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The Yazidis are a religious minority, primarily residing in northern Iraq. In August 2014, they were attacked by Islamic State (IS), who then controlled significant amounts of territory in Iraq and Syria. In addition to attacks against the Yazidis, IS also targeted Christians, Turkmen, Shabaks, and other minorities.

In 2016 a UN human rights panel and the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, described IS actions against the Yazidis as constituting genocide. A further UN investigative team in 2021 concluded there was “clear and convincing evidence” of genocide against the group. The UK Government has condemned the atrocities, but has a long-standing policy that any determination of genocide is one for competent courts (opens PDF), rather than governments.

What happened in 2014?

In the summer of 2014, IS militants advanced through Iraq’s northern Sinjar province, where many Yazidis live. The UN reports that upon the arrival of IS in August 2014:

  • Yazidi men and boys over twelve were separated from women and girls. IS executed men and older boys who refused to convert to Islam.
  • Yazidi women and children were forcibly moved to holding sites. In one case, women aged over 60 were executed.
  • Women and girls were also sold as slaves, and subject to sexual violence.

The total number of Yazidis captured, killed and missing is uncertain. In 2017, the UN estimated more than 5,000 were killed and 7,000 girls and women were forced into sex slavery.

Current situation for Yazidis

While IS has lost almost all its territory, its occupation has left a legacy.

In 2021, an estimated 200,000 Yazidis remained displaced from their homes, and 2,800 women and children were estimated to still be in IS captivity.

Amnesty International report that many Yazidi children continue to face mental and physical health problems and experience difficulties in re-enrolling in school after missing several years of education.

In March 2021, the Iraqi Parliament voted for the Yazidi female survivor’s law. This introduced a system of reparations for female survivors of IS campaigns who were subject to sexual violence and other forms of abuse.

The UK Government has supported implementation of the law and is also funding psycho-social care for female minority survivors of conflict-related sexual violence.

Recognising a genocide: UK Government position

One international definition of genocide is that of the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.

The UK Government has been encouraged to state that a genocide took place against the Yazidis. In 2016, the House of Commons divided 278 to 0 that IS was committing genocide against Christians, Yazidis, and other ethnic and religious minorities in Iraq and Syria.

The UK Government’s long-standing policy is that any determination of genocide is one for competent courts (opens PDF), rather than governments or non-judicial bodies. “Competent courts” include the International Criminal Court (ICC), the International Court of Justice (ICJ), and national criminal courts that meet international standards of due process.

How could IS fighters be tried?

The ICC has jurisdiction over genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. However, neither Syria or Iraq are subject to the jurisdiction of the ICC, as they are not parties to the Rome Statute (the ICC’s founding treaty). It is possible for the UN Security Council to refer cases directly to the ICC, but examples of this are rare. Individuals may also be tried by the ICC if they are the national of a state which is party to the court.

Some European states have considered establishing an international tribunal to try IS fighters, but the suggestion has not made progress. 

The UK Government hopes that IS fighters are tried in the most appropriate jurisdiction, which “is often” the region where the offences were committed. It has provided support to Kurdish and Iraqi authorities to help improve their judicial systems.

First IS member found guilty of genocide in Germany, 2021

The UN Investigative Team to Promote Accountability for Crimes Committed by Da’esh/Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (Unitad) works to prepare evidence to support national authorities’ efforts to prosecute IS members. In May 2021, it said it had identified 1,444 potential perpetrators (opens PDF) of attacks against the Yazidis.

The UK Government has provided £2 million in funding to support Unitad’s work.

Unitad has worked with German prosecutors who, in 2021, oversaw the world’s first conviction of an IS member for genocide against the Yazidis. In November, a German court found an Iraqi member of IS, Taha al-Jumailly, guilty of genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and human trafficking. He was sentenced to life imprisonment.

Originally arrested in Greece, he was extradited to Germany and prosecuted under the international principle of universal jurisdiction. This allows countries that recognise the principle to prosecute crimes that occurred beyond their country’s borders, regardless of the perpetrator’s nationality.

In response to a PQ that asked what assessment the UK Government had made of its use of universal jurisdiction to prosecute crimes of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity, the Government said in February 2022 that:

The Counter Terrorism Division within the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) is responsible for prosecuting core international crimes (genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes) and applies the principle of universal jurisdiction when necessary.

Universal jurisdiction helps to ensure that the UK does not provide a safe haven for war criminals or those who commit other serious violations of international law, and the CPS will continue to bring individuals to justice wherever possible. Any decision to prosecute offences of universal jurisdiction in England and Wales is governed by the same principles that apply to any other prosecution and must be in accordance with the Code for Crown Prosecutors.

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