„Don’t let ISIS get away with Genocide”, demanded human rights lawyer Amal Clooney in her speech on March 9, 2017, at the United Nations in New York. Representing Nobel Peace Prize nominee Nadia Murad and other Yazidi women who became victim by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS, also known as Da’esh), she urged the Republic of Iraq to allow an investigation into the crimes committed on its territory. As parts of the country are increasingly freed from Da’esh, mass graves and other evidence of the atrocities and war crimes committed are found. Murad and Clooney call upon the international community to safeguard this evidence for bringing ISIS members to court. The genocide on the Yazidis is yet ongoing.

In August 2014, Islamist militants in dark clothing overran Sinjar district in north-west Iraq, where most of the world’s Yazidis live (approximately 400,000 of only 700,000). For three months, ISIS a.k.a. Da’esh had already seized vast proportions of territory in Iraq and Syria, including major towns like Mosul, Tikrit, Raqqa, and Fallujah. Meanwhile, rumors and reports of slaughterings of non-Sunni persons, i.e. Shia Muslims, Christians, and Yazidis, disseminate. Whilst those of other so-called ‘book religions’, Arab Shias and Arab Christians, were given the option to either convert or pay a religious tax (jizye) following the rules of the Caliphate, the Yazidis, an ancient minority community of Kurdish ethnicity widely held but wholly incorrect to be ‘devil worshippers’, were recognized as ‘infidels’ (kafir). ISIS came with the intention to religiously and ethnically cleanse Northern Iraq, using Yazidis as motivational war spoil for its fighters. Across Sinjar district, Yazidis were systematically separated along gender and age lines.

On August 3, 6,500 Yazidi women and children were abducted as sex slaves; about 5,000 men and boys were killed; 200,000 fled last minute and took refuge on Mount Sinjar, where they were surrounded by ISIS without access to food and fresh water supply. A humanitarian crisis was to erupt. On August 5, the only Yazidi MP to the Iraqi parliament pled under tears in an emotional speech not to allow the total annihilation of her minority community. The community already suffered 77 massacres under the Ottoman Empire and the Iraqi government – an intergenerational trauma. On August 7, 2014, US President Obama authorized airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq, whom he had falsely dismissed as “Junior Varsity” just seven months before.

Picture: Keles Simali

ISIS Changed and Changes International Law

Since the start of the civil war in 2011, the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic investigates human rights violations in Syria, establishes their facts and circumstances and, where possible, identifies their perpetrators for holding them accountable. Having interviewed more than 1,400 victims and witnesses, the commission invoked the crime of genocide in its detailed June 2016 report for the UN Human Rights Council regarding the systematic actions ISIS took and takes to destroy the Yazidi identity, through killings, sexual slavery, enslavement, torture, and other inhuman forms of serious bodily and mental harm. They estimate that a minimum of 3,200 Yazidi women and girls are still captured by ISIS and sexually enslaved. As the commission’s mandate, however, is bound to crimes in Syria, to where most of the Yazidi females were and are forcibly transferred from Sinjar district, an investigation into the origins of this atrocious system in Iraq is required.

Per the 1948 UN Genocide Convention, ‘genocide’ is, defined as “acts with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group”. Its States parties are obliged to punish the crime of genocide and the acts complicit to it. Although both Iraq and Syria acceded the Convention, no concrete steps have been taken to not let ISIS get away with its crimes against humanity. As both countries do not recognize the International Criminal Court (ICC), they either must request a legal undertaking; or the Security Council must refer the situation to the ICC or an ad hoc tribunal, like those for Rwanda, Yugoslavia, or the genocide of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.

The legal dimension of fighting international terrorism and violent non-state actors remains a major challenge for the past two decades. During the worldwide War on Terror, the USA attempted to frame their strikes as an issue of self-defense against the perpetrators of 9/11 (al-Qaida), for justifying the usage of force within the territory of another sovereign nation. Whilst the International Court of Justice(ICJ) repeatedly denounced this narrative, the US continued to argue that force can be legally used if a government is “unwilling or unable” to suppress a threat coming from within its borders.

In September 2014, Iraq demanded help for its fight against ISIS; Kurdish forces could build some short-time safe corridors for besieged Yazidis on Mount Sinjar. Battling the group in Syria, however, remained an ambivalent lawfare question for too long. In November 2015, after ISIS downed of a Russian jetliner over the Sinai and attacked a stadium and a club in Paris, the Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 2249 (2015). It calls on all Member States with the requisite capacity to use “all necessary measures” to fight ISIS in Syria and Iraq. Thus, while one may argue that ISIS changed international (humanitarian) law, not much has been done to date beyond short-term military means to stop and convict the perpetrators of the Yazidi genocide and other war crimes and crimes against humanity.

On-Going Genocide and Trauma

The genocide of the Yazidis is not history yet. Once more, an estimated 3,200 Yazidi females are still abducted by ISIS and sold on their markets, in alliance with ISIS ideology. Testimonies of those who managed to flee, like Nadia Murad, are heartbreaking. Further, an uncountable number of Yazidi boys were and are trained to fight with ISIS in Syria as child soldiers, whilst the fate of many adult men is unknown as “missing or dead”.

In November 2015, Kurdish forces recaptured Sinjar town and the rest of the district. Whilst the amount of the territory freed from ISIS increases, the impact of ISIS attack on the region’s Yazidi community is devastating. No free Yazidis remained in this region – 400,000 have been displaced, captured, or killed. The majority of them lives in impoverished existences in Internally Displaced People (Refugee) Camps in the Kurdish autonomous region. “Many are in profound debt having sold all valuables, including land, and having borrowed money to buy back relatives offered for sale by ISIS fighters” (OHCHR Report 2016: p. 33). Others have sought to go abroad, either because medical or trauma treatment is not available in Iraq or because they believe they can no longer live securely in the Middle East.

The Yazidis want an opportunity to tell their stories – they want justice. Taking steps towards truth, reconciliation, and justice is the only way for long-term peace in the region.

Featured image: geekslop