Yesterday evening in Baghdad, the preeminent and widely respected Iraqi security analyst Hisham al-Hashimi was shot in the head by armed men who lay in wait outside his house. He died in the hospital. Though an expert in many areas of Iraq’s security, al-Hashimi was particularly well-known for his insights into — and his willingness to criticize — the Iranian-backed militias within the Hashd al-Sha’abi (also known as the Popular Mobilization Forces, PMF). Though at the time of this writing the Hashd al-Sha’abi militias were denying involvement, most commentators and analysts believe he was killed by members of one or more of these groups. He had previously received death threats from the Iran-backed PMF group Kata’ib Hezbollah (KH).
There are myriad reasons the Iranian-backed militias might want al-Hashimi dead. He was seen as close to Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, who has had an increasingly antagonistic relationship with the militias since taking office in May, as he attempts to force the formation to reform and accept the rule of Iraqi law. Al-Hashimi also often exposed or amplified human rights abuses committed by the militias, such as the way the militias violently put down anti-corruption protests last year. He regularly highlighted the schism between the respected, revered, and largely law-abiding “Shrine Militias,” and the Iranian militias like Kata’ib Hezbollah — one of his final reports published last week details how that schism led to the Shrine Militias quitting the Hashd al-Sha’abi movement in April. And just the day before he died, he shared images of a child wounded when a missile fired at the U.S. embassy (likely by KH or an affiliate) fell short and hit a home.
If al-Hashimi was killed by Iran-backed Hashd al-Sha’abi militias, he certainly was not the first critic, reporter, or researcher killed for negative coverage of the groups, and it is unlikely that he will be the last. The United States has previously designated groups like Kata’ib Hezbollah and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq as foreign terrorist organizations, and has sanctioned certain militia leaders associated with gross human rights abuses.
But to date, the U.S. has largely been alone in targeting the militias with such measures. This should change, and the United Kingdom could lead that shift. The U.K. government yesterday unveiled a new sanctions regime aimed at countering international human rights abusers. In a press release, the government described the regulations (titled “the Global Human Rights Sanctions Regulations 2020”) as a “new ‘Magnitsky’-style sanctions regime,” and said it would “target those who have been involved in some of the gravest human rights violations and abuses around the world.”
The new sanctions are based on the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Act of 2018. The mechanism gives the U.K. new powers to stop those involved in serious human rights abuses and violations from entering the country, channeling money through British banks, or profiting from its economy. The measures will target individuals and organizations, rather than nations.
U.S. Use of Magnitsky Law Against Iraqi Violators
“Magnitsky-style sanctions regime” refers to the U.S. Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act (expanded by Executive Order 31818), which allows the U.S. president broad authority to sanction foreign individuals and entities engaging in “serious human rights abuse” against individuals who either seek “to expose illegal activity carried out by government officials” or “to obtain, exercise, defend, or promote internationally recognized human rights and freedoms, such as the freedoms of religion, expression, association, and assembly, and the rights to a fair trial and democratic elections.” The U.S. law also targets government officials or senior associates of such officials who are engaged in or responsible for acts of corruption.
The United States already has used this sanctions regime to punish and draw attention to abuses committed by Iran-backed elements of the Hashd al-Sha’abi. In October, the U.S. wielded Global Magnitsky Act sanctions to target the leaders of the PMF’s 30th and 50th Brigades for their role in abuses on the Nineveh Plains in northern Iraq. In December, the U.S. sanctioned four PMF leaders associated with violent crackdowns on anti-corruption protesters in Baghdad. While there are still many PMF commanders implicated in human rights violations who remain unsanctioned, this use of the Magnitsky Act represents a positive step in highlighting abuses.
