for provision of basic needs. This was especially prevalent among female IDPs previously living under ISIS control. In other cases criminal gangs exploited female IDPs and forced them into commercial sex.
The KRG’s High Council of Women’s Affairs and Directorate General of Combating Violence Against Women (DCVAW) stated there was a spike in online harassment of girls and women. Per the DCVAW, 75 percent of gender-based violence cases resulted from social networking sites.
Reproductive Rights: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization on the part of government authorities. Hospitals provided menstrual health services free to women.
Various methods of contraception were widely available, including in the IKR; however, women in urban areas generally had greater access than those in rural parts of the country. A married woman could not be prescribed or use contraception without the consent of her husband. Unmarried single women were unable to obtain birth control. Divorced or widowed women did not have this same restriction.
Due to general insecurity in the country and attendant economic difficulties, many women received inadequate medical care. The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights stated that in some provinces the work of reproductive health and pregnancy care units, as well as health-awareness campaigns, had ceased almost entirely because of COVID-19’s impact on the health-care system.
In the IKR the KRG Ministry of Health reported that survivors of sexual violence received treatment from provincial health departments and emergency rooms. Judges, however, rarely considered forensic evidence that was collected. The government stated it provided full services for survivors of sexual violence and rape in all provinces because the law requires that survivors receive full health care and treatment. Emergency contraceptives were available as part of the clinical management of rape through government services and in private clinics, although advocates who worked with survivors reported many barriers to women accessing those contraceptives, as well as significant gaps in service delivery.
Discrimination: Although the constitution provides for equality between men and women, the law does not provide women the same legal status and rights as men. Criminal, family, religious, personal status, labor, and inheritance laws discriminate against women. experienced discrimination in such areas as marriage, divorce, child custody, employment, pay, owning or managing businesses or property, education, the judicial process, and housing.
For example in a court of law, a woman’s testimony is worth half that of a man in some cases and is equal in other cases. The law generally permits women to initiate divorce proceedings against their spouses but does not entitle a divorced woman to alimony other than child support or in some cases two years’ financial maintenance; in other cases the woman must return all or part of her dowry or otherwise pay a sum of money to the husband. Under the law the father is the guardian of the children, but a divorced mother may be granted custody of her children until age 10, extendable by a court up to age 15, at which time the children may choose with which parent they wish to live.
All recognized religious groups have their own personal status courts responsible for handling marriage, divorce, and inheritance matters. Discrimination toward women on personal status matters varied depending on the religious group. The government’s interpretation of sharia is the basis of inheritance law for all citizens except members of recognized religious minority groups. In all communities male heirs must provide financial support to female relatives who inherit less. If they do not, women have the right to sue.
The law provides women and men equal rights in owning or managing land or other property, but cultural and religious norms impeded women’s property rights, especially in rural areas.
Law and custom generally do not respect freedom of movement for women. For example, the law prevents a woman from applying for a passport without the consent of her male guardian or a legal representative (see section 2.d.). could not obtain the Civil Status Identification Document, required for access to public services, food assistance, health care, employment, education, and housing, without the consent of a male relative.
NGOs also reported cases in which courts changed the registration of Yezidi women to Muslim against their will because of their forced marriage to ISIS fighters.
The KRG provided some additional legal protections to women, maintaining a High Council of ’s Affairs and a ’s Rights Monitoring Board to enforce the law and prevent and respond to discrimination, but such protections were applied inconsistently. Other portions of KRG law continue to mirror federal law, and women face discrimination. KRG law allows women to set as a prenuptial condition the right to divorce her husband beyond the limited circumstances allowed by Iraqi law and provides a divorced wife up to five years’ alimony beyond childcare.
Systemic Racial or Ethnic Violence and Discrimination
The constitution holds that all citizens are equal before the law without discrimination based on gender, race, ethnicity, nationality, origin, color, religion, sect, belief, or opinion, or economic or social status. It prohibits any entity or program that adopts, incites, facilitates, glorifies, promotes, or justifies racism or ethnic cleansing. Nonetheless, restrictions on freedom of religion as well as violence against and harassment of minority groups committed by the ISF remained widespread outside the IKR, according to religious leaders and representatives of NGOs.
IKR law forbids “religious, or political, media speech individually or collectively, directly or indirectly that brings hate and violence, terror, exclusion, and marginalization based on national, ethnic, or religious or linguistic claims.” According to a representative of the Yezidi NGO Yazda, KRG authorities continued to discriminate against minorities, including Turkomans, Arabs, Yezidis, Shabak, and Christians, in territories claimed by both the KRG and the central government in the northern part of the country.
