Smoke and Mirrors: Analyzing Canada’s Response to the Genocide of the Yazidis

By August 19, 2016 No Comments

ISIS’ goal of establishing a caliphate has occurred in concert with a campaign of widespread brutality and suffering.

This is demonstrated on a daily basis through the torture and murder of captured aid workers, enemy soldiers, journalists, and the local population in Iraq and Syria. While ISIS’ tactics impact all who are imprisoned in their self-proclaimed ‘caliphate,’ ISIS has reserved a unique level of malevolence for the Yazidi people. ISIS’ prolonged, targeted and systematic use of rape, and mass killings against the Yazidi people was declared by the United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner (OHCHR) as crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide.[1] Unfortunately, ISIS’ devotion to the extermination of the Yazidi people grossly outweighs the willingness of the Western world to intervene. This remains exceptionally true for the Government of Canada, whose response violates commitments made under the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (CPPCG).

The Yazidis are ethnically Kurdish, and speak Kurmanji, a Kurdish dialect. However, they differentiate from the majority of Kurds by religion. Yazidism is an ancient faith which predates Islam, although it shares some religious practices with the Abrahamic faiths, such as baptism and pilgrimage. Yazidism believes in one God who offered teachings to seven angels and their leader, Tausi Melek, the Peacock Angel. Yazidis are often accused of devil worship for their devotion to Melek, whose story bares similarities to the Qur’anic story of Shaytan (Arabic for Satan).[2] Yazidism is a secluded faith which theologically forbids converts to the religion, thus to be a Yazidi one must be born from two Yazidi parents. The religion also strongly encourages marriages within the faith.[3] While the persecution of the Yazidis is not a new phenomenon, it has rapidly expanded under ISIS. On multiple occasions, ISIS has proclaimed that the Yazidi people do not have the right to exist under the caliphate.[4] Tragically, they have executed this belief with unimaginable cruelty.

Temple entry at Lalish, the main temple of the Yazidi faith. Image Source: Mikaek F., The Kurdish Wikipedia Project

Temple entry at Lalish, the main temple of the Yazidi faith. Image Source: Mikaek F., The Kurdish Wikipedia Project

The events which mark the beginning of ISIS’ genocide of the Yazidis, occurred in Sinjar, Iraq in 2014.

Located in the north western Niveneh Province, Sinjar is a region which includes a number of small towns, as well as a major city of the same name. 400,000 Yazidis, the majority of the world’s Yazidi population, live in Sinjar. On August 3, 2014, ISIS attacked the Sinjar region, causing tens of thousands of Yazidis to seek refuge on Mount Sinjar. Over the course of the ISIS occupation of Sinjar, 5,000 Yazidi men were executed while 7,000 Yazidi women and children were captured and sold into slavery.[5]

After over two years of publicized atrocities, as well as several UN reports, and an official declaration that genocide was occurring against the Yazidis, the response of the Western world has been overwhelmingly insufficient. In the case of Canada, the Liberal Party was reluctant to acknowledge that the genocide was occurring. On April 20, 2016, the Leader of the Official Opposition, the Honourable Rona Ambrose, presented a motion to the House of Commons requesting:

That the House declare that ISIL is responsible for atrocities such as genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity, against ethnic and religious groups, namely, but not limited to, Christians, Yazidis and Shia Muslims in Syrian and Iraq, and that it strongly condemn these atrocities and call for an independent investigation and for perpetrators to be brought to justice.[6]

Ultimately, the motion failed to receive unanimous consent. Immediately following Ms. Ambrose, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Pam Goldsmith Jones, presented a similar motion but with a different intent. Jones’ motion called on the house to recognize that ISIS is guilty of crimes of a genocidal nature, but not explicitly a genocide. This is a curious distinction that deserves more explanation by Jones, since it begs the question: What acts would constitute the nature of genocide without explicitly being genocide? Article II of the UN (CPPCG) states that “genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

(a) Killing members of the group;
(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”[7]

Intent is clearly the transformative element within the definition of genocide, and differentiates genocide from other crimes.

Was the Canadian government suggesting that after witnessing ISIS’ atrocities against the Yazidi people for 19 months, ISIS was randomly targeting Yazidis? In contrast to Canada’s response, many of its political allies approached the issue differently.

