August 3 marks three years since the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS) initiated the perpetration of genocide against the Yezidi people, part of a broader campaign of crimes against humanity, war crimes, and ethnic cleansing against religious minority communities in northern Iraq. While the international coalition to combat the terrorist group retakes strategic towns in Ninewa province, the drivers of conflict which led to the persecution of these communities remain. Until local and national authorities ensure the physical and legal protection of religious minorities and credible investigations are undertaken to ensure accountability for atrocity crimes, these communities will remain at risk of future atrocities.
IS crimes in Ninewa
Between June and August 2014, IS perpetrated horrific atrocities against Yezidi, Christian, Turkmen, Shabak, Sabaean-Mandaean, and Kaka’i civilians in Ninewa province. Our 2015 report, “Our Generation is Gone”, documented the murder, rape, abduction, and sexual enslavement of thousands of men, women, and children. Hundreds of thousands were driven from their homes, either forcibly or as a result of the violence. More than 3,000 Yezidi women and girls are still believed to be held by the terrorist group. IS targeted these communities on the basis of their identity, sometimes aided by Sunni Arab neighbors.
These crimes were just the latest in decades of violence and persecution against minority communities by the regime of Saddam Hussein as well as Sunni and Shia extremists. Sectarianism and impunity for past violence allowed extremism to fester, creating conditions which IS exploited. Those tensions and the fear that their neighbors will turn on them once again will remain long after IS no longer holds territory in Iraq. In order for stabilization efforts to be successful, minority communities must feel safe to return to their homes and they must see tangible steps to end impunity for atrocity crimes.
Physical & legal protections necessary for displaced communities to return
With the retaking of Mosul and ongoing offensives on IS positions throughout Iraq and Syria, the international community has begun to discuss reconstruction efforts. People want to return to their homes and ancestral lands, but are hindered by a lack of social services or economic opportunities in liberated areas. Many minority communities fear that they will once again fall victim to sectarian violence, that their human rights will not be respected, and that authorities will fail to protect them.
The territorial dispute between the Government of Iraq and the Kurdistan Regional Government exacerbated the insecurity of these communities, as there was no clarity regarding who was responsible for protecting civilians in these areas. There have been proposals to establish and arm religious militia as a way for communities to provide their own protection, but this would only add to the number of armed, sectarian actors in an already tense part of the country. Moving forward, there must be a political resolution to the dispute between Baghdad and Erbil and all authorities must commit to the physical and legal protection of religious minorities.
Accountability essential for long-term stability in Iraq
Long-term stability in Iraq requires the rebuilding of physical infrastructure and economies as well as the restoration of trust between diverse communities and between minorities and state authorities. In order for trust to be restored, tangible steps must be taken to hold perpetrators to account. Past crimes against religious and ethnic minorities have gone unpunished, a fact that victims of these crimes have not forgotten. When asked what recourse they would take in the absence of arrests and prosecutions for atrocity crimes, many people the Museum interviewed said they would resort to violence, thus continuing cycles of conflict.
Though there have been some efforts to identify mass graves and arrest suspected perpetrators, many of the graves near IS territory remain exposed to the elements and, of those being prosecuted in areas under Kurdish control, most are being tried on terrorism charges. The international community should press for and support efforts to properly document, investigate, and prosecute perpetrators, not just for terrorism offenses, but also for murder, rape, and other atrocity crimes. This includes both known IS fighters and any neighbors who facilitated the commission of such crimes.
There are a myriad challenges facing Iraq as it starts to rebuild its society, and Ninewa province in particular faces a unique set of challenges. In order for displaced religious and ethnic minorities to return to their homes and engage in the process of reconciliation with their neighbors, their physical protection must be assured, their rights to practice their religions and cultures must be guaranteed, and they must see those who harmed them held accountable.
As an institution grounded in the experience of the Holocaust and committed to the prevention of genocide, the US Holocaust Memorial Museum firmly believes that it is the responsibility of the international community to protect civilians at risk and to hold perpetrators of atrocity crimes to account.