FYF Executive Director Pari Ibrahim delivered the following speech to open the inaugural event of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Ferencz Initiative in Washington, D.C.

Speech of Pari Ibrahim
Free Yezidi Foundation Executive Director
US Holocaust Memorial Museum – Ferencz Initiative
November 2017

Distinguished guests, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Before I begin, I wanted to say that last night, before coming here, I shared with some colleagues that we should be very thankful to Mr. Ferencz. This is all because of him – he saw the importance of the pursuit of justice and that gives small NGOs like ours a chance to speak today and to learn. So everyone in this room should be thankful and I hope we can learn from each other today.

Introduction

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I would like to begin by thanking the Holocaust Museum and Anna, Sarah, Amber, and the whole team for this convening.

The US Holocaust Museum issued the first comprehensive report concluding that ISIS has committed genocide against the Yezidis, and we as Yezidis are forever grateful to the Museum and to Naomi Kikoler, the author, for this. By now, everyone knows about the nature of the attacks, and we are here to discuss the pursuit of justice in a realistic and accurate way. It is clear enough to say, as the UN Commission report says in the title, that ISIS came to destroy. Unfortunately, these terrorists did destroy thousands of lives, and they have threatened the existence of our peaceful community.

Current state of affairs for Yezidis in Iraq

Sadly, I cannot avoid making a quick note to reflect the current state of affairs for Yezidis. Our people are very vulnerable right now.

Most Yezidis live in two areas of Iraq: the Shingal and Ninevah plains area to the South, and the area in Duhok and our holy site, Lalish, which is in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq to the North. After the ISIS attacks on Shingal, most of the residents fled to Duhok in the North, and most are still there in IDP camps.

Shingal is in the ‘disputed territory’ zone that both Iraq and the Kurdistan Region claim as their territory, so it has been a flashpoint for violence and conflict. Over the last month, Iraqi forces have overtaken the area, leading the Kurdish forces to flee. It is essential for Yezidis to avoid entanglement in these larger politics as much as possible. I do not believe that Baghdad or Erbil place a high value on the lives and the well being of our people. It is true that for now ISIS has been defeated, but Yezidis continue to live in a situation where security and basic necessities are far from guaranteed.

Pari Ibrahim with Don Ferencz, son of Nuremberg prosecutor Benjamin Ferencz

These daily realities and instability have serious effects on a population seeking recovery from genocide and, in due course, the justice we deserve. A current flight ban in and out of Kurdistan, for example, has affected my own Foundation’s efforts. I should have been in Duhok right now, working on a case involving an ISIS perpetrator, but the current conflict may prevent this for the foreseeable future. As a side note, we also had to evacuate our British trauma psychologist from our center where we treat Yezidi women and girls.

Since the ISIS attacks, a massive number of Yezidis have left Iraq as refugees, crossing dangerous migrant routes to Europe. Even in Europe; however, Yezidis are faced with serious challenges as refugees and as religious minorities within the Muslim-majority immigrant community.

Importance of justice and challenges in different jurisdictions

Ladies and Gentlemen,

In my Foundation’s experience, daily needs like food, housing, and security are the top priorities. Even so, there is a burning need for justice and it will remain in our hearts forever. We will never forget the horrors committed against our people.

I believe that even a single court case matters – specifically if a survivor or survivors give testimony and explain to the court what the perpetrator has done. If this experience can be shared in some way with our community, it will make a big difference. So far, every single Daesh member is charged for terrorism, whether in Iraq or Europe, but never for what he or she has done to Yezidis. I have lost 19 women and girls from my family, and 21 men have been massacred. So justice matters to us. Being a terrorist is not the same as participating in genocide. So far there has literally been no legal consequence for the crimes committed against our people. ISIS members are charged with terrorism. Brutality and extermination has meant nothing under the law in any jurisdiction, as far as I am aware.

