America, Take a Stand for Yazidis | Opinion

Earlier this year, at the burial ceremony for more than 100 Yazidi victims of ISIS' massacre in my hometown of Kocho, Sinjar, Iraq, members of my community asked me to deliver a speech. I was mourning my brothers Masud and Basee and was overwhelmed by memories of the day they were senselessly murdered in 2014—the same day my sisters, nieces and I were taken captive to be sold into sexual slavery. I longed to focus solely on laying my brothers to rest, but I knew why my community asked me to speak.

Unlike international advocacy forums, my friends and neighbors in Kocho did not want me to repeat and relive my experience in ISIS captivity. My story is not exceptional in the Yazidi community. We are a small ethno-religious minority indigenous to northern Iraq that has historically been relegated to the margins of Iraqi society. ISIS exploited this vulnerability in an attempt to eradicate the Yazidi faith, along with other ethnic and religious minorities.

Nadia Murad speaking at the Kocho burial
Nadia Murad speaking at the Kocho burial ceremony on February 6, 2021. Faris Mishko/Nadia's Initiative

As a result of ISIS' genocide, everyone in my community lost homes, relatives and freedoms. In fact, I am considered relatively fortunate to have been able to bury my brothers. Thousands of families have loved ones who are still missing in captivity or remain unexhumed in mass graves. They may never receive the closure of an honorable burial.

On the day of the ceremony, my community needed to hear that Yazidis will receive justice. They needed to know that the countless other mass graves throughout Sinjar will be exhumed before it is too late, the 2,800 women and children missing in captivity will be rescued and ISIS criminals will be tried in courts of law.

I addressed the crowd of mourners and spoke about continuing the fight for justice. However, I was acutely aware that it was not me who needed to deliver this promise for justice. The Yazidi community needs a commitment from national and international authorities who have the power to act—the same entities that laud human rights principles yet shy away from action when called upon to defend them.

In May, I took my community's plea for justice to the United Nations Security Council where the Investigative Team to Promote Accountability for Crimes Committed by Da'esh/ISIL (UNITAD) presented "clear and convincing evidence that the crimes against the Yazidi people clearly constituted genocide."

I advocated back in 2017 with my friend and lawyer Amal Clooney for the creation of UNITAD, which has succeeded in collecting first-hand testimonies, forensic evidence and ISIS records. But as Clooney said to U.N. member states, "the investigation was always meant to be the beginning and not the end."

With evidence documented according to international standards, all that is left to find is the political will to prosecute. I fear that Yazidis will only receive empty promises. Survivors have risked shame and stigma to share their experiences of sexual violence in the hopes that authorities will hold their abusers accountable. Survivors like me relive our trauma not simply for personal justice but because we believe that accountability will prevent militants from continuing to use sexual violence as a weapon of war. Despite countless U.N. hearings, the international community has neglected to establish a clear plan for legal proceedings.

Justice is more than an abstract legal principle. It tangibly affects our everyday lives. The approaching anniversary of the Yazidi genocide on August 3 will mark the seventh year since ISIS systematically attacked the Yazidi community in Iraq. To be perfectly clear, this is the seventh year since the genocide began. It will not end until all Yazidis are able to live in a safe and dignified environment.

Yazidi lives were destroyed in 2014 because the governments of Iraq and the Kurdistan region, along with the international community, neglected their responsibility to protect the vulnerable. ISIS' intention to commit genocide against Yazidis could not have been clearer. My community's cries for help could not have been more urgent. Despite this, no one came to our aid.

Every year, on the genocide's anniversary, Yazidis feel this abandonment anew. Every new day a Yazidi woman endures sexual slavery, a child is unable return to school, and a family cannot earn an income, we are reminded of what was taken from us and what little has been done to restore it.

Almost seven years later, my community is still left in limbo without the resources to rebuild their homes, hospitals, farms and schools in Sinjar. Unlike many other displaced populations around the world, Yazidis have a feasible opportunity to return home and rebuild. This requires investment in Sinjar's basic services and infrastructure, improvement of the region's security and local governance and the inclusion of survivors at every step along the way. We deserve nothing less.

Condemning ISIS perpetrators for crimes of genocide and sexual violence with the full force of the law is crucial to my community's ability to heal, rebuild and safeguard against further persecution. Violence is repeated when impunity is accepted. Yazidis have endured cycles of marginalization, persecution and violence for centuries. The perpetrators always walk free. To break this cycle, courts must send the message that violating our rights is unacceptable.

Nadia Murad speaking
Nadia Murad at the U.N. Security Council Arria-Formula Meeting on delivering accountability for ISIS crimes. U.N. Web TV

Legislation establishing special courts for prosecuting ISIS has recently been introduced in both the Iraqi national and Kurdistan regional governments. For these courts to meaningfully contribute to justice and reconciliation, perpetrators must be tried for genocide and sexual violence, which address the gravity of their crimes more appropriately than counts of terrorism. The Yazidi community's faith in the legal process hinges on the inclusion of survivors and oversight from international judges. Without multilateral pressure, this new legislation is likely to gather dust amid the pile of agreements meant to improve Sinjar's security and governance but never truly implemented.

The new Biden administration has the opportunity to lead the decisive next steps on the path to justice. If the U.S. wants to stabilize the region and sustainably assist the communities it promised to protect, it will employ its unique diplomatic power to resolve the political discord impeding justice and reconciliation. If the administration wants to show true global leadership on human rights, it will support prosecutions of genocide and sexual violence at national and international levels. If Americans want to protect religious freedom globally, they will take a stand for Yazidis.

Nadia Murad is Yazidi human rights activist and 2018 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate who advocates for survivors of sexual violence and genocide. She is a UNODC Goodwill Ambassador and founder of Nadia's Initiative.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.