Office to the United Nations - Geneva

UN Human Rights Protection: Small Steps, But No Turning Back

In Anticolonialism, Asia, Being a World Citizen, Conflict Resolution, Cultural Bridges, Current Events, Human Rights, International Justice, Middle East & North Africa, Solidarity, The Search for Peace, United Nations, War Crimes, World Law on September 7, 2014 at 10:11 PM

UN HUMAN RIGHTS PROTECTION: SMALL STEPS, BUT NO TURNING BACK

By René Wadlow

 

The effectiveness of United Nations (UN) action to promote human rights and prevent massive violations grows by small steps. However, the steps, once taken, serve as precedents and can be cited in future cases. Once the steps taken, it is difficult to refuse such action later.

Such small steps can be seen in the contrasting response to two situations:

1) The current situation in Iraq and Syria, in particular the areas held by the Islamic State (IS) and

2) The massacres and refugee flow from East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, in 1971.

I will contrast briefly the Special Session on Iraq held on September 1, 2014 in Geneva of the Human Rights Council with efforts at the Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities in August 1971 when I was among the representatives of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) which had signed a joint appeal to the Sub-Commission for action in East Pakistan.

The September 1 Special Session stands out for two precedents which can be important:

1) The affirmation that non-State actors are bound to respect UN human rights standards;

2) The speedy creation of a UN Committee of Inquiry by using members of the UN human rights secretariat.

The massive violations of human rights in those parts of Iraq and Syria held by the IS is the first time that a major UN human rights body, the Human Rights Council or the earlier Commission on Human Rights, deals with an area not under the control of a State.

The diplomats working on a Special Session decided to focus only on Iraq. If Syria had been included, the actions of the Syrian government would have had to be considered as well.

Holding non-State actors responsible for violations of UN human rights norms is an important precedent and can have wide implications. The Declaration of the Eliminations of All Forms of Intolerance and Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief, adopted by the UN General Assembly on November 25, 1981 sets the standard − a standard repeatedly being violated by the forces of the IS.

Likewise, the speedy creation of a Committee of Inquiry is a major advance. The Human Rights Council in the past, following a practice of the earlier Commission on Human Rights, has created “Commissions of Inquiry” also called “Fact-finding Missions.” Currently there are four such Commissions at work:

1) Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea,

2) The Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic,

3) The OHCHR Investigation on Sri Lanka,

4) The Commission of Inquiry on Gaza.

It was under Navanethem Pillay, who was the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights from 2008 to September 2014, that all of the existing four UN Commissions of Inquiry were created. The world has the former High Commissioner to thank for such valuable efforts in defense of human rights.

It was under Navanethem Pillay, who was the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights from 2008 to September 2014, that all of the existing four UN Commissions of Inquiry were created. The world has the former High Commissioner to thank for such valuable efforts in defense of human rights.

Each commission has three, sometimes four, members each from a different geographic zone. The members have usually had experience in UN activities, and the chair is usually someone who has a reputation beyond his UN efforts.

Since the commissions are usually not welcomed by the government of the country to be studies, the fact-finding is done by interviewing exiles and refugees. NGOs, scholars as well as governments can also provide information in writing. The commission reports rarely contain information that is not already available from specialized NGOs, journalists, and increasingly the Internet. However, the commission reports give an official coloring to the information, and some UN follow up action can be based on the reports.

It takes a good deal of time to put these commissions together as there must be regional balance, increasingly gender balance, as well as a balance of expertise. Moreover, the people approached to be a commission member are often busy and have other professional duties. It can sometimes take a month or more to put together a commission. In light of the pressing need presented by the situation in Iraq, it was decided that the members of the fact-finding group for Iraq would be members of the Secretariat of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights so that they can get to work immediately.

