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The Yazidi Genocide, lack of justice and gender-based violence in genocides

“Despite our suffering, nobody cares about us. We have shared our stories but even then, they have not done anything for us.”

This chilling statement was given by Leyla Telo, a survivor of the Yazidi genocide in January 2020. The Yazidis are a religious minority who mainly reside in northern Iraq and have a distinct religious identity. On 3rd August 2014, they were attacked by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The initial attack was followed by forced conversions to Islam, Yazidi men were killed and thrown into mass graves, and women were sold into slavery. According to a report from the UN, the violence varied “depending on the gender and age of the victims,” though the entire population was attacked. These acts of violence carried out during the genocide were carried out based upon ISIS’ interpretation of gender roles within radical Islam, where men were seen as leaders or fighters and women were seen as “spoils of war”. The Yazidi genocide has highlighted two things: Firstly, the Genocide Convention is gender-neutral and thus fail to recognise the influence of gender-based violence – hereafter GBV - during genocides due to the historic invisibility of women in warfare. Secondly, this makes it difficult for victims to get justice.

The Genocide Convention is an international treaty approved in 1948 with the intent to prevent genocides in the future. It defines genocide as “any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.”

In this article, GBV will be defined as any act of violence that “is shaped by gender-roles and status in society.” Acts of GBV can include sexual, physical, mental, and economic harm such as “honour crimes,” child marriage and rape.

At the time of the attack, the Yazidis were not involved in the power struggles taking place within Iraq, demonstrating that ISIS’ motivations for attacking were not related to power struggle but to eradication. This goal and the premeditative nature of the attack was confessed by Dabiq, ISIS’s online propaganda tool. As Suha H. Hassen argues GBV, in particular systematic rape, has been recognised as an especially effective tool of ethnic cleansing. The Yazidis have a male-dominated culture, where any relationships external to the community are extremely prohibited. Consequently, GBV specifically systematic rape was an effective tool to isolate women from the rest of their community. The genocidal enslavement of the Yazidis caused stigma for the women and their relatives, which makes it difficult for them to re-join their communities. Further, Yazidi leadership would not and have not welcomed any child born of non-Yazidi parents, thus leading the women to choose between abortion, which is illegal in Iraq, being expelled from Yazidi society or abandoning their children. Here, ISIS attempted to bring about the excommunication of Yazidi women in order to cement their new identities as Muslim wives by causing and exploiting their “loss of honour”. Thus, ISIS sought to eradicate the Yazidi community by targeting Yazidi women because of what they represent within the Yazidi community.

Whilst GBV has been recognised as part of official eradication plans and has been an effective tool of excommunication, these acts are often not perceived as an act of genocide.

This raises the question of why this might be the case. There are two main reasons for this: firstly, women and the various roles they play in warfare has historically been ignored and/or understudied, hence violence against women in the context of war has been ignored. Secondly, the Genocide Convention, which was enacted in 1948, has not been updated in order to take developments in warfare or society into account.

Human rights have historically not applied to women. As Sondra Hale rightly points out, the eternal paradox regarding women in warfare is that violence against women is normalised yet women are highly visible as victims.[1] Furthermore, as Cathrine Mackinnon points out, crimes committed against women and crimes committed against human beings have historically been seen as separate or even mutually exclusive, which is crucial in this context.[2] This indeed provides part of the answer as to why violence primarily committed against women is not seen as genocide despite it serving eradication purposes. The case of the Yazidis illustrates this, as ISIS confessed that they aimed to eradicate the Yazidis by committing acts of GBV against Yazidi women. Yet, Iraq is the only state to recognise the attacks as a genocide, emphasizing that GBV is not viewed as an act of ethnic cleansing by the international community. Thus, when the dimension of gender is applied to warfare and human rights, it seems obvious that acts of GBV should be integrated into the Genocide Convention. Secondly, when looking at the Genocide Convention, it becomes clear that the definitions of genocide are gender neutral, yet genocides have gender specific characteristics. The role of GBV has been recognized as an act of genocide, a war crime and a crime against humanity in the Rome Statute (1998) and in UN Security Council Resolution 1820 (2008), yet, these updated attitudes have yet to be implemented within the Genocide Convention. What does the lack of implementation mean for the Yazidis?

The lack of implementation of GBV in the Genocide Convention and the fact that Iraq currently is the only state that has recognised the attack as a genocide means it is difficult for the Yazidis to get justice. Even though countless Yazidi women - including activist Nadia Murad - have spoken out about the atrocities committed against them, no serious steps have been taken by the international community to save the survivors(who are still in captivity), nor has the international community taken steps towards reconciliation or justice. This has led to the important concern of whether justice will ever be achieved for the Yazidi community and how this justice might look. It is difficult to take any action against ISIS for a crime that is not universally recognised as a genocide by the international community within the framework of a state (here Iraq) which not only does not incorporate most international crimes into its penal code but has problematic provision on GBV. Thus, updating the Genocide Convention to include GBV would make it easier for survivors of these attacks to achieve justice.

Photo by Bethan McKernan/The Guardian

[1] Hale, Sondra, “Rape as a Marker and Eraser of Difference: Darfur and the Nuba Mountains.” in Laura Sjoberg and Sandra Via eds. Gender, War, and Militarism, Feminist Perspectives, (Praeger Security International Ser., 2010), p.109

[2] MacKinnon, Catharine A., "Rape, Genocide, and Women's Human Rights," Harvard Women's Law Journal 17 (1994), p.6

About the author

Camilla is a second-year BA International Relations student at King’s College London, who is interested in international law, human rights and feminist issues.

Feminist Perspectives

Feminist Perspectives is a blog created to publish research-based work – like academic research and think pieces – and art-based projects that use gender as a category of analysis or explore…

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