In August 2023 the UK Government formally acknowledged the atrocities committed against the Yazidi people by Islamic State/Daesh (hereafter IS) in Iraq in 2014 as an act of genocide.

The UK recognises four other genocides: the Holocaust, and those in Cambodia, Srebrenica, and Rwanda.

The UK decision follows a German federal court of justice ruling against an IS member for genocide in January 2023. This confirmed a lower court judgment in 2021 which was the first ever conviction of an IS member for genocide.

This Insight sets out the treatment and position of the Yazidi people in Iraq and the UK’s policy on acknowledging genocide.

The Yazidi genocide in 2014

The Yazidis are a religious minority group, primarily residing in northern Iraq.

In the summer of 2014, IS groups advanced through Iraq’s northern Sinjar province. The UN reported that upon their arrival:

  • Yazidi men and boys over twelve were separated from women and girls. IS groups 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 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 Yazidis were killed and 7,000 girls and women were forced into sex slavery. Up to 81 mass-graves in Sinjar have also been identified.

Current situation for the Yazidis in Iraq

IS holds little territory. However, in 2021 the UN estimated 200,000 Yazidis remained displaced from their homes and 2,800 women and children were in IS captivity.

Iraq’s Government states that IS actions against Yazidis, Turkmens, Shabaks, and Christians constitute genocide.

In March 2021, the Iraqi Parliament voted for the Yazidi female survivor’s law. This introduced a system of reparations for survivors. However, Human Rights Watch, a non-government campaigns and investigations group, has warned the law is not being fully implemented.

The UK Government has supported the law’s implementation and has also funded care for women and girls from minority groups who have survived sexual violence in conflict in Iraq.

Accountability for IS crimes

The UN Investigative Team to Promote Accountability For Crimes Committed By Da’esh/Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (UNITAD) has identified 2,286 alleged perpetrators of the genocide, including 188 foreign fighters.

UNITAD has supported prosecutions in Germany, including the case which led to the January 2023 federal court ruling on genocide.

As of 2023, the UK has provided £2 million in funding to support UNITAD.

Separately, UK courts have convicted 32 people who had travelled to Syria and/or Iraq as IS fighters for terrorism offences.

When does the UK recognise genocide?

Genocide is defined in the 1948 genocide convention (PDF) and refers to acts committed to destroy a national, ethical, racial or religious group by:

  • killing members of the group
  • causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group
  • deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part
  • imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group, or
  • forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

Each state has its own process for acknowledging genocide.

The UK Government says its position on acknowledging genocide: “has always been that determinations of genocide should be made by competent courts, rather than by governments or non-judicial bodies [such as parliament].”

The UK Government recognises only the four actions mentioned above as constituting genocide, in addition to that against the Yazidis.

The Government has stressed its approach does not limit it from taking action against perpetrators and from condemning human rights abuses and other violations.

The House of Commons has resolved that several other actions constitute genocide, including:

The House has also considered the treatment of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire in 1915 to 1916 in a debate in 2015.

The role of courts in UK Government decisions to acknowledge genocide

For the UK Government, ‘competent courts’ include international courts, such as the International Criminal Court and the International Court of Justice, and national criminal courts that meet international standards of due process.

In the 2015 Commons debate on the treatment of the Armenians, Foreign and Commonwealth Office Minister David Lidington also stressed the 1948 UN Convention on Genocide does not apply retrospectively. The Holocaust predated the Convention but is recognised because it is considered to be a “direct catalyst” for the Convention (PDF).

In 2013, during a debate on the actions against the Iraqi Kurds, Foreign Office Minister Alistair Burt told the Commons that international court rulings “often plays an important part” in whether the UK recognises an act as genocide. He did not elaborate on what other factors might be considered.

The Government has faced pressure to amend its approach from both the Lords and Commons, in addition to the Foreign Affairs Committee.

Among the criticisms raised are that states accused of genocide may be one of forty countries that are not members of the International Criminal Court (meaning they are not subject to its jurisdiction), that a referral to the court for non-member states could be blocked by a veto of a UN Security Council member, and that the opportunity to recognise genocides when they are ongoing is missed.

Before the Government’s decision in August 2023, two regional German courts, in 2021 and 2022, had ruled IS had committed genocide. Some MPs called for the Government to recognise a genocide following the rulings.

The Government defends its position as one which ensures genocide determinations “are above politics, above lobbying, and above individual political or national interest” and means its references to genocide are “harder to dismiss by those responsible for genocidal acts.”

Further reading

About the author: Philip Loft is a researcher in the House of Commons Library, specialising in the Middle East.

Photo by Levi Meir Clancy on Unsplash

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