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Seven years after the attempted ethnic cleansing of the Yazidi community in Iraq by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), the Yazidis are now looking for justice. The Kurdish ethno-religious minority’s path toward financial and moral reparation is multifaceted. It includes holding former ISIL members accountable for their crimes and seeking compensation and reconciliation from the Iraqi government for letting the crimes happen. The Yazidi survivors also face challenges in reintegrating themselves into their own community.
The Yazidis have a different religious and social structure from Sunni Islam and are thus considered by ISIL as ‘devil worshippers’. In June 2014, ISIL launched a major offensive in northern Iraq and quickly gained control over a third of the Iraqi territory. In August, ISIL took over the Sinjar district, home to many Yazidis, marking the beginning of the genocide. They began a “forced conversion campaign” as they threatened to kill people who refused to convert to Islam. More than 5,000 Yazidis were killed. Over 7,000 women and girls were abducted and forced into sex slavery, and subjected to reproductive violence. Men and boys were indoctrinated to become ISIL fighters or enslaved. An estimated 400,000 Yazidis were displaced from the Sinjar district alone and 200,000 still live in camps today. All these actions were later recognized as genocide by the United Nations and the Iraqi government.
Compensating All Survivors
Efforts for justice and support to the Yazidi community have grown in recent years, although challenges in achieving accountability and rehabilitation persist. In 2021, the Iraqi government passed the Yazidi Female Survivors Law, which recognized the genocide and offered reparations to the Yazidis, such as education, medical services, and financial compensation. It was the first time Iraq legally recognized the genocide after seven years of neglect.
However, the law’s implementation raised concerns. First, the survivors had to wait two more years before the first monthly compensation was distributed in March 2023. Moreover, civil society organizations like the Yazidi Survivors Network (Yazda) expressed concerns over the law’s lack of a survivor-centered approach. Women must file criminal complaints to obtain this compensation, putting them at risk of re-traumatization, stigmatization and harassment. Yazda recommended that the Iraqi government allocate sufficient funding for sustainable reparations, including trauma-informed training for personnel and comprehensive social services./
The regulation also solely addresses sexual violence and abductions against women and girls, overlooking other crimes against the Yazidis, such as forced recruitment, murders, and harm to men and boys. The Co-Chair of the International Bar Association War Crimes Committee outlined the gender dynamics of the Yazidi genocide: men and boys were often targeted for their perceived status as “power holders” in the community, while women and girls were subject to sexual abuse. Yet, violence affects both genders beyond these specific acts. An intersectional approach that considers diverse experiences is thus required for establishing nationwide reparations programs.
Healing the Survivors’ Individual Trauma
The systematic atrocities that the Yazidis suffered have led to profound mental trauma for the survivors. Research has revealed an extremely high number of survivors with post-traumatic syndrome disorders and suicidal thoughts. It is critical to bring an immediate and lasting response to this mental health crisis and support them. Yet, the stigma surrounding psychosocial services and the difficulties in providing such services in refugee and displacement camps hinder this process.
International organizations and NGOs keep working to de-stigmatize mental health and push the Iraqi government to take steps in this direction. In 2022, the International Organization for Migration was working towards the adoption of the first national suicide prevention strategy by the Iraqi government. Besides, last March, the Iraqi government established a referral system for mental health and psychosocial support for the beneficiaries of the Yazidi Survivors Law, aiming at bridging the institutional gaps in psychosocial services.
Reintegrating Survivors into the Community
ISIL has systematically used sexual enslavement against women and girls to eliminate the Yazidis. Yazidi traditions forbid extramarital relationships and relationships with people from outside the community. Imposing sexual violence on Yazidi women and girls, thus, would result in a significant number of bans from the community or honor killings, eventually leading to the extinction of the minority. However, where one might have expected a profound stigmatization of the survivors, the Yazidis have found creative ways to reintegrate these women and girls into the community. In April 2014, the Yazidi religious authority, Baba Sheikh, declared that the survivors should not be stigmatized before announcing mass purification rituals.