Realistic expectations and the prospect of decades of prosecutions

We know that most perpetrators will never face trial. The majority of ISIS members lie dead in Iraq or Syria. Many thousands have melted back into the local communities in these countries, and thousands of others have returned to Europe and elsewhere. There is a limited capacity to match our survivors’ testimonies with these particular perpetrators, commence legal proceedings, and bring trials to court. Because of these challenges, it is imperative that we, as a Yezidi organisation, and all other actors are honest and realistic when we discuss prospects for justice with the Yezidi community. It is a horrible mistake if anyone instills false hope or unattainable expectations for our people.

However, despite this challenge, there are also opportunities. We know that countries like France, the United Kingdom, Germany, and my home country of the Netherlands are currently processing a significant number of ISIS perpetrators who have returned from Syria. Unlike Iraq or Syria, these European countries have well-established legal infrastructures. It may take years and even decades to build strong enough cases and enough political will to get these national prosecutors moving on such cases involving their own citizens and the atrocities they most certainly did commit in Iraq and Syria. But with sustained pressure and strong evidence, it can be done. That is one reason we are extremely grateful to the Holocaust Museum team for bringing together other actors with experience building cases over the long term. I believe many of us are now beginning to realize that this is a marathon, not a sprint. We will have to convey this painful reality to our own communities. There is no possibility of the ICC delivering meaningful justice to us in the short term, and probably not at all. Nevertheless, as cases are filed in national courts or in some sort of tribunal, one by one, we are hopeful that a glimmer of justice will bring some healing to our people. There is an enormous gap between the difficulties of international justice, on one hand, and the Yezidi community’s understanding of justice on the other. It is up to us, as Yezidi organisations, to help convey the reality. The path forward is long and difficult, but not without hope.

Government promises & political statements versus concrete action

An important aspect of maintaining accuracy and realistic expectations involves how we, as Yezidis, deal with governments. Because of the desperate nature of our situation, I believe our community is quick to work with individuals, organisation, or governments pledging to help us in our case. I know I have been guilty of this, as have other Yezidi organisations and individuals. We must all remember that governments have their own priorities, and even if they may intersect with the needs of our community in some ways, they do have their own selfish reasons for making promises and political statements. As Yezidis, we have to navigate this difficult terrain. We must always press our partners and friends to translate promises and statements into concrete action. This is especially true for the pursuit of justice, where it is far easier to make promises and lend moral support than to follow through with prosecutions. This is a learning process for members of my community. Input and advice from experts, like those of you with us today, is incredibly valuable. And other communities with experience in overcoming trauma can teach us quite a lot.

Best practices in dealing with survivors and the well being of the community

I am sure that the participants from Myanmar, Nigeria, and South Sudan also have experience dealing with survivors and highly traumatized individuals and groups. It is my opinion that the way public information, mass media, and international attention works right now merits some special consideration. For example, we have seen established norms and best practices for victims of sexual violence completely disregarded by predatory journalists, academics, and others. It has been shocking for me, as a Dutch citizen, to observe some Westerners come to our community and behave with carelessness and no attention to the rights and well being of our survivors. I think we must all pay close attention to the way individual victims – women but also men and children – are able to meaningfully participate in advocacy and justice and understand their rights, the concept of informed consent, and the difference between empowerment and exploitation.

Closing remarks

I am personally very pleased that this convening has brought together top legal minds, practitioners, and subject matter experts to share experiences, lessons learned, and best practices with all four communities. I am looking forward to in-depth and substantive discussions with everyone, and with the other communities as well, so that we can all benefit. Finally, on behalf of the Yezidi community, I want to say that we are very grateful to all those who have understood our plight and have worked genuinely and diligently to support Yezidis in our time of need.

It is a great honor for me to raise these topics in advance of the next panel with Ambassador Williamson, former Attorney General Eric Holder, and Ambassador Eizenstat. I hope they and all of you will continue to support our efforts and guide us forward in the best possible way as we seek justice and healing for our people. Thank you very much.