Atrocities against Yazidis are instrumental in understanding role of gender in genocide
Ekhlas was 14 years old when Islamic State militants attacked the northern Iraqi city of Sinjar in August 2014. Her family tried to flee to nearby Mount Sinjar, but they never made it.
“They killed my father in front of my own eyes,” she told BBC in July. “I saw his blood on their hands.”
Like many of the Yazidi women in Sinjar, Ekhlas was captured by Islamic State militants and sold into slavery. “He picked me out of 150 girls by drawing lots,” she recalled. “I was so frightened I couldn’t look at him. Every day for six months he raped me. I tried to kill myself.”
Nearly 7,000 Yazidis—most of them women and children—were captured by Islamic State after the August 2014 attack on Sinjar, according to Iraqi Member of Parliament Vian Dakhil. Ekhlas managed to escape after six months, but thousands of other Yazidi women and girls are still enslaved. Today, three years later, the United Nations estimates that around 3,200 Yazidi women and children remain in captivity.
ISIS believes that the Yazidis, a Kurdish-speaking religious minority from the mountains of northwestern Iraq, are devil worshippers, according to news reports. The Yazidis practice an ancient religion that incorporates aspects of Zoroastrianism, Christianity, and Islam. A deity they call the “Peacock Angel,” or “Melek Taus,” is a central figure in their faith. In Yazidi lore, he refused God’s order to bow down to Adam and was cast into hell for his disobedience. Eventually, he returned to God’s favor in order to serve as an intermediary with mankind.
The story of Melek Taus bears some similarity to the Islamic rendering of Shaytan, or Satan, who refused to bow to Adam out of pride and was cast out of heaven. The false association between Melek Taus and Shaytan has given the Yazidis the damaging label of devil worshippers. ISIS has invoked this label in their English-language magazine Dabiq, writing, “Their creed is so deviant from the truth that even cross-worshipping Christians for ages considered them devil worshippers and Satanists.”
The Islamic State is hardly the first group to target the Yazidis.
According to oral tradition, Yazidis estimate that they have been the target of 72 genocidal campaigns since the days of the Ottoman Empire. In the late 1970s, Saddam Hussein forced them out of their traditional mountain villages, razed their homes, and forced them to move to urban centers, including the newly constructed town of Sinjar, where the Yazidis found themselves exposed and surrounded by ISIS in August 2014.
At 2 a.m. on August 3, 2014, ISIS fighters converged on the Sinjar region, home to up to 400 predominantly Yazidi villages. The Kurdish Peshmerga fighters who had been stationed in the town retreated the night before, leaving the villagers to fend for themselves when ISIS attacked with mortar fire and mounted machine guns. By morning, ISIS was in control of the town.
At that point, ISIS’ treatment of the Yazidis trapped in Sinjar depended on their sex and age. Men were separated from women and children. In some cases, the men were immediately killed, often in full view or earshot of their families, and in other instances they were given a choice—convert or die. Women and girls were rounded up and sent to holding sites where they were inventoried—numbered, photographed, and priced—to be sold as slaves to ISIS fighters. Young boys were taken to military training camps, where they were indoctrinated by ISIS ideology and stripped of their Yazidi identity. Women considered too old to be valuable as slaves were killed.
“The crimes that were committed against them and, in many cases, are still being committed against them depended primarily on the sex of the victim, the gender of the victim, and secondarily the age of the victim,” Sareta Ashraph, former chief analyst of the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Syria, told the Global Justice Center. “For that reason, the Yazidi genocide is instrumental in understanding the role gender plays in the crime of genocide.”
The Genocide Convention defines four non-killing crimes of genocide: preventing births within the group; forcibly separating children from their families and communities; denying basic necessities needed for life (such as food and water); and inflicting serious physical or mental harm, including through torture and rape. Historically, these non-killing crimes primarily target women and have rarely been prosecuted. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights’ Commission of Inquiry on Syria has reported that the Islamic State is committing all four of these crimes in an explicit attempt to wipe out the Yazidi community.
As long as thousands of Yazidi women and children remain enslaved by Islamic State, the crime of genocide continues. “This is a genocide which could still be successful,” Ashraph says.
In the past, proving genocidal intent has been one of the most difficult aspects of prosecuting genocide, and had to be inferred from statements and actions. In the case of ISIS’s genocide of the Yazidi, however, their genocidal intent is clear and explicit, according to the United Nations Human Rights Council.
In an article published on October 11, 2014, in Dabiq, ISIS stated, “[The Yazidis’] continual existence to this day is a matter that Muslims should question as they will be asked about it on Judgment Day, considering that Allah had … said ‘And when the sacred months have passed, then kill the mushkrikin [polytheists] wherever you find them, and capture them, and besiege them.’” The mantra that ISIS must purify the caliphate and cleanse it from “infidels” like the Yazidis is expressed often throughout Dabiq and other ISIS propaganda.
While there has been international recognition of the genocide of the Yazidis—by the European Parliament, U.S. State Department, and UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria—there has been no concerted international effort to end the war or save the thousands of Yazidi women and girls still held captive. This failure reflects the immense gap between international legal obligations and the lack of action to intervene.
On June 12, a high-level meeting of legal experts was convened to discuss reconciling international laws on genocide and counterterrorism. The attendees included Janet Benshoof, president of the New York-based Global Justice Center; Mary McGowan Davis, former Acting New York State Supreme Court Justice; Ambassador Stephen Rapp, Former U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for War Crime Issues; and Sareta Ashraph. The experts identified several potential causes of the discrepancy between the widespread acknowledgment of this genocide and the international community’s failure to intervene, including the outmoded framework of the Genocide Convention and the lack of awareness of the gendered crimes of genocide.
As of November 2015, 147 states have ratified or acceded to the Genocide Convention. Under the convention, all states with a “capacity to influence” the perpetrators of genocide are obligated to act, but the breadth of this mandate is poorly understood.
But the Genocide Convention was written at a time when nation states were the main actors both perpetrating and responding to genocide. Still, its obligations apply in modern conflicts where atrocities are often committed by non-state actors, like terrorist groups. Both states and international organizations have a duty to act to prevent, suppress, and punish genocide under international law. Due to the influential role that international organizations have on the global stage, they are also obligated to intervene and are liable under both the Genocide Convention and Customary International Law—general practices that are followed as a matter of law.
Genocide experts agree that there is value in learning from and adapting some of the effective methods of response developed under the global counterterrorism framework and applying them to the Genocide Convention. The counterterrorism framework is a series of treaties, UN agencies, UN resolutions, and national initiatives that define and seek to enforce international laws on terrorism. Some of these mechanisms include technical assistance to improve domestic legislation on terrorism, in addition to assessments of nations’ capabilities to address terrorism.
These practical strategies for implementing the mandates of international laws on terrorism could be adopted into the genocide framework to help signatory states respond effectively to ISIS’ genocidal crimes. The prosecution of ISIS foreign fighters from signatory states for genocide would be instrumental in stemming the flow of foreign fighters to ISIS and obtaining justice for their many victims. Prosecuting their crimes as genocide will reinforce the very values of diversity and tolerance that ISIS is trying to destroy with their genocidal campaign.
Nearly 70 years after the Genocide Convention was adopted unanimously by the United Nations General Assembly, it is time to prioritize its progressive interpretation. The terms of the convention must be implemented to end this ongoing genocide and ensure justice for Yazidi victims.
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