Seven Years and Counting: Yazidi Genocide Survivors Still Pursuing Justice

August 3, 2021

It was seven years ago today that ISIS extremists attacked the Yazidi heartland of Sinjar in northern Iraq. 

On August 3, 2014, hundreds of thousands of Yazidis fled to the neighboring Iraqi Kurdistan Region and tens of thousands took refuge despite brutal and dangerous conditions on Mount Sinjar. Those who were unable or unwilling to escape were killed or taken captive, where they were forcibly enslaved and subjected to forced labor, torture, and rape. 

The needs of the Yazidi community and other survivors of the genocide are extensive, central among them are justice and accountability, which one of us addressed in a recent interview on Voice of America. 

Earlier this year, Karim Asad Ahmad Khan, the head of the United Nations (UN) investigative body set up to lead accountability efforts, testified before the UN Security Council. A UN press release quoted him as saying, “‘I can confirm to the Council that based on our independent criminal investigations, UNITAD has established clear and convincing evidence that genocide was committed by ISIL against the Yazidi as a religious group,’” [Khan] said, noting that the intent of ISIL to destroy the Yazidi, physically and biologically, is manifest in its ultimatum — applied remorselessly to all members of their community — to convert or die.”

This acknowledgment follows recognition of genocide earlier this year by parliaments in Belgium and the Netherlands. They joined numerous bodies, including the Iraqi Council of Ministers, U.S. State Department, U.S. House of Representatives, U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, U.S. Agency for International Development, European Parliament, and the UK House of Commons.

Yet, despite international and domestic recognition of the atrocities committed against the community as genocide, Yazidis have yet to receive a veritable sense of justice. Recognizing the atrocities against the Yazidis for what they are matters, especially to the victims, but naming alone is not enough.

Little has been done to punish perpetrators specifically in relation to genocide, . 

On July 22, a German court handed down only its fourth conviction to ISIS members for their crimes against humanity. In a statement following the conviction of a German woman for her role in the enslavement of Yazidi women, Nobel Laureate and Yazidi survivor Nadia Murad said, “I and many other survivors have been waiting for seven years for the prosecutions of ISIS members. Germany’s efforts have begun the process, but when will other nations follow suit? How much longer will we have to wait?”

Inside Iraq and Syria, the situation has been worse, with terrorism convictions handed down, often absent due process, leading to mass executions and continuing policies and practices that have led many to join terrorist groups. 

Instances of perpetrators being confronted by their victims and held to account for their crimes have been rare. As the case of Ashwaq Haji Hamid Talo demonstrated, it is powerful when justice of this kind is carried out. Following the conviction she said, “I want my story to reach the whole world, so my message is heard by my friends and gives them the courage to do the same thing that I did.” 

When perpetrators are not explicitly charged for crimes against humanity and rather face prosecution for terrorism-related offenses, there is no adequate public accounting of the crimes that have been committed. Victims are shown a disregard that borders on callous, and minority communities, in particular, are left with little hope that their rights will be protected going forward.  

This form of accountability is insufficient for instituting future change and preventing similar atrocities from happening again. Accountability for atrocity crimes will be a crucial next step for Iraq and the international community to give victims of the Yazidi Genocide a chance to heal and give Iraq’s other minorities a sense of hope that justice will be served. 

The UN took critical first steps in setting up UNITAD to collect and preserve the evidence of the atrocities and promote ISIS accountability. But, the evidence collected has yet to be presented within a formalized tribunal process, having only been used sporadically in support of a handful of appropriate charges. 

Iraq’s Federal Supreme Court rejected recent proposals to establish specialized courts to try ISIS crimes in Iraq. No meaningful alternatives have been proposed.

While UNITAD resembles the commissions of experts established by the UN Security Council in the aftermath of the Bosnian and Rwandan genocides, the after-effects of the recognition of the Yazidi Genocide have been different. Little has been done thus far to establish an ad-hoc international tribunal to prosecute the perpetrators, similar to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR). Both of which were established shortly after the commissions of experts determined the Bosnian and Rwandan atrocities as genocide.  

As UNITAD collects and preserves the evidence of the ISIS atrocities, it will be crucial to establish a mechanism for formal prosecution that will assess evidence and secure prosecutions — a step called for by survivors and families of victims. Naming and shaming is not enough. Accountability for the atrocity crimes should be a crucial component of any coordinated response to the Yazidi Genocide. 

In the absence of an international tribunal, further steps need to be taken by individual countries to prosecute perpetrators on charges that extend beyond membership to a terrorist group or material support for terrorism. While many countries have made progress in bringing charges against and convicting ISIS members on terrorism offenses, viewing ISIS members as terrorists alone negates a central element of the crimes they have committed or assisted in committing. 

As the Free Yazidi Foundation notes, ISIS’ crimes of kidnapping, rape, and enslavement are not minor details. The sheer scale of enslavement and sexual violence cannot be adequately considered through terrorism charges alone. While the perpetrators of these atrocities are indeed terrorists, their crimes were more sinister, brutal, and sadistic than typical tactics employed by terrorist groups.

The lack of urgency in proposing and instituting tribunals, and half measures of convictions under broad “terrorism charges,” leave Yazidi survivors and Iraq’s many other religious minorities feeling that there is no real justice for their victims. 

Justice, peace, and reconstruction rely on one another.  

As hundreds of thousands of Yazidis remain displaced in Northern Iraq, bringing those who committed these atrocities to trial for terrorism, genocide, and other crimes against humanity cannot be underestimated as a critical step towards reconciliation and reconstruction of a new kind of normal for the Yazidi people.

Jeremy P. Barker is Director, Middle East Action Team, Religious Freedom Institute

Victoria Friedlander is a Research Assistant, Middle East Action Team, Religious Freedom Institute