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Museum Convenes Expert Briefing on Continued Risks and Challenges For Yazidi Community

A Yazidi woman prays on the sacred grounds of Lalish. Mackenzie Knowles-Coursin for the US Holocaust Memorial Museum

Nearly six years after the start of the Islamic State’s genocidal campaign, the Yazidi community remains at physical risk and in search of justice. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum convened a panel of experts on May 27, 2020 to discuss the continuing risks and challenges the Yazidi community face and the prospects for accountability. The briefing was convened with the support of Ryan D'Souza, founder of Nobody's Listening, a multi-media advocacy project and exhibition, and moderated by Naomi Kikoler, director of the Museum’s Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide. 

Panelists included:

  • Sareta Ashraph, Simon-Skjodt Center Senior Advisor

  • Alexandra Lily Kather, legal adviser for European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (speaking in her private capacity)

  • Jan Kizilhan, Dean of the Institute for Psychotherapy and Psychotraumatology at Dohuk University in northern Iraq and chief psychologist of the Special Quota Project in German

  • Roza Qaidi, Yazidi activist and researcher

In November 2015, the Simon-Skjodt Center issued the first legal analysis to determine that the Islamic State (IS) had committed the crime of genocide in its attack on the Yazidis, that began on August 3, 2014. The report, "Our Generation is Gone: The Islamic State’s Targeting of Iraqi Minorities in Ninewa," was based on a Bearing Witness investigation by Kikoler, on behalf of the Center.

The Simon-Skjodt Center has remained engaged with the ethno-religious minorities in Iraq, and particularly with the Yazidis, in the face of continuing impunity and rising risks of future attack. In introducing the speakers, Kikoler stated, "We are confronted by the reality that despite the passage of many years we have not seen considerable improvements in the pursuit of accountability," and called for international action to prevent future attacks, improve the living conditions of survivors, and pursue justice and accountability to restore dignity and establish a historical record. Such action, Kikoler said, "may help  to tackle the culture of impunity that has been rampant in Iraq."

Sareta Ashraph underlined the devastating nature of IS's attack. She noted that on August 2, 2014, the day before the attack, Sinjar was home to approximately 450,000 Yazidis. Within two weeks, there were no free Yazidis living in Sinjar: all had either been forcibly displaced, killed, or abducted. Ashraph noted that IS had weaponized anti-Yazidi attitudes entrenched in Iraqi society, stating "Throughout time we have seen a higher tolerance for violence against groups which have been marginalized and this includes the Yazidis.... As IS continues to recruit and mobilize in an effort to re-establish itself, it will pull in disenfranchised members of the Sunni community who bring with them much of the same prejudices against the Yazidi community that have existed for decades, and for centuries."

Roza Qaidi, speaking from her home in Iraq, emphasised the miserable conditions that the Yazidi community has endured since the IS attack. Most still live in tented camps for internally displaced people, where they rely on humanitarian aid and struggle with difficult weather conditions in inadequate housing. Now also faced with the fear of COVID-19 spreading in the camps, an increasing number of Yazidis are returning to Sinjar, much of which remains destroyed and where they are at increased risk of IS attack. Qaidi drew attention to the particular suffering of Yazidi children who struggle with trauma as a result of violence suffered during IS captivity. IS sold Yazidi girls into a system of sexual enslavement when they reached the age of nine, while Yazidi boys were put through a process of indoctrination, trained, and forced to fight. The Yazidi community continues to struggle with those who remain indoctrinated and who may pose risks to their family and community.

Jan Kizilhan, a German-Yazidi psychologist, underscored the shattering impact of IS's crimes on the surviving Yazidis: "In 2015, 55% of the whole population suffered from depression and approximately 63% suffered from PTSD." Kizilhan urged, "The first step must be to help the people and, with local support, provide mental health assistance and rebuild—otherwise the Yazidis will continue to leave Iraq like other minorities." He also emphasized the importance of justice, especially in the aftermath of genocide, crimes against humanity, and human rights violations. "Injustice has a negative impact on health and prevents rehabilitation of mental health disorders. Human rights and health cannot be separated."

Alexandra Lily Kather turned to the question of justice, providing an overview of the cases in Germany, which has become the epicenter of cases against individuals accused of crimes against the Yazidis. The cases have been brought under Germany’s universal jurisdiction laws, which allow for the investigation and prosecution of these crimes, no matter where they were committed and regardless of the nationality of the suspects or victims. While the German Federal Prosecutor's investigation is ongoing, two arrest warrants have been issued against high-level suspects for their alleged involvement in the genocide of Yazidis. Kather called for better recognition of gender-specific harms in the investigation and prosecution of cases, as well more trial monitoring and updating of the Yazidi community in Iraq and in the diaspora.

As the dialogue closed, the panel emphasized the real and continuing risk of future violence to the Yazidi community and other marginalized minority communities in Iraq. They stressed that focusing solely on IS would be short-sighted and that what ultimately is required is the critical surfacing of underlying attitudes that create intolerance and hostility towards ethno-religious minorities. If those attitudes are not changed, the next moment of crisis or instability could trigger another mass atrocity.