International humanitarian law defines forced displacement as “unlawful eviction of a group of individuals and residents from the land on which they reside” (1). This operation falls within the scope of war crimes amounting to crimes against humanity in accordance with the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC). The prohibition of forced displacement is one of the most important elements established by international law today to protect civilians, as forced displacement has negative physical and psychological impacts on the lives of civilians; since forcibly displaced civilians find themselves compelled to live in conditions that are often so unhealthy that they are dangerous and unfit for human life.
Demographic change is one of the most heinous tactics and acts practised under a discriminatory policy, and the most harmful to the civilian population. In many legal documents, the international community has condemned the crime of demographic change and the forced displacement of indigenous peoples. The ICC’s Statute, which was the first official international legal instrument explicitly mentions – along with the crime of deportation – the offence of forced transfer, which covers all forced movements of the civilian population within the borders of a single state, as Article 7 in paragraph (d) lists the deportation or forcible transfer of population among the crimes against humanity, including this whenever it is committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any group of a civilian population (2).
First: Demographic change in international law: Between the threat of force and the creation of natural conditions that make life difficult for the population:
The United Nations’ International Law Commission (ILC) mentioned the crime of deportation in the context of its definition of crimes against humanity in the 1954 Draft Code of Crimes against the Peace and Security of Mankind, which means the deportation or forcible transfer of population or persons concerned from the area where they are lawfully located, by expulsion or by any other coercive act without legal justifications permitted by international law.
A: Forced displacement in the ICC’s Statute and Additional Protocol II to the Geneva Conventions:
Article 7, paragraph 2 / d, of the ICC’s Statute, affirms the characterisation of the crime of demographic change and the forcible transfer of population, considering a perpetrator’s deportation or forcible transfer of a person or more to another state or another place via expulsion or any other coercive act without grounds permitted under international law, to be a crime punishable under international law, when such a crime is committed against the concerned person or persons who exist lawfully in the area they were deported from. And this is when the perpetrator is aware of the factual circumstances on which the legitimacy of this presence is determined, and committing this behaviour as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against a civilian population, and the perpetrator intends to conduct such a behaviour and large-scale attack (3).
In the light of this, the deportation or transfer of the citizen civilian population in the event of internal armed conflict for reasons related to that conflict is an explicit breach of article 17 of Additional Protocol II to the Geneva Conventions, unless it is to ensure the safety of the population, or for urgent military necessity (4). Thus, forcibly deporting the civilian population in any way is a crime against humanity, whether forced deportation by direct physical force, or moral coercion, where forced relocation results from the threat of force without using it, such as the threat of imprisonment or persecution, or by creating hard life conditions, or conditions that pose a threat to life, and an important reason to leave, such as in the case of flooding, poisoning wells, polluting the environment or the establishment of military targets in populated residential areas. The significance of such indirect acts is well known, and while the elements of crimes have not explicitly covered such acts, it is certain that the ICC will not fail to take them into account if it is grave and resulted in casualties leading to that. However, proving this crime is not easy in practice, as many matters such as media, guidance and inherited cultures play an important role in generating the conviction of the legitimate or illegitimate presence of any civilian population. It is more difficult to establish this knowledge in cases of forced population transfer within a state (5).
Nevertheless, the crime of forced deportation continues to face difficulty in establishing mandatory human rights and international criminal law provisions, although since the Nuremberg Charter, the conventions of international criminal courts have traditionally considered deportation or forced transfer as a war crime, as well as article 8 of the ICC’s Statute which the court considers a war crime when committed in an armed conflict. This provision is one of the most important provisions of the Statute which includes an overlap between war crimes and crimes against humanity, especially with the recognition of the Statute that crimes against humanity can be committed in times of peace as well as armed conflict. For example, the realities in Kosovo proved that the Serb perpetrators of deportation and forced transfer were fully convinced of the illegality of the presence of the Albanian minority in this region and the legality of deportation and forced transfer, as well as the difficulty of establishing the legitimate existence in international law of breach of human rights when there is a clash of vital interests in such cases of regional and historical overlap.
