“Those awaiting help from others are condemned to disappear.” – International Yazidi Women’s Conference participant, quoting a proverb.
Last weekend, on March 11 & 12, 2017, I led a researcher and two students from the Benjamin B. Ferencz Human Rights and Atrocity Prevention Clinic to accompany Patricia Viseur Sellers, Special Adviser to the Office of the Prosecutor of the ICC to the first International Yazidi Women’s Conference in Bielefeld, Germany. Our Clinic has been working with Ms. Sellers for the past two years on criminal accountability for the gender dimension of atrocity crimes, especially as these crimes affect children, in several national and regional cases. Our collaboration currently is focused on the sexual enslavement and other gender-based crimes against the Yazidis.
From left: Kerrijane John, Jocelyn Getgen Kestenbaum, Leyla Boran, Patricia Viseur Sellers, Alexandra Insinga and Samantha Hechler.
Days after International Women’s Day, the Yazidi Women’s Council, the Kurdish Women’s Peace Office (Cenî), and the Platform for Struggle for Women Held in Captivity gathered over 200 participants and prominent Yazidi organizations to denounce the atrocities—including, among others, the crimes of genocide, enslavement, rape, and torture—that have been and continue to be perpetrated against Yazidi women and girls. The attendees—all women—predominantly hailed from the Yazidi and Kurdish refugee and diaspora communities. After the German government did not grant several speakers visas to attend, they participated via Skype from Shengal (Sinjar) in Northern Iraq.
Experts from the legal, political, historical, medical and psychosocial fields contributed to the panel presentations, which centered on the concepts of genocide and femicide, enslavement, sexual violence, trauma, and resistance. Prominent Yazidi and Kurdish women’s human rights lawyers, including Leyla Boran and Faika Deniz Pasha, the first Turkish Kurdish woman parliamentarian, Feleknas Uca, and allies among women’s rights activists in Germany led the discussions, which included arguments supporting the link between genocide and femicide and the legal requirements of intent under international law. In addition, historians contextualized the current genocide against the Yazidis with previous genocides that have occurred against the group and in the region. Importantly, first-hand survivor accounts of genocide, sexual violence and enslavement bore witness to the crimes as well as to this community’s experience when ISIS invaded their homeland. The voices of the powerful speakers from Shengal also stressed the multiplicity of ways in which Yazidi women are organizing and resisting ongoing attacks on their people and homeland in northern Iraq. All the speakers stressed that they will take whatever steps are necessary to prevent the continued kidnapping, enslavement and sale of Yazidi girls and women.
Ms. Viseur Sellers keynoted the conference and provided the international human rights and criminal law frameworks to name the atrocities being committed against Yazidi women and girls by ISIS. Sellers explained the value in protecting group identities as well as preserving racial, religious, national, and ethnic differences. The international community’s prohibition against the intentional destruction of such groups under the Genocide Convention, she stated, was evidence of such values of diversity. In addition, Ms. Sellers detailed what the crimes of enslavement and slave trading are; she emphasized that these international crimes, along with genocide, are regarded the most heinous crimes under international law. She asserted that, undeniably, ISIS has and continues to perpetrate acts of genocide, enslavement and slave trading against Yazidi women and girls in violation of treaties and jus cogens norms. Sellers concluded by recognizing the intergenerational harms of genocide and enslavement while giving language, voice and operational tools to assist the Yazidi women and girls’ continuing struggle and resistance.
According to the Yazidi community, the August 2014 massacre in Shengal was the 74th recorded genocide against the religious minority group. The United Nations International Independent Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, among others, has provided evidence and analysis of the crimes here. As the struggle for group survival continues, Yazidi women have organized themselves to resist multiple threats, including ISIS. Accountability for past, present and future crimes is recognized as a necessary component of justice for the Yazidis. The group’s concerns for survival, safety and return of thousands of their women and children held in captivity or forced to join ISIS forces, however, necessarily overshadowed these discussions.
What the future holds is unclear, especially given the military actions against ISIS in Syria and Iraq and the implications of the military solution for the remaining estimated 3000 Yazidi women and girls in captivity—some already sold by ISIS to slave-holders outside the contested areas. What our team did find is the need for dialogue between international lawyers familiar with the issues and representatives of these communities to develop and refine creative, pragmatic and comprehensive legal strategies to open avenues of accountability and justice for the atrocity crimes committed in the past and still being perpetrated against Yazidi women and girls. The time to act is now. Our Clinic, in concert with Patti Sellers, will continue our work on these issues and would welcome the opportunity to coordinate with others in the IntLawGrrls network who are working on the Yazidi genocide or on the gender dimensions of these atrocity crimes.