On Friday, the human rights group the 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative issued a report entitled “Edge of Extinction: The Eradication of Religious and Ethnic Minorities in Iraq”. This report discusses the terrible situations that religious and ethnic minorities such as the Christians and Yezidis now face in Iraq because of the Islamic State’s action.
In late January, a delegation from the 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative traveled to northern Iraq to document evidence of the ethnic and religious cleansing taking place by the hands of the Islamic State. The team met with local individuals, interviewed internally displaced Christians and Yezidis, met with senior Kurdistan Regional Government officials, received briefings from human rights organizations, and toured a frontline military location.
During their time in Iraq, the team learned that following the IS overtook Mosul in June, Islamic State expanded into the greater Nineveh Plain around early August. A particular village located about 20 miles from Mosul called Qaraqosh had a population of 50,000 and was Iraq’s largest Christian village. On August 6, 2014, a “night of terror” ensued. The village that had previously been promised protection by Kurdistan Regional Government forces (the Peshmerga) saw their “protectors” abandon them and flee as Islamic State militants approached. The residents, mostly Christian, had no choice but to flee from their village as well. “Thousands were displaced in a matter of hours in a modern-day Exodus”. Most who were fleeing had no choice but to leave behind food, extra clothing, cars, and other personal items. Those who stayed behind were forced to convert to Islam under threat of death.
Simultaneously, the Yezidi communities in Mosul and near the Sinjar Mountain were facing an equally as horrible situation. Yezidi women were held captive, separated from their families and communities, and often transported to parts of Syria, forced to marry IS members or sold into sexual slavery. Additionally, Yezidi students were no longer able to attend the University of Mosul unless they converted to Islam.
As of April 2015, the estimated Islamic State civilian death toll is 15,000 men, women and children.
The Islamic State is not only destroying human lives and families, they are also destroying historic sites of religious and cultural heritage that have existed for hundreds of years. The gradual desecration and elimination of these religious and cultural aspects only further expedites the destruction of the peoples and their histories entirely.
In the Edge of Extinction report, 21 Wilberforce proposes six different recommendations to aid these persecuted people.
The first of these recommendations is to support the establishment of a Nineveh Plains Province uniquely designed for besieged minorities. The establishment of this province would allow for minority groups to represent a political majority. As in the Kurdistan Regional Government, a Nineveh Plains Province should receive a measure of autonomy from the Federal Iraqi government in order to govern their own affairs.
The second recommendation is to support the fledgling Nineveh Protection Units as a genuine national guard capable of defending a Nineveh Plains Province. In order to enjoy security and protection, minority groups must be able to rely on their own defense forces. The US government should support directly arming this protection unit to ensure that arms aide is going directly where it ought to be. The US should also directly arm the Nineveh Protection Units and Kurdish Peshmerga, which has been the leading force in pushing back the Islamic State.
The third and fourth recommendations are to place pressure on Iraqi central government and Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) to help return properties to their rightful owners after areas are liberated from IS as well as support and strengthen the KRG’s efforts to protect human rights. If, as mentioned above, the US does indeed show meaningful support of the Kurds and their forces, it would most likely be easier for the US to place pressure to see the KRG fulfill human rights concerns.
The fifth and sixth recommendations are to support the bodies and organizations working to deliver immediate humanitarian aid and assistance especially in the areas of education and healthcare and “investigate, document, and prosecute the IS…for crimes against humanity, war crimes, and should it be determined-genocide”. While these are fairly straight forward and simple-sounding suggestions, they are equally as important as the others.
With so many displaced people and destroyed homes, food, water, medicine, and other daily necessities have become a dire need. And by formally declaring the behaviors of the Islamic State a “genocide”, this would require that official action be taken to properly address and punish those committed of the crime.
Former Congressman Frank R. Wolf recently sent a letter to President Obama and United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon questioning the hesitation to declare the actions IS has taken as genocide. In his letter he writes,
“Genocidal intent can clearly be seen in Islamic State’s ideology and mission which is directed towards the creation of a global caliphate that has been purged of every man, woman, and child deemed to be an ‘unbeliever’ through either forced conversion or death”.
Islamic State has engaged in what it considers a religious mandated mission is to eliminate millions of non-Muslims. This is clearly and unquestionably genocidal intent. As mentioned in 21 Wilberforce’s factsheet, international law dictates that a group accused of genocide must demonstrate the “intent to commit genocide”, that is to say the group must have a recognizable intent to destroy a certain group of people.
This criterion has already been met. Islamic State isn’t shy about its desire to kill Christians and other religious minorities viewed as believers.
Despite the horrendous human suffering, many residents of Nineveh believe they must return to their historical home. One woman who chose to remain anonymous told the Wilberforce team,
“Our heritage is back in the Nineveh Plains, where we have some places from the fourth century. So we need to go back to that place because that is our heritage”.
Hopefully soon, the US will help make that possible for these persecuted people to one day return home.