To date, the U.K. has not sanctioned rights abusers in the PMF, but its new legislation could allow it to join the United States in doing so. In its first tranche of designations, the U.K. listed 49 individuals tied to various cases that had been sanctioned under the U.S. Magnitsky Act. These include Russians associated with the death of Sergei Magnitsky, as well as Saudis involved in the 2018 murder of Jamal Khashoggi and Myanmar officials linked to the persecution of the Rohingya people. There is significant overlap between these new U.K. designees and lists of individuals previously sanctioned by the United States.
Iran-backed elements of the Hashd al-Sha’abi were almost certainly involved in the killing earlier this year of a British Army soldier, along with two U.S. service personnel (though the militias increasingly claim attacks using facade organizations, intended to mask the involvement of the Hashd al-Sha’abi itself and shield them from legal and political repercussions). But beyond the threat these groups pose to the international Combined Joint Task Force operating in Iraq at the invitation of Iraq’s government, there are also compelling reasons to use sanctions regimes to highlight human rights abuses by these groups, and limit their ability to profiteer from their increasingly entrenched place within the Iraqi state. These militias have long been documented as ignoring the legal chain of command, refusing to obey orders from Baghdad and deploying into areas without authorization from the Prime Minister’s Office. And militias have been accused of a wide range of human rights abuses, including extrajudicial killings, forced displacements, and unlawful imprisonments.
Vital Signals of Support for Iraqi Reformers
Prime Minister al-Kadhimi — along with Iraqis like Hisham al-Hashimi — are working to reform Iraq’s security sector, reducing the power of human rights abusers and militias that work against the rule of law while profiteering from the Iraqi people. Two weeks ago, Iraqi Counter Terrorism Services detained a group of Kata’ib Hezbollah affiliates in the process of carrying out a missile attack. The raid was a significant development in an Iraq where, until then, the militias had operated without fear of repercussions from the government.
Reform is — rightly — being led by Iraqis, but there are steps Iraq’s allies can take to help. Offering assistance to the Iraqi authorities with investigations into assassinations and human rights abuses would be an excellent start. Meanwhile, where evidence exists, Iraq’s allies should investigate and, where possible and appropriate, use sanctions regimes to target individuals associated with those groups and units responsible for human rights abuses. Actions like this make it harder for the political and operational leaders of groups like Kata’ib Hezbollah and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq to use their (often illegally obtained) wealth – or for leaders to travel abroad, for example. But equally importantly, sanctions would be a powerful message to militias and ordinary Iraqis alike: human rights abuses, particularly those abuses that target individuals because they exercised their rights to speech and protest, cannot be tolerated.
Perhaps surprisingly, the militias care deeply about public perceptions, and are attuned to the optics of being labelled human rights abusers, or violators of international law. Meanwhile, many of them continue to operate powerful elected political wings (in violation of Iraqi law, which prohibits the armed forces from participating in electoral politics). With elections coming (delayed for now, but expected in the coming year), some militias will prefer to avoid further reputational harm in a year that has already seen the PMF lose political capital.
Killings of experts and critics like al-Hashimi are intended to stifle dissent and prevent wrongdoing from ever coming to light. International sanctions for human rights abusers would show support for a government striving for meaningful reform, while forcing those affiliated with the killers to choose between genuinely reforming their behavior, or risking yet more scrutiny from protesters and ordinary Iraqis.
Iraq’s allies have the tools to achieve this: with their focus on targeting powerful human rights abusers, sanctions regimes like the U.K.’s new Global Human Rights Sanctions Regulations and the U.S. Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act are excellent instruments for naming, shaming, and containing those within the Hashd al-Sha’abi who continue to take advantage of Iraq’s people to the detriment of global human rights standards.
IMAGE: Iraqi anti-government protesters in Baghdad in December 2019 draped themselves with flags, painted graffiti, and lighted candles as they mourned their martyrs in Tahrir Square as nationwide protests entered a third month. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis took to the streets demanding replacement of Iraq’s corrupt, sectarian political system, despite a crackdown partly orchestrated by Iran and Iran-backed Shiite militias that by that point had left more than 450 Iraqis dead. (Photo by Scott Peterson/Getty Images)