The Human Rights Council has just concluded its 33rd Session and one of the major outputs of the session was the extensive discussion on the human rights situation in the Syrian Arab Republic, focusing in particular on violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law perpetrated by ISIS and other terrorist groups.
ISIS’ abuses, enslavement and enforced disappearances have been conducted to subordinate and humiliate minorities such as Shi’ites, Alawites, Christians and above all Yazidis from the Mosul area.
The most visible aspect of ISIS’s violence translated into sexual violence against Yazidi women, comparable to the abductions perpetrated by the Revolutionary United Front in Sierra Leone and the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda.
According to a report issued by Human Rights Watch, approximately 1,800 women and girls have been held in slavery by ISIS since its rise in 2014. Following interviews with Sunni Muslim women from the Hawija area of Iraq and the Yazidi minority ethnic group, it emerged that the abuses included forced conversion to Islam and forced marriages with ISIS militants, human trafficking, rape and solitary confinement without access to food and water, leading to a breach of the prohibition of torture and ill-treatment.
Evidence of such breaches has also been put forward by the same ISIS. In December 2014, the Research and Fatwa Department of the Islamic State released a pamphlet on the capture, punishment and rape of female non-believers. Written in the form of questionnaire, it clarifies that, according to ISIS’s interpretation of Islamic law, it is permissible to have sexual intercourse, to beat and trade Al-Sabi (non-Muslim slaves, including young girls, captured by ISIS militants). The pamphlet makes clear that it is possible to “buy, sell, or give as a gift female captives and slaves, for they are merely property, which can be disposed of”.
Many of the abuses documented by Human Rights Watch, not only amount to torture, sexual slavery and arbitrary detention, but have also been considered war crimes if committed in the context of the armed conflict, or crimes against humanity if part of ISIS strategy during attacks on the civilian population.
Moreover, in June 2016, the independent international Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic issued a report in which ISIS’s actions towards Yazidi women were qualified as amounting to genocide. Besides the call for the Syrian and Iraqi governments to ratify the Rome Statute which gives jurisdiction to the International Criminal Court, the most striking part of the report concerns the countless testimonies of atrocities gathered by the Commission thanks to its direct access to victims.
Since the attacks on northern Iraq’s Sinjar region on 3 August 2014, some of these women and girls have managed to escape from ISIS. However, the violence they have been subjected to had devastating physical and psychological effects on the women, some of whom even had suicidal thoughts. Donatella Rovera, Amnesty International Senior Crisis Response Advisor, has reported interviews with some of them in a document called “Escape from Hell: Torture and Sexual Slavery in Islamic State Captivity in Iraq”. The report describes Yazidi’s fear of rejection and the stigma of tarnished “honour” the women and girls experienced after they returned to their families as well as the negative social consequences of the abductions on their future rebuilding. One survivor, Nadia Murad, who survived 4 months’ captivity and sexual slavery at the hands of ISIS has been appointed as a Goodwill Ambassador for the Dignity of Survivors of Human Trafficking, in the hope that this will lead the international community to take action on the situation.
Even if the responsibility for the failure to prevent and respond to those violations lies on States, at the present time, Syria and Iraq are not able to provide for such help and support. To remedy the situation, a range of health services have been provided by other national authorities, UN agencies, nongovernmental organizations and some private initiatives have been started in Western countries. For instance, the German psychologist Jan Ilhan Kizilhan has been counselling Yazidi women helping them rebuild their lives as part of a programme funded by Germany. The World Health Organization has endorsed these initiatives by stating that mental health and psychological support are essential elements to take care of the survivors of sexual violence.
Despite the above, reactions of the international community to the situation have not proved to be as strong as expected. By 2030, the ambition for gender equality enshrined in the Sustainable Development Goals should become reality and countries are called upon to work towards the elimination of disadvantages and discrimination borne by girls everywhere in the world. Looking at their indifference to the Yazidi human rights abuses, it seems that the achieving this goal will be more difficult than estimated. Hope springs eternal, but in the near future States are strongly encouraged to take some more concrete measures to help Yazidis and ensure they have a better future than the hell they have been through – and many continue to live – today.