Birth Registration: The constitution states that anyone born to at least one citizen parent is a citizen. Failure to register births resulted in the denial of public services such as education, food, and health care. Single women and widows often had problems registering their children, although in most cases authorities provided birth certificates after registration of the birth through the Ministries of Health and Interior; such registration was reportedly a lengthy and at times complicated process. The government was generally committed to children’s rights and welfare, although it denied benefits to noncitizen children. Humanitarian organizations reported the widespread problem of children born to ISIS members or in ISIS-held territory failing to receive a government-issued birth certificate. As a result, an estimated 15,000 displaced children still lacked civil documentation, including birth certificates.
Education: Primary education is compulsory for citizen children for the first six years of schooling and until age 15 in the IKR; it is provided free to citizens. Equal access to education for girls remained a problem, particularly in rural and insecure areas.
Schools continued to be closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic through the end of the 2020-21 school year, keeping more than 10 million students out of school. UNICEF supported the Ministry of Education to broadcast lessons through education television and digital platforms. Children’s access to alternative learning platforms via the internet and television, however, was hindered by limited connectivity and availability of digital devices, as well as lack of electricity. Moreover, the Ministry for Directorates of Education had not issued directives for guiding the delivery of distance learning.
Child Abuse: Although the constitution prohibits “all forms of violence and abuse in the family,” the law does not specifically prohibit domestic violence but stipulates men may discipline their wives and children “within certain limits prescribed by law or by custom.” The law provides protections for children who were victims of domestic violence or were in shelters, state houses, and orphanages, including access to health care and education. Violence against children reportedly remained a significant problem, but up-to-date, reliable statistics on the extent of the problem were not available. Local NGOs reported the government made little progress in implementing its 2017 National Child Protection Policy.
UNICEF reported that during the year at least 1.8 million children, half of them girls, were estimated to need at least one type of protective service. In addition, 1.3 million children needed assistance to continue their education; 38 percent of all children lived in poverty. UNICEF and its implementing partners continued to deliver psychosocial support; case management and specialized protection services for children, including birth registration; civil documentation and legal assistance; and capacity development for national partners.
KRG law criminalizes domestic violence, including physical and psychological abuse and threats of violence. The KRG implemented the provisions of the law, but local NGOs reported these programs were not effective at combating child abuse. The KRG’s Ministries of Labor and Social Affairs, Education, and Culture and Youth operated a toll-free hotline to report violations against, or seek advice regarding, children’s rights. Multiple reports of child abuse surfaced during the year. Activists reported sexual abuse and assault by relatives was widespread and that some victims did not report crimes due to fear of retribution by family members.
Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: The legal minimum age of marriage is 18, but the law allows a judge to permit children as young as 15 to marry if fitness and physical capacity are established and the guardian does not present a reasonable objection. The law criminalizes forced marriage but does not automatically void forced marriages that have been consummated. The government reportedly made few efforts to enforce the law. Traditional early and forced marriages of girls, including temporary marriages, occurred throughout the country. UNICEF data from 2018 indicated that 7 percent of girls were married by age 15 and 28 percent by age 18. UNHCR reported the continued prevalence of early marriage due to conflict and economic instability, since many families arranged for girls to marry cousins or into polygamous households. Others gave their daughters as child brides to armed groups to ensure safety, access to public services in occupied territories, or livelihood opportunities for the entire family.
In the IKR the legal minimum age of marriage is 18, but KRG law allows a judge to permit a child as young as 16 to marry if the individual is entering into the marriage voluntarily and has received permission from a legal guardian. KRG law criminalizes forced marriage and suspends, but does not automatically void, forced marriages that have been consummated. According to the KRG High Council of Women’s Affairs, refugees and IDPs in the IKR engaged in child marriage and polygamy at a higher rate than IKR residents. Some Kurdish men crossed over into federal Iraqi territory to acquire a child bride since the federal laws are not as strict.
Sexual Exploitation of Children: The law prohibits commercial sexual exploitation, sale, the offering or procuring of commercial sex, and practices related to child pornography. Child sex trafficking was a problem, as were temporary marriages, particularly among the IDP population. The minimum age of consensual sex is 18. Because the age of legal criminal responsibility is nine in the areas administered by the central government and 11 in the IKR, authorities often treated sexually exploited children as criminals instead of victims. No information was available regarding the effectiveness of government enforcement.
Displaced Children: Insecurity and active conflict between government forces and ISIS caused the continued displacement of large numbers of children (see section 2.d.). Abuses by government forces, particularly certain PMF groups, contributed to displacement. Due to the conflict in Syria, children and single mothers from Syria took refuge in the IKR. UNICEF reported that almost one-half of IDPs were children.
