Iraqi Minorities: The Responsibility to Protect

Today’s guest post on the threats facing ethnic and religious minorities in Iraq—and steps the international community can take to protect these vulnerable groups—was written by Romsin McQuade, an undergraduate student at Temple University in Philadelphia. He has previously written about Iraq’s Assyrian community for The Telegraph UK and about his own identity as an Assyrian in a column for his university newspaper, The Temple News. As with all AIPR Blog guest posts, the views of the author do not necessarily reflect the views of AIPR.


Yazidis1They never saw it coming: After managing to survive al-Qaeda in Iraq’s decade long onslaught in the midst of the Iraq War, and the subsequent American exit, Iraq’s minorities thought the worst was over.

The Islamic State’s (IS) expansion from hubs in northeastern Syria to Mosul in Iraq has been particularly unfortunate; northern Iraq is the last stronghold – or, what remains– of Iraq’s minorities, which have been mercilessly targeted. IS’ message to minorities – such as Assyrians (the indigenous people of Iraq who speak Aramaic and belong to the Ancient Church of the East, Assyrian Church of the East, Syriac Orthodox Church, Chaldean Catholic Church, and the Syriac Catholic Church) and Yezidis (an ancient Kurdish-speaking religious minority synchronizing aspects of Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) – has been strikingly clear: convert, leave, or “face the sword.”  Dehumanized, threatened with their lives, and forced out of their homes, the possibility of genocide occurring in the cradle of civilization has never been more palpable.

While humanitarian aid has been pouring in from both the West and the Arab world, it is certainly not a sustainable measure. Just weeks ago, tens of thousands of Yezidis were stranded atop Mount Sinjar, northwest of Mosul, and were threatened with death if they descended from the mountain. U.S. airstrikes were essential in destabilizing IS bases and military vehicles surrounding the mountain; however, some Yezidis that were unable to flee to the Kurdistan region set out for nearby villages, such as Kojo, wherein Islamic State militants rounded up and executed over 80 Yezidi civilians.

Prime Minister-elect Haider al-Abadi has plans for a new government, but one of its key tests will be based upon whether the nascent Abadi government manages to form an inclusive government not only composed of the three major blocs: Sunni, Shiite, and Kurdish, but also of Assyrians, Yezidis, Shabaks, and Turkmen. It is imperative that concerns of minorities be respected, attended to, and properly addressed. Prior to the Islamic State’s Iraqi offensive – in fact, months before – the group operated in a relatively clandestine, yet uniquely violent, manner: Assyrians were being threatened to abandon their homes and leave Mosul or be killed. When Assyrians brought these cases to the attention of the local Nineveh Operations Command, a regional police, absolutely nothing was done.

Indeed, a special envoy should also be created for minority affairs, consisting of multiple representatives from the vulnerable Turkmen, Yezidi, Assyrian, and Shabak communities. All minorities must be guaranteed that their voices are heard. It must be noted, yet again, that they have been disproportionately devastated and persecuted by Islamic State militants; the Iraqi government must ensure their protection insofar as it can.

Along with a special envoy, Baghdad and Erbil must come to terms with the harrowing violence perpetrated towards the nation’s minorities and facilitate talks of inclusion and diversity. The Iraqi government must also seize this opportunity to educate citizens about the country’s minorities.  At the moment, normal Iraqi citizens – friends and neighbors of minorities – have been complacent and some have assisted Islamic State militants in attacking minorities. The sectarianism which led to the current conflict must be addressed, as should the fact that Assyrians and Yezids are just like any Iraqi. The international community must call upon Iraq to protect its minorities – perhaps a voice from the outside will amplify the severity of minority persecution.

If, however, the new government excludes minorities, the international community has the obligation to intervene. According to the third pillar of Responsibility to Protect (R2P) – a principle enshrined in the 2005 United Nations World Summit – “if a State is manifestly failing to protect its populations, the international community must be prepared to take collective action to protect populations.” And the state of Iraq has done just that. Iraq has allowed its indigenous people, Assyrians, to suffer unspeakable persecution and an exodus of over one million from 2003 to 2014. Iraq has also allowed its ancient Yezidi community to be rounded up and executed. It is quite evident that the state has been unable and unwilling to protect these minorities. The international community must therefore step in to stop a genocide from occurring in Iraq.

The international community must also recognize that Iraqi minorities do not feel as if they can trust anyone – neither the Iraqi Army, nor the Kurdish peshmerga forces, the former, which deserted them in Mosul, and the latter, which absconded from the Nineveh Plains and left them to suffer under Islamic State rule.

Another route – in what is perhaps the most viable and effective vehicle of prevention – is the creation of internationally protected safe haven in the Nineveh Plains region, which has traditionally been an escape for the country’s minorities. According to an August 25 statement released by the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination regarding Iraq, the committee “urges the Secretary-General of the United Nations  to submit to the Security Council the suggestion to set up a UN peace force as a temporary emergency measure, in order to create a safe zone in the plain of Nineveh, enabling the free return of the displaced persons and the protection of the communities traditionally living in the area.”

no-fly-zoneAnd the precedent has already been established: In 1991, no-fly zones were proclaimed in parts of northern Iraq to protect the Kurds from Saddam Hussein’s brutality. Eventually, a safe-haven was established. Today, we should invoke the decisions made in 1991 and call for a safe-haven in the Nineveh Plains to protect Iraqi Assyrian and Yezidi minorities, which constituted the majority population in the region prior to Islamic State attacks.

Finally, as a last resort, if the aforementioned options are not addressed or implemented, it is necessary that minorities be armed. Assyrians, for instance, petitioned Baghdad for arms years ago; they were told that that, under current law, they could not receive arms, as they would constitute a militia.

However, some minorities have begun to arm themselves. In Bakhdida (Qaraqosh), the Qaraqosh Protection Committee mobilized; in Tel Isqof, Batnaya, Baqofa, and other villages, the Dwekh Nawhsa of the Assyrian Patriotic Party formed; and in Sinjar, Yezidis mobilized in various units to protect their villages. Unable to rely on the national government, these minorities urgently require assistance.

It is clear that Iraq has abandoned its minorities. What is unclear, however, is the action that the rest of the world will take to stop an imminent genocide. Some steps have been taken, but the international community must be more clear and forceful in its actions – by creating a safe zone, ensuring minorities are well represented in the new government, and arming Yezidis and Assyrians – to stop a genocide in Iraq.

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