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What the UN’s genocide finding could mean for justice against ISIS

A UN panel's report determines that the Islamic State committed genocide against Yazidis, but acknowledges difficulties that lie ahead in bringing the case to court.

Rodi Said/Reuters/File
Yazidi families walk near Mount Sinjar as they flee Islamic State fighters in August 2014.

The Islamic State is committing genocide against the Yazidi religious minority in Syria, a United Nations panel concluded Wednesday, "urgently" recommending that the Security Council refer IS to the International Criminal Court for prosecution. 

In the 40-page report, based on interviews with a range of witnesses, including survivors, the four-member commission found that the IS has sought to "erase the Yazidis through killings; sexual slavery, enslavement, torture" and a litany of other human rights abuses.  

In the aftermath of 2014 IS attacks on the Sinjar region, home to the world's largest Yazidi communities, "no free Yazidis remained," the report summarizes. "The 400,000-strong community had all been displaced, captured, or killed."

The genocide, it said, is "on-going": More than 3,200 Yazidi women and children are still being held by IS, while Yazidi boys older than 7 are indoctrinated and trained as fighters. 

Thousands of Yazidi women and girls captured by IS have been sold in slave markets. IS' radical interpretation of Sunni Islam considers the group "infidels," or "kuffar," and has constructed its own rules governing and justifying sexual slavery for female Yazidis. 

"Survivors who escaped from [IS] captivity in Syria describe how they endured brutal rapes, often on a daily basis, and were punished if they tried to escape with severe beatings, and sometimes gang rapes," Vitit Muntarbhorn, one of the UN commissioners, said at a press briefing, according to UN Watch, a Geneva-based human rights monitoring group.

Yazidi men, meanwhile, are often given the choice of conversion or death. Those who convert become captive laborers, according to the UN report. 

The Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad has itself been the focus of a major effort by international war-crimes investigators to link atrocities up the chain of command, rather than focusing on victim testimony. The approach has produced a massive trove of documents leaked by a former military photographer, which are said to detail orders given by top officials.

At the briefing, UN commissioners called the report on IS a "road map for prosecution," according to Reuters. But they also recognized the obstacles before it, noting that "with no path to international criminal justice available, it is likely that the first such prosecution of IS crimes against the Yazidis will take place in a domestic jurisdiction." Russia and China have blocked past measures which would have referred the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court. 

It's unclear, however, in which country such a prosecution might take place – especially with the Syrian government under international pressure for its own alleged war crimes.  

The UN places the origin of the Islamic State's atrocities in the group's June 2014 seizure of Mosul, one of the largest cities in Iraq. From there, IS began to occupy increasingly large swaths of territory, including the Sinjar region in early August 2014, home to most of the world's Yazidis. Many US-backed Peshmerga fighters who had been protecting the region withdrew without notifying local villages. 

In the humanitarian crisis that ensued, IS fighters were able to round up thousands of Yazidis, despite a brief American military intervention to evacuate those trapped atop Mount Sinjar. At least 30 mass graves have been uncovered in the Sinjar region, most containing the bodies of men and adolescent boys.

The report's findings are important, but long overdue, Hillel Neuer, the executive director of UN Watch, said in a press release, calling for the council to submit the genocide finding to the Security Council for protective action. 

"Unless these minimal steps are taken," Mr. Neuer said, "the experts' finding risks being just more words on paper, without actually protecting a single Yazidi man, woman, or child."

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