International Child Abductions: The country is not a party to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. See the Department of State’s Annual Report on International Parental Child Abduction at https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/International-Parental-Child-Abduction/for-providers/legal-reports-and-data/reported-cases.html .
The penal code stipulates that any person convicted of promoting Zionist principles, association with Zionist organizations, assisting such organizations through material or moral support, or working in any way to realize Zionist objectives, be subject to punishment by death. According to the code, Jews are prohibited from joining the military and cannot hold jobs in the public sector. The KRG did not apply the central government’s anti-Zionist laws and relied on IKR law number five, which provides protections for the rights of members of religious minority groups, including Jews. Following a controversial conference on normalization with Israel held in Erbil in September, one militia group referred to Israel as “the Satanic entity,” and another threatened violence against the participants.
A very small number of Jewish citizens lived in Baghdad. Media organizations reported that only four Jewish citizens remained in the country outside the IKR following the death of a Jewish doctor, Dhafer Eliyahu, in March. According to unofficial statistics from the KRG Ministry of Endowments and Religious Affairs, there were as few as 100 to 250 Jewish families in the IKR. The Jewish community did not worship in public due to fears of retribution, discrimination, or violence by extremist actors. The KRG Ministry of Endowment and Religious Affairs dedicated one of its seven departments to Jewish affairs.
See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.
The government took steps to combat the illegal trade and trafficking in human organs. For example, in November Baghdad’s anticrime directorate announced the arrest of a suspect who allegedly sold her child’s kidney. Separately, the Wasit Province criminal court announced six-year prison sentences for two persons who trafficked human organs across the country.
Persons with disabilities had limited access to education, employment, health services, information, communications, buildings, transportation, the judicial system, or other state services. The government did not provide information and communication in accessible formats.
Although a 2016 Council of Ministers decree mandates access for persons with disabilities to buildings and to educational and work settings, incomplete implementation continued to limit access. In September individuals with disabilities told Human Rights Watch that access barriers forced them to rely on assistance to reach the polling places. When that assistance came from political party members who had permission to use vehicles, those members sometimes tried to influence how persons with disabilities voted. Human Rights Watch also reported that ballot boxes were often on floors that individuals with mobility problems could not access. Those who were unable to reach the ballot box without assistance or were unable to fill out their ballots alone were forced to rely on a family member or election commission staff to cast their ballot, raising concerns regarding privacy and the right to vote independently. As a result, the electoral commission made efforts to improve access for persons with disabilities to polling centers. Haider Jassim, an individual with a physical disability, told Human Rights Watch he asked IHEC staff for assistance when he was unable to reach the second floor of the polling station in his wheelchair and was told that the ballot box could not be moved to accommodate him. Jassim explained to Human Rights Watch that he cited the previous IHEC announcements promoting accessibility, but staff stated they were unaware. Jassim returned to the polling station later in the day and with the help of a relative was able to access the second floor and vote, but he told Human Rights Watch that he knew many persons who were not able to vote due to accessibility problems.
The COR committee on labor and social affairs estimated there were three million persons with disabilities and stated there was deliberate negligence on the part of the government in addressing their needs. Local NGOs reported that despite the government adoption of a long-term strategy for sustainable development to persons with disabilities, the implementation of the program objectives remained poor throughout the year. Persons with disabilities continued to face difficulties in accessing health, education, and employment services.
The Ministry of Labor leads the Independent Commission for the Care of People with Disabilities. Any citizen applying to receive disability-related government services must first receive a commission evaluation. The Ministry of Labor operated several institutions for children and young adults with disabilities. The ministry provided loan programs for persons with disabilities for vocational training.
The constitution states the government, through law and regulations, provides for the social and health security of persons with disabilities, including through protection against discrimination and provision of housing and special programs of care and rehabilitation. Despite constitutional provisions, no laws prohibit discrimination against persons with physical, sensory, intellectual, or mental disabilities. There is a 5 percent public-sector employment quota for persons with disabilities, but employment discrimination persisted (see section 7.d.). Mental health support for prisoners with mental disabilities did not exist.
The Ministry of Health provided medical care, benefits, and rehabilitation, when available, for persons with disabilities, who could also receive benefits from other agencies, including the Prime Minister’s Office.
The KRG deputy minister of labor and social affairs led a similar commission, administered by a special director within the ministry. KRG law prescribes greater protections for individuals with disabilities, including a requirement that 5 percent of persons with disabilities be employed in public-sector institutions and 3 percent with the private sector. The KRG provided a 100,000-dinar ($69) monthly stipend to government employees with disabilities and a 150,000-dinar ($102) stipend to those not employed by the KRG. A lack of funds led to less-than-full implementation of the law, including an inability to pay stipends to all persons with disabilities or register any new persons with disabilities for the stipend since 2013.
