Remembering ISIS' Crimes of Genocide Against Yazidis on the Anniversary of the Sinjar Massacre

by Jessica Zaccagnino

With the rise of non-state terrorist groups, such as Boko Haram and the Islamic State, the strategic face of war has changed. This shift has subsequently altered the experience of civilians in armed conflict. In this changing landscape, women and girls face distinct horrors in comparison to men.

Groups such as ISIS have been perpetuating genocide against minorities in controlled territories, notably against the Yazidis. These violent extremists target women and men differently when committing crimes of genocide. In addition to systematic murder, ISIS subjects women to sexual slavery, forced marriages, rape, forced impregnation, and other gender-specific crimes of genocide. Despite the distinct tactics that are being used to commit genocide, the gender reality of genocide is often overlooked when enforcing the Genocide Convention. Global Justice Center’s Genocide Project fights against the gender-gap in responding to crimes of genocide perpetrated by extremist groups, like ISIS, and seeks to ensure that the laws of war work for, and not against, women.

On the morning of August 3rd, 2014, ISIS forces entered the Sinjar region in Northern Iraq, only months after declaring itself a caliphate in parts of Iraq and Syria. The region has a high population of Yazidi people, an ethno-religious Kurdish minority that has been heavily targeted by the ISIS insurgency. In Sinjar alone, 5,000 men were killed, thousands of women were systematically raped and sold into sexual slavery, and over 150,000 Yazidis were displaced. When ISIS took Sinjar, men and boys over the age of ten were separated from women and children, and most, as evidence of mass graves suggests, were killed. In the process of fleeing, an estimated 50,000 Yazidis were trapped in the Sinjar Mountains, with ISIS forces surrounding them. Although a majority of those trapped were able to eventually escape the mountainous region, the Sinjar Massacre left thousands dead, and thousands more enslaved. Yazidi women “have been systemically captured, killed, separated from their families, forcibly transferred and displaced, sold and gifted (and resold and re-gifted), raped, tortured, held in slavery and sexual slavery, forcibly married and forcibly converted.” These women have been targeted by ISIS solely on the basis of their gender and ethnicity, and such acts make clear ISIS’ genocidal intent to destroy the group in whole.

Despite the air drops of food, water, and supplies, the Yazidis trapped in the mountain siege survived in grim conditions—circumstances intended by ISIS to destroy the group. In addition to air drops, President Obama invoked the need to “prevent a potential act of genocide” as a justification for launching air strikes to rescue those trapped in the Sinjar Mountains. Just this year, Secretary of State John Kerry officially declared that ISIS is committing genocide. It is vital for the United States to recognize the unique aspects of genocide that specifically target gender within the persecution of Yazidis when taking action against ISIS. Although the United States has taken a big step in declaring ISIS’ genocide, the United States must move beyond words. In fact, the United States is required by the Genocide Convention to take action against genocide. Yet, as the two-year anniversary of Sinjar approaches on August 3rd, the United States has still not taken any necessary further steps to combat ISIS’ genocidal crimes.

GJC Published in Newsweek on Anniversary of Sinjar Massacre

Grant Shubin, a Staff Attorney at GJC, and Pari Ibrahim, the Founder and Executive Director of the Free Yazidi Foundation published an op-ed in Newsweek about the state of Yazidi women on the second anniversary of the Sinjar Massacre.

Click here to read the full article. 

International Justice Day

On July 17, Global Justice Center celebrated International Justice Day and reminded of the ongoing Yazidi Genocide, despite promises of #NeverAgain. 

#JusticeMatters

Commemorating the Srebrenica Massacre

Last year, when commemorating the July 11, 1995 commencement of hostilities in Srebrenica, Bosnia & Herzegovina that ended in the deaths of 8,000 men, the White House wrote that, “only by holding the perpetrators of the genocide to account can we offer some measure of justice to help heal their loved ones.” Political condemnation is, in other words, not enough; criminal prosecution should follow such remarks. Today, the United States and other international actors who have acknowledged the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria’s (“ISIS”) genocidal acts must honor the legacy of the International Criminal Tribunal in Yugoslavia (“ICTY”) and follow international humanitarian law by prosecuting ISIS fighters for genocide.

