The Situation of Minorities in Iraq after ISIS
On 12 May 2018, for the first time after the defeat of ISIS and the Kurdish referendum of 2017, parliamentary elections were held in Iraq. The vote was marked by internal disjunction along sectarian lines, as reflected in the prevalent constellation of three fractions, namely Sunnis, Shias and Kurds. It remains to be seen how the outcome of this vote in post-ISIS Iraq will impact the situation of the country’s Kurdish, Turkmen, Assyrian and Yazidi minorities, who have been victims of sexual violence and other serious human rights abuses. It has become more than apparent that in any scenario of national reconciliation, national minorities have to be included in political discussions and have to be granted their human rights.
In December 2017, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced that, after three years, the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (ISIS) had been defeated in Iraq: “Our heroic armed forces have now secured the entire length of the Iraq-Syria border. We defeated Daesh [ISIS] through our unity and sacrifice for the nation. Long live Iraq and its people". This forward-looking optimism is more than necessary in a post-ISIS Iraq that has been ravaged by years of violence and destruction. At the same time, however, such confidence might seem ironic, given the country’s widespread devastation and its people’s suffering. After all, figures released in 2017 paint a gruesome picture: the most recent cycle of violence and warfare caused by ISIS caused 71,611 civilian casualties and displaced around 441,000 people.
This humanitarian crisis has disproportionately affected Iraq’s most vulnerable people, subjecting minorities, such as the Assyrians, Iraqi Turkmen and Yazidis to gross human rights violations and abuse. In order to better understand the post-ISIS ordeal these minorities have to endure, basic understanding of their cause and identity seems essential.
The Assyrians in Iraq are Christians and therefore represent an ethno-religious minority. Because of their religious belief, they had been subjected to violence and intimidation already before the arrival of ISIS. Between the US-led invasion in 2003 and the years prior to the Iraqi civil war, the majority of approximately 1.4 million Christians in Iraq had already fled their ancestral homelands, following political instability and religious persecution, leaving only 350.000 Christians in the region. The majority of Iraq’s Christian population belongs to the branch of Syriac Christianity, whose followers are mostly Assyrians.
The Yazidis, or Êzîdî, are an indigenous people living in the ancient Mesopotamia region, which partly overlaps with present-day Northern Iraq. Their religion, Yazidism, is one of the oldest religions in the world, predating the Abrahamic religions. Its followers have been subjected to persecution and killings, accused of worshiping the ‘devil’. Yazidis speak Kurmanji, a variety of Kurdish. Of the once 700.000 Yazidis residing in Iraq in 2005, today only approximately 500.000 still live in the area. In the post-ISIS era of Iraq, many members of the community are still displaced or enslaved. In August 2014, around 3,100 Yazidis were killed in the Mount Sinjar area while 6,800 were kidnapped to become sex slaves or fighters.
The third largest minority in Iraq are the Iraqi Turkmen, with estimates ranging from half a million to as many as 2-3 million people. The majority are Shi’a or Sunni Muslims, while a small minority of around 30,000 are Christians. Along with Kurds and Assyrians, many Iraqi Turkmen were forcefully displaced from their region to make space for Arab communities residing in the area as part of the Ba’athist Arabization campaign initiated in the mid-1970s. Shi’a Turkmen women have been subject to sexual abuse and killings executed by ISIS in the district of Tal Afar.
For minorities, the repercussions of the Iraqi civil war, the ensuing security vacuum and the havoc caused by ISIS range from civilian casualties, gross human rights abuses, abductions and arbitrary punishments to the use of chemical weapons, displacement and the destruction of cultural heritage. The number of internally displaced persons exceeds the 2 million mark. A large number of these people belong to minority groups, including Assyrians, Yazidi, as well as Turkmen. Since the start of the Mosul offensives in May 2016 alone, over 441,000 people have been uprooted from their homes, of which only 105,000 have returned. During some of these attacks ISIS used chlorine gas. Hundreds of cases of abductions have been reported with female abductees being forced to become sex slaves for ISIS members, while young boys have been brainwashed with ISIS propaganda.
Even with ISIS largely out of the picture, the present situation is deeply complex, which makes the alleviation and improvement of the life circumstances of minorities in post-ISIS Iraq a daunting task. Safety and security in the aftermath of the conflict are paramount. Only after a thorough assessment of the individual communities’ needs, action can be taken in order to accurately target their needs. In order for Iraq’s minorities to be able to rebuild their communities in the post-ISIS landscape, there has to be assistance in establishing secure areas, so that displaced minorities can return to their original homelands in the first place. In addition, these efforts have to include the (re-)construction of infrastructure, the mediation of local disputes between tribes, militias and the returning population and the delivery of reconstruction packages, providing basic equipment such as windows and doors. On a humanitarian level, internally displaced people should be given access to identity documents, while psychological assistance should be made available to traumatized victims. Finally, to prevent future abuses and ensure minorities’ safety and protection going forward, the much-needed national reconciliation process has to include ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities. In the long-run, it is crucial to investigate violations of international humanitarian law and hold perpetrators of war crimes responsible.
While members of minorities in post-ISIS Iraq are facing enormous challenges, these vulnerable communities are part of what makes Iraq such a unique place. Both national and international actors have to take decisive and sincere action, for minorities’ extermination from the melting pot that is Iraq would be a tragic loss not only for the country but for mankind.