On August 3, 2014, ISIS began a systematic campaign of atrocities against the Yezidi community of Iraq’s Sinjar province, killing thousands of men and abducting thousands of women and children into slavery. The crimes have been recognized as genocide by the United Nations, the European Union, the United States, Canada, France, Armenia, Iraq, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, and, most recently, the United Kingdom.
Yet nine years later, Yezidi communities have seen little concrete action from the governments and global institutions that acknowledge their suffering. For those Yezidis that have returned to their homes in Sinjar, an adequate standard of living and basic physical security are almost completely out of reach. Hundreds of thousands more cannot return at all. To many observers, the pattern of discrimination against and dehumanization of Yezidis that existed long before the 2014 genocide—and likely facilitated ISIS atrocities—appears to be at play again.
In this context, recent Yezidi-led initiatives have demanded that governments and international institutions take tangible steps to address the fundamental needs of their community. Support for efforts like these should be part of a comprehensive regional strategy to build stability and prevent atrocities.
On July 27, a coalition of civil society organizations, community leaders, and intellectuals launched a joint initiative calling on the Iraqi government to allocate $1.5 billion—just one percent of the most recent Iraqi federal budget— to a specialized Sinjar reconstruction fund within the next year.
Pari Ibrahim is the founder and Executive Director of the Free Yezidi Foundation, which spearheaded the campaign. “Iraq has been blessed with abundant natural resources. The budget in 2023 is an impressive $153 billion. Yet Yezidis remain homeless, living in tents for 9 years. It is outrageous,” she told the Kurdish Peace Institute.
“Literally 1% of one year of the Iraqi budget would be enough to rebuild Sinjar. We call upon the Iraqi Government to allocate this budget by August 3rd, 2024,” Ibrahim said.
The organizations supporting the initiative identified the structural marginalization of Yezidis in Iraqi politics as one likely cause of the government’s inaction.
“The larger communities in Iraq are better equipped to advocate for their share of funding in the Iraqi Parliament due to greater representation and political power…Sinjar district’s reconstruction should have been prioritized at least as much as other districts, if not more. Instead, because the community has lacked political clout, Sinjar and its residents have been forgotten,” their joint statement said.
As they struggle to rebuild what ISIS destroyed, Yezidis have been forced to deal with a new military threat: Turkey. Every year since 2017, Turkey has carried out airstrikes and drone strikes against Yezidis in Sinjar. It claims to target the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)—which, along with the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), intervened in the area in August 2014 to fight ISIS and rescue Yezidi IDPs trapped on Sinjar mountain.
In reality, Turkey has assassinated Yezidi community leaders and members of the Sinjar Resistance Units (YBS), a local armed group made up of Iraqi Yezidi genocide survivors that was established to fight ISIS and that has never targeted Turkey. A 2021 dataset published by The New Statesman found that 60% of the attacks harmed civilians.
Dr. Leyla Ferman, director of the Yezidi NGO Women for Justice, told the Kurdish Peace Institute that Turkish strikes exacerbate existing challenges to reconstruction and IDP returns.
“Who will—and who can—go back to an area where they are not sure if they will be targeted, or if they will be killed because people or buildings close by are targeted?” she asked.
“These airstrikes are carried out by day and by night. No one knows what or who will be targeted next. Without any security, people cannot go back to Sinjar. And how can you support rebuilding projects when you are not sure that Turkey will not target these buildings?”
Despite years of outcry from Yezidi communities, the Iraqi government, the Kurdistan Regional Government, and the international community have largely turned a blind eye to Turkey’s aggressive behavior.
Many Yezidis and international observers alike attribute this lack of protection to the same political marginalization that is slowing the pace of Sinjar’s reconstruction.
“What is especially worrying has been the silence from Baghdad and Erbil in the aftermath of the Turkish airstrikes in Sinjar – airstrikes that targeted and killed Yezidis who are Iraqi citizens and defended Sinjar against ISIS. One cannot help but suspect that part of the Sinjar Agreement may have included a green light for Turkey to conduct airstrikes in Sinjar, which we and the entire Yezidi community wholeheartedly reject. This is part of a pattern of exclusion from decision-making that has plagued minorities in our part of the world for many years,” Pari Ibrahim warned in a 2022 speech to the U.N. Human Rights Council.