The 11-day massacre in Srebrenica is often noted – and rightfully so – for the horrific killings of thousands of Muslim Bosniaks, most of whom were unarmed civilians, by the Bosnian Serb Army of Republika Srpska (“Bosnian Serb Army”). The murders, carried out under the pretense of impunity, specifically targeted a religious subpopulation – a violation, as noted by the ICTY, of article II of the Geneva Conventions.

Srebrenica’s men were killed whilst Srebrenica’s women were sexually assaulted and raped. By raping and sexually mutilating the wives and daughters of the men they had just murdered, the Bosnian Serb Army aimed to comprehensively “assert [its] superiority and victory over the Muslims.” As the landmark trial of Akayesu - a man involved in the 1994 Rwandan genocide - established, such actions are not separate to, but rather components of, genocide.

ISIS’s current actions in Iraq and Syria are remarkably similar to those in Srebrenica 21 years ago: ISIS fighters specifically target religious and ethnic minorites like the Yazidis – as acknowledged by US Secretary of State John Kerry - and they systematically rape and sexually enslave Yazidi women. As in Yugoslavia in the 1990’s, where rape served as a military tactic intended to “transmit a new ethnic identity to the child,” today’s rape of minority populations by ISIS serves as a central tenet of the group’s military quest for regional domination.

Such actions are not only morally repugnant but also criminal and prosecutable under international humanitarian law. The convictions of Bosnian Serbs for genocidal actions in Srebrenica should not exist in a temporal vacuum; they entered humanitarian law as precedence for the future prosecution of genocide, thereby providing justice to victims at the timeand offering legal tools for future genocide prosecutions elsewhere.

Today, the international community should honor the memory of those killed and raped in Srebrenica and the lessons learned from that conflict by prosecuting ISIS fighters for genocide. By doing so, the international community will acknowledge its responsibility to protect victims of genocide, recognize the legal precedents established in Yugoslavia and Rwanda, deter future fighters from joining the organization’s ranks, and provide justice to ISIS’s victims.

ISIS is Committing Genocide: Now What?

by Jessica Zaccagnino

On March 17th, Secretary of State John Kerry declared that ISIS is committing acts of genocide against Yazidis and other minority groups in Iraq and Syria, launching the United States into a complex discussion of how to feasibly prosecute ISIS. Although there is not universal ascension to the Genocide Convention, customary international law has enshrined obligations of the international community to prevent, suppress, and punish perpetrators of genocide. Akila Radhakrishnan, the Legal Director of the GJC, emphasized in an interview that “the prohibition on genocide is actually considered to be so widely important that it has attained an even higher status of customary international law called jus cogens,which means it is absolutely non-derogable in every context.” The United States, party to the Genocide Convention, is required by both international conventions and customary international law to take action against genocide. Declaring that ISIS is committing is relatively easy, but actually prosecuting ISIS poses a unique set of challenges in part due to their non-state actor status: logistical, legal, and otherwise.

The prosecution of ISIS for genocide raises numerous, difficult questions: first, what body should carry out trials? In a resolution released days prior to Kerry’s announcement, Congress indicated support for trial in an internationally-run court, such as the International Criminal Court, or an entirely new tribunal, would be the best course of action. The White House has yet to indicate a plan of prosecution. Similar questions of logistics, such as who to hold responsible and where to hold large numbers of detainees, have also been raised. The existence of a defined administrative hierarchy within ISIS raises questions as to what extent subordinates should be held accountable for acts planned by their superiors; however, this is a question that plagues most tribunals.

