The Yazidi genocide seven years on: A slow reckoning
In August 2014, the terrorist group Islamic State (IS) swept across Nineveh Governorate in northern Iraq, carrying out a series of atrocities against the region's traditionally heterogeneous population.
One community that suffered particularly under IS rule is the Yazidis, a predominantly Kurdish religious minority considered "devil worshippers" and heretics by radical extremists. It is estimated that IS killed around 10,000 Yazidis and displaced hundreds of thousands more, while 6,000 Yazidi women were captured and sold into sexual slavery. Seven years after the start of the atrocities and four years after the defeat of IS in Nineveh's capital Mosul, the pursuit of safety and justice remains elusive.
The plight of the Yazidis has been in the spotlight with growing international recognition that IS's crimes against them amount to genocide - defined as acts of killing and other atrocities committed "with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group".
"IS killed around 10,000 Yazidis and displaced hundreds of thousands more, while 6,000 Yazidi women were captured and sold into sexual slavery"
Following an initial analysis by the Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide in late 2015, the European Parliament passed a resolution to this effect in February 2016, and other western governments, including the United States, followed suit.
Furthermore, at the request of the Iraqi government, the UN Security Council established the United Nations Investigative Team to Promote Accountability for Crimes Committed by IS (UNITAD) for purposes of collecting, preserving, and storing evidence of international crimes. In May 2021, the head of UNITAD confirmed that there was "clear and convincing evidence that genocide was committed by [IS] against the Yazidi as a religious group".
In part, this recognition has been translated into action: the Iraqi parliament adopted the Yazidi Survivors Law in March this year, which officially recognises the Yazidi genocide and makes provisions regarding compensation for victims, as well as their rehabilitation and reintegration into society.
While the law was hailed as an important first step towards justice, Nicolette Waldman, a researcher with Amnesty International's Crisis Response Programme, has criticised the failure of legislators to consider the "needs of children born as a result of sexual violence by IS members, or the needs of their mothers".
Furthermore, Iraq's parliament has yet to render the law fully operational by enacting the requisite implementing regulations.
On the legal accountability side, there are ongoing criminal prosecutions against IS members for crimes committed against Yazidis in Germany, and one verdict was handed down by the Higher Regional Court of Düsseldorf in June.
The #Yezidi #Yazidi community is demanding concrete action to search for the nearly 3000 women, girls, and children still missing almost seven years since #ISIS #Daesh began the #YazidiGenocide in #Iraq and #Syria .— FreeYezidiFoundation (@Free_Yezidi) May 24, 2021
Thread with information and details for those concerned. pic.twitter.com/lIwN8fpVTV
But these are drops in the ocean as other avenues for justice remain largely closed: there is no international tribunal to prosecute those allegedly involved in acts of genocide and crimes against humanity, like there was for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia.
UNITAD was established to support domestic accountability efforts, primarily in Iraq. Because Iraq lacks the legal framework to prosecute international crimes, however, Human Rights Watch has reported that former IS members are often tried under counterterrorism laws for membership in a terrorist organisation, and neither survivors nor their families can participate meaningfully in the process.
An initiative by the autonomous Kurdish regional government to set up a special tribunal for the prosecution of IS crimes was declared unconstitutional by Iraq's Federal Supreme Court two months ago.
More immediate concerns remain unaddressed as well: while the remains of 104 Yazidi victims were exhumed from mass graves and laid to rest in their hometown of Kocho this February, thousands of others are still buried in one of the more than 200 mass graves that IS left behind across Iraq.
A further 2,868 Yazidis are unaccounted for but may still be alive, and urgent action is needed to locate them.
"These efforts are drops in the ocean as other avenues for justice remain largely closed: there is no international tribunal to prosecute those allegedly involved in acts of genocide and crimes against humanity"
Finally, the security situation has not improved enough for many Yazidis to return to their ancestral homeland by the Sinjar mountains. A 2019 study by Yale University's Persecution Prevention Project warned that despite IS's military defeat, continuing denial of fundamental rights and "patterns of persecution" in Iraq place the group at risk of further atrocities.
Going forward, establishing the fate of the missing persons and countering risk factors for recurring violence in Sinjar must be immediate priorities. Furthermore, national authorities should heed the call of civil society organisations to operationalise the Survivors Law while bearing in mind a victim-centred approach.
In the medium term, Iraq should take steps towards the adoption of a legal framework that allows for the domestic prosecution of international crimes, in full compliance with international human rights standards.
As victim groups continue to advocate for international trials, governments that campaign in the name of "global justice" should demonstrate initiative by taking up their cause before the Security Council and other organs.
Anna-Christina Schmidl is a human rights researcher and writer currently based in Germany.
Follow her on Twitter: @AnnaCSchmidl
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