The large scale of sexual violence has led to a high number of unwanted pregnancies and thus, children born out of rape. Yet, in the Yazidi traditions, children must be born from two Yazidi parents to be part of the community. Besides, a child with undetermined paternal lineage is automatically considered of Muslim religion under the Iraqi law. This is a trauma-insensitive approach for the Yazidis and puts the child at risk of stigmatization within the community.
In April 2019, the Yazidi religious authority issued a decree calling for the reintegration of the ‘Yazidi women rescued and their children’. A few days later however, this decision was reversed, because of a backlash within the community. The community cohesion seems to be prioritized over these children and mothers. They have to choose between staying away from the community and losing their cultural identity, or reintegrating the community and sending their children to orphanages. But can the community healing process be complete when survivors face such a dilemma? The decisions of Yazidi leaders and the Iraqi government should be guided by the best interest of the child and de-stigmatization of the victims to allow the community to heal.
Seeking Overdue Accountability
The Yazidis have repeatedly called for justice against the former ISIL members responsible for crimes against their community. They are urging Iraq to prosecute their perpetrators for genocide. Yet, this national process of accountability is undermined by the absence of the charge of genocide under the Iraqi law. In 2019, a bill on genocide was introduced to the Iraqi Parliament, but as of December 2022, there was still no adequate legislative framework on the matter. Besides, Iraq has not accepted the International Criminal Court’s jurisdiction to investigate the crimes committed within its borders, causing delays in justice for the Yazidis.
Some other countries have started using the principle of universal jurisdiction to take the accountability process further, urged by NGOs. By July 2023, two European states had prosecuted their citizens who joined ISIL. In a landmark case, Germany prosecuted ISIL members in December 2021 for crimes against humanity and war crimes against the Yazidis, identifying a genocidal intent based on a single murder. This case represents the first time a state does not simply prosecute an ISIL member for terrorism. In May 2023, the Netherlands found a former ISIL member guilty under the charges of terrorism and slavery as a crime against humanity.
Additionally, in May 2023, five Yazidi survivors filed a joint complaint against Australia to the United Nations Committee against Torture. They accused Australia of failing to comply with its obligation to provide reparations to the victims of torture, abductions, and enslavement by an Australian citizen. Unfortunately, although the claim was the first of this kind, their request was dismissed.
Looking for the Missing
In 2020, Iraq and the United Nations Investigative Team to Promote Accountability for Crimes Committed by Da’esh/ISIL launched a strategy to coordinate the exhumation efforts of mass grave sites across the country. By March 2023, more than 40 mass graves had been exhumed, enabling the court to collect evidence and families to receive closure with traditional and dignified burials. However, NGOs criticized the uncoordinated nature of the efforts, the politicization of the Yazidis plight, and the absence of consultations with the families of missing persons.
Facing the slowness of the accountability process, the Free Yezidi Foundation and other NGOs requested the creation of an international tribunal last January. Yet, it has still not been established by lack of financial resources, time, and political will. Additionally, in 2022, the Yazidi Justice Committee called for Iraq, Syria and Turkey to be brought before the International Court of Justice for failing to meet their obligations to protect the population and prevent the genocide.
The situation of the community is still fragile, with more than 200,000 Yazidis displaced and almost 2,500 missing in 2022. The conditions for their return to their homeland in Sinjar are not fulfilled because of the lack of public services and destroyed houses. Besides, the national reconstruction process is slowed down by leadership disputes and intimidation by armed groups.
Thus, the Yazidis cannot focus on rebuilding a livelihood as individuals and as a community. More efforts from local and national governance should be put into implementing an integrated approach, addressing mental health, community resilience and accountability. With a resurgence in hate speech and decreasing media attention towards the community, the national reconciliation process must be moved forward to secure a better future for the Yazidis after seven years of trauma.
Edited by Majeed Malhas & Light Naing