By Sareta Ashraph
August 3, 2022 marked the eighth anniversary of attack by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) on the Yezidis of northern Iraq. The assault on this historically marginalized, minority religious community continued throughout the lifespan of the “caliphate” and beyond: thousands of Yezidis are still missing, their families in anguish.
The sheer inhumanity of the atrocities perpetrated by ISIL against the Yezidis recalls the worst that history has recorded: men, older women, and post-pubescent boys killed; women and girls beaten, starved, sexually enslaved, forced to labor and traded like chattel; and boys taken from their mothers, forcibly recruited, and made to fight. ISIL established—and celebrated—a trade in enslaved Yezidis within the borders of its pseudo-state, and potentially beyond. Behind the methodical and systematic commission of the crimes was an ideology of annihilation.
In its November 2015 report “Our Generation is Gone”, the Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide was among the first, outside of the Yezidi community, to recognize that a genocide was in progress. This was followed, in a June 2016 report, by a determination of genocide made by the UN Human Rights Council. More recently, in May 2021, the Special Adviser of the UN Investigative Team to promote accountability for crimes committed by Da’esh/ ISIL (UNITAD) stated before the UN Security Council that the evidence collected indicated that ISIL had committed the crime of genocide against the Yezidis.
Still, progress towards holding accountable those who perpetrated the crimes has been slow. The reasons for this are manifold: many members of ISIL were killed as the “caliphate” collapsed; most of those detained are held in Syria, where conflict wages on, or in Iraq, where trials for core international crimes are not yet part of their domestic law. In Iraq and in many other countries, ISIL members appearing in court have been prosecuted under counter-terrorism laws, which focus on membership of or support to ISIL and not on any crimes committed while part of the armed group.
Progress on other transitional justice measures has been fitful. In Iraq, the parliament ratified the Yezidi Survivors Law, which offers reparations to Yezidi women and other survivors of ISIL crimes, including financial compensation, rehabilitation, medical treatment, and economic opportunities. However, the legislation has not yet been fully implemented to date, nor have sufficient funds been allocated to support it.
There have been, however, sparks of accountability. In the last three years, Germany has secured multiple convictions of persons linked to ISIL for crimes against the Yezidis. This includes the first conviction of an ISIL member for genocide anywhere in the world, in a November 2021 judgement in a universal jurisdiction case against Taha AJ. following his enslavement and abuse of a Yezidi woman and her 5-year-old daughter, culminating in the daughter’s death. His wife, Jennifer W., was convicted earlier in April 2019 on charges including membership in a terrorist organization abroad, aiding and abetting attempted murder, attempted war crimes, and crimes against humanity.
In October 2020, a German ISIS member, Omaima A., was found guilty of involvement in the enslavement of a Yezidi teenage girl. In July 2021, the same defendant was convicted in a separate trial of aiding and abetting crimes against humanity for her involvement in the enslavement of two Yezidi women.
And only days ago, in July 2022, the Higher Regional Court of Hamburg handed down a second genocide conviction, this time to a German ISIS member Jalda A. who was found guilty of aiding and abetting genocide, as well as crimes against humanity and war crimes for the enslavement and abuse of a young Yezidi woman.
In Sweden, the War Crimes Unit continues to investigate and gather evidence of crimes committed by foreign terrorist fighters and has committed publicly to prosecuting cases of ISIL crimes against the Yezidis. The Syria International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism (IIIM) has opened a structural investigation into ISIL crimes, with one line of inquiry focusing on ISIL attacks on minority communities, including the Yezidis. Both the IIIM and UNITAD continue to gather evidence and support national prosecutors in their case-building.
This is progress by inches, but is progress nonetheless. At the same time, it comes in too small measure and too slowly for survivors and relatives of victims. The Yezidi community continues to face other—and, to some, more urgent—challenges. These include finding and rescuing the many missing Yezidis; identifying the remains held in the mass graves scattered across the Sinjar region; and providing sustained and meaningful support to Yezidi men, women, boys, and girls who remain traumatized by what they have suffered.
Eight years on, the need for justice remains unabated. We are heartened by, and join in, the commitment of thousands of people, both Yezidi and non-Yezidi, to continue to carve a path towards justice and accountability.
Sareta Ashraph is the Senior Legal Consultant for the Simon-Skjodt Center.