In terms of prosecuting foreign fighters, it will likely be easier for the United States to turn over detainees to Iraq, an ally, than to Syria, as the US has been supporting rebel groups wishing to oust President Bashar Assad. Since ISIS utilizes many foreign fighters, estimated at 27,000, the use of national jurisdiction over these fighters may open up opportunities for a case in the ICC, even though Iraq and Syria are not party to the Rome Statute, or domestic trials in the US if extradited. The final problem is one of evidence: genocide is a very difficult crime to prove. Due to the “specific intent” portion of the definition, more extensive evidence is required than general charges of crimes against humanity or war crimes. This means, in order to prosecute ISIS, there must be a careful collection of evidence, all while in an active war zone.

To successfully prosecute ISIS for crimes of genocide, the US and international community will have to parse through numerous complex challenges in the near future and focus their energy not on only combatting ISIS militarily, but also constructing a clear prosecutorial strategy.

Although prosecuting ISIS for crimes of genocide poses a unique set of challenges, they are not impossible to overcome. The United States and the global community have a duty to prosecute crimes of genocide under international humanitarian law. ISIS’ prosecution, with the US playing an active role, is of utmost importance, especially now that both the US and UN’s Commission of Inquiry on Syria have come to the consensus that ISIS is perpetuating genocide. Countries must engage with these challenges proactively and address them head on in order to make substantial progress towards prosecution.

Clickhere to read the full interview with Akila Radhakrishnan and Grant Shubin, lawyers at Global Justice Center, about the US’ declaration of ISIS’ genocide.

Thinking of Yazidi Women and Girls on the International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict

On June 19, as the international community observes the International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict, rape remains a central reality of war for women and girls around the world.

War rape is both a historical and contemporary part of war: it is not simply a byproduct of fighting but often serves as a central military tactic. In Yugoslavia in the 1990s, “the systematic rape of women … [was] in some cases intended to transmit a new ethnic identity to the child.” Yugoslav women were “often […] interned until it was too late for them to undergo an abortion,” thereby ensuring the creation of a new ethnic reality.

Today, in ISIS controlled territories, ISIS leaders “elevate and celebrate each sexual assault as spiritually beneficial, even virtuous.” Multiple accounts by former ISIS captives detail month-long rapes, severe physical and mental trauma, and forced pregnancies.

War rape thus serves to traumatize and create fear in the short term and to extend genocidal effects by producing new ethnic identities in the long term.

Yet despite the horrific psychological and biological results of war rape the United States’ Helms Amendment precludes any US humanitarian aid from being used for abortion services.

Denying abortions to war rape victims endangers innocent women’s lives, helps to perpetuate genocide and its effects, and violates the Geneva Conventions.

Even though the Hyde Amendment, a similar domestic amendment to the Helms Amendment, includes exceptions for rape and cases in which the mother’s health is in danger, foreign victims of war rape are not afforded these rights.

In 2015, Obama noted that the “Golden Rule,” that “seems to bind people of all faiths,” is to “treat one another as we wish to be treated,” — to “love thy neighbor as thyself.” If victims of war rape are to receive the medical care they deserve, the Obama Administration must apply this Golden Rule not only to domestic victims of rape, but to war rape victims in other countries as well.This involves recognizing their rights to non-discriminatory medical treatment and issuing an executive order that limits the scope of the Helms Amendment.

Women’s Piece of Peace: Security Council Debate on Women, Peace and Security

2015 marks the 15th anniversary of the adoption of Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security, which requires parties in a conflict to respect women’s rights and support their participation in peace negotiations and in post-conflict reconstruction. Yesterday the Security Council held its annual open debate under Argentina’s presidency calling upon UN Member to implement resolutions on women, peace and security. This year’s theme focused on the situation of women refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) around the world.

With numerous crises from Iraq, Nigeria, and Syria to Somalia and Mali and the increase of extremists take control of territory, the shifting trend in conflict is seeing a heightening of targeted violence against women, girls and their communities, warned the UN Secretary-General whose statement was delivered by the Executive Director of UN Women Ms. Mlambo-Ngcuka. The Executive Director in her own statement stressed that women are among the most vulnerable group and the primary subject to violence. But it is women who should be empowered by giving them a voice in decision-making in order to protect them. She noted that “key decisions are still made behind closed doors, deaf to the voices of those directly affected.” Increasing the representation of women in leadership roles and electing them to governing bodies is a way to ensure their protection, as has been seen in Haiti and the Central African Republic.

