Yezidi women protest in front of European Parliament in Brussels, Belgium on 08.09.2014. Picture by Wiktor Dabkowski/DPA/PA Images. All rights reserved.The protection of women continues to be an ill-addressed challenge in Iraq, and the Yezidi women continue to face an uphill battle to heal, mentally and physically. Women and girls were victims of violence during the conflict, involving, inter alia, trafficking, rape, torture and sexual slavery. Its root causes lie within a host of complex reasons but none are simpler than the need for the Iraqi government, with the forceful encouragement of the international community, to shift its focus onto the rule of law and Iraq’s Yezidi women, a beleaguered community that cannot move on from ISIS, even if the world has.
There are two parts to the problem facing Yezidi women: the country suffers from violence against women as a whole, yet Yezidi women are additionally persecuted because of their religion and faith. After ISIS took Sinjar in August 2014 and launched its mass atrocities against the Yezidi community, it then moved on to conduct its industrial scale sexual violence of Yezidi women. Four years on, the Yezidi women have yet to receive any sense of justice. The rule of law continues to succumb to, and fall second to the ineffective democratic governance. On this basis, therefore, it may be argued that the solution must revolve around remedying structural shortcomings. However, it is also an issue of implementation, and the attitude of lawmakers, who have to this day failed in enabling a provision in the Iraqi constitution and/or national legislation that ensures internationally recognised laws and norms supersede and override local domestic laws related to the protection of women from violence.
Although Iraq has shown a commitment to legal reforms, shortcomings are still inherent as the Iraqi government has failed to investigate and prosecute crimes committed by ISIS and further, to provide legal redress. Trials are taking place and, since Iraq does not have national legislations addressing crimes against humanity, ISIS members are being prosecuted under the Counter-Terrorism Law with no recognition of all other crimes committed. The needs of women have been neglected by the government and the majority of the support they receive is from international and national non-governmental organisations.
As a war tactic, ISIS systematically tortured and sexually abused Yezidi women, degrading and destroying communities, which will impact generations to come and is ingrained in the collective psyche of the broader Yezidi population. The problem lies not only in the lack of legislation but also in the enforcement mechanisms: if there is no effective authority for women, how can Iraq build a system that promotes and protects women.
Major concerns surrounding the trials in Iraq include the insufficient capacity of local judges in relation to the crimes committed against these women. Judges are yet to reach the necessary international standards to prepare them for the proper and effective exercise of their functions in such cases. Due to the lack of resources and motivation on the part of the government, cases of violation against women in Iraq are in need of experienced judges, who understand both the seriousness of the crimes and the international legislation surrounding it, including international human rights instruments. This requires understanding the written legislation, being able to contextualise such legislation and having a firm awareness and appreciation of the international norms that apply to women’s rights and the protection of women in conflict. Only then can the rule of law be effectively applied and for Yezidi women to get the justice they deserve and need.
In addition to that, access to justice is essential in meeting the needs of survivors, and legal redress for survivors have been weak as many obstacles are placed in front of survivors. Currently, there are organisations that do provide psychotherapy support and medical treatment to the women. However, there is a greater need for locations where women can get both legal and health support. Legal and medical services are important to ensure that critical information and documents are collected and the testimonies and statements of women are documented to hold perpetrators accountable. The government must ensure that both sectors are working together and key actors, both inside and outside Iraq, must ensure that they work in coordination and rigorously follow-up with one another, to pool their efforts together. Without this coordination and support, local and international actors only end up replicating previous practices and, therefore, the same unproductive and ineffective application of resources. At the same time, local organisations require training on safe and ethical data collection, especially in light of the cultural sensitivities surrounding the Yezidi genocide and the subject of sexual violence more generally. The collection of evidence by local organisations is not done in a coordinated fashion and is conducted outside any legal framework or regulation. Therefore, it is unclear how evidence has been collected, what evidence has been collected and by whom.
Iraq should be taking the necessary steps to amend its national laws and the Iraqi Penal Code to criminalise international crimes. However, there has not yet been a strong willingness to do so on their part. Since Iraq is not currently party to the Rome Statute that created the International Criminal Court (ICC), the ideal scenario would be to establish a specialised international tribunal in Iraq, ideally in the Kurdistan Region due its security and stability, in order to prosecute ISIS perpetrators for their many crimes against humanity. However, this has fallen prey to the complexities of the politics of the country and the poor, often volatile relationship between the Kurdistan Regional Government and the federal government in Baghdad. Therefore, local courts are still pursuing the cases without any accountability for the crimes against humanity.
Many women are in despair and feel isolated by the government and it is feared that they will never see their day in court. Furthermore, Sinjar has yet to be reconstructed and due to security concerns the Yezidi community are unable to return. After the conflict and the fragmentation of the country, restoring peace and stability is now a major challenge in Iraq, including reconciliation and trust building between communities. To achieve this, a crucial first step would be to recognise the crimes that were committed against the Yezidi women and then prioritise the rebuilding of their homes. To build on this peace-building effort, the Yezidi community must also be afforded with greater political representation, while the international community must treat their plight with greater urgency.
The United Nations Security Council passed a resolution in 2017 to establish an investigative team to collect evidence of the crimes committed by ISIS. However, its implementation has been disappointingly slow. Domestically, the Iraqi judicial system is fundamentally flawed and ISIS perpetrators sometimes face a short trial with little evidence presented. Iraq must take urgent and significant actions to provide better protection for the Yezidi women and girls and make justice a reality. In other words, the hard work must begin at home.