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Marking the Six-Year Anniversary of the Yezidi Genocide

This Yezidi woman, age 85, walked for five days to escape from Mount Sinjar in 2014. She took a van for the last kilometer to a refugee camp across the border in Syria. Mackenzie Knowles-Coursin for the US Holocaust Memorial Museum

August 3 marks the sixth anniversary of the self-proclaimed Islamic State’s (IS) attack on the Yezidis, a religious minority living in the Sinjar region of northern Iraq. The assault on Sinjar was the start of a broader genocidal campaign against the Yezidi community.

IS executed men and boys; kidnapped women and girls, some—as young as nine—to be sold, sexually enslaved, beaten, and forced to work; and took boys from their mothers, indoctrinated them, forced them into IS training camps, and ordered them to fight. Many Yezidi were held by IS for years, and six years later more than 2000  women, girls and boys remain missing.

In November 2015, the US Holocaust Memorial Museum's Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide issued the first legal analysis to determine that IS had committed the crime of genocide in its attack on the Yezidis. The report, “Our Generation is Gone: The Islamic State’s Targeting of Iraqi Minorities in Ninewa,” found that IS had committed genocide against the Yezidi and ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity against Christian, Yezidi, Turkmen, Shabak, Sabean-Mandaen, and Kaka’i minority populations in northern Iraq between June and August 2014. We documented harrowing accounts of displacement, forced conversions, rape, torture, kidnapping and murder. IS attacked cities, towns and villages in northern Iraq forcing more than 800,000 men, women and children from their homes and deliberately destroyed mosques, shrines, temples, and churches. 

In March 2016, the United States’ government designated that IS had committed genocide and crimes against humanity against religious minorities in Iraq. This was the first time that the US government had determined that a terrorist organization had committed genocide. At that time we noted that, “for the sake of those groups and communities already victimized by IS’s targeted assaults, this finding of genocide must not merely be an acknowledgement of their suffering. Rather, it should serve as a call to action to protect and defend those remaining populations from the crimes that continue to be perpetrated today.”

Sadly, six years later, these communities remain in a precarious situation. The vast majority of Yezidi survivors in Iraq are still displaced and live in difficult conditions in tented camps. Returning to Sinjar remains impossible for many as there are few means to earn a livelihood and the area remains heavily destroyed and vulnerable to attack. Landmines and other explosives continue to pose a threat. The Yezidi community remains highly traumatized, with limited psycho-social support services available to them. This is particularly acute for children, including those who were kidnapped by IS.

Despite the significant efforts that have been made to document IS’ crimes, formal justice remains elusive for the survivors who yearn for the perpetrators to be held accountable. Notably, despite international pressures to do so, neither the Iraqi central government nor the Kurdish Regional Government have enacted legislation allowing for the prosecution of genocide, crimes against humanity, or war crimes. Consequently alleged IS fighters have been prosecuted under anti-terror laws for membership and/or association with the armed groups, but not for the crimes committed. 

"We are confronted by the reality that despite the passage of many years, we have not seen significant tangible progress in the pursuit of accountability,” said Naomi Kikoler, director of the Simon-Skjodt Center. “Impunity for mass atrocities leaves the Yezidis, Christians, and other communities targeted by the IS vulnerable to future attack. We stand in solidarity with the victims and survivors, who are fighting for justice and accountability.”

Yezidis have been the target of human rights violations and mass atrocities in Iraq for decades. Amid continuing political instability, weak physical security, and early signs of a resurgent IS, the Yezidis and other ethno-religious minorities in Iraq are at heightened risk of further atrocities, with few protective strategies other than flight. 

On the sixth year anniversary of IS's devastating attack, the Simon-Skjodt Center again calls for Iraq and the wider international community to identify and act upon early warning signs that could curb the risks of future violence.