“Peace Through Justice”, reads the emblem of the International Criminal Court. It is a noble claim, but evidence suggests that international mechanisms of justice do not prevent war, or deter genocide. The liberators of the Nazi concentration camps thought it unimaginable that another genocide to occur a few decades later. Yet just thirty years later, the Cambodian genocide took place and ten years after that, Saddam Hussein’s genocide against the Kurds of Iraq began. Years later genocides took place in Rwanda and Bosnia and twenty years after these atrocities, Daesh terrorists swept through the Kurdistan Region of Iraq and committed out genocide against the Yazidis.
Such outrages spawn parliamentary motions, speeches and UN resolutions and righteous op-eds like this one. Watching the cycle is like being in Groundhog Day. The crimes happen: there is no adequate international military response while they are happening. After the genocide, there are calls for justice for the victims, largely in the form of prosecution of the perpetrators.
An event in Parliament this week about the Daesh genocide against the Yazidis showed that the quest for justice is beset with difficulty, that it does not deter future violence and can mask the abject failure to prevent atrocities in the first place.
The meeting, held by All-Party Parliamentary Group for Kurdistan, Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) High Representative to the UK, the Conservative Middle East Council and the University of Bolton’s Centre for Opposition Studies, heard KRG politicians, a German academic and a Kurdish NGO expert discuss ‘accountability, justice and genocide recognition in the framework of international law regarding Daesh’s crimes against the Yazidis in Iraq’.
H.E. Mahmood Haji Salih, KRG Minister for Martyrs and Anfal Affairs, pointed out that Daesh’s barbaric actions against the Yazidis in Kurdistan – mass killing of civilians, separation of women from men to prevent them conceiving Yazidi children, forcing women to become sex slaves and the razing temples and villages – clearly met the legal definition of genocide.
As for justice and accountability, the Minister documented that, in addition to the Kurdish Peshmerga having bravely fought Daesh and protected the Yazidis, the KRG has established a High Committee for the Recognition of Crimes against Yazidis and their Kurdish Minorities, which has in turn launched a Commission to investigate the crimes. 5,000 cases have been prepared, 2,000 of which are ready to be prosecuted. It should be remembered that 6,500 Yazidis were taken by Daesh, with 3,117 still missing.
In addition to their swift domestic action, the KRG want to internationalise the process, both to bolster operational effectiveness by leveraging international investigative and legal expertise, and to reflect the gravity of crimes which directly affected Yazidis and Kurds but indirectly offend the conscience of humanity.
Given the mixed record of international legal action in cases of genocide, it was unsurprising to hear from the Minister that the International Criminal Court declined the KRG’s request for help due to Iraq proper not being a signatory to the Rome Statute that created the ICC. The minister set out that the options facing the KRG are asking Iraq to join the ICC, to seek the establishment of a special international tribunal as happened for Rwanda, or a local tribunal.
The KRG’s well-led diplomatic work in London and Washington appears to have borne fruit. KRG High Representative to the UK, Karwan Jamil Tahir, explained that the UK were the main co-sponsors of the September 2017 UN Security Council Resolution 2379 which created an independent Investigative Team headed by a Special Adviser, to support domestic efforts to hold Daesh accountable for Its actions in Iraq by including collecting evidence of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide committed by Daesh. The Special Adviser of the Investigative Team, Karim Khan QC, is British and has commenced work.
However, the KRG High Representative cautioned that the UN is moving very slowly and this will result in both the loss of key evidence and also damage the process of reconciliation, indicating that more should be done. The international community’s record on justice does not offer the KRG much hope.
Prosecutions normally occur many years, or decades after the crimes, and see a tiny number of perpetrators successfully prosecuted, relative to scale of the atrocities and the number of people who must have been involved. In Rwanda, only 93 people have been indicted, of whom only 62 have been convicted by the ICT, for a genocide which killed one million. Regarding former Yugoslavia, the figures are similar, with 90 people sentenced of the 161 tried. The evidence from Iraq would suggest that Daesh fighters were not deterred by the prospect of perhaps 0.1% of their number being arraigned before an international court, 10 or 20 years after their actions.
Such international criminal tribunals are necessary, but they are not sufficient. They are the epitome of the stuttering, weak and inadequate collective reaction that humans of good conscience take in the fact of abject evil committed against defenceless men, women and children because of their ethnicity.
The meeting heard a powerful speech by Sherri Kraham Talabany, the President of SEED, a Kurdistan-based charity promoting development and humanitarian assistance in Iraqi Kurdistan, painted the broader picture about the multi-faceted support – far beyond international or domestic justice and accountability – that is required to heal the immense damage done to individuals, families, communities, the economy and society due to the genocide by Daesh against the Yazidis and their malevolent effect throughout the Kurdistan region and wider Iraq.
Talabany set out the impressive work of SEED to help victims deal with past trauma and protect them from the risk of future abuse. She set out that it is not just about money; rather that deep-set societal problems must be addressed such as sectarianism, weak rule of law, disenfranchisement and violence that permeates social structures, particularly affecting women.
So the prioritisation of justice and accountability is a totally inadequate response. It is in inverse proportionality to the severity of the crimes. What counts is long-term investment in the societies at risk of or recovering from genocide. What is also needed is robust military action to prevent genocide. This is not a lost cause. The Kurdistan Region of Iraq epitomises what can be achieved given that the US/UK no fly zone curtailed Saddam’s genocide against the Kurds. In Yugoslavia, a few weeks of NATO bombing ended the conflict and prevented ethnic cleansing in Kosovo. Let us not forget that President Clinton’s biggest regret in office was not deploying armed forces to prevent the Rwandan genocide, which he has admitted could have saved 300,000 lives.
The Secretary of the Kurdistan APPG, Gary Kent, spoke of the 15 delegations to Kurdistan made by the APPG which have shown that despite the many internal and external challenges and threats they face, the Kurds have built a functioning, if imperfect secular democracy that protects minorities, is tolerant, welcomes the outside world and has bravely taken on Daesh. He concluded the meeting with a reminder that the KRG deserves more support from the UK and the international community because this can have a multiplier effect in a troubled region.
Achieving domestic or international justice for victims of genocide is fraught with difficulty and does not deter future atrocities. It must not be allowed to become the post-factum card played by the international community to assuage its guilt about its inability or unwillingness to take robust action to prevent the genocide in the first place. The Kurds are right to seek help on justice and accountability, but in order to prevent future genocides there, or elsewhere in the world, world powers must do far more to bolster the societal, economic and political reforms that are needed.