Michelle Rempel Garner: On justice denied for the Yezidi people
While many politicians and activists have been happy to be photographed with Yezidi survivors, efforts to bring the perpetrators of the genocide to justice has been glacial
By: Michelle Rempel Garner
It was a brutally cold day in December when 200 people, including parents and their children, gathered for lunch in a northeast Calgary community centre.
This particular gathering happened alongside hundreds of similar events in the lead-up to the winter holidays, so it shouldn't have been a remarkable occasion.
But it was.
Many of the people in that room had beat incredible odds to get there, alive, with children to boot.
That's because the room was filled with people from a religious and ethnic minority — the Yezidi people — that had survived a genocide less than a decade ago.
On August 3, 2014 — nine years ago — in a hot plain in Northern Iraq, on the other side of the world from that room in Calgary, Islamic State militants overran the Yezidi's indigenous territory of Sinjar. It took only a few days for Islamic State militants to kill, kidnap, or displace most of the global population of Yezidis.
The Yezidis have long been persecuted by their neighbours in the Middle East, accused of, among other crimes, “devil worship” — although this slander is profoundly incorrect. ISIS has never had much tolerance for religious minorities, however, and the Yezidi became the victims of extraordinary atrocities including the capture and sale of thousands of young women into sexual slavery, the kidnapping and forced conversion of Yezidi children, and mass killings.
The question the world then faced was, would the genocidaires succeed in their attempt to eradicate the Yedizi people and their way of life, or would the global community take action?
On the ninth anniversary of the Sinjar massacre, the answer to that question is still uncomfortably clear.
The world was slow to recognize that genocide had taken place when confronted with clear evidence. Even the Canadian government initially defeated a 2016 motion to declare the massacre to be a genocide. It took several more attempts and incredible pressure from people like the now-Nobel Prize-winning genocide survivor Nadia Murad to get the government to change its course.
And in the years that have past since, while many politicians and activists have been happy to be photographed with Yezidi leaders like Nadia Murad, efforts to bring the perpetrators of the genocide to justice has been glacial and mostly ineffectual. The International Criminal Court's initial ruling was that it was too difficult to do anything about the issue. Today, few of the countless perpetrators and enablers have faced consequence.
Further, while some countries like Canada welcomed a smattering of survivors, hundreds of thousands remain in refugee camps, as their homeland still has not been secured; nor has adequate international assistance been provided to rebuild near places where mass graves now sit. Meanwhile, reports of widespread discrimination against the Yezidi in these camps persist.
The community faced many other unnecessary indignities during the nine years since the initial massacre. In Canada, Yezidis have pleaded with the federal government not to repatriate Islamic State extremists, particularly since so few have been brought to justice for their role in the genocide. Despite their pleas, Canada has re-patriated dozens of women and children connected to ISIS.
It took years of pressure for the federal government to make reuniting easier for survivors. Difficulties still exist on that front to this day. Revisionism could become a problem, too. In late 2021, the Toronto District School Board sought to prevent Nadia Murad from speaking about her experience for fear her story could foster Islamophobia.
But despite all of this, interacting with any group of Yezidis, as I was honoured to do last December, still leaves one with a sense of hope. They said they wish to be viewed as vibrant members of the global community; a people not solely defined by genocide, but rather as defiant and resilient in the face of it.
But the question that should now be in the mind of anyone who believes in the principle of "never again" is how to address the issues that remain for any member of the Yezidi community. The thousands of Yezidis that are languishing in captivity or in camps, without any clear picture of when or how they could return home, raise powerful questions about how Yezidi survivors will keep their cultural identity alive — a necessary component of recovering from genocide — while still facing so many uncertainties.
In Canada, some of those miraculous children at the December gathering in Calgary are becoming more fluent in English than in the Yezidi traditional tongues such as Kurmanji — a considerable challenge given the oral teaching tradition of the community. Many have not been to their ancestral temple in Lalish, and it's unclear if they will ever be able to go. There are fears about a lack of consecrated burial spaces or dedicated places to carry on their cultural and religious traditions. They watch with dismay as members of their community, like Nadia Murad, are forced to recount tales of brutalization to overcome the inertia and deaf ears of legislators seemingly hungry for a photo op, but unwilling to do anything of substance to bring justice.
But those concerns — so central to ensuring the genocide doesn't become complete — often take second place to the grief that continually bubbles up for family members still lost, traumas suffered, fates unknown, as justice is denied to these people.
Addressing those issues in a meaningful way is uncomfortable for Western nations. It requires us to be honest with ourselves: we treat crimes against minority groups that do not have powerful world advocates behind them differently than for those that do. We must also acknowledge the ineffectiveness of multilateral organizations designed to prevent genocide from happening to begin with; and our inability to use state power and military action to address these crimes as they occur.
Justice and morality dictates that we must do these things. Perpetrators must be brought to justice, families reunited, and the Yezidi homeland restored.
Nine years after the genocide at Sinjar, doing any less means we have collectively resigned ourselves to an understanding that "never again" in the modern age translates to, "never again, but only when politically convenient."
Those miracle children in that room deserve better from us than that.
Michelle Rempel Garner is a Conservative MP who represents the riding of Calgary Nose Hill. You can find her Substack here.
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