B: Iran and a history of policies of demographic change and forced population transfer in the region: legal adaptation and international accountability:
Since the beginning of the US occupation of Iraq in 2003, Iran has engaged in policies of forced displacement of the Iraqi Sunni component in the demographic, with consistent operations that took place in full swing in a deliberate and systematic manner, and with high degrees of effectiveness starting in February 2006, with the aim of driving the Sunnis out of their areas during a sectarian war that was ravaging Iraq. (Prior to the second Gulf War, the Ba’athi regime of Saddam Hussein had committed the same practices against hundreds of Kurdish villages, and drained the swamps that provided life giving waters to the rice paddies and fishing of the mainly Shi’ite south, yet subsequent to his fall, Sunni villages in the centre were destroyed, their mosques desecrated and their lands confiscated.) Iran utilised this as an opportunity to extend its control over Iraq. This places Iranian practices among war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity based on the characterisation and adaptation of international law and international humanitarian law.
Similarly, in Syria, over the past seven years, Iran has repeatedly and systematically displaced the civilian population and forced them to leave their places of residence in many provinces, cities and towns, for example; Homs, Al-Qusayr, Al-Waer, Homs’northern countryside and Damascus countryside such as Al-Zabadani, Madaya, Qudsaya, Ghouta and Douma, Eastern Aleppo, Dara’a, Hama countryside, Deir ez-Zor, Raqqa and other cities and towns where the regime forced people by physical coercion to emigrate as a result of the policies it practised, such as blockading these areas under siege, starving them and preventing their inhabitants from all livelihood, while intensifying the systematic shelling on populated areas in order to displace them.
Forced displacements also served Iran’s expansionist policies, with the Iranian authorities and the militias affiliated with them adopting a strategy of spreading Shi’ism in Syria, by forcibly displacing the local population and replacing them with foreign sectarian militia elements and their families, some from as far away as Afghanistan and Pakistan, but many from Hezbollah in Lebanon and from Hashd e Sha’abi militia groups from Iraq modeled along similar lines in a devastating policy of demographic change practised by Iran along the same lines it practised in many Iraqi cities and towns before. For a horrifying account of this in detail relating the use of rape, murder, and arson, rationalised by protection of Shi’ite shrines in the area, see the article in Tower Magazine of April, 2017, “They Burned Everything,” by Shlomo Bolts and Mohamed Ghanem. This led UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres to stress that “the forced displacement by the Assad regime against civilians in Syria could amount to a war crime” (6). For this reason, forced displacement is a practice carried out by governments, paramilitary forces or fanatical groups towards ethnic, religious or sectarian groups with the aim of evacuating certain lands from them and replacing them with other population groups. These practices are somewhat linked to the “ethnic cleansing” which the United Nations and human rights and humanitarian organisations have categorically condemned, as happened in the former Yugoslavia or Rwanda, where those responsible for these crimes have been held accountable and referred to international justice to receive their just punishment.