Dr. Amy Austin Homes, who created the first-ever dataset tracking Turkish strikes in Sinjar in August 2021, told the Kurdish Peace Institute that the Sinjar Agreement “should have been called the ‘Erbil-Baghdad Agreement’ because there was no meaningful consultation or inclusion of local Sinjaris or Yezidis in the diaspora.”
“This only further alienated an already traumatized community. The only way for the Yezidi community to recover is to fully include them in decision-making processes about Sinjar, and to provide the resources they need to rebuild,” she said.
Yet despite these obstacles, Turkey’s impunity for strikes in Sinjar may not last for long. On July 31, Women for Justice and the Accountability Unit, a U.K. based human rights NGO, brought a formal complaint before the U.N. Human Rights Committee regarding Turkish airstrikes that allegedly targeted a hospital in the village of Sikeniye in August 2021, killing and injuring several Yezidi civilians.
“The complainants’ case is that Türkiye conducted the airstrikes against Sikeniye Medical Clinic, that resulted in the killing and serious injury to civilians, in violation of their right to life under international law, as guaranteed by Article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights 1966 (ICCPR),” stated an Accountability Unit press release on the case.
“Further, Türkiye failed to investigate the killing of civilians resulting from the airstrikes, and failed to provide victims with effective remedies, constituting a violation of their rights to a prompt, independent and effective investigation, and to effective remedy, as guaranteed by Articles 2 and 6, ICCPR,” it continued.
Since abandoning peace talks with the PKK in 2015, Turkey has carried out a series of ever-escalating ground and air operations ostensibly targeting Kurdish groups in Iraq and Syria. These operations have killed and injured thousands of civilians and displaced hundreds of thousands. Many more live in constant fear of indiscriminate Turkish strikes and extremist militia violence. Ethnic and religious minorities like Kurds, Yezidis, and Syriac-Assyrians have suffered the most. If this case is successful, it will mark the first time that Turkey has been held accountable for these violations—opening a path for other victims.
Dr. Ferman believes that this is just the beginning. She called for a no-fly zone for Sinjar—a demand put forward by Yezidi NGOs and activists as well as the Sinjar Democratic Autonomous Administration, a local governing body affiliated with the YBS—and an end to military support for Turkey until it ceases its targeting of genocide survivors. She also urged other communities impacted by Turkish operations in Iraq and Syria to take legal action: “This complaint is not the only tool for justice. There is a lot of work still to do to reach international courts.”
Ultimately, Turkey’s cross-border attacks are also the symptom of deeper political and social problems. “If Turkey could become a strong democracy, they would find solutions to the Kurdish question, and would also have a different regional policy,” Dr. Ferman said. In Turkey, as in Iraq, the marginalization of minority communities has led to instability and human suffering on a massive scale.
These dynamics prove that, in order to promote stability and guarantee that atrocities like those committed by ISIS are not repeated, pluralist, democratic, inclusive governance is not an afterthought—it is a non-negotiable. Communities in the region that have been marginalized and disempowered in the past should have the greatest possible degree of control over their political destiny.
In Sinjar, states that have recognized the genocide have a particular moral obligation to act. These states should immediately support specific Yezidi demands for action, including recent calls to fund reconstruction and hold Turkey accountable for attacks.
In the long term, they should offer impartial support for a locally-driven agreement on the status of Sinjar that—unlike the existing Sinjar Agreement—helps the community build political power and security capabilities on its own terms, does not pick and choose which Yezidi groups to include and which foreign powers to exclude, and does not require any Yezidi group to disarm.
A strategic shift is also necessary at the regional level. Governments should address the interlocking conflicts in Turkey, Iraq and Syria—including Turkey’s Kurdish conflict and the status of Syria’s northeast—from a nuanced perspective that tackles the root causes of violence and insecurity. In the long term, political solutions based on principles of ethnic and religious pluralism and democratic governance will allow the millions impacted by recent conflicts to rebuild their lives, create conditions under which perpetrators can be held accountable, and prevent groups like ISIS from rising again.
(Photo: Alessandro Rota/Getty Images)