In February 2016, the European Parliament recognized the actions of ISIS as genocide. Similarly, the US House of Representatives voted unanimously to recognize the actions of ISIS as genocide in March. On the same day that the ISIS motions were first rejected in the Canadian Parliament, the British House of Commons voted unanimously to declare that the actions of ISIS constituted genocide.

On June 14, 2016, Ms. Ambrose presented a second motion asking that the House of Commons recognize the actions of ISIS as genocide. Despite significant support from the Conservative Party, the New Democratic Party and a handful of Liberals, the motion failed. The result of the vote was 139 in favor, and 166 against. The 166 votes against were comprised of 165 Liberal votes, including the Right Honourable Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and one vote from the Leader of the Green Party, Elizabeth May. The day after the second motion was voted down, the Honourable Minister of Foreign Affairs, Stéphane Dion, stated that he was “proud of the House of Commons and the vote we had yesterday.”[8] Minister Dion defended the Liberal Party’s defeat of the motion by underscoring that they wanted an “assessment of genocide to be done properly by an independent court.”[9] Dion referenced a motion presented by Liberal MP, Marc Miller, which requested that the matter be “referred to the International Criminal Court to formally determine the existence of genocide and to bring the perpetrators of these crimes to justice.”[10] The following day, on June 16, 2016, the Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic released their report, They Came to Destroy: ISIS Crimes Against the Yazidis.

The report detailed a multitude of horrific individual experiences, while also presenting important findings and recommendations for the international community. Chief among these was the confirmation that “ISIS has committed the crime of genocide as well as multiple crimes against humanity and war crimes against the Yazidis.”[11] The report specifically focused on crimes committed in Syria against the Yazidis of Sinjar. Additionally, the report indicated that the genocide had not occurred primarily through mass killings – although many had occurred – the principal methods being used for genocide were forced religious conversion, the indoctrination and torture of children, and the rape and sexual enslavement of women.[12]

Within several days of the occupation of Sinjar, ISIS began transporting kidnapped women back to Syria. These women were separated from their families and brought to a centralized slave holding facility in Raqqah, referred to as “the farm.” Slave auctions and markets would take place at the farm, and Yazidi women (some as young as seven) would be sold among ISIS fighters. While the farm is a central place in the ISIS slave infrastructure, slave markets occur in many other cities as well. The organization and distribution of slave markets is regulated by the ISIS Committee for Buying and Selling Slaves.[13] Once bought at a centralized location, the women become the property of the soldiers and often accompany them to rural locations where they may be sold again. The report explicitly stated that this process is ongoing, and that 3,200 Yazidi women remain slaves in Syria. The genocidal implications of these horrific actions are magnified given the theological and cultural structure of Yazidism.

The Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic conducted interviews with 45 “survivors, religious leaders, smugglers, activists, lawyers, medical personnel, and journalists,” and gathered supporting documents, including statements issued by ISIS.[14] It is worth noting that British House of Commons conducted a similar process whereby they listened to many personal accounts, interviewed survivors and reviewed documentation before voting to declare the actions of ISIS as genocide. The Government of Canada however, did not initiate a similar process. Despite the fact that the Commission of Inquiry is not an international court, Minister Dion rose in the House of Commons on June 16th and conceded that based on the new report, “our government believes that genocide against the Yazidis is currently ongoing. That is why we are once again calling on the UN Security Council to take urgent action, as I did last month.”[15] This ‘action’ however, does not satisfy the UN report, which stated that there “have been no concrete steps taken by any State to investigate or prosecute ISIS fighters, religious leaders or supporters for committing genocide.”[16]

Minister Stephane Dion speaks at Carleton University in 2009. Image Source: Grant Oyston

Minister Stephane Dion speaks at Carleton University in 2009. Image Source: Grant Oyston

The action of ‘calling on the UN Security council’ initiated by Dion, occurred in the form of a letter sent on May 30, 2016, to the President of the UN Security Council, His Excellency Sameh Shoukry. The letter asked:

(For) the Security Council to act in accordance with its primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security by establishing a mechanism for investigating reports of violations of international law by ISIL in Iraq and Syria, for determining whether these violations constitute acts of genocide or other serious international crimes and for identifying the perpetrators of such violations and measures to ensure accountability for the crimes perpetrated by ISIL in Iraq and Syria, including a referral to the International Criminal Court, as appropriate.[17]

