Yezidi women with scarf

By Pari Ibrahim

In 2014, ISIS terrorists entered the city of Sinjar in Iraq, with the well-articulated, written, pre-meditated plan to eradicate the Yezidi people. Yezidis are members of an ethno-religious minority group living in northern Iraq. We practice a unique monotheistic religion that is different from Islam, and our people have been persecuted for many centuries because of our faith. The methods of the ISIS genocide against our people have been extensively reported elsewhere.

Yezidis – a humanitarian crisis

Currently, support for our beleaguered community is critical. Although I would like to focus here on the pursuit of justice, it is important to also draw attention to pressing humanitarian needs.

The ISIS attacks on Sinjar displaced around 400,000 Yezidi civilians. A small percentage of those have returned home, with the vast majority residing in IDP camps, unfinished buildings, or makeshift huts in the Duhok province or other parts of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. A significant number have taken dangerous migration routes to Europe, many dying in the process. Daily life is not easy, and the more than three years in camps have taken a toll on the morale and the physical and emotional health of our people. For this reason, I take every opportunity to emphasize the importance of sustainable aid and support to Yezidi-led organisations to bring services, education, livelihood programs, and hope to our suffering survivor community.

Our quest for justice

Justice is a less visible but equally vital component of our community’s recovery. The aforementioned need for food, water, shelter, and healthcare are tangible, whereas the need for accountability is invisible but is deeply important in the hearts of Yezidis. It is critical that the international community listens carefully to the viewpoint of those most affected, including the women and girls who escaped from ISIS and the families who have lost so much in this genocide.

A primary example of this is the value of identifying and trying the most senior level ISIS commanders. Many international law experts cite apprehension and conviction of senior organizational or military leaders as the pinnacle of justice. However, many survivors do not agree with this. They view the apprehension and trial of mid-level and even low-level ISIS perpetrators as highly important. I agree. In the case of ISIS, cutting off and exposing the ‘head of the snake,’ so to speak, is not necessarily the solution. A new leadership will simply grow back. Further, Yezidi individuals were persecuted, attacked, killed, raped, humiliated, and tortured by ISIS perpetrators of every rank. For many of them, the chain of command and actual permission or order carry less weight than it might for international jurists. These individual ISIS perpetrators must face strict justice, and that should not be influenced or diminished by the desire of others to bring commanders to justice.

Traversing the various jurisdictions and potential paths to justice for victims of genocide – or even individual victims of crimes such as kidnapping, assault, rape, murder, etc. – is a daunting task. In the case of the Yezidis, there are a number of potential jurisdictions where we can pursue justice. We can use universal jurisdiction in the countries with an interest in identifying perpetrators and bringing them to justice. More likely, however, would be identification and indictment of European ISIS members who have returned to Europe and can be tried by their own national courts, not for being terrorists, but for violations committed against Yezidi civilians.

The prospect of justice in Syria seems bleak currently, and the situation in Iraq is only marginally better. Although both the Iraqi federal government and the Kurdistan Regional Government hold large numbers of ISIS perpetrators in jail, the judicial system is shaky at best, far from funded, and lacking in expertise or an interest in accountability for human rights violations. In all cases thus far, to our knowledge, perpetrators have been charged under terrorism laws, and the crimes committed against Yezidis have brought no legal consequences to perpetrators anywhere. Although we argued the ICC has jurisdiction over those nationals of Rome Statute signatory states who have committed atrocities as ISIS members, the fact remains that the ICC lacks jurisdiction over Iraq and Syria. The possibility of a hybrid tribunal or some similar mechanism, which would be preferable to many of us, does not seem politically likely.

International justice and the Yezidi community

Aside from the legal complications, we face a very serious social dilemma in terms of sharing the reality of our limited prospects for justice with members of the Yezidi community in an honest and responsible manner. Few members of our community are well versed in the mundane reality of international legal norms. Sadly, many individuals and organisations have made false promises to members of our community. Others, including journalists, activists, politicians, and lawyers have exploited and manipulated both victims and families for their own benefit in scandalous ways. In due course, this will leave the survivor community embittered and disillusioned with possibilities for justice and accountability. This is a grave danger. A race for awareness and attention, which is understandable and justifiable, has sometimes come at the expense of honesty and frank communication with our community about what is and is not possible in the legal world. It is imperative that all individuals and organisations–and here I refer not only to international actors but also to Yezidis–behave with integrity and honesty with survivors and the broader community. We must not make false promises and we must share the reality of the legal landscape in an honest way, even if and when the news is not so good.

As everyone knows, there is a gendered aspect to the attacks against Yezidis, and there has been a corresponding gendered aspect of the public and media analysis of what has happened to our people. As a Yezidi woman, I am particularly sensitive to this. Like some other Yezidi women, I have spent countless hours chatting with survivors– women, children, and also men–and my top priority is their welfare. Their stories and suffering can be effective in conveying a long-term goal of greater autonomy, rights, and prosperity for our people, and that is a goal that I share with all of my heart. But this long-term goal of our people cannot come at the expense of individual survivors.

In Yezidi society, as in most Middle Eastern societies, it is men who make decisions most of the time. I know this as a Yezidi woman. But in the international world, and especially in accepted international legal frameworks, individuals have rights, including women. We as a Yezidi society will not make any progress in the global arena if we are not respecting and protecting the rights of individual women and girls. I am extremely concerned by reports of our women and girls being pressured by family members or community members to share stories or participate in judicial efforts against their will. In all cases, when a survivor wishes to access her legal rights and bring cases, we support it. But we must not miss the forest for the trees, and we must not move towards justice in such a blind way that we forget about the most important thing: the welfare of the individual survivor herself. That sacrifice is never acceptable.

So I would encourage my fellow activists, Yezidi and international, to be absolutely sure to abide by accepted international norms in terms of informed consent, the rights and powers of survivors, ensuring that they have legitimate ownership in their own legal affairs, and the protection of the welfare of each Yezidi man, woman, and child; even as we strive for better, broader, and stronger success for our people as a whole.

We must confront the reality that many ISIS perpetrators will be killed in the battlefield, melt back into Iraqi or Syrian society in the short-term, hide as refugees in Europe, or face justice for terrorism and not for the atrocities they committed against Yezidis. We must be prepared for a marathon of legal and political battles that will last our entire lifetimes. We can bring to justice individual perpetrators, even if it is one at a time, year after year. If we proceed in a legally solid and morally sound way, we may get justice one case at a time. Nothing will make up for the lives we have lost and the damage that our people have suffered, but out of the tragedy we should strive to build an even stronger society and lead the charge for justice and the rehabilitation of the ancient and honorable Yezidi civilization.

This opinion piece was originally published in Harvard Human Rights Journal: