The US Holocaust Memorial Museum: “ISIL Is Committing Genocide Against the Yezidis in Iraq”

The US Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) has issued an important and distressing report characterizing violence against the Yezidi people in 2014 in Iraq as amounting to genocide. This is not the first time ISIL’s campaign against this minority group has been deemed a genocide, as I have recounted before. (See in particular a report by the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, which also calls for the Security Council to refer the situation in Iraq to the International Criminal Court). Nonetheless, coming from the USHMM, this conclusion carries particular force.

Even more worrisome, the Museum’s report — based on in-depth interviews in Iraq that include firsthand reports of the Mount Sinjar crisis — makes clear that this genocide is ongoing against the victims whom ISIL has kidnapped and could resume in the future in other areas where the surviving Yezidi find themselves. The report also describes the commission of crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing committed against other non-Muslim minority groups in northern Iraq. So far, the Museum has not found firm evidence of genocidal intent on the part of ISIL with respect to these groups, but its results do not preclude this finding in the future and research is ongoing. In particular, the report notes that the risk of genocide against the Shia Turkmen and Shia Shabak groups remains acute. All told, the Museum concludes that ISIL

will continue to pose an existential threat to minorities who seek to return to their homes.

This conclusion stems from a visit to northern Iraq by Museum staff who interviewed victims of ISIL persecution hailing from multiple minority communities, including survivors representing Iraq’s Christian, Yezidi, Turkmen, Shabak, Sabaean-Mandaean, and Kaka’i populations. The report observes that the present-day violence marks the culmination of a long history of ethnic persecution against minority groups dating from the Arabization campaigns of the 1930s, the forced displacement of more than a million Kurds and other non-Arabs in the late 1970s, the widespread and systematic abuse — including the use of chemical weapons — of ethnic and religious communities by Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist regime, and the sectarian violence unleashed by the toppling of Hussein and the rise of Islamic extremism.

The Museum’s genocide determination is based on a “preponderance of the evidence” standard, so it does not reflect the standard necessary for ascribing individual criminal responsibility. That said, the evidence is compelling.

The Yezidi — a religious sect that fits the definition of protected group under the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide — have been subjected to all five forms of harm enumerated in the Genocide Convention: killing members of the group, causing serious bodily and mental harm, subjecting members of the group to conditions of life calculated to destroy them in whole or in part, imposing measures to prevent births, and the forcible transfer of children. The latter two acts are primarily accomplished through the kidnapping, sexual slavery, and forced conversion of Yezidi women and children. In particular, children who have been forced to convert to Sunni Islam are deprived of the

opportunity to grow up within, and exposed to, their distinct culture and religion.

Identifying the specific intent to commit genocide is often the hardest element of the definition to satisfy, particularly when it is necessary to demonstrate the existence of a genocidal policy on the part of a government or group. Through a rigorous review of ISIL’s own publications and decrees, however, the Museum uncovered clear evidence of genocidal intent. Indeed, it is apparent that ISIL undertook a deliberative internal process to determine how to address the presence of Yezidis within territory under ISIL control. Following this inquiry, ISIL concluded that the Yezidis’ polytheistic religion cannot coexist alongside ISIL’s perverted form of Islam and so the group must be eliminated through forcible conversion or death. In this regard, ISIL differentiated the Yezidis — deemed devil worshippers — from Christians and Jews — ahl al kitab, “people of the book.” The latter were offered the opportunity to convert to Islam, expelled outright, or given the option of paying a jizya (tax) to avoid conversion or death. Thus:

Under [ISIL]’s ideology, adherents of religions considered infidel or apostate—including Yezidis—are to be converted or killed and members of other religions—such as Christians—are to be subjected to expulsion, extortion, or forced conversion.

Implementing this two-tiered persecutory system led to mass atrocities against all these groups, and genocide against the Yezidis. And so,

the commission of mass atrocities was part of [ISIL’s] strategy, and … this intent was matched with the ability to carry out the crimes.

The report concludes with the chilling prediction that the violence, displacement and cultural erasure is so severe that the very existence of certain minority groups in Iraq is at risk.

This most recent report emerged from a “Bearing Witness” trip to the field by members of the Museum’s Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide, which is dedicated to making the prevention of genocide and other atrocity crimes a core foreign policy priority through its research, education, and public outreach.

Bearing Witness reports seek to “elevate the voices and experiences of those facing persecution and most affected by violence.” In addition, it is hoped that the results will enable policymakers to “better understand the dynamics that should have informed early warning and early action.”

In this regard, the report details several failures of early warning and prevention leading up to the current violence. Blame is laid on the Iraqi authorities and Kurdish Peshmerga for failing to deploy their security forces to protect and/or evacuate their minority populations, particularly once ISIL’s forced displacements, kidnappings, and killings had begun in earnest. Although violence was on the rise by June 2014, it was not until August that international action mobilized and President Obama authorized air strikes — with Iraqi consent — around Mount Sinjar to push back ISIL and enable the Yezidi people to escape. The report notes that “[i]n this instance, atrocity prevention and counterterrorism efforts were, for a moment, mutually reinforcing” since US action also protected US government personnel and installations in Erbil and advanced regional counter-ISIL efforts.

The report also contains a number of pointed recommendations to the international community — all with merit. Most importantly, the report urges the international community to look for additional opportunities to advance its counterterrorism efforts in the region within an atrocity prevention and civilian protection framework. Although the government of Iraq bears the primary responsibility in this regard, there remains a crucial role for the international community to play given the lack of Iraqi capacity. Indeed, in the short term, the report calls for the international community to help Iraq instill robust physical protections for its minority communities. Not surprisingly, the vast majority of Christian and Yezidi interviewees said that

they would only feel safe enough to return if there was an international protection force deployed to protect them.

In addition, the international community must lay the groundwork for accountability for the crimes already committed. The report calls for more comprehensive investigation, documentation, and preservation of evidence of the commission of international crimes, including the genocide against the Yezidis. In this regard, it noted with approval that the Kurdistan Regional Government has begun this work with the establishment of a committee on genocide and on mass graves. These two efforts are under-resourced and lack technical expertise, however, and will benefit from international assistance.

Furthermore, the Kurdish regional government needs help providing humanitarian assistance to the influx of internally displaced fleeing ISIL-controlled areas. It is not enough, however, to keep people fed and clothed. The Museum called attention to the imperative of preserving the culture, language, and religion of the thousands of internally displaced within Iraq. Finally, in the longer term, the international community must implement strategies to address the root causes and drivers of conflict in Iraq.

The release of the Yezidi report coincides with the launch of the Museum’s Early Warning Project, which analyzes known risk factors for mass atrocities in order to generate country-specific forecasts and enable policymakers and others to focus their attention on the most at-risk situations. The Project consists of two components:

First, a Statistical Risk Assessment, which relies upon a number of factors to calculate the risk of atrocities in particular countries, including:

  • measurements of economic and political instability,
  • the level of authoritarian rule,
  • the existence of ethnic power imbalances,
  • the prevalence of exclusionary ideology, and
  • the degree of international isolation.

And second, an Expert Opinion Pool, which compiles the predictions of regional and subject matter experts about unfolding events in real time. 

About the Author(s)

Beth Van Schaack

Leah Kaplan Visiting Professor of Human Rights, Stanford Law School; Former Deputy to the U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues in the U.S. State Department. All views are her own. Follow her on Twitter (@BethVanSchaack).