Disability rights advocates in the KRG reported that the IKR’s disability protections lacked implementation, including the 5 percent employment requirement. Lack of accessibility remained a problem with more than 98 percent of public buildings, parks, and transportation lacking adequate facilities to assist the more than 110,000 registered persons with disabilities in the region. Disability advocates reported employment was low among members of the community, and many youths with mental and physical disabilities lacked access to educational opportunities.
Persons with disabilities in the IKR frequently held protests and sit-ins to call on the KRG to improve their financial and living conditions. Disability unions stated they were discriminated against in terms of employment and that the social security payments they received from the government were not enough, especially as many had medical expenses. Persons with disabilities in the IKR reported societal discrimination, bullying, and sexual harassment, including from teachers. The KRG ministry covering persons with disabilities reported it was unable to undertake public awareness campaigns to combat discrimination.
The penal code criminalizes consensual same-sex conduct if those engaging in the conduct are younger than age 18, while it does not criminalize any same-sex activities among adults. Despite repeated threats and violence targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex (LGBTQI+) individuals, specifically gay men, the government failed to identify, arrest, or prosecute attackers or to protect targeted individuals. Some political parties sought to justify these attacks, and investigators often refused to employ proper investigation procedures. LGBTQI+ individuals also faced intimidation, threats, violence, and discrimination, and LGBTQI+ individuals reported they could not live openly without fear of violence at the hands of family members, acquaintances, or strangers.
In June a transgender woman named Misho, also known as Shakib, disappeared in Sidakan while attempting to retrieve documents from her father to renew her passport. NGO contacts reported her father and brother killed Misho, but the KRG was still investigating the case and no arrest warrants had been issued as of December 22. Security forces launched an operation to arrest “suspected” LGBTQI+ individuals in the city of Sulaymaniyah. Operation supervisor Pshtiwan Bahadin told local media that security forces arrested those they suspected to be LGBTQI+ for immorality and used derogatory terms to describe the community. The KRG subsequently put out a statement denying that LGBTQI+ persons were targeted and stated security forces were breaking up commercial sex rings.
According to NGOs, persons in the country who experienced severe discrimination, torture, physical injury, and the threat of death based on real or perceived sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, and sex characteristics had no recourse to challenge those actions via courts or government institutions. During the year the IKR NGO Rasan faced three lawsuits, including one brought by Sulaymaniyah officials of the KRG Directorate of NGOs, which alleged Rasan violated the terms of the NGO bylaws and its registration (to work on gender-based violence and women’s matters) by providing services to and advocacy for LGBTQI+ individuals. A decision remained pending at year’s end.
The country’s population included Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen, and Shabak, as well as members of ethnic and religious minority groups, including Chaldeans, Assyrians, Armenians, Yezidis, Sabean-Mandaeans, Baha’is, Kaka’is, and a very small number of Jews. The country also had a small Romani (Dom) community, as well as an estimated 1.5 to 2 million citizens of African descent who resided primarily in Basrah and adjoining provinces. Because religion, politics, and ethnicity were closely linked, it was difficult to categorize many incidents of discrimination as based solely on ethnic or religious identity.
The law does not permit some religious groups, including Baha’i, Zoroastrian, and Kaka’i, to register under their professed religions, which, although recognized in the IKR, remained unrecognized and illegal under federal Iraqi law. The law also forbids Muslims to convert to another religion. In the IKR this law was rarely enforced, and individuals were generally allowed to convert to other religious faiths without KRG interference (see sections 2.d. and section 6, Children).
Government forces, particularly certain PMF groups, and other militias targeted members of ethnic and religious minority groups, as did the remaining active ISIS fighters.
Discrimination continued to stoke ethno-sectarian tensions in the disputed territories throughout the year. Government forces, particularly certain PMF groups, targeted members of ethnic and religious minority groups, as did remaining active ISIS fighters. Some government forces, including PMF units, forcibly displaced individuals due to perceived ISIS affiliation or for ethno-sectarian reasons. In January social media users created the hashtag “justice for Diyala,” reacting to a report published by a local NGO that highlighted human rights abuses by militias against Sunnis and other members of minority groups in disputed areas. The abuses included running outlaw detention facilities, blackmailing tradesmen, seizing properties owned by members of minority groups, and imposing royalties on local markets.
Many persons of African descent, some stateless, lived in extreme poverty with high rates of illiteracy and unemployment. They were not represented in politics, and members held no senior government positions. Furthermore, they stated that discrimination kept them from obtaining government employment. Members of the community also struggled to obtain restitution for lands seized from them during the Iran-Iraq war.