“Changing Attitudes to Prevent Sexual Violence in Conflict”
Panel on the Margins of the UNGA
New York, 29 September 2015
Foreign Minister Pusic,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
On behalf of the Free Yezidi Foundation and the Yezidi community, I am delighted to be with you today to share the challenges and the next steps for our people, especially our women and girls. I would like to convey my personal appreciation to Baroness Anelay, both for a fruitful meeting in London and for inviting me to participate in this panel today.
Many of you will remember the horrific images from last year, when tens of thousands of Yezidis fleeing ISIS bullets were stranded on the top of Mount Sinjar, in the scorching heat without food or water. And I am sure you are all aware of the actions of these terrorists in capturing women and girls, as young as six, to be degraded, raped, and used as sex slaves in a manner so barbaric that it defies description. You may or may not be aware of the mass graves that are now the final resting places for Yezidi men who were executed, or the fact that approximately 3,000 captives, mostly women and children, are still held by ISIS terrorists.
Before I address the abuse of women in particular, it is necessary to contextualize these crimes in the broader context of a systematic, pre-meditated effort to exterminate the Yezidis, first by the slaughter of men and older boys, and then by the capture of Yezidi women and children. These actions have been clearly documented and articulated by the perpetrators themselves. Without doubt, this is genocide. Today’s panel is so important because it pays attention to the use of sexual violence as an evil tool in the toolbox of war criminals. But I also want to stress that many of our survivors, even those who were not captured and abused by the terrorists, have suffered immensely. They witnessed the slaughter of family members, and they have sisters, mothers, daughters and wives who were held or are still held by the ISIS savages.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I believe it is very important for Yezidis to know that there are international efforts focusing on the plight of women in conflict, and specifically the recovery of women who return from such horrors. In these attacks, perpetrators employed shocking tactics against our women and girls. So our Yezidi community has been required to react in a modern and sympathetic way.
- The spiritual leader of our religion, Baba Sheikh, issued a forward-looking edict calling upon all Yezidi family members and local leaders to fully embrace victims who have escaped from ISIS captivity. I think it is the case that generally, at times of mass trauma, leaders must stand loudly and firmly with victims of sexual violence in conflict.
- As a Yezidi, I am so proud that we have been brave and strong for our survivors at the family and community levels. In the early days, there was international and local concern that those returning from such abuse would be neglected or caste away from Yezidi society. It has been the opposite. 19 women and girls from my own family were taken, and when two managed to escape, we welcomed them with open arms. This has been the case throughout our society.
- In my experience speaking with these girls, I see that community efforts towards reintegration are essential, but this is only half the battle. Many of these girls struggle terribly with personal feelings of shame and the desire to hide away from society. Even when the community accepts them, sometimes they do not accept themselves. This is where the contributions of civil society organisations are critical. For our insulated and private community, this effort absolutely must be led by Yezidi-run organisations. This brings me to the role of the Free Yezidi Foundation.
The Free Yezidi Foundation is developing three projects: children’s centers, women’s centers, and post-trauma training. The women’s centers are so important because they offer safe spaces within the IDP camps, run by Yezidi women, for Yezidi women. Language and computer courses, art, music, and gardening activities, and quiet relaxation rooms are rare gifts for IDPs. Through these centers, we also offer post-trauma therapy for all women in the camps, and it allows those recovering from sexual violence to integrate with women from our community while also accessing the help they need. At the same time, our Foundation trains local practitioners in basic and advanced post-trauma therapy so that they can provide services throughout the province, now and in the future.
I would like to take a moment to address the responsibility of the international community. Though the conflict began with ISIS, we need global actors to help with recovery. Assistance to civil society organisations led by affected communities is essential. We are efficient, we are on the ground, and we have a shared emotional interest in rebuilding our society. International aid must flow better and more directly to the organisations best placed to provide assistance to IDPs. If not, we will see them flee to other lands, as we see refugees fleeing to Europe today.
Equally, our community needs and demands justice. Frankly, this is not possible in Iraq and Syria right now. But in coordination with another Yezidi-led NGO, Yazda, and with support from the Kurdistan Regional Government, our Foundation delivered a comprehensive report to the ICC in the Hague last week. We are calling for a preliminary investigation into the genocide against the Yezidis. The ICC has jurisdiction of nationals of its member states, and because thousands of ISIS terrorists are from such states and occupy operationally significant roles within ISIS, we expect the ICC to review our report and begin an examination. We call upon all ICC member states to carefully read the report, available in redacted form on the Free Yezidi Foundation website, and also provide the ICC with as much information as possible about the activities of its nationals who are with ISIS. The Hague is far away from Sinjar, but international acknowledgement of these horrible crimes matters. I can tell you that justice matters in the camps, justice matters to all the victims and their families, and justice most certainly matters to the victims of sexual violence. The ICC can make a difference here.
Once again, I am delighted to participate in this panel and to see the matter of sexual violence in conflict receive the attention it deserves. I am grateful to Baroness Anelay and to Foreign Minister Pusic for their words and their actions, and I do hope global leaders will remain seized of this issue.
Separately, I urgently call upon all those who are concerned about human rights and women’s rights to do everything possible to assist our Yezidi survivors. I call upon you to help garner support to bring some of the ISIS perpetrators to justice at the ICC, and I call upon you to assist Yezidi-led organisations so that our community can stand on its feet again.
Thank you very much.