CLE Examines how Yazidi Women Were Raped, Then Ostracized
Thousands of Yazidi women who were forced into sex slavery when the Islamic State invaded Sinjar Iraq are unable to return to their former community because the children they had by their captors are unwelcome. Over three thousand women kidnapped by IS are still missing. While the Iraq government and the international community have taken some steps to address the plight of these Yazidi mothers, it’s unclear how they can be effective when the Yazidi community and spiritual leaders have ostracized the children conceived by rape from their community.
The plight of these mothers who were victims of rape and violence and who now mostly live in refugee camps around the world was the topic of the CLE, “The Yazidi Genocide: Aftermath for The Yazidi Women,” sponsored by The New York State Bar Association’s International Section, Committee on Continuing Legal Education, and Women in Law Section.
Professor David Crane, founding chief prosecutor of the International War Crimes Tribunal for West Africa and founder of the Syrian Accountability Project, set the stage by noting that while the Iraqi government passed a law this March recognizing the genocide and aiding female survivors, the law hasn’t changed the cultural stigma surrounding the children produced by rape.
The Yazidi Spiritual Council announced in April 2019 that the women taken by IS would be welcomed home but their children conceived by rape by Muslim men would not be. They cited a Yazidi tradition that does not recognize the union of a Yazidi and a non-Yazidi.
“We can call out Iraq and internationally do what we can but because of the many cultures in Iraq and around the region, the Yazidi people really have been kind of left on their own and their decision is hugely problematic,” said Crane. “We would like for them to use the rule of law, to ensure their safety to allow them to live their lives with their children, but frankly I’m not confident that that’s going to happen.”
Professor James Johnson, who served as senior trial attorney for the Office of the Prosecutor at the Special Court for Sierra Leone in 2003 and was named Chief of Prosecutions in 2006, drew from his experience there to question how effective government entities can be in addressing the Yazidi crisis. He noted that in his experience reparations in Sierra Leone were so small, sometimes amounting to no more than $70 or $80 per person, that they were ineffective and only served to allow governments to “pat themselves on the back.”
Johnson said the focus should be on “looking at long-term support for victims of these conflicts.” That kind of support could include counseling, job training, job placement, financial assistance and help finding not only a physical home but a community where they would be welcomed.
Professor Milena Sterio, director of the domestic and international LL.M. program at Cleveland-Marshall College of Law, said that an Iraqi law passed in March of this year classifying victims of the genocide and promising support should be expanded to include the children of rape. Further, she said that Iraq could change a law that classifies a child born to one Muslim parent as Muslim.
She agreed with Johnson that reparations should come in the form of long-term aid, but any programs should take a “first do no harm” approach to make sure survivors are not retraumatized.
She also noted that thousands of Yazidi survivors are now found outside of Iraq and that any reparations program should be designed to benefit them too. Finally, Sterio noted that as a member of a number of international human rights treaties Iraq could integrate those treaties into their laws so that rights holders could use the court system to seek justice for discrimination and harm.
Crane said that as important as the law and government support will be to the process of supporting Yazidi survivors, the cultural arena is where much of the work will have to take place. “When I was chief prosecutor in West Africa I learned to ask ,“Is the justice we seek the justice they want? I think this is a critical question because we tend to see western law as everything. We come in with a set of norms which many people around the world don’t ascribe to.”
Recognizing that simply pushing for the acceptance of Western norms could be damaging is critical according to Crane. “I think it’s necessary for us to be humble enough.to understand that we don’t have all the answers.” He said that the pervasive treatment of women as “less than” men need to be addressed for progress to be made. “I think at the end of the day, this is where the crux of this whole thing is going to be solved.”
Moderator Christopher Martz, managing editor of the Journal of Global Rights, cited an Amnesty International study showing over 2,000 Yazidi women face mental and physical health crises and asked what can be done to help them.
Along with the long-term support services he mentioned earlier, Johnson said that bringing the perpetrators to justice can help victims cope and improve their mental health. He noted that in the absence of an international effort to bring IS members to justice, individual countries like Germany and Iraq have tried perpetrators found within their borders.
“Bringing those perpetrators to account for their crime does in some ways bring some resolution or closure to victims of crimes when they can see those responsible for those rapes, responsible for the sexual slavery, responsible for the forced marriages, seeing they are brought to justice is a significant piece.”
Crane said that one critical piece of the healing process is the ability of victims to ‘“tell their stories, to write their stories, to quantify their stories. That is a healing mechanism by which they can make attempts to move on in the future.”
And telling those stories is also a way by which lawyers can effect change and help secure justice for the Yazidi women according to Sterio.
”As lawyers we can raise awareness about this issue by writing about it, by taking part as an author in a white paper, by speaking at conferences. That is all a part of raising awareness about this tissue and really pushing it to the forefront of the international community’s agenda.”