For the UN, this is a major step forward and must have led to a good deal of discussion before the proposal was presented in the resolution. As it is, India and China objected publicly in official statements just before the final resolution was accepted. Both States maintained that using Secretariat members went beyond the mandate of the Office of the High Commissioner. They were worried by the increasing investigative role of the Office which should be limited only to helping develop national capacity building. Iraq today, Kashmir and Tibet tomorrow. The Indians and the Chinese are probably not the only governments worried, but they were the only States which spoke on the issue, Objecting strongly but saying they would not block consensus on the resolution.

In contrast to these steps: I had followed as closely as possible, from Geneva, the events in East Pakistan, having at one stage helped a representative of the Bangladesh opposition to speak to relevant diplomats in Geneva. Later, he became the Ambassador of Bangladesh to the UN in Geneva, and for a year was president of the Commission on Human Rights.

In December 1970, the Awami League led by Sheik Mujib Rahman won a majority of seats in the national assembly. The government of Pakistan refused to convene the national assembly, since it would result in shifting political power from West to East Pakistan. For three months, the government and the Awami League tried to negotiate a political settlement. On March 25, 1971, the government discontinued negotiations and unleashed the Pakistan army against the civilian population of East Pakistan. Hindus, members and sympathizers of the Awami League, students and faculty of the universities and women were especially singled out.

These atrocities continued until the Indian army which had been drawn into the conflict, in part by the large number of refugees that had fled to India, took control of Dacca on December 1, 1971.

When India gained independence from Britain in 1947, the predominantly Muslim-inhabited parts of the former colony became a separate country called Pakistan. Originally a Dominion within the British Empire, Pakistan eventually established a republic of its own in 1956. In March 1971 the province of East Pakistan launched a war of independence, waged by an armed force called the Mukti Bahini, also called the Bengali Liberation Army, and the Indian military which came to the aid of the rebels. Eventually, in December 1971 Pakistani troops were defeated and East Pakistan became a sovereign nation with the name of Bangladesh.

When India gained independence from Britain in 1947, the predominantly Muslim-inhabited parts of the former colony became a separate country called Pakistan. Originally a Dominion within the British Empire, Pakistan eventually established a republic of its own in 1956.
In March 1971 the province of East Pakistan launched a war of independence, waged by an armed force called the Mukti Bahini, also called the Bengali Liberation Army, and the Indian military which came to the aid of the rebels. Eventually, in December 1971 Pakistani troops were defeated and East Pakistan became a sovereign nation with the name of Bangladesh.

The UN Security Council was unwilling or unable to deal with the human rights situations in East Pakistan. The U. S. government strongly supported the Pakistan army while the Soviet Union supported India. For NGO representatives our hopes rested on the Sub-Commission on the Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities which was to meet in Geneva from August 2 to 20, 1971. At the time, the Commission on Human Rights and the bulk of the human rights secretariat was still in New York. However, the Sub-Commission would meet in Geneva once a year, usually in July or August.

The Sub-Commission members were not diplomatic representatives of governments as was the Commission on Human Rights. Rather they were “independent experts”. The saying among NGOs was that some were more independent than others, and some were more expert than others. Most were professors of law in their countries − thus the August dates when universities were on vacation. It was easier to have informal relations with Sub-Commission members than with diplomats, and NGO representatives could get advice on the best avenues of action.

NGOs had two formal avenues of action. We could present written statements that were distributed as official documents, and we could make oral statements, usually 10 minutes in which to develop ideas and to call attention to additional elements in the written statement. Written statements could be that of a single NGO or, often to give more weight, there could be a “joint statement”. On the East Pakistan situation, with the violence being covered by the world media, it was decided to have a joint statement. The statement called upon the Sub-Commission “to examine all available information regarding allegations of the violation of human rights and fundamental freedoms in East Pakistan and to recommend measures which might be taken to protect the human rights and fundamental freedoms of the people of East Pakistan”. Twenty-two NGOs with representatives in Geneva signed the joint statement, and John Salzberg, a representative of the International Commission of Jurists, made an oral statement presenting the written joint statement.

