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Building a Case for Prosecuting the Genocide of Yazidi Women


Nadia Murad Basee Taha, a Yazidi activist who just told her story of captivity by ISIS in Iraq, Dec. 16, 2015, to the UN Security Council. A new justice movement is advocating for the prosecution of sex abuse of women as a crime of genocide. AMANDA VOISARD/UN PHOTO

As the Islamic State’s self-proclaimed caliphate in Iraq crumbles, assessments begin to emerge of the damage left in its wake by its cultural nihilism and harsh sectarian absolutism designed to remake an Arab society. The human costs have been high in Iraq — in deaths, maiming, displacement and the enslavement of girls and women.

A campaign by legal experts now wants more action to be done on the systematic sexual abuse of women as a crime of genocide, separate from but related to the larger focus on Islamic terrorism and its more visible mass atrocities.

Thousands of terrified and battered women, silenced and alone, suffer in the shadows.

“The crimes against women aren’t seen as genocide . . . not recognized until you see mass killings,” said Janet Benshoof, president of the Global Justice Center in New York. Her remarks suggest why there has not been concerted international action on the issue despite clear provisions in the Genocide Convention and numerous resolutions in the United Nations Security Council calling for the protection of women. “Abduction doesn’t look like genocide.”

In June, the Center assembled a group of experts on genocide and international law to consider how to use more effective protections already available in recognizing, documenting and preventing genocide, particularly “gendered” genocide. The experts’ analysis and recommendations were made public on July 17.

Though questions about genocide have global relevance, the discussion in what the Center is calling a “brain trust” on counterterrorism and genocide focused on the Yazidi women in Sinjar, in northern Iraq, who were the victims of the Sunni fighters of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). It is widely estimated that several thousand Yazidi women are still in captivity. The Center initiative calls for stepped-up advocacy demanding their release.

Since 2014, the UN Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect has been tracking the executions of Yazidi men and boys as well as the abductions of Yazidi, Christian and Shabak women and girls. Yazidis are believers in a unique religious blend of pre-Islamic Assyrian faiths, both Sufi and Shiite Islam, Nestorian Christianity and Zoroastrianism. The Shabaks are a Shiite sect who have lived for hundreds of years around Nineveh, also in the Iraqi north. To ISIS, they are all infidels.

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The targeting of women is not only to serve the sexual demands of fighters but also to carry out a calculated policy of ethnic miscegenation by impregnating female captives and thus sullying the ethnicity and culture of their enemies.

“Unlike crimes against humanity or war crimes, genocide is inherently different,” Benshoof said in an interview. “You try to obliterate an identity.” The murders of men and older women and the conscription of boys made clear that women of reproductive age were to be enslaved and used in the campaign to weaken or destroy minority communities.

This militant strategy occurred in recent decades in the Balkans in the 1990s, when Bosnian Serbs set up rape camps where, by some accounts, at least 20,000 women were systematically abused in the name of diluting and destroying Bosnian Muslim communities.

The shattered, tortured lives of Bosnian women and the children they were forced to bear, many of them now young adults, have been marked by unending trauma and shame in a conservative Muslim society. This tragedy was the subject of the gripping 2006 film, “Grbavica,” written and directed by a young female Bosnian artist who lived through the war.

The international tribunals set up by the UN for Bosnia, and later Rwanda, acknowledged that rape as a weapon was an international war crime. But charges of genocide, though often suggested, were not pressed, despite that both the Bosniak Muslims and Tutsi in Rwanda felt their communities had been the victims of genocidal tactics. Western powers, however, refused to act, or even maintain or increase the UN peacekeeping presence as the crises intensified catastrophically.

At the time, Secretary-General Boutros-Boutros Ghali was denied what he deemed to be the necessary number of troops in Bosnia and Herzegovina. In the case of Rwanda, US President Bill Clinton instructed his UN ambassador, Madeleine Albright, not to use the word genocide in Security Council debates to avoid setting in motion a monumental response that would be costly to member countries.

Clinton later felt it necessary to go to Rwanda to apologize. Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain also publicly expressed remorse, but by then hundreds of thousands of people were dead, many in brutal ethnic massacres.

During the Islamic State’s assault on the Sinjar region of Iraq in 2014, when the US launched bombing raids in northern Iraq, including attacks on a mountainous area of Sinjar where Yazidis had fled for safety, President Barack Obama did not shrink from calling the assaults on them genocide.

“To his credit, President Obama, when he bombed Sinjar, made a moral statement — not a legal statement — that he was doing this to avert genocide,” Benshoof said. UN investigators and independent human-rights advocates have termed the crimes against Yazidi women as genocide, and there are plenty of other statements on record, she added.

“The International Court of Justice [the World Court], which is just as much a part of the UN as the UN’s genocide office, actually issued an injunction against genocide in 1993,” Benshoof said. Bosnia filed the first case against Serbia, which it accused of being complicit — and actually leading — Bosnian Serb attacks on Muslims.

Very recently, there have been reports saying that the US State Department has ordered references to ISIS attacks on Christians and other minorities as genocide be removed. If true, these reports indicate that the Trump administration does not want to face the obligations this label would place on the US: a Rwanda situation revisited. Trump and his ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, have been keen on reducing peacekeeping costs.

Discussions are now taking place in Europe, particularly in Britain, on the possibility of taking the case of Yazidi women to the International Criminal Court, though it was established by treaty in 1998 primarily to bring the masterminds of crimes to justice.

“States are supposed to act, whenever there is a risk of genocide, even if their actions wouldn’t have any effect,” Benshoof said. “If you’re on the Security Council, you should propose a resolution because you have a duty under the genocide law, to do all you can.”

In its final report, the Global Justice Center’s “brain trust” confirmed “the importance of laws, and, perhaps more significantly, the special values that it protects: plurality, diversity and tolerance.” The team of experts, noting the rise of nationalism and prejudice in the world, underlined the importance of upholding those values. It concluded:

“The ongoing genocide against the Yazidis demonstrates there is a real gap between the strength of legal obligations to prevent, suppress and punish genocide, and compliance with them.”


Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.

Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”

Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.

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