Immigration

Comment: Seeking justice for an ongoing genocide

Yezidis trapped in the Sinjar mountains while trying to escape IS, are rescued by Kurdish Peshmerga forces and Peoples Protection Unit in Iraq (August 2014). Source: Getty Images

Survivors of genocide, such as Yazidi refugees, require a combination of symbolic recognition, accountability for perpetrators, and practical programs to help them manage the trauma and rebuild their lives, writes Nikki Marczak.

The beginning of this month marked two years since IS (also known as Daesh) attacked the Sinjar region of northern Iraq, the homeland of an ancient religious group, the Yazidis. It was during that assault that Nadia Murad, a young Yazidi woman, was captured by IS fighters as her brothers and mother were murdered. Ms Murad became one of thousands of women and girls forcibly converted and traded as sex slaves. Now a Nobel Peace Prize nominee and United Nations Goodwill Ambassador for the Dignity of Survivors of Human Trafficking, Ms Murad is in Australia this week as part of her global campaign for international action and justice.

The Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria stated in June this year that IS’s genocide of Yazidis is “ongoing”, and it may therefore seem premature to talk about justice, especially while more than 3,000 women and children are still being held captive. But the concept of justice for genocide victims and survivors is multifaceted. What does it mean for those survivors who have lost their family, their homes and livelihoods, and are languishing in refugee camps in limbo, caught between the horror they have faced and an uncertain future?

"Symbolic statements are only one element of the justice process. The next phase requires government action."

Ms Murad and Ahmed Khudida, Deputy Director of peak Yazidi organisation Yazda, say justice, both symbolic and practical, is urgent and crucial for the Yazidi community to survive this genocide and flourish in the future. First, it requires acknowledgement of the crime by governments. In response to reports by human rights groups, several governments around the world, as well as the European Union and the United Nations, have recognised IS’s actions against Yazidis as genocide. Yazda has deployed evidence collection teams to Iraq to document mass graves and collect survivor testimony, and Mr Khudida, himself a Yazidi refugee, says the evidence that has been found is extensive and compelling.

“What more is required when mass graves are full of bones of murdered Yazidis, and when thousands of survivors tell the same story of murder and abduction? Where has the world community been for the past two years?” he asks.

The Australian Parliament has, to its credit, already taken this necessary first step. In May 2016, it recognised the “ongoing genocidal conduct of ISIL against Indigenous minorities in Iraq,” and urged international action to halt these crimes. Importantly, the motion also reaffirmed the rights of minorities to live in peace in Iraq, including via the establishment of autonomous regions on their indigenous lands.

"For survivors of genocide who have suffered such dehumanisation, a critical element of justice is the offer of a safe haven, the opportunity to create a new life and to restore one’s humanity."

The acknowledgement, which came in response to advocacy by Assyrian Australians whose community in Iraq is being subjected to similar atrocities, was a significant step in the right direction. But symbolic statements are only one element of the justice process. The next phase requires government action.

In her meeting with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop this week, Ms Murad will urge the Australian Government to facilitate the process of holding IS leaders accountable for genocide under international law. As a signatory to the Rome Statute, the treaty that established the International Criminal Court (ICC), Australia has the power to refer the case for investigation. Well-known human rights lawyer, Amal Clooney, who will be visiting Australia in October, has agreed to represent Ms Murad and other victims of IS crimes at the ICC.  

“We come here with so much hope in the Australian Government and the great Australian nation to help our community to seek justice,” Ms Murad says. “Australia is known for equality and democracy, and cannot stand by and allow perpetrators of genocide to walk free.”

Holding perpetrators of genocide accountable under international law is a lengthy, complicated process. Alongside this avenue, nations could consider pursuing prosecutions against IS fighters returning from Syria or Iraq. Although the Australian Government has said that IS returnees will face the full force of the law, they would likely be charged with providing support to a terrorist organisation and not with crimes of rape, murder or human trafficking.

"Humanitarian visas on their own are not enough."

Pari Ibrahim, founder of the Free Yezidi Foundation in the Netherlands, says: “There are perpetrators of rape and murder of Yazidis who are wandering around the countries they have returned to, with impunity. Imagine how a Yazidi woman in Germany felt when she saw her IS captor in the street with his wife. They must be held accountable and prevented from committing further crimes fuelled by hatred and prejudice.”

Ms Ibrahim’s organisation is currently working on a pilot project to build cases against perpetrators who have arrived in Europe, either as citizens or refugees. She believes that national prosecutors can use information from NGOs to open cases under domestic laws, such as the Dutch Law of International Crimes. For example, it may be possible to investigate social media accounts of perpetrators, who often boast of their ‘purchases’ of Yazidi girls and women online.

For survivors of genocide who have suffered such dehumanisation, a critical element of justice is the offer of a safe haven, the opportunity to create a new life and to restore one’s humanity. This too is on Yazda’s agenda for its Australian visit. Although Australia increased its refugee intake by 12,000 places following the Syrian crisis, and many members of persecuted minorities have been accepted, very few Yazidis have resettled in Australia. Mr Khudida explains that this is partly because Iraqi Yazidis are awaiting relocation predominantly from camps in Iraq and Kurdistan, rather than from Syria.

Humanitarian visas on their own are not enough. The government-funded counselling and support program for Yazidi refugees in Germany, which Ms Murad herself attended, is an example of how governments can design and implement practical measures for refugees that not only help those in need, but also produce active, engaged citizens. “If it were not for this program, I would not have been able to speak about my experiences now, and help raise awareness of the girls still remaining with Daesh.”

Survivors of genocide require a combination of symbolic recognition, accountability for perpetrators, and practical programs to help them manage the trauma they have endured and transition into a new life. The Australian Government has the opportunity to be a role model in the pursuit of justice for Yazidis, by building on Parliament’s recognition of IS’s crimes, offering sanctuary and support to survivors, and making use of local and international legal mechanisms.  

Nikki Marczak is a director on the board of the Australian Institute for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, as well as the Armenian Genocide Museum’s 2016 Lemkin Scholar. Her research on the Yazidi Genocide will be published in a forthcoming Palgrave MacMillan compilation titled 'A Gendered Lens for Genocide Prevention'.

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