One of the important issues raised by Member States was that rape is still too often used as a weapon of warfare with a devastating impact on victims of war. Gender based violence also contributes to displacement and women fleeing in hope for safety. Speakers admitted that most refugees are women, and they face a lack of medical assistance which they desperately need. For instance, services that enable the safe termination of pregnancy are fundamental for women to restore their lives after rape and yet are continually denied due to US policy. Failure to provide these services violates the rights of victims of rape.

A highlight of the Open Debate was the statement by the award winning Iraqi women’s rights lawyer Suaad Allami who delivered her statement on behalf of the NGO Working Group on Women, Peace and Security and spoke first-hand of her experiences in working with refugees and the threats to women’s rights by extremist groups such as ISIS. She paid tribute to her friends and colleagues who recently have been killed defending women’s rights. She ended her statement with applause and spoke the last words in Arabic “All human beings have the right to be safe and live a life of dignity.”

Click here to read the Presidential Statement on behalf of the Security Council.

Rape as a Weapon of ISIS

ISIS is waging a war against women in the Middle East. The organization regularly employs rape as a war tactic and captures girls to sell as sex slaves. This month in the Guardian, women’s rights advocate Yifat Susskind, told the story of a young Iraqi girl, who remains nameless, and the horrors she faced in the hands of ISIS. The girl was taken captive and traded between more than a dozen ISIS men, each one of whom raped her. She was lucky enough to escape to a refugee camp and receive the help of women’s rights activists, whose presence is slowly becoming more prevalent within the war-torn region.

Organizations such as the Global Justice Center seek to end war rape through ending impunity and seeking legal reparations; Yifat Susskind offers a different, or rather simultaneous solution in ending the power of rape in war, at least within the circumstances surrounding ISIS attacks and abductions. Susskind cites stigma as the most undermining and devastating consequence of rape—and therefore the most desirable to ISIS. Susskind says, “Survivors are ostracised, even blamed for the attacks. Families fear being tarnished by the stigma and banish wives, mothers and daughters. In the worst cases, people adhere to distorted notions of “honour” and kill rape survivors. In short, rape tears at the fabric that binds families and communities.”

But those perceptions are beginning to change—unfortunately this change is incentivized by ISIS’ massive and indiscriminate violence towards women—and women are slowly receiving acceptance and care within their communities. This ideological shift is incredibly important to the larger perception of women under the rule of ISIS. Quoting an Iraqi women’s rights activist, Susskind said, “We want the survivor’s community to see her not as a ruined, raped girl, but as a prisoner of war who was strong enough to survive weeks of torture and brave enough to escape.”

While decreasing stigma is a huge step forward in aiding survivors of war rape, a larger deterrent would be holding the perpetrators accountable for their crimes. Rape is being used more than any other prohibited weapon of war including starvation; attacks on cultural objects; and the use of herbicides, biological or chemical weapons, dum-dum bullets, white phosphorus or blinding lasers. It is time to punish those that use rape as an unlawful weapon in armed conflict.

Over the Line: Sudanese Denial of Collective Rape, and ISIS Pamphlet

Fighting against use of rape as a weapon of war is extremely difficult even when there are clear evidences proving the crimes. The task becomes more difficult when evidence is hidden and the investigation on behalf of the UN is rejected.

In Sudan a joint African Union and United Nations peacekeeping mission knows as UNAMID was twice denied permission from Sudanese authorities to investigate rape. “The Sudanese military is deliberately making it hard for its peacekeepers to investigate the claims.”  After Radio Dabanga reported a collective rape of “more than 200 women and girls“, the UNAMID had no access needed for a proper investigation of the situation.  The authorities threaten the local population to avoid publicity of rape crimes.  “None of those interviewed confirmed that any incident of rape took place in Tabit on the day of that media report,” says the official UNAMID report.

