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The Path to Reparations for Victims of IS Crimes in Iraq

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

Over six years have passed since the self-described Islamic State’s (IS) assault on Iraq and Syria, and its particular targeting of ethno-religious minority groups for killings, sexual violence, abduction, and torture, among other harms. While the crimes committed by IS are by their very nature irreparable, and any remedy will be insufficient when compared to the harm suffered, victims have a recognized right to prompt, adequate, and effective reparation. On September 9, 2020, the Museum’s Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide held a briefing focused on reparations for victims and survivors of crimes committed by IS in northern Iraq between 2014 and 2017. 

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 Sareta Ashraph, on behalf of the Center. Simultaneous translation allowed speakers and participants to interact in Arabic, Kurdish, and English, and was an important way to encourage speakers and participants from Iraq to join the conversation. Speakers included:

  • ‘Salwa’, Yezidi Survivor Network (name withheld for security reasons)

  • Güley Bor, lawyer specialised in transitional justice 

  • Sandra Orlović, International Organization for Migration

  • Hasan Ali Omar, Coalition for Just Reparations 

  • Igor Cvetkovski, Ms. Nadia Murad and Dr. Dennis Mukwege’s Global Survivors Fund 

In opening the discussion, Ashraph highlighted that “it is critical that victims and victim communities be involved at every stage of the design, implementation and oversight of a reparations process.” This necessarily includes the active participation of women and individuals charged with representing the best interests of children.

‘Salwa’ underscored the harm IS wrought on Yezidi women, men and children in their attempt to annihilate this small religious community. Yezidis and other survivor communities continue to feel the ongoing impacts of the IS attack, including profound trauma and displacement into tented IDP camps where they live in poor conditions. Those who return to Sinjar, in northern Iraq, live without basic services, amidst continuing insecurity. This is exacerbated by the fact that over 2500 Yezidi women and children remain missing, and there has been little success in securing justice in the form of criminal proceedings. Other forms of transitional justice such as reparations, Salwa says, deserve greater focus.

Güley Bor analyzed the draft Yazidi Female Survivors’ Law, which was placed before the Iraqi parliament in April 2019 by President Barham Salih. Under the initial draft, only Yezidi women held captive by IS were eligible to receive reparations; this was later broadened to include Christian and Shia Turkmen women. The bill makes no provision for female survivors of IS captivity from other communities, or female survivors of other crimes. It also excludes male survivors—who include survivors of executions, torture, and other forms of gender-based violence—as well as boys forcibly trained and made to fight with IS. Families of the killed and disappeared also are not eligible for reparations, as the draft law currently stands. Though the bill is often understood as being implicitly directed towards (some) survivors of sexual violence, Bor underscored that it refers only to abduction and kidnapping, which fails to reflect the full range of harm that women experienced in captivity. This carries the risk of silencing survivors and exacerbating stigma surrounding sexual violence. 

Sandra Orlović said that the International Organization for Migration’s (IOM) work on reparations in Iraq focuses on supporting Iraqi institutions and civil society organizations to deliberate and improve the draft Yezidi Female Survivors’ Law. Orlović set out four recommendations for providing reparations to IS survivors: (i) the participation of the survivor communities; (ii) a process that is not overly bureaucratic; (iii) a more holistic approach beyond compensation; and (iv) inclusion of a visible symbolic component through which the government recognizes the gravity and systemic nature of the acts committed and creates a space for collective remembrance.

Hassan Ali Omar introduced the Coalition for Just Reparations (C4JR), an alliance of 25 Iraqi NGOs calling for comprehensive reparations for civilian victims of atrocity crimes committed by IS. C4JR provides a space for collaboration among the affected communities and seeks to empower their voices. Omar pressed for survivors to have greater say in the drafting of a reparations bill. Furthermore, Hassan argued that the concept of reparations must move beyond the rubric of compensation, to include collective symbolic, rehabilitative, and transformative reparations. This would include provision of medical and legal services and educational opportunities; legal reform aimed at preventing gender-based violence and ensuring gender equality; guarantees of non-repetition; genocide recognition; and memorialization.

Igor Cvetkowski, Global Survivors’ Fund’s (GSF) Head of Advocacy, explained that GSF was established in October 2019 at the initiative of the 2018 Nobel Prize winners, Nadia Murad and Dennis Mukwege. In Iraq, GSF focuses on engaging survivors in the design of a reparation process and providing interim reparations to alleviate the dire situation faced by many survivors. Cvetkowski underlined that he and other speakers were in agreement on the deficits of the draft bill (some of which are highlighted in this post) and highlighted the need to include survivors who have been resettled outside of Iraq in discussions of the reparations framework. Cvetkowski said that, though the draft bill is far from perfect, it still represents the will of the Iraqi government to recognize harm and provide—albeit limited—redress. In discussions concerning reparations programs, it is important to be cognisant of  the limited capacity of the government and the funds available.

The Museum’s November 2015 report, “Our Generation is Gone: The Islamic State’s Targeting of Iraqi Minorities in Ninewa” focused on IS attacks on the Yezidis, Christians, Shabak, Kakai, Shia, Turkmen, and others. One of the report’s key findings was that risk to these communities pre-dated the rise of IS. 

Thus far, discussions about achieving justice for IS crimes have focused largely on bolstering a path to criminal prosecutions. The draft bill, currently before the Iraqi parliament, provides a space for the international community, including the UN Security Council, to place greater emphasis on the role of other pillars of transitional justice in advancing justice for victims of IS crimes, and in reducing future risk of violence. For communities suffering from entrenched marginalization, a reparations program can serve as a step towards addressing structural inequalities and societal prejudices by addressing not only their direct suffering, but also the pre-existing inequalities that aggravated their suffering with the aim of creating a more just and fair society in the future. If successful, reparations can then not only be a form of transitional justice but also of transformational justice: an instrument of society-wide structural change.