Second: Floods and demographic change in Ahwaz: Between forced eviction and forced or involuntary displacement
On 22 March each year, the United Nations celebrates an international occasion called International Day of Water, under its famous slogan of “Water for Sustainable Development”. And for that, the United Nations came out with the “International Decade for Action ‘Water for Life’ 2005-2015”, which urged the acceleration of efforts towards addressing water-related challenges and worsening risk of drought and flood (7). The issue of water has thus become a process governed by the principles and norms of public international law, with regard to inter-State relations on water, and is established on the basis of international humanitarian law, which has urged the use and conservation of water in the context of sustainable development. The flood crisis in the Ahwaz region had provided an opportunity for the Iranian regime that revealed the Iranian authorities’ deliberately utilising the flood disaster and exploiting it to complete the scheme of demographic change and the forced displacement of the Ahwazi population, by deliberately opening the dams to intensify the floods, especially as the facts indicate that the Revolutionary Guard Corps could have diverted the watercourse towards the marshes, but instead they argued that oil and sugarcane facilities and their sensitive military sites could be damaged. This led to the displacement of half a million Ahwazi citizens, the destruction of 200 villages and the destruction of 9 cities besieged by floods with little supplies to help the affected (8). This reveals Iran’s work to change the demographic character of the population of Ahwaz, which also involved bringing thousands of Iranians of Persian background from other areas and housing them in the region. It also seized all the vital facilities and confiscated the land from its owners, as Ahwaz resources, especially its oil, constitutes a total of 80% of exports in Iran and is a vital economic resource. This came in the context of the environmental risks caused by the Iranian authorities, through its policies aimed at the displacement of indigenous people of the members of Ahwazi society, exacerbating the environmental situation by ravaging the area with destructive and polluting oil extraction machinery, by confiscating and polluting agricultural lands and diverting what had once been rivers teeming with fish, causing the deterioration of human health and living conditions as a result of these destructive and systematic policies, and of what the Iranian government institutions working in Ahwazi lands do through their mega projects, such as the construction of dams, the diversion of water tributaries and their transfer of them to central Iran, the indiscriminate exploration of oil and the establishment of petrochemical companies, as well as the dumping of waste and residues from factories and companies in the rivers, the drainage of marshes considered a lung for the natural environment, the indiscriminate agricultural projects such as sugarcane projects built on land forcibly extracted from Ahwazi owners resulting in increased desertification, high salinity, water pollution of the Karoon River, destruction of agricultural soil, and doubling of sand and dust storms. This is a systematic destruction of rights of the Ahwazi man, which can be classified as one of the most serious crimes committed in international humanitarian law related to forced displacement and voluntary or involuntary displacement as concepts that differ legally but have the same result in international accountability.
A: Forced displacement in international humanitarian law:
It is defined by international humanitarian law as “the forced and unlawful eviction of a group of individuals and populations from the land on which they reside”. It is a practice associated with ethnic cleansing and an action taken by governments or fanatical groups towards a particular ethnic or religious group and sometimes it is done against many groups to evacuate certain lands for an alternative group or for certain groups. This is subject to the provisions of articles 2, 7 and 8 of the Rome Statute, which explicitly classify it as a crime of forced displacement and war crime(s).
Deportation or exile means transfer outside the borders of the territory, while forced relocation by displacement is within the borders of the territory. Displacement is usually a result of internal armed conflicts, or conflicts of a religious, ethnic, sectarian or tribal nature, and is done at the will of one of the parties of the conflict when this party has the power required to move the parties that belong to the other component, and this party believes that it is in its current or future interest to displace the other party. Deportation can only take place if there is a party that threatens a population different in religious, sectarian or ethnic affiliation that it will stop threatening by not staying in a city, region or country; and as a result, a feeling by the group targeted for displacement is created that there is a serious and immediate risk that it may face if it fails to emigrate (9).
It happens to communities of different components, from a city, region or areas of residence to safer areas, as a result of a general sense of direct danger to everyone, either due to conventional wars between two or more countries, or due to natural disasters such as earthquakes, volcanoes, floods and torrents. Such type of displacement usually happens in the border areas in case of external armed conflicts between neighbouring countries. In general, countries and organisations concerned with relief work meet the needs of both the displaced and forcibly displaced persons, but the politicisation of a forced displacement file is easier than politicisation of the general displacement file, although many incidents of mass displacement that occurred as a result of natural disasters were not also free of politicisation, as affected or donor states resort to breaking the icy communications barrier during humanitarian aid deliberations, but governments and armed groups involved in conflict have often obstructed the delivery of humanitarian aid to the forcibly displaced and do not ordinarily do so with general displacements.
