Yezidis vs. ISIS at the ICC

Why the Fight for Genocide Charges Is an Uphill Battle

A displaced woman from the minority Yazidi sect, fleeing violence in Iraq, looks out from an abandoned house where she is taking refuge in the southeastern Turkish town of Silopi, near the Turkish-Iraqi border crossing of Habur, August 13, 2014. Kadir Baris / Reuters

In 2014, the Islamic State (also called ISIS) swept into northern Iraq. Fearing extermination, members of the Yezidi sect fled to their ancestral fastness on Mount Sinjar. There, on the slopes of the mountain, they huddled above the killing plains, in a place of refuge. Thousands died below, while those on the mountain were besieged: only when U.S. planes began to bomb ISIS and Kurdish Peshmerga pushed ISIS troops back did the Yezidi escape, joining hundreds of thousands who had fled for the refugee camps of Iraqi Kurdistan.

The mountain has been liberated, but in its shadow, ISIS still builds its unyielding theocracy. Its rule is especially harsh for religious minorities—the remaining Yezidis, Christians and Shi’ites—subjected to forced conversion and beheadings. Thousands of women are in slavery, handed from fighter to fighter in sexual bondage.

What should we call this darkness? The Yezidis call it genocide, the intentional destruction of a religious, racial or national group, and have called for it to be named as such. Here, the Yezidi have had some success: Recently, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution that “the atrocities perpetrated by [ISIS] against religious and ethnic minorities in Iraq and Syria include [. . .] genocide.” Two weeks ago, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said ISIS is committing genocide and demanded independent investigations. 

Calling the ISIS massacre of Yezidi genocide is sensible and humane, but troubling for two reasons: Expectations for what this will achieve wildly overstate what the law can do; and the grim apotheosis of genocide actually debases our willingness to act in the shadow of evil.

The Yezidis think naming these acts will have real consequences. In Iraqi Kurdistan last month, I heard Yezidis call for trials at the International Criminal Court in The Hague. They also believe the label “genocide” will move that mythic beast, the international community, to offer them a military protection force. That belief is mistaken, and their hopes for justice doubly so: The obstacles

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