In Syria, there are no clear “winners” of the nearly eight-year war. As information makes its way out of the region from survivors, smugglers, activists, medical personnel, and journalists, it is evident that the atrocities are immeasurable. There is no question that crimes against humanity and war crimes have been and continue to be committed. However, what is less known is that a specific population has suffered disproportionately: the Yazidi people. The crimes Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham (ISIS) has committed against the Yazidi people in Iraq and Syria amount to genocide.
On August 1, 2018, the UN marked the fourth anniversary of the ISIS invasion of the Sinjar region of northern Iraq where it began committing genocide against the Yazidi people.
To this day, the Yazidis feel abandoned by the international community and are calling on it to do more to investigate the three thousand women and children that are still missing or held by ISIS. Time is running out and some fear that without support or military aid their people will disappear altogether. For years now, Yazidi groups have called for more efforts to be made to rescue their missing. Kris Phelps of the British Charity War Child, one of the few NGOs still working in the Yazidi camps explained, “[the] Yazidis feel betrayed by their neighbors, forgotten by their government, and the provision of aid is dwindling.”
Prior to the August 3, 2014, attack, the Sinjar region on the Iraqi-Syrian border was predominantly Yazidi. The Yazidi faith is one of the oldest monotheistic religions in the world. There has been widespread discrimination against the Yazidis throughout modern history because some believe they are “infidels” and “devil-worshippers.” ISIS claims it is specifically mandated to destroy the Yazidis. For example, it has published articles outlining the Yazidis “continual existence to this day [as] a matter that Muslims should question.”
Paulo Pinheiro, Chair of the Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, shared that ISIS “subjected every Yazidi woman, child or man that was captured to the most horrific of atrocities.” An estimated five thousand Yazidi men were killed and around seven thousand women and girls, some as young as nine, have been sold in markets to ISIS fighters as sex slaves. One woman who escaped told the commission she had been sold fifteen times and that “[i]t is hard to remember all those who bought me.”
In the 2016 UN report, “They Came to Destroy: ISIS Crimes Against the Yazidis,” the Commission of Inquiry determined that ISIL was committing a genocide according to the definition contained in Article VI of the Rome Statute and Article II of the Genocide Convention. Both instruments define genocide as crimes against persons that are accompanied by an intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group.
The Yazidis are a religious group within the meaning of the statute and have distinct modes of worship and culture. Moreover, ISIS identifies their religious distinction as reason for their killing of Yazidis. Thus, the public statements and conduct of ISIS demonstrates that from 2014 to 2017, ISIS committed illegal enumerated acts against the Yazidis with intent to destroy them in Iraq and Syria within the meaning of Article VI of the Rome Statute and Article II of the Genocide Convention.
First, according to the UN report, ISIS intentionally killed thousands of Yazidis in both Iraq and Syria. Second, ISIS fighters have sexually enslaved and systematically raped Yazidi women and girls. Attempts to escape and resist were met with extreme violence, killings, beatings, and rape. Third, ISIS subjected the Yazidi people to conditions like rape, forced birth control, separation of the sexes, prohibition of marriages, impregnation of women to deprive group identity, and mental trauma resulting in the reluctance to procreate which are measures to prevent births within a group. Lastly, ISIS forcibly relocated Yazidi women and children and separated them from Yazidi men. This strategy led to the disappearance of part of the group because under the Yazidi religion, both parents must be Yazidi for the child to be of Yazidi faith. After examining women and girls who were held by ISIS, experts in psychology explain that due to the sexual enslavement and rape, Yazidi women and girls have anxiety around any contact with men and disinterest in relationships. Thus, ISIS has acted with intent to destroy and performed many of the enumerated acts, which thus amount to a genocide.
Despite the UN report and meeting the elements, the international community has not acted adequately. Yazidi religious leader, Baba Sheikh, explained, “The world is only talking about Yazidis but doing nothing.” The Yazidis understand that their former territory is a war zone, and thus locating and rescuing the survivors may be difficult, but it is still important and necessary—especially now that the Caliphate has been reduced to tents. Those who were unable to escape “are being tortured in excruciating agony, month after month, year after year.” Thousands have been missing since 2014 and the international community must to make them a priority before it is too late.