B: Floods of Ahwaz and involuntary or forced displacement: Deliberate demographic change in international law:
Floods in international law and international humanitarian law are cases of voluntary or forced displacement, which may be due to government mismanagement. Forced evictions in the Ahwazi case appear to be a systematic process by the Iranian authorities in their efforts to make profits by pursuing housing projects near rivers and large-scale deforestations, and exploiting forests and mining for the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, its companies and senior officials. On the other hand, it appears to expose the Iranian regime’s poor handling of the crisis, its lack of preparations, its inability to govern the country, and its orientation to allocate the bulk of the country’s budget to the military, rather than to relief and emergency programmes, which would provide assistance to its citizens.
Reports and statistics revealed that floods hit 26 of Iran’s 31 provinces, including 1900 cities and villages, including of course, cities and villages in the Ahwaz region, where the first flood hit the northeastern part of Iran on March 19, (2019) and the second disaster occurred in the western and southwestern parts on March 25. The death toll reached about 70 people in 13 Iranian provinces, while about a third of the country’s roads were disrupted, in addition to power cuts. A number of oil wells were also submerged in Abteymour area. In the region of Ahwaz, part of the pipelines and wells were flooded. At the same time, oil facilities have also not escaped damage from floods. Also, part of the Mansouri oil field became submerged. And some wells of the Azadegan fields were submerged.
Therefore, the Iranian authorities are trying to empty the Ahwaz from its people or distribute them in different areas in order to neutralise the Ahwazi element from claiming its historical rights. Ahwaz has a massive oil production capacity that constitutes the actual stockpile of Iran, while the people of Ahwaz suffer from poverty, unemployment, marginalisation and systematic exclusion. Therefore, aftermath of the floods will be harsher for the indigenous people of Ahwaz, who have raised accusations against the Iranian regime of following the policy of sweeping cities of people with floods through the deliberate opening of dams. Also, there have been several demonstrations in the heart of Ahwaz, demanding to stop what they described as deliberate flooding of the cities of Ahwaz, in order to change them demographically, and replace their population with influential families and elements in the Iranian regime. This sparked angry reactions among the Ahwazis, with floods killing at least 76 people and damages of over $ 2.2 billion, while demonstrations continued and Iranian mercenary militias from Iraq were brought to suppress them (10).
C: Crimes of forced displacement and population transfer within the concept of genocide in international law:
Article 6 of the ICC Statute contains five acts classified in international law which are punishable as genocide. These criminal acts include killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; and forcibly transferring children of the group to another group (11). Based on this article of the United Nations Charter on Genocide, and in view of the ongoing practices by the Iranian authorities in Ahwaz of systematic killings and widespread harm to human groups, in particular the deliberate and calculated destruction of the environment, both through climate change by the elimination of agricultural land, which is a historical source of livelihood and stability for the Ahwazi farmers, as well as a link to their land throughout history, whether through the intended floods or deliberate neglect in encircling, diverting and containing them, to push the Ahwazis out of their region and change its historical demography.
Therefore, all such acts are regarded as aggressive practices by the government of Iran in the context of determining that they fit a criminal description of the physical elements of the “crime of genocide”, which constitutes a clear violation of the legal instruments adopted by the United Nations, both those relating to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, and those boosted by the Earth Summit. This today has near-universal membership and has been ratified by 197 countries; the ultimate goal of the convention was to prevent “dangerous” human intervention in the climate system. The Paris Agreement also boosted the global response to the threat of climate change by limiting the universal temperature increase, and continued efforts to curb land changes leading to reduced agricultural areas and, consequently, temperature increase. On the occasion of Earth Day, which was celebrated on 22 April 2016, 175 world leaders signed the Paris Agreement at United Nations Headquarters in New York, which constituted the largest number of countries to sign an international agreement in a single day, with 184 countries joining the Paris Agreement. The United Nations has also sought to convene the Climate Summit in September 2019 to support and accelerate action to reduce climate changes, and find mechanisms to ensure solutions to the challenges of nature. This is planned to be presented at the United Nations Climate Conference at the 2020 Summit, where work is underway to legalise and renew commitments on climate issues and natural changes (12).
