It is possible that the gold jewellery you bought from a shop, or via the internet, was once a wedding present given to a Yazidi women, kidnapped by Islamic State (IS) when it captured the Iraqi province of Sinjar in August 2014; just like that painting you found in a market that used to belong to an Iraqi, whose house was looted by IS in Mosul.
Looting has always been a problem during Iraq’s many wars - but it has been especially prevalent during the past three years of IS rule.
The group didn’t just seize all the gold and valuables of the 6,000-plus Yazidis that it captured.
Family relics left in Sinjar in 2015 (Judit Neurink/MEE)
When I drove into the ruined town of Sinjar soon after it was liberated in late 2015, I noticed that every door of every house had been left wide open by looters. More recently, Iraqis who returned to check on their homes after IS had been driven out found that most of their valuables and furniture had gone.
Inside the occupied cities, IS gave its fighters the houses of those who fled its rule. When the time came for the fighters themselves to escape, they stripped the houses bare. The furniture eventually turned up in second-hand markets across Iraq.
Looting has always been a problem during Iraq’s many wars - but it has been especially prevalent during the past three years of IS rule
It wasn’t only private possessions that were taken; heritage sites in Iraq and Syria were looted and antiquities smuggled out and sold on the black market. Some of these artefacts have been recovered from safe houses in Mosul - but most have disappeared.
Whole factories were dismantled and taken from Iraq to Syria, as was an electricity unit from the Sinjar region. And let’s not forget the oil that IS took as if it - and not the people of Iraq and Syria - owned that precious resource, selling it off below market price to reap the spoils of war.
A tradition of looting
Looting is part of the culture of impunity that has developed during the past century in Iraq, where perpetrators have never been punished. The failure of local and national courts to prosecute criminals has only embedded this tradition still deeper.
In a passionate address in March 2017, lawyer Amal Clooney begged the world not to let IS get away with its many crimes, especially the genocide against the Yazidis.
“Killing ISIS on the battlefield is not enough,” she told the United Nations. “We must kill the idea behind ISIS by exposing its brutality and bringing individual criminals to justice.”
'We must kill the idea behind ISIS by exposing its brutality and bringing individual criminals to justice'
As Clooney pointed out, if Baghdad does not ask the UN for help (and it most probably will not), then the Security Council could act without its consent. Or it could refer IS crimes to the International Criminal Court (ICC). Or the UN General Assembly could establish “an accountability mechanism”.
Clooney was mainly talking about crimes against humanity, but because of the culture of impunity in Iraq it is also important to address lesser crimes like looting and pillaging. Only if people see these actions also punished as war crimes will they think twice before committing them in future conflicts.
The failure of local and national courts to prosecute criminals has only embedded the tradition of looting still deeper
Looting is already punishable as a war crime. The ICC made this clear in 2016, when it convicted the African warlord Jean-Pierre Bemba Gombo for crimes against humanity and war crimes. He was sentenced him to 18 years in prison: part of the sentence was for pillaging.
The court found Bemba responsible, as a military commander, for two counts of crimes against humanity (murder and rape) and three counts of war crimes (murder, rape and pillaging) committed in the Central African Republic between October 2002 and March 2003. Bemba’s lawyers have appealed the sentence.
Looting was only declared a crime a century ago. The 1907 Hague Convention states: “The pillage of a town or place, even when taken by assault, is prohibited.” The 1949 Geneva Conventions needs just three words: “Pillage is prohibited."
The state of Iraq was once punished for pillaging, after the Iraqi army of Saddam Hussein looted Kuwait in 1991, when it fled the country after Operation Desert Storm. The United Nations held Baghdad responsible and the UN Security Council ordered that billions of dollars’ worth of stolen valuables be returned as one of the terms for ending the war.
Iraq is still paying: last year, because of the recession, it asked for, and received, a postponement of the final instalment of $4.6bn.
Hit the main culprits
These are examples of governments and leaders being forced to repay something that was looted by the very regime whose fall in 2003 brought them to power.
The fact that Saddam Hussein’s victims are paying for his crimes has led to bitterness and not served as a deterrent. Iraqi soldiers and members of Shia militias connected to political parties in Baghdad have, in their battle against IS, already been accused of looting the empty houses of fleeing civilians.
It is far more important to punish those who were responsible or gave the orders for the looting. That alone will get the message across that such crimes will be punished.
It will not be easy to bring IS criminals to justice: many have been killed or executed by the Iraqis after capture. But the bigger players who are caught need to be kept alive so they can be tried for war crimes, including pillaging. If the Iraqi courts do not seem capable of ensuring this, then the international courts should shoulder that burden.
If the biggest pillage in Iraqi history goes unpunished, then it will send out the wrong message to disastrous effect. It will certainly make it hard for the people of Iraq to regain their trust in their fellow countrymen.
Many face poverty after losing everything due to war and pillaging. Looting to them will now seem a profitable business. The prospect of any fresh war will hardly be negative.
- Judit Neurink is a Dutch journalist and author of six books on the Middle East, living in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, working mainly for Dutch and Belgian media.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye
Photo: A boy cries as displaced Iraqis flee their homes in western Mosul, Iraq on 1 May, 2017. Looters often target empty property (Reuters)