In August 2014, the world watched in horror as ISIS operatives swarmed Yazidi-majority villages in and around Sinjar Mountain.
Thousands of men were slaughtered on the spot and thousands of girls and women were carted off into sexual slavery.
Yet more than six years on – and in spite of a U.S. formal designation of Yazidi genocide – no ISIS members have been prosecuted or tried for a crime.
So what has gone wrong?
“The Iraqi court system basically prosecutes suspected ISIS members based on their association with the group and on membership to a terrorist organization and gives long and death sentences as a result,” Anne Speckhard, adjunct associate professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University and director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE), told Fox News.
“The Iraqi justice system is overwhelmed with these cases and does not see a need to also prosecute for rape, which would require investigative work, calling witnesses and showing evidence when they have a good terrorism conviction easily obtained.
“The Yazidi have suffered unspeakable horrors at the hands of ISIS but there has been no specific justice meted out to them in response to the mass genocide and mass rapes.”
The ancient Yazidi community, falsely portrayed by the Islamic extremists as being “devil worshippers,” is regarded as one of the most brutally impacted by ISIS’ reign of terror in Iraq and Syria – with girls as young as 8 bought and sold multiple times to ISIS men from all pockets of the planet.
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For survivors, the lack of accountability only compounds the pain and confusion.
“I was only 14 when Da’esh jihadists attacked my village and destroyed my home,” recalled Iman Elias, who is living in limbo in a camp in the Kurdish region. “I was kidnapped with my mother, 12-year old sister and my baby brother. I have been enslaved, sold in public markets three times, spent 12 months in captivity, was beaten, forced to convert to Islam, and reduced to a sex slave.
“I’m overwhelmed by constant fear; fear of being attacked again, of being kidnapped, tortured, enslaved, flooded in winter and burnt in summer. I’m still woken up regularly by nightmares screaming and calling for help.”
Human rights attorney Amal Clooney, who represents Yazidi victims, also lamented that “no progress” has been made in efforts to create or empower an international court to put ISIS members on trial for their grave crimes.
“None of the pathways to a court have been studied, pursued or seriously discussed at the United Nations, or by the Security Council,” Clooney said in a taped address earlier this month. “No conference of foreign ministers has been convened. No government proposals, or counter-proposals, have been put forward and analyzed. No state has offered to host international trials.”
In remarks commemorating the somber six-year anniversary of the Yazidi genocide this month, Pramila Patten – the United Nations’ special representative of the secretary-general on sexual violence in conflict – pointed out that the Security Council has enacted two important resolutions that directly bear on the issue of recovery, but without concrete action.
“In Resolution 2331, the Security Council acknowledged that sexual violence and trafficking in persons was used by ISIS as a serious international crime. Last year, in April, the Security Council adopted Resolution 2467, in which it spells out the importance for all member states and the United Nations to adopt a survivor-centered approach to addressing sexual violence in conflict,” Patten said. “These resolutions cannot and are not intended to be mere words on paper.”
The matter has continued to fall through the cracks even though two years ago, the United Nations established an Investigative Team to Promote Accountability for Crimes Committed by ISIS, known by the acronym UNITAD. Team members have commended a draft law introduced in Baghdad last November that would allow Iraq to prosecute acts committed by ISIS as genocide, crimes against humanity or war crimes, which includes sexual violence.
Hussein Kassim Hasoon, an adviser to Nechirvan Barzani, president of the Kurdistan Region in Iraq, explained that the Iraqi penal code does not currently recognize such crimes, but that Barzani’s office is working closely with UNITAD – and that UNITAD has put the investigation of sexual offenses at the core of its operations – on the quest for change.
He pointed out that the investigative team has compiled a considerable amount of evidence, but they are unable to share it with Baghdad because the death penalty is still in use in Iraq, which runs counter to U.N. mandates.
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Further complicating the issue is a provision of Iraqi law related to rapists and perpetrators of sexual assault. Mariana Katzarova, founder and chair of the London-based human rights group RAW in WAR (Reach All Women in War), said criminal actions against such men are null and void, and any sentence already passed is quashed, if the perpetrator has lawfully married the victim.
“In many cases, ISIS members married Yazidi women and girls to avoid having to purchase them, and many survivors of ISIS abductions referred to rape as ‘marriage,’” she explained. “Yazidi women were also raped when they refused to marry ISIS fighters or were forced to marry them and were subsequently raped. This exception in the law allows Iraqi courts to potentially exonerate ISIS members from the thousands of rapes they committed, including in the context of forced marriages. This also violates international law, which does not permit a marital exception from prosecution for rape.”
Statistics provided to Fox News this week from the Kurdistan Regional Government’s Office of Kidnapped Affairs, which was established by then Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani to help facilitate funding and rescue missions for Yazidis, showed that the total number of kidnapped stands at 6,417, among them 3,548 females and 2,869 males. Since then, 3,530 – 1,199 women, 339 men, 1,041 girls and 951 boys – have been returned to a decimated life.
“While tens of thousands of ISIS militants are in custody in Iraq, only a handful of them have been put on trial, and all under the anti-terrorism law,” echoed Talal Haskany, a Yazidi activist and internally-displaced person living in a camp near Dohuk. “In short, there has been no justice when it comes to sexual violence. The systemic rape of Yazidi girls and women, probably one of the largest cases of collective rape since WWII, has gone unpunished, and I am afraid, will go unpunished.”
With respect to Syria, he noted, more than 22,000 ISIS militants are in the custody of the Syria Democratic Forces, and currently, there is no path to bring them to justice at all.
“Our people are concerned they may never face justice,” Haskany asserted. “For these reasons, Yazidis are demanding a tribunal court in Iraq to process cases from both Iraq and Northeast Syria. The world cannot risk thousands of ISIS members being freed. We need to move quickly before they become the seed for ISIS 2.0.”
But the mourning that comes from having so many missing loved ones – unable to let go, yet unable to move on – is only one of many pains the Yazidis continue to face, some three years after ISIS was officially declared defeated in Iraq. Most still cannot return to their ancestral homeland of Sinjar, which remains contested terrain between the Erbil and Baghdad governments.
The dusty tracks are still littered with ISIS-implanted mines and strewn with reminders of the ISIS invasion. There is limited medical care for the estimated 100,000 living in tattered tents in camps – an existence made all the more brutal by the wave of coronavirus infections further depleting the survivors. Basic services such as water and electricity are luxuries and piles of rubble still rot in the searing heat. Education is something of a distant memory, with most schools having been destroyed and Yazidi students continuing to fear for their safety amid ongoing persecution.
Signs of reconstruction are few and far between among the deteriorating camps scattered across the country’s north. The overwhelming majority of the beleaguered religious and ethnic community exist in an enduring state of displacement, with no sign of it being stable enough to go home anytime soon.
Several armed outfits maintain a strong presence in the region, including Turkey, which is waging its own visceral battle against Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) guerrillas throughout the area. While the PKK played an active role in rescuing Yazidis and pushing back against ISIS when it overran Sinjar, it has long been considered a terrorist organization by both Ankara and Washington.
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A report released by Amnesty International last month illuminated the extent to which Yazidi survivors are battling severe psychological scars and an unpredictable future, prompting a sharp rise in suicides.
“I dream of going back home, of living in a proper house, having a room to myself, being able to take a shower in the morning, being able to see a doctor when I’m ill, of going to school in a proper building and reaching university to study international law,” Elias added. “I might be a powerless teenage girl in a refugee camp, but I decided to share my story with the hope of establishing truth and justice.”