The Yazidi people are being systematically exterminated by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), yet calls of genocide are falling largely on deaf ears.
In 1948, the United Nations established the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide and defined genocide as any act “committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” Genocide’s “intent to destroy” separates it from other crimes of humanity such as ethnic cleansing, which aims at forcibly expelling a group from a geographic area. The Genocide Convention goes on to assert that killing or causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group, imposing living conditions intended to bring about the group’s demise, implementing measures intended to prevent births or forcibly removing the ethnic group’s children are all factors that contribute to genocide.
By this definition, ISIS attacks on the Yazidi people constitute genocide.
The Yazidis are one of the oldest communities that can be traced back to the ancient world of Mesopotamia. They are a small, ethnically Kurdish religious community indigenous to the Kurdish region in northern Iraq and southeastern Syria. There were roughly 600,000 Yazidis in the world, but their numbers continue to dwindle as the violence against them escalates.
On August 3, 2014, ISIS launched a brutal assault in the Sinjar region causing over 150,000 Yazidis to flee toward Kurdish territory. This brutal assault sent nearly 50,000 residents to seek refuge atop the rocky and barren slopes of Mount Sinjar. According to the Washington Post, the most vulnerable Yazidis, mostly the elderly, sick and very young, were too weak to continue the grueling trek to safety in Iraq’s northern Kurdistan region and were subsequently overwhelmed by the assault due to ISIS restricting access to water, food, and shelter. Dozens of Yazidis died from dehydration and starvation.
Hundreds of Yazidi men and boys were forced to either convert to Islam or be put to death. The Islamic State abducted women and children and forced them into sexual slavery. Ultimately, more than 5,000 Yazidis were killed in the Sinjar Massacre.
The New York Times reported that a total of 5,270 Yazidis were abducted between 2014 and 2015, and at least 3,144 are still being held by the Islamic State. In addition, ISIS has used rape as a weapon of war against Yazidi women and children.
The ISIS assault at Sinjar lasted several days until the United States, along with international partners, including the French, Australian and Iraqi Air forces, launched multiple air assaults on ISIS fighters and convoys in northern Iraq. In December 2014, the Kurdish Peshmerga launched a counteroffensive against ISIS with the help of U.S.-led coalition to liberate Mount Sinjar. U.S., British, Australian and Iraqi aircraft dropped aid, while U.S. jets began bombing ISIS positions in an attempt to halt the onslaught and avert another humanitarian disaster.
The Peshmerga, under the direction of the Kurdish Regional Government, was ultimately successful in liberating the Sinjar Mountain range, offering safe passage of the Yazidis to return to Sinjar. But the airstrikes and ISIS fighters caused significant damage to the town and surrounding region. Some Yazidis returned to Sinjar, Iraq to find their homes turned to rubble, cars overturned in the streets, bullet holes and graffiti covering the buildings, and more destruction and devastation after being occupied by ISIS.
In public statements following these acts of annihilation, then-U.S. President Barack Obama and former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry asserted that ISIS “is responsible for genocide against groups in areas under its control including Yazidis, Christians, and Shiite Muslims.” This was the first time the United States has declared a genocide since the 2004 genocide in Darfur, Sudan.
Yazda, a U.S. based non-profit and the largest Yazidi organization in the world, has been trying to shine an international spotlight on the genocide that is taking place against its people. Today, Yazda asserts that the displaced Yazidi community continues to face a humanitarian crisis; tens of thousands are homeless, unsupported, and suffer from malnutrition and the lack of access to healthcare.
Yazda began a documentation project that has catalogued the number of mass graves of Yazidis killed by ISIS. Yazda reported there are at least 35 Yazidi mass gravesites. However, Yazda has only been able to verify 19 through the examination of physical evidence and corroboration of survivor testimonies. Three other mass grave sites have been confirmed by other parties. Yazda suspects at least 10 mass grave sites remain in ISIS controlled areas.
Genocide and other crimes against humanity have been committed by ISIS against the Yazidi people, including the desecration of one of the world’s oldest religions. Yet the Yazidis have not garnered adequate attention from the international community despite the fact that, like other Iraqi ethnic groups, ISIS has only given the Yazidi captives two options: convert to Islam or die.
In former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power’s Pulitzer Prize winning book A Problem from Hell, she asserts that “we all have been bystanders to genocide [but] the crucial question is why?” With all of the war, conflict, and instability in the region, this relatively obscure religious community is not resonating in our collective conscious; in addition to the genocide itself, the lack of awareness constitutes a problem from hell.
Image: Some of the 12,000 Iraqi Yazidi refugees that have arrived at Newroz camp in Al-Hassakah province, north eastern Syria after fleeing Islamic State militants. (UK Department of International Development, Flickr, Creative Commons)
Johnny V. Boykins is a husband, bow tie aficionado, amateur chef, co-host of the Irrelevantly Relevant Podcast, and U.S. Coast Guard veteran. Boykins has interned at both the United Nations Headquarters in New York City and Geneva, Switzerland. He earned his M.A. in diplomacy and security studies from Norwich University, and a B.A. in political science and communications from Eckerd College. He also has a graduate certificate in teaching and learning, and currently lives in Tampa Bay, Florida.