Government representatives were always present in the room and had the right to make statements (and also to try to influence the independent experts behind the scene). Najmul Saguib Khan, the independent expert from Pakistan contended that the Sub-Commission could not consider East Pakistan since the UN role in human rights “did not extend to questions arising out of situations affecting the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Member States and that attention to such situations would encourage those seeking the dismemberment of Member States.” The Indian diplomat, N.P. Jain, replied highlighting the influx of eight million refugees into India.

"On 13 June 1971, an article in the UK's Sunday Times exposed the brutality of Pakistan's suppression of the Bangladeshi uprising. It forced the reporter's family into hiding and changed history. (...) Written by Anthony Mascarenhas, a Pakistani reporter, and printed in the UK's Sunday Times, it exposed for the first time the scale of the Pakistan army's brutal campaign to suppress its breakaway eastern province in 1971. (...) There is little doubt that Mascarenhas' reportage played its part in ending the war. It helped turn world opinion against Pakistan and encouraged India to play a decisive role." (C) BBC News

“On 13 June 1971, an article in the UK’s Sunday Times exposed the brutality of Pakistan’s suppression of the Bangladeshi uprising. It forced the reporter’s family into hiding and changed history. (…)
Written by Anthony Mascarenhas, a Pakistani reporter, and printed in the UK’s Sunday Times, it exposed for the first time the scale of the Pakistan army’s brutal campaign to suppress its breakaway eastern province in 1971. (…)
There is little doubt that Mascarenhas’ reportage played its part in ending the war. It helped turn world opinion against Pakistan and encouraged India to play a decisive role.”
(C) BBC News

The Sub-Commission members took the “diplomatic way out” and said nothing. In drafting the report of the session, one member, Adamu Mohammed from Nigeria proposed deleting any reference to the discussion on East Pakistan. He held that the Sub-Commission had listened to, but had not considered the statements made by the representative of the International Commission of Jurists, the Sub-Commission member from Pakistan and the observer of India.

The NGO representatives were saddened by the lack of action but not totally surprised. No other UN human rights body took action, and the massacres stopped only after the ‘lightning war’ of India defeated the Pakistan army and occupied the country until a Bangladesh government could be set up.

There remains real danger that the situation in Iraq and Syria will continue through military means, but at least progress has been made within the UN in calling attention to conflicts within a State and holding all parties responsible for maintaining the standards of human rights.

Prof. René Wadlow is President of the Association of World Citizens.

World Law Advanced by the UN Special Session of the Human Rights Council on Human Rights Violations in Iraq

In Being a World Citizen, Current Events, Human Rights, International Justice, Middle East & North Africa, Religious Freedom, Solidarity, United Nations, War Crimes, World Law on September 3, 2014 at 12:21 AM

WORLD LAW ADVANCED BY THE UN SPECIAL SESSION OF THE HUMAN RIGHTS COUNCIL ON HUMAN RIGHTS VIOLATIONS IN IRAQ

By René Wadlow

 

Two major advancements in the universal application of world law were made by the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council Special Session in Geneva on September 1, 2014. The Council met in response to widespread and converging accusations of human rights violations in territory in Iraq and Syria under the control of the Islamic State (IS) also called the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). I will use the term “Islamic State” which is the title that the movement most often uses now for itself.

For the past several years, the IS was one of a good number of shifting insurgency groups active in Syria in opposition to the government, and it did not receive more attention than any of the other insurgencies. It had no clear political program, and its ideology was not particularly different from that of other Islamist groups. Then suddenly in June 2014, under the leadership of the young Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the group shifted its focus from Syria to Iraq. It was able to build on the growing resentment and sentiment of marginalization of the Iraqi Sunnis and the disorganization of the Iraq army to sweep through large parts of western Iraq and eastern Syria. IS’s ideology does not recognize existing nation-states but rather a potentially unified Islamic world. One of its first symbolic moves was to destroy frontier wall and frontier posts on the Iraq-Syria frontier. Thus the name of Islamic State and the title of Caliphate for the area under its control.