This request however, does not recognize the limitations of the International Criminal Court (ICC). The ICC was established in 2002 through the authorization of the Rome Statute, and is responsible for convicting individuals of crimes against humanity and genocide. There are three ways the ICC can execute its mandate, as outlined in Article 13 of the Rome Statute. The first option is if a nation is a signatory state, it can refer a case to the ICC Prosecutor. The second option is if a case is referred to the ICC Prosecutor by the UN Security Council. The last option is if the ICC Prosecutor decides to investigate a case in a signatory state, proprio motu – on own impulse. Given that Iraq and Syria are not signatory states to the Rome Statue, only a referral to the ICC from the UN Security Council would raise the issue before the Court. The current ICC Prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, reiterated this when she publically announced that her office does not have the authority to independently investigate ISIS. Unfortunately, the situation in Syria has already gone to the UN Security Council, and in 2014, the UN Security Council held a vote to refer the situation in Syria to the ICC. This vote failed however, because the People’s Republic of China and the Russian Federation – both permanent members of the UN Security Council – voted against it. Given Russia’s cordial relationship with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who is almost certainly guilty of crimes against humanity, it remains highly unlikely that the Russian vote will change in the future.

Minister Dion had also responded to the UN report by saying, “we have tripled our effort to help fight ISIL on the ground, because we need to rescue this population. This is the priority.”[18] The Minister was referring to the increased number of Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) members who have since been deployed to Iraq to train the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF). This is unquestionably a beneficial contribution, and will certainly assist the ISF combating ISIS in Iraq, but the announcement was made months before the government acknowledged that genocide was occurring. Therefore, this commitment should not be accepted as a reactive measure to the genocide. Dion’s assertion that the increased troop deployment reflects an attempt to quell the genocide is in no way reflected in the report, which instead indicated that:

With the exception of US President Obama’s statement, which related solely to military action on Mount Sinjar, no State operating in Iraq or Syria has indicated that its actions are guided by the need to prevent the commission of genocide by ISIS.[19]

Additionally, the report explicitly stated that the genocide is ongoing predominantly in Syria. So in effect, Canada’s military response after acknowledging that genocide is occurring against the Yazidis, was to continue its ongoing operations – which included training and advising soldiers in Iraq. Where the genocide is not primarily occurring.

Aside from the moral obligations to prevent and punish a genocide, Canada has legal obligations to do so because it is a signatory state to the CPPCG.

Article 1 of the CPPCG states that “The Contracting Parties confirm that genocide, whether committed in time of peace or in time of war, is a crime under international law which they undertake to prevent and to punish.”[20] While Article 1 does not mandate what actions would constitute preventing or punishing genocide, the prevention of genocide is considered under international law to be jus cogens – a peremptory norm. The lack of a legally prescribed response, combined with the nature of the peremptory norm of preventing genocide suggest that the emphasis is on the result of prevention, and not in the method. There are a variety of actions which could contribute to prevention, such as prioritized military efforts against Syrian cities which host slave markets.

The UN report published in June 2016 also briefly discussed the factors which are considered when determining if a state has fulfilled its obligations under Article 1. Among these factors are whether or not a state has the capacity to impact the actions of the persons (or groups) committing genocide. One of the determinants of capacity, according to the ICC, is physical proximity between a state whose responsibility it is to stop the genocide, and the location of the genocide.[21] Given that Canada has dramatically broadened its military presence in Iraq, it would seem that the government is capable of expanding its operations into Syria to stop the genocide, in compliance with Article 1.

The Government of Canada’s response after acknowledging a genocide is occurring against the Yazidis is in violation of commitments made under Article 1 of the CPPCG. The government’s approach stems from a foreign policy agenda which ideologically adheres to training and peacekeeping, irrespective of what the situation requires. Additionally, the decision to remove Canada’s fighters from the mission in Syria makes it politically inconvenient to send soldiers into Syria once again; however, this may be what is needed. If the thousands of Yazidi women still held as sex slaves in Syria are hoping to be saved, at this time, they should forfeit any hope that Canada will deliver their salvation.