TSC IntelBrief: The Yazidi Genocide and the Quest for Justice
Bottom Line Up Front:
• August 3 marked the third anniversary of the Islamic State’s genocide against the Yazidi people of Iraq, which the UN describes as ‘ongoing’.
• Ensuring justice for the Islamic State’s victims in Syria and Iraq—whether through domestic or international legal means—is among the most challenging, but critical, tasks for the international community.
• If the fight against the Islamic State is to achieve meaningful long-term effects, the international effort cannot be defined solely in terms of military or counterterrorism success.
• The open trial of the Islamic State’s leaders in an international forum would deal a decisive blow to the group’s ideological appeal.
August 3 marked the third anniversary of the Islamic State assault on the Sinjar region of northern Iraq, the historic homeland of the country’s Yazidi community. The systematic campaign launched that day to exterminate Iraq’s Yazidi population—which the UN later designated an act of genocide—resulted in the abduction or murder of at least 9,900 Yazidis by Islamic State forces. Over several days, thousands of Yazidi men were summarily executed, and thousands of women and girls sold into sexual slavery across Iraq and Syria. Captured Yazidi boys were subsequently sent to camps for Islamic State indoctrination and military training, and forced to fight as child soldiers.
In a report issued to mark the third anniversary of the events, the UN panel established to investigate war crimes in Syria, the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, stated that the Islamic State’s genocide against the Yazidis is ‘ongoing’. Thousands of Yazidi men and boys remain missing, and around 3,000 women and girls are currently still in captivity. Many of those who have so far been liberated or managed to escape have been forced to return to a homeland that suffers from ongoing instability, and is struggling to absorb the flow of civilians fleeing Islamic State territory.
Ensuring justice for the Islamic State’s victims in Syria and Iraq is among the most challenging, but critical, tasks for the international community. If justice for the victims of the Islamic State remains elusive, it is not for lack of evidence. The Islamic State’s penchant for extensive documentation, in line with its goal of constructing a massive administrative state, has in many cases left behind mountains of evidence detailing the group’s crimes. Yet, the ability of liberating forces to collect and codify such evidence so that it may be used in court is a particular challenge, especially in a combat environment. In Iraq, despite often ample evidence with which to convict the group’s members, the country’s justice system is largely inadequate to the task of prosecuting thousands of Islamic State fighters captured over the last three years. Currently, there are only around a dozen judges hearing cases against Islamic State fighters in Iraq’s Nineveh province, home to the group’s recently-liberated capital of Mosul, limiting their ability to effectively and efficiently try those brought before them. Despite assurances by both Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government that they intend to try Islamic State members in special tribunals, there are serious doubts over their ability to administer such a massive legal undertaking. In Syria, the myriad militias and military forces liberating Islamic State-held territory offer few legitimate legal mechanisms through which captured Islamic State fighters might be tried and convicted.
Since the beginning of the conflict in Iraq and Syria, the potential shortcomings of domestic courts have led the search for justice to focus in large part on international legal forums. In a reluctant admission of the lack of progress toward that end, the UN’s Independent International Commission for Syria called last week for the international community “to refer the situation to justice, including to the International Criminal Court or an ad hoc tribunal.” Yet, such avenues remain subject to the intransigence of the UN Security Council, whose cooperation and authority is needed for any such legal body to try a case against Islamic State leaders. On August 6, one of the three members of the commission resigned in protest over the international failure to hold the Islamic State, along with the other primary combatants in Syria, accountable for their crimes. With local courts in Syria and Iraq inadequate to the task of ensuring Islamic State members face justice, and efforts to try the group’s leaders in international forums at a standstill, there is a risk that the group’s surviving leaders may never have to answer for their most heinous crimes in a court of law.
If the fight against the Islamic State is to achieve meaningful long-term effects, the international effort cannot be defined solely in terms of military or counterterrorism success. The open trial of the Islamic State’s leaders in an international forum, where their crimes—and the bankrupt ideology under which they were perpetrated—can be exposed and rebuked by the international community, would deal a decisive blow to the group’s ideological appeal.
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