Do ISIS Hostilities Against Yazidis in Iraq Constitute Crimes Against Humanity?


Youssef Boudlal/Reuters

Ever since IS gained control over Sinjar mountains, a region in north-west  Iraq that is dominated by Yazidis in August 14, and the Yazidi minority group have been abducted in hundreds and possibly thousands. Non-Arab, non-Sunni Muslim minority groups in Iraq have been systemically targeted by fighters of the Islamic State (IS) armed group. Yazidi men were killed while others were forced to convert into Islam under threat of death.  Yazidi women and young girls have suffered from brutal treatment including rape, sexual violence; being held in captivity as well as incidents of torture and abuses. Girls as young as 12 have been separated from their relatives sold and gifted to IS fighters while others have been forced into marriages.  Those held in captivity by IS were held in various locations in Iraq and parts of Syria that are under the control of IS.

Torture, sexual violence, arbitrary deprivation of liberty, taking hostages,  forced marriages, rape, forcing persons to act against their religious beliefs constitutes war crimes and crimes against humanity that are both internationally prohibited and punishable. The systemic targeting of Yazidis and other minority groups in Iraq including the Turkmen, Shabak, and Shiite by IS fighters gives rise to hold IS fighters accountable for war crimes and crimes against humanity. The systemic targeting is no longer acts of hostilities conducted in armed conflict, but is clear effort to exterminate non-Sunni minority groups in Iraq and specifically in areas under the control of IS.

IS has exerted great efforts to publicize details about the atrocities they have conducted against soldiers and civilians. Through videos spread on social media in multiple languages, IS fighter instilled fear in anyone that comes in its path.  Kurdish Yazidis who lived in Sinjar fled in fear of the crimes IS could commit against Yazidi women and children. In matters of weeks, IS has carried out its plan to cleanse captured areas in northern Iraq from all non-Sunni minority groups forcing these groups to flee.

The International Convention of the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, defines genocide under article 2 as ” acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: (a) Killing members of the group; (b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; (c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; (d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; (e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group”. The systemic attack to exterminate Yazidi sect in Iraq could be easily classified as genocide and not acts of hostilities. IS fighters have committed acts of massive killings, targeting men specifically. The armed group has caused serious bodily and mental harm to both Yazidis men and women. Females and especially young girls suffer from traumas while being held in captivities and after they escape. Their relatives have reported saying “they suffer from panic attacks and can’t leave them unattended”.  Some have tried to committing suicide when held in captivity while others have tried to end their lives even after reuniting with their families. The grandfather of a 16-year-old who escaped IS captivity after having been raped reported to Amnesty International describing his granddaughter saying: “she is very sad and quiet all the time. She does not smile anymore and seems not to care about anything. I worry that she may try to kill herself; I don’t let her out of my sight”.

The armed group has forcibly separated families, displacing many and causing others to be stranded in the mounts of Sinjar after fleeing their villages. Somewhat between 10,000 – 40,000 Yazidi civilians are trapped in the mountains that looked like a refuge at first, but soon turned to be graveyard for Yazidi children and elderlies. Some 147,000 civilians have safely reached semi-autonomous regions in Kurdistan that flood with refugee camps now.  The Yazidi sect accounts for no more than 600,000 across Iraq, a third of which is displaced in Kurdish lands and stranded in the mountains. Left to starve to death or die on the hands of IS fighter; the Yazidis face their fate of being exterminated. Vian Dakheel, a Yazidi parliamentarian from Sinjar has voiced her deep concern for the survival of her people in the parliament, urging the Iraqi government to act and save this minority group from being eradicated. “My people are being slaughtered….the religion is being erased from the face of this planet” said Vian in her speech before the Iraqi parliament.

The conduct of the IS constitutes grave breaches of International Humanitarian Law (IHL), that governs conducting hostilities. Civilians and anyone who is wounded or surrenders are protected under IHL against inhumane treatment. Women in particular should be protected against rape, enforced prosecution or any attack against their honor. Murder, torture, corporal punishment, reprisal, being held in captivity and liberty deprivation and other acts of hostilities committed against civilians are all acts prohibited under the Geneva Conventions specifically the fourth Convention on the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War.

Grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions committed by the IS fighters documented by Amnesty International and elsewhere arguably constitutes crimes against humanity as defined under article 7 of the International Criminal Court Roman Statute.  Acts of hostilities have been systemic, widespread and targeted civilian population. The major difference between crimes against humanity and war crimes is that crimes against humanity are systemic and widespread.  To further advance the argument, it could be said that acts of hostilities committed by IS fighter can account for genocide, as they are targeted towards a specific religious group with the intent to destroy the whole or part of the religious group. Forcing Yazidis to act against their religious beliefs, forcibly converting into Islam, depriving them from their liberty, taking them as hostages and abducting them for not converting to Sunni Islam are clear manifestation of IS’s intent to destroy the religion.

States and especially Iraq, has the responsibility of stopping the atrocities committed by IS fighters. Even though Iraq failed and continues to fails to prosecute IS fighters, it is an international responsibility to stop Yazidi suffering under erga omnes obligation to stop genocide.