In the areas under IS control, IS armed groups have killed prisoners of the Iraqi army and members of religious and ethnic minorities leading to larger scale displacement of people, often to the Kurdish Autonomous Area − some 800,000 during August. The Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees has stated that this is a “humanitarian crisis” and appealed for support from governments and civil society to meet the urgent needs of the displaced. On August 12, 2014, Heiner Beilefeldt, the Special Rapporteur of the Council on Discrimination due to Religion or Belief, warned of the destruction of religious minorities and the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination activated its early warning and urgent action procedures.

During August, IS forces took areas close to the Kurdish Autonomous Area, areas in which there is a large Kurdish-speaking population but is outside the Kurdish Autonomous Area’s boundaries. The Kurdish forces fought back, helped by US bombing missions aimed at IS military equipment and posts. The danger of a military escalation and a spreading of the conflict was (and still is) a real possibility.

Kurdish women fighters in Suleymaniyeh, Iraq. Many people in Kurdistan believe the region owes much of its safety to the efforts of the Peshmerga. (C) BBC News

Kurdish women fighters in Suleymaniyeh, Iraq.
Many people in Kurdistan believe the region owes much of its safety to the efforts of the Peshmerga.
(C) BBC News

Many looked toward the UN Human Rights Council to speak out. Both some governments and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) urged a Special Session of the Council, the highest profile action which the Council can take. It seems that France took the lead in the effort to get a Special Session. Although a minority of 16 States among the 47 Members of the Council is needed to call a Special Session, diplomatic sense requires that as many States as possible participate in the call and that they would vote positively on the resolution at the end of the Special Session.

In the case of this session, it was agreed by government negotiators to limit the discussion to IS actions in Iraq and not bring up violations in Syria on which governments hold differing views. The negotiators organizing the effort had to have the agreement of Iraq, the concerned State, of Iran which holds the presidency of the Non-Aligned Movement and its 120 members. Iran is also heavily involved in the conflicts of Syria and Iraq. Pakistan needed to agree as Pakistan is the usual spokesperson for the Organization of the Islamic Cooperation. Italy, as current president of the EU had to play a key role.

The President of the Council, Ambassador Baudelaire Ndong Ella, had to be kept informed as the Special Session would be under his leadership.

It is difficult for someone not party to the government private negotiations to know how they are carried out and how the resolution is written, well in advance of the Session itself. In this case, the Ambassador of South Africa felt that he had been left out of the discussions and complained bitterly that the resolution had not been negotiated inclusively and transparently and had appealed to the President of the Council to defer until more time was given to delegates to negotiate the text. His request was turned down, and so South Africa was the only State to say after the resolution was passed by consensus without a vote that had there been a vote, he would have abstained.

As the final resolution is written and agreed upon prior to the start of the Session, all the statements of the Member States of the Council, the Observer States and NGOs are “for the record”. Each State wishes to have been seen as saying something in the very short time that each State is allocated. The factual information was presented at the start of the Session by Ms. Flavia Pansieri, Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights, and Ms. Leila Zerrougui, Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children in Armed Conflict. There is therefore a good deal of repetition in what government representatives have to say. There is a story in the United States (U. S.) about a mythical conference of comedians who have heard all the jokes before, so rather than tell a joke, they would just say a number, “Number 10” and everyone would laugh. Along these lines, I have suggested that at the UN a good deal of time could be saved by having all ideas given a number, so the Ambassador could just say, “We believe, 7 9 15, Thank you” and a skilled technician would flash a red light if ever a new idea was mentioned. My suggestion has not yet been acted upon, and so one must listen carefully to “hear between the lines” and see who is saying something different or occasionally saying it very well.

