The UN has released a damning report against the so-called Islamic State (IS), stating that the militant group has likely committed genocide against the minority Yazidi population in Iraq. The world organization is now urging that the International Criminal Court (ICC) tackle the dire situation in the country.
Investigators sent by the UN's High Commissioner for Human Rights spoke with more than 100 victims and witnesses to violence committed by IS. Their findings, released Thursday, indicate that of all communities in Iraq, the Yazidis have been subjected to the most unspeakable of crimes.
Starting in the summer of 2014, as IS — also known as ISIS, ISIL, or daesh — made huge territorial gains in Iraq's north and west, Yazidi communities became trapped and subject to the group's atrocities.
"ISIL systematically separated the men from the women and young children; the men were subsequently taken away to nearby ditches and summarily executed," wrote investigators. "Men who managed to survive such executions" did so "largely through being shielded by the bodies of other victims."
Women were treated as "spoils of war" and slaves; members of the extremist group routinely bought and sold them, according to the report. Some were "married" — a process described as essentially a form of rape — which in some cases resulting in bloodied Yazidi females emerging from rooms following the ceremony. The mission received what it called credible reports of rape victims as young as nine and six years of age.
"ISIL members numbered them or recorded names on lists, and inspected them to evaluate their beauty," wrote the authors.
"The investigating team documented what would appear to be an attempt to commit genocide against the Yazidi population," Hanny Megally, chief of the Asia, Pacific, Middle East, and North Africa section of the UN Human Rights Office, told VICE News. "They documented what they saw as the intention to wipe out that community."
According to investigators, IS militants in Kocho village, in Sinjar Province, massacred more than 700 men in August of 2014. In one incident, after being called "pagans" and "peacock worshippers," IS fighters divided men into groups of 15 and brought them to the village's outskirts. "The Yazidi men were ordered to lay down facing the ground; they were filmed by ISIL fighters before being shot several times."
Survivors told UN human rights officials that some locals took part in such executions, and that "ISIL fighters acted upon direct orders they received via telephone" — a brief, but important note that could establish chain of command for such crimes.
Mass graves, believed to contain victims of IS militants' atrocities, have been uncovered in recent weeks as the Iraqi army and allied forces slowly retake territory from the group.
Those gains, however, have raised fears of the fate of the remaining Yazidi women, men, and children in IS custody — a number the UN puts at around 3,000.
Though portions of the report's contents had been seen in some form, either in media accounts or by civil society and human rights groups, the UN findings laid official grounds for further investigations, and possibly future prosecutions.
In addition to genocide perpetrated against Yazidi populations, IS was judged to have possibly committed crimes against humanity against Christians and Shia Muslims. In Mosul, tens of thousands of Christians fled after being given an ultimatum to convert, pay a tax, or be killed.
Sharia courts established by IS in the city doled out sentences like stoning and amputations, and ordered that two men accused of homosexuality be hurled from a tall building. UN investigators also reported that physicians were killed for refusing to treat IS fighters and, on one occasion, "thirteen teenage boys were sentenced to death for watching a football match."
The UN further alleged that IS's opponents; the Iraqi government and associated Shia militias, may also have separately committed war crimes — in addition to IS itself.
A Human Rights Watch report released Wednesday found that Iraqi security forces and militias destroyed entire villages last August during campaigns to recapture territory from IS around the town of Amerli. The report was the latest to suggest anti-IS forces, including powerful Iranian-backed militias, may be engaging in ethnic cleansing of Sunni areas.
"In terms of militias and affiliated government forces, it seems that there were international crimes being committed, including killings and torture," said Megally. "The report concludes that at the very least the government failed to protect the population under its jurisdiction by allowing these violations to happen and not acting to stop them."
The report itself bluntly criticized Iraq's central government for creating the conditions for IS's rise.
"Lack of inclusive participatory processes and failure to promote and protect political, civil, economic, social, and cultural rights amidst region turmoil for ISIL and other radical groups to advance in northern Iraq, exploiting the frustration of local tribes, and shortly after cracking down on many with utmost brutality and cruelty," it said.
In light of the litany of abuses allegedly perpetrated by all parties in Iraq, the UN's Human Rights Office urged the Security Council to consider referring the situation in the country to the ICC.
Iraq is itself not a party to the ICC's Rome Statute, and the Hague-based court cannot launch an investigation into crimes committed in the country without such a referral from the Council. Though Council members exhibit rare unity in their excoriation of IS, the court would be mandated to consider all violations of international law in the country — a purview that doubtlessly would pull in Iraqi security forces and militias, and even possibly Iranian forces that are fighting against IS. Should members of the US-led coalition — for now mostly relegated to a campaign of air strikes against alleged extremist targets — be found to have committed crimes in Iraq, they too could fall under the magnifying glass.
All of this leads observers to express skepticism that an ICC referral is in store, particularly after Russia blocked that step in Syria last year. Possible alternatives to referral include further official reporting or a commission of inquiry of the type employed for North Korea last year.
"Any decision to refer to the International Criminal Court must be made on the basis of what will be the most effective means to bring perpetrators of atrocities to account," a spokesperson for the UN mission of the United Kingdom told VICE News.
The report also urged Iraq to join the ICC, a step that would avoid a referral being necessary. "I haven't heard that Iraq is ready and willing to go that route," said Megally.
A spokesperson for the Iraqi delegation to the UN told VICE News the mission is reviewing the findings.
Follow Samuel Oakford on Twitter: @samueloakford