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Pursuing Justice for Mass Atrocities: Lessons from the Yezidi Experience

Yezidi pilgrims pray as they leave a sacred temple in Lalish. Mackenzie Knowles-Coursin

By Pari Ibrahim, Executive Director, Free Yezidi Foundation

This contribution by Pari Ibrahim is part of a blog post series to coincide with the launch of our Handbook: "Pursuing Justice for Mass Atrocities: A Handbook for Victim Groups."

The Free Yezidi Foundation (FYF) is pleased to contribute this article for the US Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Handbook “Pursuing Justice for Mass Atrocities: A Handbook for Victim Groups,” in solidarity with other victimized communities pursuing justice and recovery.

August 3, 2014 marked the beginning of a collective nightmare for Iraq’s Yezidi community. That day, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) began its brutal campaign against Yezidi people and displaced, captured, or killed nearly the entire Yezidi population of Sinjar. Six and a half years later, thousands of Yezidis have been freed from ISIS captivity, but survivors have endured unspeakable trauma. For many, the genocide is not yet over. 

Efforts to seek justice and accountability should be an important part of the healing process for Yezidi survivors. Unfortunately, the justice process has wrought its own toll. People presenting themselves as supporters have also let Yezidis down. As the recently released Handbook on Pursuing Justice for Mass Atrocities acknowledges, the international community has not done enough by survivors. Indeed, public advocates have caused a sensational and exploitative focus on Yezidi survivors of sexual violence that has impaired survivors’ pursuit of justice.

FYF has identified key missteps in approaches towards justice and implemented strategies to center survivors within systems of justice and accountability. We are grateful for the opportunity to contribute to and learn from the Simon-Skjodt Center’s enormous and important endeavor. Below are some of the common errors and abuses that legal workers and others have committed with regard to Yezidi victims. This Handbook will be an important tool for making sure that these errors are not repeated and that survivors receive the care and justice they deserve.

Over Promising, Under Delivering, and Providing False Hopes 

Iraq’s Yezidis suffered enormous betrayal in 2014. Their Arab neighbors and long-time friends turned against them; their Peshmerga protectors abandoned them to an invader. When legal professionals make impossible promises, they again betray survivors. 

Impossible promises can be explicit or implicit. Some survivors have been promised financial reparations or assured a victory in the courtroom when such outcomes are far from guaranteed. In other cases, legal workers may ‘sugar coat’ the judicial process ahead. Of course, for some survivors, the opportunity to stand in court, point at her captor, and say: “You did this to me” can be a profound moment. However, this is only one moment in an otherwise long and arduous legal process. Testifying in court can feel like a second violation; procedural protections of defendants leave survivors feeling they themselves are on trial. Survivors must be fully informed and psychologically prepared for what lays ahead. 

Survivors also must fully understand what justice might entail. In European courtrooms, some traditional Iraqi notions of justice like an ‘eye for eye’ retribution cannot lawfully be provided. If convicted, perpetrators may face only months or years in prison. When there is such a fundamental mismatch in what courts can provide and what survivors might expect, legal workers must ensure understanding not only of the process itself but potential outcomes. Without clear and realistic expectations, a survivor can hardly provide informed consent to pursue justice. Public advocates can and should do much better, and this Handbook provides a range of guidance for survivor coalitions, outlining what various forms of justice might look like and the details survivors must understand for informed consent.

Melek Taus, or The Peacock Angel, is one of the seven holy beings in the Yezidi religion. —Mackenzie Knowles-Coursin

Informed consent requires that survivors understand both the process ahead and potential outcomes; legal workers must also recognize societal and cultural pressures within the Yezidi community which may impair consent. Yezidi women, in particular, face cultural pressure to accommodate requests and may feel uncomfortable asserting their right not to relive their trauma, to choose their own lawyer, and to decide their participation in legal processes. In some instances, male family members may make decisions for relatives against their wishes.

Without space and opportunity to provide informed consent, conducting an interview can constitute yet another violation for vulnerable survivors. Journalists have egregiously violated basic norms in this regard, and some lawyers have as well. Practitioners must ensure that survivors—especially women and children survivors—feel they are in a safe and secure physical space, that they understand their rights, and that they feel empowered to speak their minds, to assert themselves, or to refuse to speak. 

Survivor Centered at Every Stage

Trauma recovery is not linear, and it is natural that survivors will face setbacks. Justice efforts must recognize this reality—even those ready to pursue criminal cases will continue to need support. At the Free Yezidi Foundation, if a survivor is willing and ready to take on the long, difficult work of pursuing justice, we commit to providing her emotional and psychological support throughout that process. 

It is worth acknowledging that a survivor’s ‘readiness’ to move forward with the legal process may not correlate with the strength of her legal case. And sometimes, prioritizing survivors may mean choosing not to press forward with a strong legal case. Justice cannot come at the cost of survivors. 

At the Free Yezidi Foundation, we have witnessed how—given proper support—survivors can begin to heal. When done properly, aligned with best practices, seeking justice can complement healing. While all of these lessons stem from the Yezidi experience, their value extends across contexts. This Handbook will be a vital resource for current and future survivors.