Thus, it was impossible for the Ambassador of Syria not to mention that the IS was also in Syria, which the Canadian Ambassador did as well. Germany mentioned that there were Syrian refugees in Iraqi Kurdistan but did not go into more detail. Cuba and Venezuela mentioned that the problems of Iraq were due to the U. S. invasion of 2003 “responsible or sowing the seeds of death and the social breakdown among the Iraqi people”. Ireland was the one State to mention “open and possibly genocidal attacks on minority communities” but did not mention the 1948 Genocide Convention. Austria spoke of the “total annihilation of minorities” but did not use the term “genocide”. Morocco called or Iraq to become a “cohesive State in which all citizens were equal and enjoyed their human rights.” Malaysia called upon “the voices of moderation to drown out the destructive and divisive voices of extremism and terrorism”. Lebanon called for action by the International Criminal Court (ICC), especially against those bearing passports of States which were party to the Rome Statute setting up the ICC. The Holy See (the Vatican) made a moving call or tolerance and understanding among all religions.

After the speeches “for the record”, what was the action proposal which was an advancement for world law? The action proposal followed a Council pattern but with a significant difference. The Council in the past, following a practice of the earlier Commission on Human Rights, has created “Commissions of Inquiry” also called “Fact-finding Missions”. Currently there are four such Commissions at work: Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, the OHCHR Investigation on Sri Lanka, and the Commission of Inquiry on Gaza. Each commission has three, sometimes four people, each from a different geographic zone. The members have usually had experience in UN activities, and the chair is usually someone who has a reputation beyond his UN efforts, such as Mr. Marti Ahtisaari, the former President of Finland who heads the Sri Lanka study.

This sign, here painted in red on a wall with a circle around it, is the letter N in Arabic. When the IS started seizing predominantly Christian-inhabited areas of Iraq by force, its militiamen immediately painted this on houses they knew or thought were owned by Christians, N being for “Nasrani” which is itself the Arabic for “Christian”. A long echo of the Nazis’ practices in pre-World War II Germany, when Hitler’s own militiamen would paint a Star of David on the front door of each Jewish-owned business. That was just before the “Final Solution” which claimed over 6 million lives.

This sign, here painted in red on a wall with a circle around it, is the letter N in Arabic.
When the IS started seizing predominantly Christian-inhabited areas of Iraq by force, its militiamen immediately painted this on houses they knew or thought were owned by Christians, N being for “Nasrani” which is itself the Arabic for “Christian”.
A long echo of the Nazis’ practices in pre-World War II Germany, when Hitler’s own militiamen would paint a Star of David on the front door of each Jewish-owned business. That was just before the “Final Solution” which claimed over 6 million lives.

Since the commissions are usually not welcomed by the government of the country to be studied, the fact-finding is done by interviewing exiles and refugees. NGOs, scholars as well as governments can also provide information in writing. The Commission reports rarely contain information that is not already available from specialized NGOs, journalists and increasingly the Internet. However, the commission reports give an official coloring to the information, and some UN follow up action can be based on the reports.

It takes a good deal of time to put these commissions together as there must be regional balance, increasingly gender balance, and a balance of expertise. Moreover, the people approached to be commission members are often busy and have other professional duties. It can sometimes take a month or more to put together a commission. In light of the pressing need presented by the situation in Iraq, it was decided that the members of the fact-finding group would be members of the Secretariat of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights so that they can get to work immediately.

Inside the Human Rights and Alliance of Civilizations Room of the Palais des Nations in Geneva. Inaugurated in 2008, the room accommodates different United Nations bodies, including ECOSOC and the Human Rights Council. (C) United Nations

Inside the Human Rights and Alliance of Civilizations Room of the Palais des Nations in Geneva.
Inaugurated in 2008, the room accommodates different United Nations bodies, including ECOSOC and the Human Rights Council.
(C) United Nations

For the UN, this is a major step forward and must have led to a good deal of discussion before being presented in the resolution. As it is, India and China objected publicly in official statements just before the final resolution was accepted. Both States maintained that using Secretariat members went beyond the mandate of the Office of the High Commissioner. They were worried by the increasing investigative role of the Office which should be limited only to helping develop national capacity building: Iraq today, Kashmir and Tibet tomorrow. The Indians and the Chinese are probably not the only governments worried, but they were the only States which spoke up on the issue, objecting strongly but saying they would not block consensus on the resolution.

