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Talks, not bombs, will defeat IS, UN high commissioner tells MEE

'The bombing algorithm is not one that can work,' the UN's High Commissioner for Human Rights tells MEE.
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein speaks at a press conference last month (AFP)

NEW YORK – The self-styled Islamic State (IS) group will not be beaten by bombs alone and only negotiations can bring stability to Syria and Iraq, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Prince Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, told Middle East Eye.

Zeid, a Jordanian royal, spoke on Monday as the Sunni militant group cemented military gains in the Iraqi city of Ramadi and Palmyra, in Syria, and leaders of the world’s top economies debated anti-IS tactics at the so-called Group of Seven, or G7, talks in Germany.

According to Zeid, US-backed military efforts have failed to halt the growth of IS from its origins in Iraq over the past decade and overcoming the threat will require peace talks like those which were held with Afghanistan’s Taliban and Central American paramilitaries. 

“In 2004-5, the mentor of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of Daesh [the Arabic acronym for IS], Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, was battling away in Iraq. There were beheadings, victims in orange jump suits, and we had countless meetings at the UN Security Council about their actions and an almost unprecedented investment in money and in military force,” Zeid told MEE.

“The group is still there, more powerful than ever was the case eight years ago. So clearly the bombing algorithm is not one that can work. It requires a much more sophisticated response and one where certainly the state cannot cut corners on its own obligations to human rights.”

The US leads a coalition of mostly Western and Arab states against IS, which launched its blitzkrieg assault into northern Iraq one year ago this week. On Sunday, Britain announced plans to boost the number of UK troops in Iraq to about 900.

While the US says a combination of foreign air power and local ground troops will defeat the caliphate-building hardliners, some analysts question whether the multi-nation force is backed by enough manpower or political will.

The coalition features such Sunni-majority Arab nations as Jordan, where public opinion stiffened against IS after the group burned Jordanian pilot Moaz al-Kassasbeh alive in a cage following his capture in Syria in December.

According to Zeid, formerly Jordan’s ambassador to Washington, lessons for tackling IS can be learned from the Taliban, where negotiations have yielded changes to the group's battlefield behaviour. 

“The Taliban developed an embrace of takfiri ideology ten years ago, and ten years ago nobody would talk to them,” Zeid told MEE at an event in New York, referring to the belief among religious hardliners that justifies the killing of apostates.

“That has changed. Interestingly, the Taliban now have prohibited the use of certain weapons, they recognise that there is a level of human suffering that cannot be supported. And so who knows where we will be in ten years’ time.”

Overcoming IS will mirror historical examples of paramilitary groups being brought to the negotiation table and eventual political accords in turbulent Central America, Zeid added.

“The only frame through which [mediators] could push the political discussions in Guatemala, Salvador and Nicaragua was the human rights framework. They all could agree that there were certain boundaries beyond which that you couldn’t go in terms of human cruelty,” he told MEE.

“And if they could agree that there was a normative human rights framework that all of us must uphold, then that was the starting point for the political discussion that ensued.”

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