Developments of international law and international humanitarian law have resulted in considering demographic change, environmental contamination, river diversion, and intentional or unintentional silt operations for water by governments as genocide, which is quite the case in Ahwaz, witnessing a kind of slow death threatening the life of Ahwazis, as the systematic practices of the Iranian authorities have made Ahwaz one of the most dangerous areas in the world, after it had enjoyed being endowed naturally with fertile soil and abundant water. Today, it is suffering from all kinds of forced deterioration, demographic change, voluntary and involuntary displacement and environmental contamination, threatening further environmental disasters in the near future due to racist practices aimed at furthering forced displacement and changing the demographics of the region. The expansion of desertification resulting from the drying of rivers and marshes located in the west and south of Ahwaz, the unprecedented outbreak of serious diseases among citizens and the spread of toxic substances in the air resulting from this industry spread throughout most of the region of Ahwaz, all of which constitute operations of wastage and the change of the course of the rivers pursued by the Iranian authorities, are a clear violation of the rules and principles of international law. These principles called for the participation of international public opinion in raising awareness of the importance of a water drop locally, regionally and internationally, working to encourage scientific and research innovations in the field of water conservation and protection, and rationalising its uses nationally. These principles urge the need to build bridges of cooperation, participation and exchange of visions and ideas for the development of water resources at the local, regional and international levels to work on benefiting from water using modern technology to meet current and future challenges at all levels. International water conventions also urged to consider this wealth as a worthy human value and to minimise its waste for political ends by finding ways of cooperating at the international and regional levels and supporting efforts to manage water resources to develop infrastructure for sustainable development to achieve food security, agricultural and industrial development, and advances in the field of electricity production and promoting development in areas where water resources are present.
Consequently, the above-mentioned practices of the Iranian authorities constitute, in the jurisprudence of international law, compelling evidence of the systematic killings carried out by the Iranian authorities in Ahwaz, in order to force the Ahwazi people to leave their land to escape the threat of occasional looming genocide, which is carried out in various acts and forms. These killings have become systematic and recurrent non-stop crimes, within plans and strategies being deliberately implemented, despite the succession of Iranian governments, indicating a profound Iranian strategy to uproot the Ahwazis from their land, which has been the food basket and the source of energy for Iran, and therefore Iran’s regime has put into its considerations the fear of repercussions including its dismantling for the benefit of non-Persian ethnic minorities, so it concentrates its efforts in the Persianisation of Ahwaz, starting from its work in the systematic displacement of the population, and the removal of their Ahwazi identity politically, culturally and demographically.
Rahim Hamid is an Ahwazi author, freelance journalist and human rights advocate. You can follow him on his twitter account: https://twitter.com/samireza42
Mostafa Hetteh is a writer and journalist: https://twitter.com/mostafahetteh
Editing by Penina Sarah, attorney, human rights advocate and commentator on Middle East and national security issues.
1.For further details see: “Guiding Principles in Internal Displacement”, HRDOCenterpublications, Cairo 2017, p. 8 and next.
- See article 7, paragraph d, of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, adopted in Rome on 17 July 1998
- Article 7, paragraph 2 / d, of the Statute of the International Criminal Court on the characterization of the crime of demographic change and the forced transfer of population
- Article 17 of Additional Protocol II to the Geneva Conventions.
5 See Joseph Shikla, “Crime of Population Transfer: Criminalization, Prosecution and Immunization”, Resource Center for Palestinian Residency and Refugee Rights publications, HaqAl-Awda Newspaper, Issue 54.
- “UN: Forced Displacement in Syria is a War Crime”. On the link:
- UN official website (water). On the link:
8.WalidSabry, “Mismanagement of Crises ..Iran a Model!!”On the link:
- See articles 2, 7 and 8 of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.
- “Ahwaz Accuses Iranian Regime of Deliberately Flooding Cities for Demographic Change, 15 April 2019
- Article 6 of the Statute of the International Criminal Court
- UN official website (climate change). On the link: