Activists with Yazidi rights groups are urging the International Criminal Court (ICC) to investigate the atrocities committed by Islamic State militants against the religious minority in Iraq as acts of genocide.
Members of Yazda International and Free Yazidi Foundation, backed by the Kurdish Regional Government of Iraq (KRG), met with ICC Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda today to present their new report outlining how IS fighters have slaughtered, enslaved, and raped thousands of Yazidis since it invaded their communities in the Nineveh province in northern Iraq last August. Thousands of Yazidi women and girls remain captive as sex slaves among IS militants.
These acts of violence committed by IS fighters against the Yazidis and other non-Muslim minorities in the region have been documented before. But Murad Ismael, co-founder of Yazda, told VICE News his group's report provides further evidence of abuses against Yazidis at the hands of foreign fighters. According to the report, there's an estimated 5,000 to 7,000 people from Australia, Jordan, Europe, and beyond fighting for IS.
Ismael says he and his colleagues spoke to Yazidi women and girls who fled IS captivity who described how they were cruelly treated by foreigners — although their testimonies are redacted in the public version of the report.
"Foreign fighters have been heavily involved in the sex trade of Yazidi women and girls. And that means that the ICC and the rest of the international community should not ignore the ways they are subjecting the Yazidis to very inhuman and barbaric acts," Ismael said from The Hague. "This report provides new information and context for the role of foreign fighters, who hold high ranking positions within IS, and shows that the court should hold them accountable for their crimes."
Ismael acknowledged that getting justice will be a long and complicated process. "We know the international community has an obligation to respond," he said. "We want to expose this group for what it is, but we want it on paper."
The ICC, established in The Hague in 2002 to prosecute crimes against humanity and war crimes when member states are unable or unwilling to do so, does not have jurisdiction over Iraq or Syria. But it could go after the IS fighters who are citizens of the 123 states that are members, even though it has never pursued such a case.
To IS, the Yazidis — one of the region's oldest ethnic minorities who adhere to a complex belief system that combines Islam, Christianity, and Zoroastrianism — are "devil worshippers" unworthy of respect. IS has repeatedly said it wants to eliminate the Yazidi religion. Since last year, more than 400,000 Yazidis have been forced out of their homes, with many now living in camps set up by the KRG.
In April, the court's prosecutor declined to formally open an investigation into crimes committed by IS because the "jurisdictional basis" for an examination is still "too narrow," but remained open to receiving new evidence as it becomes available.
The court's former prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo, who helped the Yazidi activists with their submission and has launched high-profile ICC investigations, told Reuters earlier this month that the treatment of the Yazidis was clearly genocide. "It's difficult to predict who will be prosecuted because this is the beginning," he said. "It's up to us to provide information that allows the ICC to understand, yes, we have jurisdiction in this case in this way."
Samer Muscati, a Human Rights Watch researcher who wrote a report on the plight of Yazidis in Iraq, told VICE News that while there has to be accountability of some sort for the crimes committed by IS, there are limited ways that can be accomplished.
"The most difficult issue in this case is finding ways to hold these perpetrators accountable," he said. "The other way to investigate would be if the United Nations Security Council referred the case to the ICC … But even if perpetrators are identified, they cannot be arrested if they are located in IS territory. The ICC can't extradite these individuals, IS is not going to give them up to the court. It's a very challenging situation."
Muscati added that, in spite of all of this, Iraq should become a member of the ICC to allow for possible prosecution of crimes by IS and all other parties to the conflict.
UN Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict Zainab Bangura told VICE News that this issue is even more complicated because IS is not a state.
"We have to work together with all of the countries who have citizens committing the crimes and ask how we punish these people," said Bangura, who met with Yazidi survivors of IS captivity earlier this year and is developing a strategy to combat sexual violence occurring in conflict zones in the Middle East. "The ICC is not the last option...And we cannot deal with this in the traditional way."
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