Iraqi minority finds little solace but lots of “linguistic game-playing”
“A crime without a name,” was how Winston Churchill described systematic murder on a mass scale.
Today, there are a plethora of expressions including ‘ethnic cleansing,’ ‘war crimes,’ and ‘genocide.’
Yet, the choice of word remains a fraught matter. History is drenched in violence, and the recounting of it brings semantic quandaries to the fore.
The leadership of Iraq’s Yazidis, who have been the victims of mass murder in Islamic State (ISIS) controlled regions are demanding to be recognized as the victims of genocide.
Rooted in the Greek word genos (tribe or family) and the Latin cide (killing), the term was conceived during the Second World War by the Polish-Jewish lawyer Raphael Lemkin to define “the destruction of a nation or an ethnic group.” Murder, physical repression, attacks on individuality and the destruction of cultural and religious institutions are all elements of genocide.
Some experts believe the case of the Yazidis applies. A religious ethnic minority numbering around one-half a million, most speaking Kurdish. The group follows a unique religion which the Islamic State defines as devil worship.
Following the capture of the city of Sinjar in the midst of ISIS’ 2014 Iraqi surge, an estimated 1,800 Yazidis were executed. Three thousand four hundred remain missing. Many are believed to be in mass graves; others were taken hostage as sex slaves.
Christoph Wilcke, a Senior Researcher with the Middle East and North Africa division of Human Rights Watch, looked at “how comprehensive the ISIS attack on Yazidis and their areas was, whether there could have been a purely strategic or tactical military reason to take these areas or to kill the people caught.”
“ISIS did not allow any Yazidis to continue being Yazidis, men and some women were shot dead… and women were sexually enslaved, to be forcibly married and converted,” Wilcke said, in conversation with The Media Line.
While the international media focused on Yazidis during the summer of 2014, when hundreds trapped on Mount Sinjar were rescued by Kurdish forces supported by American airlifts, their travails have not ended. As winter sets in, as many as 90% of Yazidis are living in refugee camps in northern Iraq and southern Turkey.
Kalesh Shemali, a Yazidi fighter with the Kurdish Peshmerga, told The Media Line that “all Yazidis have lost hope of recovering since ISIS’ attacks, because we are in 2016 and still our women are held captive and our children are used by ISIS in the camps to fuel the war.”
Hundreds of captured Yazidi boys are being trained as ISIS child fighters in an effort to efface their parents’ cultural influence and power the war.
Shemali was adamant that the violence perpetrated against his people constitutes genocide and described it as the “73rd Yazidi genocide by Islam,” a reference to the widely held belief among Yazidis that the last thousand years have seen numerous Muslim persecutions.
The term genocide is highly politicized. Not surprisingly, states accused of genocide are reluctant to admit to it, says Alexander Korb, the director of the Stanley Burton Centre for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at the University of Leicester, pointing to Turkey, (Armenians) Australia (Aborigines) and the United States (Native Americans) as examples. “Victim groups often seek recognition as ‘genocide victims’ because it seems to be the prime victim status, he said to The Media Line, “creating an unhealthy ‘competition of victimhood.’” Major states are reluctant to recognize third party genocides for fear of being forced to acknowledge their own transgressions.
“The US is historically cowardly on things like this… it has tended to be cagey on these issues because it knows that by defining something as genocide it obligates you to do something,” explained Seth J. Frantzman, a Jerusalem Post reporter who recently returned from northern Iraq, to The Media Line. The Clinton administration’s refusal to call the massacre of 800,000 Tutsis in Rwanda in 1994 is one such example, Frantzman said.
For now, the US administration refuses to label the plight of the Yazidis ‘genocide.’ “We certainly continue to be horrified by ISIS’s atrocities against the Yazidi people, (although) at this time we ourselves have not made a formal finding of genocide,” a US State Department spokesperson, Pooja Jhunjhunwala, said in an email to The Media Line.
Part of the problem, Korb says, is that “the United Nation’s definition based on Raphael Lemkin is extremely broad, and therefore any case of collective violence can be seen as genocide under that definition.”
One possible solution he offers would be to separate the word from its moral imperative so that states did not need to avoid using the word out of fear of being forced into action, “so we could avoid these linguistic games in future.”