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No peace without justice: Commemorating victims of violence in Iraq

22 August 2022

By Mays Al-Juboori, Senior Middle East Officer at Minority Rights Group International

Today, on the International Day Commemorating Victims of Violence Based on Religion or Belief, I am asking, what does it truly mean to commemorate?

This month, 3 August marked eight years since the Yezidi genocide, and the height of the ISIS onslaught against minorities in Iraq. Since then, despite some advancements, public and political momentum on accountability and justice has generally waned with the unyielding impact of time. Yet for the victims and survivors of these atrocities, the violence and abuse live on in both memory and reality.

Eight years on, hundreds of thousands of people remain internally displaced in camps or settlements, without access to services, and living under the poverty line. Conditions in many areas that were retaken from ISIS are not suitable for people to return home, as they lack services and critical infrastructure. These areas are also complicated by insecurity and disputes over who should govern and live in them. This is only made worse by the presence of multiple armed groups in minority neighbourhoods with competing agendas.

Thousands of victims of the conflict are still missing, including Yezidis, Shi’a Muslim Turkmen and Christian women and girls who were trafficked or held captive by ISIS. Many survivors of Sexual and Gender Based Violence (SGBV), are suffering ongoing trauma and challenges in their daily lives as a result.

Even with worldwide condemnation of atrocities committed by ISIS and counter-ISIS forces, barely any victims have received justice. Iraq’s legislation lacks a framework to prosecute international crimes, so ISIS members are being trialled on terrorism charges instead of the crimes they committed against their victims. This means victims and survivors don’t receive real justice or remedy.

The slow progress to commemorate and honour victims and ensure accountability has created simmering distrust and discontent among identity groups in Iraq that were harmed during the conflict. The ISIS advance created deep ruptures in the country’s social fabric, which complicate the question of peaceful returns for displaced people and future coexistence between communities. Ultimately, there cannot be peace without justice.

In Iraq, true commemoration of victims will require the government, as well as international stakeholders to take active steps toward addressing the individual and collective dimensions of harm caused by religion or belief-related violence. It will also require targeted efforts and commitment to ending the ongoing abuses experienced by religious and ethnic groups.

In 2021, Iraqi legislators and decision-makers achieved a great milestone in this process with the passing of the Yazidi Survivors Law (YSL), which promises long-awaited relief to survivors of ethnic and religious communities targeted by ISIS, specifically Yezidis, Christians, Turkmen and Shabak. The law is one of the few examples of legislation in the world to specifically address the rights and needs of conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV) survivors. It includes numerous specific provisions on reparations, such as financial support, land and housing, medical and psychosocial care, education, and a public sector employment quota.

Any law though, is only as effective as its implementation. One year on, the YSL has lacked sustained dedication. Victims of ISIS are yet to feel its impact. The Government of Iraq has enacted regulations to guide implementation, but significant commitment and effort is still needed to ensure that the process of justice, remedy, reparation, and accountability are effective and accessible. Most of all, in any transitional justice mechanisms for genocide and other mass atrocities, efforts need to centre around integrating survivor-friendly solutions.Delaying or failing to effectively implement the YSL law has only prolonged the struggle of victims and entire communities who, for almost a decade, have endured insecurity, instability, poverty, and psycho-social harm as they wait for justice.

A partnership of Iraqi civil society NGOs, the Coalition for Just Reparations (C4JR), took a leading role in advocating for the enactment of YSL, and are now pushing for Iraq and the international community to demonstrate a renewed commitment to supporting ISIS victims and survivors. On 15 August, the anniversary of the Kocho massacre, C4JR and the Yazidi Survivors Network published a Position Paper on a survivor-centred ISIS Accountability Mechanism in Iraq, proposing principles on which to base the long overdue ISIS criminal accountability mechanism. The paper lays out practical options on how justice mechanisms can be established in Iraq, and how the international community can support these proceedings.

Iraqi civil society recognizes the need for the ISIS accountability debate to advance beyond suggestions and toward practical solutions and action. It is time for powerholders to follow suit. This means taking imminent steps to incorporate international crimes within Iraq’s legal framework, implementing existing post-conflict recovery laws such as the YSL, and establishing an accountability mechanism that is in line with international standards to bring justice to survivors, victims, and their families.

Without honouring these commitments and responsibilities, the commemoration of victims in Iraq will remain equivalent to passive remembrance; well-intentioned but empty in effect.

Photo: A still from Where We Belong (2019), a film by DARST Projects , Manifest Media and Minority Rights Group International. A young man flies an Iraqi flag during a match among the Shabak teams in a football field near Bartella, in the Nineveh Plains.

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