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Nobody’s Listening: Supporting the Yezidi Community 10 Years After the Genocide

A Yazidi woman sits outside the tent where she lives in Shariya IDP camp outside Duhok.

A Yezidi woman sits outside the tent where she lives in Shariya IDP camp outside Duhok. —Mackenzie Knowles-Coursin for US Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Ten years after the self-described Islamic State’s (IS) assault on ethno-religious minority groups in Iraq and Syria—and its commission of genocide against the Yezidi community—justice and repair for survivors remains elusive. On January 29, the Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide (SCPG), the United States Institute of Peace (USIP), and the multi-media advocacy project and exhibition Nobody’s Listening convened to discuss tangible actions for the Iraqi and US Governments. 

Jointly hosted at USIP, the event Nobodys Listening: Supporting the Yezidi Community 10 Years After the Genocide marked the closing of “Nobody’s Listening,” a USIP-hosted exhibit that commemorates the Yezidi genocide and its devastating impact through immersive media displays. The conversation featured introductory remarks from USIP President and CEO Lise Grande and Victoria Taylor, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Iraq and Iran in the US State Department’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs. SCPG director Naomi Kikoler moderated a panel discussion with Haider Elias, President of Yazda Global Organization; Sarhang Hamasaeed, director of Middle East Programs at USIP; Pari Ibrahim, Founder and Executive Director of the Free Yezidi Foundation; and Ambassador Beth Van Schaack, Ambassador-at-Large for Global Criminal Justice at the US State Department.

In her keynote remarks, Deputy Assistant Secretary Taylor highlighted three themes: restoration and re-establishment of justice; reconstruction; and resilience. Deputy Assistant Secretary Taylor encouraged the Iraqi government and the international community to ensure that the work of the United Nations Investigative Team to Promote Accountability for Crimes Committed by Da’esh/ISIL (UNITAD) and United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq. continues and a responsible transition plan is developed. She encouraged a focus on finding durable solutions to address and remedy the concerns of those Yezidis who do not feel safe returning to their home, and working within communities and providing vital resources, including psychological support, education, and legal support. 

Opening the panel discussion, Naomi Kikoler expressed hope for a renewed focus on the plight of all of Iraq’s minorities and the future of all of Iraq’s people in coming months. Mindful of the approaching ten-year anniversary of the genocide of the Yezidis, she grounded the conversation in identifying tangible solutions.

To begin, Haider Elias described the current resettlement and security situation for Yezidis in Iraq. He reported that 313,000 Yezidis are displaced and more than 2,500 people, mostly women and girls, remain missing; many Yezidis feel unsafe to return home. Many homes were destroyed, and Sinjar, where a majority of Yezidis lived prior to the genocide, lacks adequate health care facilities, employment opportunities, and schools. Pari Ibrahim noted that women and girls are not decision makers in families and therefore have little say in the decision to return. She urged that programming focus on the demands of women and girls and their vision for Iraq. 

Finding the missing is of utmost importance to the Yezidi community, many of whom have been personally impacted by kidnappings. Elias reported that the Iraqi government has formed a committee to create a mechanism to find people, searching Syria, Iraq, and Turkey. Panelists welcomed this and noted that the Iraqi government will need support from civil society to succeed. 

Panelists discussed the failed implementation of the 2020 Sinjar Agreement, which was created without input from the Yezidi community. The agreement outlines a plan for power sharing and security between the KRG and Iraqi government, as both claim Sinjar as their territory. The agreement dictates mayor selection, the addition of security forces to the region, and the dispersion of military groups. Panelists attributed the lack of progress to the refusal of the Iraqi government and the KRG to share power, resulting in political obstruction. Elias suggested that the Iraqi constitution be applied to Sinjar. Under the constitution, the mayor, police, and public service officials would be selected by the community and Baghdad and Erbil will not have a determining role. 

Panelists emphasized the importance of justice and accountability to victims searching for some form of closure. Ambassador Van Schaack outlined challenges for justice efforts and options for accountability. The national court is the first venue where accountability for crimes such as genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes, should normally be sought. However, these are not prosecutable crimes in Iraq’s legal system. Instead, perpetrators are tried for terrorism, in which the state, not the Yezidis, is considered the victim. Ibrahim described this solution as deeply unsatisfying to Yezidis who want perpetrators held accountable for the specific crimes they committed, such as rape, mass murder, and genocide. There is legislation to codify these crimes within Iraqi law drafted, which the parliament could take up. The Ambassador also pointed to universal jurisdiction cases in third states, which have been successful in Germany and other European countries. Prosecutors in these trials are supported by detailed evidence of IS crimes and specific perpetrators provided by UNITAD. Panelists expressed dissatisfaction that these cases cannot take place in Iraq. Hamasaeed reported that USIP’s Conflict and Stabilization Monitoring Framework, which collects data directly from Iraq’s conflict-affected communities, found that 70% of those surveyed stated that the Iraqi government should hold the primary responsibility for an accountability process.

All panelists expressed disappointment at the anticipated closure of UNITAD. The mission has been a vital resource in the quest for justice. Iraqi civil society, including the Free Yezidi Foundation, has worked closely with UNITAD to investigate and analyze crime scenes in different villages, documenting what crimes were committed and by whom. UNITAD’s mandate is not expected to be extended. This is partially at the request of the Iraqi government because UNITAD refuses to share evidence with Iraqi prosecutors. The Ambassador explained the structural obstacles preventing UNITAD from complying with Iraq’s request. UNITAD is designed to support atrocity crime prosecutions, not terrorism charges, which are the only charges the Iraqi government is currently able to bring. Additionally, United Nations policy prevents UNITAD from supporting processes that could result in the death penalty. The Ambassador suggested that these issues could be resolved through negotiation, enacting legislation codifying atrocity crimes in Iraqi law, and assurances from the Iraqi government that they will not pursue the death penalty in these cases. 

If UNITAD’s mission in Iraq ends, it is unclear where the collected information will be housed. Ibrahim emphasized that Yezidis do not want UNITAD’s documents to “end up in New York in a library.” Yet without a transition plan, this is a plausible outcome. The Ambassador stated that it is essential that any changes to UNITAD’s mandate be structured to allow safe, continued use of the collective knowledge of survivors, national authorities, experts, and academics that it has cataloged over the past six years. 

Throughout the conversation, panelists recommended several tangible steps for the KRG, US and Iraqi governments to meet the needs of the Yezidi community:

The Iraqi Government

  • Enact legislation to codify genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes in the legal code. Pursue these charges and play an active role in justice and accountability efforts;

  • Provide reparations to the Yezidi community and invest in adequate infrastructure in the Sinjar region;

  • Allocate 1% of its budget ($1.5 billion) to support the Yezidi community in recovery and rebuilding;

  • Apply the Iraqi constitution to the administration of Sinjar;

  • Invest in social cohesion and coexistence by supporting projects that pave roads connecting Arab and Yezidi communities and improving conditions in both Yezidi communities and those surrounding them;  

  • Invest in the next generation of Yezidi youth to equip them to advocate in the Iraqi government;

  • Support civil society organizations working with minority communities. 

The United States Government 

  • Keep the plight of the Yezidi population as a political focus in all diplomacy with the Iraqi government; 

  • Continue to support programs in Sinjar that are crucial for people’s ability to return, including social cohesion and employment programming.

The International Community

  • Determine the future of UNITAD and, if the mandate is not extended, transfer its archives to other mechanisms in order for the work to continue.

Learn more about the Simon-Skjodt Center’s work on Iraq.