However, the leaked internal report shows the investigators concerns that the Sudanese military was preventing witnesses from coming forward. This only proves the failure of Sudanese authorities to treat the conduct of war as a war crime and protect women and girls from becoming rape victims. Sudan has even asked the UN to close its human rights office in Khartoum.

While Sudanese authorities refuse to follow international law in regard to rape, we see ISIS releasing a list of rules on treating females slaves, women and children once they captured by Jihadi warriors. That is how ISIS chooses to respond to the international uproar caused by ISIS kidnapping Yazidi girls and women and turning them into sex slaves. The published pamphlet reveals the horrifying truth of the way ISIS treat their female hostages: not only they see the illegal sexual intercourse with non-Muslim slaves, including young girls, to be a right thing to do, but they also allow to beat them and trade them in.

Rape is a prohibited weapon under the criteria set by the laws of war. It is illegal and inhuman. GJC urges the international community to give a strong response to these outrageous crimes conducted on behalf of Sudanese military, ISIS, and other authorities in war zones and prosecute those that use rape as a tactic of war. The time has come to go beyond the recognition that rape is being used as an illegal weapon/tactic of war – it’s time to start treating it like one.

Combatting Violence against Women in War is not just a Women’s Rights issue; it’s a Global Peace & Security issue

In the past several weeks, the world has witnessed the deliberate targeting of women and girls as a political and military tactic by Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) terrorists. In Iraq and Syria, thousands women and girls, particularly from ethnic and religious minorities, have been kidnapped by ISIS terrorists. They are being brutally raped, used for sexual slavery, forced marriage and forced pregnancy. In other words, sexual violence is being used as a weapon of war.

In Iraq, Yazidi women and girls are a primary target for ISIS, falling prey to horrific acts of sexual violence and brutality as ISIS advanced through northern Iraq. Few managed to escape from their abductors. Adeba Shaker and Somaa are two such exceptions. Somaa was kidnapped, held hostage for almost a month, and together with her friend were sold to two old sheiks who ill-treated them. Abeda Shaker together with about seventy other women and children were abducted when militants took over their village. They were taken to an unknown destination where they joined around 1000 other Yazidi women hostages. Shaker was supposed to convert to Islam and to be forced into marriage. Fortunately, she and her companion were brave enough to try their luck and run away.

Nevertheless, these cases are rare exceptions. Many others kidnapped and held hostages are destined to suffer from ISIS brutality with no hope for rescue. What is worse, this is not a unique case. Kidnapping is a tactic of war conducted by militants, terrorists and soldiers in different conflict regions of the world.

As Nigeria’s Islamic extremist group – Boko Haram – has seized more towns along Nigeria’s northeastern border with Cameroon, more and more women and children are in danger. Last year, a group of women and girls was abducted and later rescued from Boko Haram. Some of them were pregnant. Others had been forcibly converted to Islam and married off to their kidnappers. The goal of Boko Haram is to impose their version of Sharia law across Nigeria, and they especially oppose the education of women. In April, Boko Haram kidnapped more than 300 girls from a boarding school in Chibok in northeastern Nigeria. Some of them seized the rare opportunity to escape when they were left alone in the camp and returned to their razed villages. However, more than 200 of them remain captive. This is yet another tragic example of young girls and women being violated to achieve military and political objectives. Yet the world continues to do extraordinarily little to recover those lost.

The Taliban also actively seeks to stop women and girls from attending school in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Malala Yousafzai, a women’s rights activist who campaigned against the efforts of the Taliban to violently stop girls attending school, was infamously attacked in 2012 while traveling home on a school bus. She was shot in the head, but luckily survived. Just last week, ten militants were taken into custody in connection with the attempted murder. This summer, Malala visited Nigeria and appealed to Boko Haram militants in Nigeria to lay down their weapons and free the kidnapped girls. Malala is a powerful example of women activists fighting back against violent extremism, and not just in their countries, but globally.

Combating sexual violence against women and promoting women’s rights is truly a global peace and security issue. The international community must treat it as such and act robustly to stop the rampant spread of violence against women in conflict zones around the world.

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