Iraq: the assault on minorities

Islamic State is certainly a threat—but not mainly to the West, as the horrific experiences of members of minorities in Iraq testifiy.

Mays Al-Juboori
27 February 2015

At least they got away: women and girls crowded into a converted barracks in south-eastern Turkey, accommodating some 1,200 Yazidis who had fled IS attacks in northern Iraq. Flickr / European Commission DG ECHO. Some rights reserved.

The threat posed by Islamic State (IS) to security in the West has captured headlines and provoked fierce debate in recent weeks. But in its original zone of operation in Iraq, the devastating effect of IS on many communities in the north of the country may prove permanent. IS has pursued a systematic strategy of removing minority populations forever from large areas of Iraq—and it may well have succeeded.

Within days of IS taking control of Mosul in June 2014, members of minority communities had to alter their behaviour drastically, to conceal their identities and renounce their traditions lest their lives be put at risk. For too many, survival became the paramount concern. And within weeks, nearly all minority communities in IS-held areas were forced to flee or be killed. Families were compelled to alter their life entirely or watch it crumble to pieces.

Minorities lack the tribal-protection structures majority groups possess, leaving their members particularly vulnerable to human-rights violations. This became increasingly clear as IS advanced into the Anbar and Nineveh governorates, where ethnic and religious minority inhabitants were left vulnerable to a series of attacks, with catastrophic consequences.

But the problems of Iraq’s minority communities did not start with the IS campaign. Religious and ethnic minorities have long been marginalised in its political and social life.


IS has advanced in a society in which negative stereotypes have historically fuelled the discrimination and harassment faced by members of ethnic and religious minorities. The state has failed to meet international standards on the treatment of minorities, with prejudicial policies contributing to the disenfranchisement of minority communities and territorial disputes often dominating public policy towards minority populations.

A report launched today (in English and Arabic) by Minority Rights Group International, the Institute for International Law and Human Rights, the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organisation and No Peace Without Justice documents the plight of minorities since June 2014. The spotlight falls particularly on the abuses suffered by Christians, Yezidis, Turkmen, Kaka’i and Shabak at the hands of IS.

The report documents summary executions, torture, abductions, forced conversions and mass forced displacement, and reveals IS as a group motivated by extermination. Indeed, the destruction of cultural and religious sites points to the group’s intent to eradicate the roots and identities of minority peoples.

Women and girls

There are particular consequences for minority women and children. Numerous reports of abuses committed against women and girls as young as 12 or 13 include abduction, imprisonment, rape, coercion into marriage, sexual enslavement and other forms of sexual violence.

Sadly, these acts have occurred in a pre-existing environment of gender-based violence and discrimination, with high levels of impunity. Women and girls who have managed to escape their abusers often fear stigmatisation, and lack the necessary physical and psychological care to overcome their ordeal. 

The report highlights an incident in which a 17-year-old Yezidi was captured and sold by IS, only to escape from the man who ‘purchased’ her. The girl said: “I got in a taxi and asked to be brought back to the place where they were selling girls, as I had no other place to go back to.” That she felt her only option was to surrender herself once more to her captors is an alarming indication of the lack of services and redress available to female survivors of such human-rights abuses. According to IS ideology, like many others she would be deemed a mere spoil of war.

Internally displaced

The number of internally displaced persons in Iraq has soared alarmingly, to over 3m. It is the state’s responsibility to meet the needs of IDPs, yet, faced with a humanitarian crisis and the security situation, the government appears overwhelmed.

The extent of the displacement has compelled people to reside in camps, informal settlements and abandoned buildings. With the largest population of IDPs in the Kurdish autonomous region, the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) is coping with an enormous burden. But the increasingly high rents and discriminatory property ownership laws over which it presides seriously impede their access to housing.

“I got in a taxi and asked to be brought back to the place where they were selling girls, as I had no other place to go back to.” 

More generally, IDPs are suffering deteriorating humanitarian conditions and the resources available are not adequate to address their basic needs. There is a clear shortage of food, water, healthcare and medical supplies, while lack of income and restricted access to employment present further challenges. Financial contributions from the international community meet just 30% of what is required.

For many IDPs, complications with registration have even barred them from obtaining food rations and basic non-food items or securing access to bank accounts. Without civil-status documents, some remain trapped in camps or roadside shelters or at checkpoints.


And pre-IS discriminatory attitudes remain prevalent. Even where humanitarian aid or shelter is available, some minorities have trouble availing themselves of it, due to prejudicial rules or official policies which seek to tip the ethnic balance in the governorate or simply exercise control over beneficiaries.

Much more must be done by the international community, as well as the Iraqi government and the KRG. Yet, each of these parties, on one occasion or another, has demonstrated obdurate reluctance to take steps towards a resolution.

The international community ought to make a better attempt to bridge the humanitarian funding gap. Governance challenges and lack of co-ordination between the Iraqi government and the KRG also stand in the way of effective implementation of a crisis-response plan.


The vast religious and cultural diversity of Iraq is sacred. Members of minority communities should not have to feel that they have no future in their own country and international actors must ensure that their efforts protect, rather than undermine, Iraq’s diversity. Any response should aim to ensure security and equal rights for minorities first and foremost within their historic homelands, rather than outside them.

The joint report considers IS responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity. It paves the way for discussions of accountability and justice. But these discussions must quickly turn into action. Iraq should accede to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court and accept the court’s jurisdiction from the beginning of the current conflict.

Armed groups such as IS and other militias cannot however be attributed sole responsibility for violations against minority communities in Iraq. Comprehensive legal and social reform is required to tackle the longstanding marginalisation of minorities.

It is critical that, with the support of the international community, Iraq begin its preparations for the post-IS era. Without this, the state and its vulnerable minorities will stagger from one crisis to another. 

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