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Will a new Iraqi law atone for the Yazidi genocide?

The twentieth and twenty-first centuries have brutal histories of genocide. The Holocaust, Rwanda, Cambodia, Bosnia should never happen again. Those words seem to get lost in a miasma of amnesia. It should never happen again, and yet it always does. A recent nationwide survey published in September in the United States found that 25 per cent of millennials and members of Generation Z didn’t know that the Holocaust was real.

Iraqi Yazidi women attend the exhumation of a mass-grave of hundreds of Yazidis killed by Islamic State (IS) group militants in the northern Iraqi village of Kojo in Sinjar district on March 15, 2019. – Iraqi authorities exhumed the mass grave in an operation aiming to extract remains and identify victims of an August 2014 massacre of Yazidis by IS fighters as they entered the village of Kojo, during investigations of genocide against the decimated minority. (Photo by Zaid AL-OBEIDI / AFP) (Photo credit should read ZAID AL-OBEIDI/AFP via Getty Images)

The atrocities fade from our memories, but not from those of the victims whose worlds have been transformed. The Yazidis, a small, ancient minority from northern Iraq, burst into global consciousness when Isis stormed their rural communities in August 2014, and we learned that the men had been massacred and the women abducted and held as sex slaves.

In an attempt to redress the genocidal campaign, the government of Iraq is preparing to introduce the Yazidi Female Survivor’s Bill for those abducted by “the Da’esh terrorist gangs after 10/6/2014 and released after this date”. The Yazidi organisation Yazda were strongly in favour of the bill, saying in a statement: “This is the most significant piece of legislation ever with respect to the Yazidis in Iraq to be discussed within the framework for Iraq.”

The ground-breaking bill will offer victims psychological and medical care. They will receive housing, land, compensation and education. There will be livelihood measures for Yazidi women, as well as commemoration and memorialisation activities, including a National Day on August 3rd to remember the tragedy that unfolded in their homeland of Sinjar.

However, when Isis established its short-lived caliphate, the death cult didn’t just target Yazidi women. Other victims included Christians, Shia Turkmen, Shabaks, Kakais, and Shia Arab women who were abducted, raped, enslaved, and tortured. Islamic State threw gay men from rooftops and murdered men, typically family breadwinners, a tactic of war to ensure that communities would stay poor, powerless and voiceless.

Over the last two decades, Christian communities in Iraq have witnessed almost complete destruction as the population has shrunk by 80 per cent, from 1.4 million to less than 250,000. For millennia, they shared the diverse Ninevah Plain, where the Yazidi homeland of Sinjar is located, with other Iraqis. For thousands of years, Iraq was also once home to a large thriving Jewish community. There are very few left now.

“The focus on Yazidis is good,” says Jela Keyany, a lawyer with the Yazidi Legal Network, “as they haven’t been able to tell their stories for centuries. However, other marginalised groups who fell victim to Isis also need to be included and represented, for example, the Christians. The persecution of Christians is still a non-discussed topic,” and many groups have lost confidence in their future in Iraq.

“And while reparation law can help stop the bleeding, it doesn’t heal,” continues Keyany. For most Yazidis, no matter where they are in the world, the most critical issue is to find the 3,000 missing women and children. There is no international support, and the genocide is on-going.

The bill concentrates on sexual slavery but does not cover other forms of conflict-related sexual violence. Recently, the Yazidi Supreme Spiritual Council decided not to accept children born of rape, after a backlash from the community, which means that women often have to choose between returning home or staying with their Muslim children. Once a Muslim, you cannot convert back. The Iraqi government has done nothing to change this.

One consequence of ignoring the other victims is that this could cause divisions between survivors. According to Güley Bor, an international lawyer, this “may re-victimise those who are excluded and lead to intra-community tensions. It will also present a poor record of events.”

Reparation programmes should go hand in hand with criminal justice. Isis members in non-EU countries are convicted as terrorists, not perpetrators of international war crimes, as it is easier to get convictions and the evidence threshold is lower than for charges of genocide. “This,” says Keyany, “ makes the story of victims irrelevant”.

The draft bill is important because it recognises the harm victims have suffered and contributes to truth and justice. It is also and is an attempt to rebuild trust across the communities.