The other advance or world law arising from the Special Session is the principle of the universality of concern and thus of investigation. In no previous case, has the UN looked at the violations within an area not under the control of a Member State. In this case, the investigation concerns actions of a non-state actor who nevertheless controls territory and to some extent administers the territory trying to impose its vision of strict Islamic law. This is a major step forward and has implications or other state entities but which are not members of the UN or recognized by the majority of UN Member States such as Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Transnistra, Nagorno-Karabakh, and if a state were set up in eastern Ukraine.

This principle was stated in a widely distributed text for the Special Session and which will come out as a written NGO statement at the regular session of the Council starting 8 September. With due modesty, I quote from myself:

“The Association of World Citizens believes that world law as developed by the United Nations applies not only to the governments of Member States but also to individuals and non-governmental organizations. The ISIS has not been recognized as a State and is not a member of the UN. Nevertheless the Association of World Citizens is convinced that the terms of the Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief applies to the ISIS and that the actions of the ISIS are, in the terms of the Declaration adopted by the General Assembly on November 25, 1981 ‘inadmissible’.

Citizens of the World stress the need for world law and certain common values among all the States and peoples of the world. We are one humanity with a shared destiny. The challenge before us requires inclusive ethical values. Such values must be based on a sense of common responsibility for both present and future generations.”

Prof. René Wadlow is President of the Association of World Citizens.

Iraq: Yazidis’ Genocide?

In Cultural Bridges, Current Events, Human Rights, International Justice, Middle East & North Africa, Religious Freedom, Uncategorized, United Nations, War Crimes, World Law on August 11, 2014 at 7:05 PM

IRAQ: YAZIDIS’ GENOCIDE?

By René Wadlow

 

A mix of United States (U. S.) humanitarian airdrops of food and water to the stranded displaced people on Mount Sinjar as well as U. S. military air strikes against some of the positions of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has focused international attention on the area. The Christian Peacemaker Teams have had a group working toward human rights protection and reconciliation in the Iraq Kurdistan for some years and are now posting daily updates on their website and Facebook [i].

I will not deal here with the broader issues of the impact of the ISIS on the possible geographic fragmentation and re-structuring of Iraq and Syria.

As a Nongovernmental Organization (NGO) representative to the United Nations, Geneva, and active on human rights issues, I had already raised the issues of two major religious minorities in Iraq at the UN Commission on Human Rights: the Yazidis and the Mandaeans. Here I ask if their fate can be identified as genocide under the 1948 Convention for the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. My concern with the Yazidi (also written as Yezidi) dates from the early 1990s and the creation of the Kurdish Autonomous Region. Many of the Yazidis are ethnic Kurds, and the government of Saddam Hussein was opposed to them not so much for their religious beliefs but rather that some Yazidis played important roles in the Kurdish community seen as largely opposed to the government. The Yazidis also had some old ownership claims on land on which oil reserves are found in northern Iraq.

My concern with the Mandaeans (also written as Sabean-Mandeans) came in the early 2000s after the U. S. invasion when the Mandaeans were persecuted as being supporters of Saddam Hussein and most fled to Syria. A word about the faiths of the two groups which helps to explain their special status. Although both are called “sects” and are closed religious communities which one can only enter by birth, they are faiths even if the number of the faithful is small.

The Mandaeans are a religious group formed in the first centuries of the Common Era in what is now Israel-Palestine-Jordan. Over time, they migrated to southern Iraq in the area of Basra as well as to what is now the Islamic Republic of Iran. One of their distinctive signs is the frequent purification by running water − baptism. They honor John the Baptist, described in the Christian Gospel of Luke, but are probably not direct descendents of his followers. At the time of John and Jesus, there were a good number of movements which had purification by water as one of their rituals. The Mandaean scripture The Book of John is probably a third-century collection. The Book of John was used in Mandaean rituals and services but was never published to be read by others. Given intellectual and historic interest in the Mandaeans, the Mandaean leadership authorized the publication of their scriptures. As a sign of respect, the first printed copy was given to Saddam Hussein as President of the country. In the confused situation after the U. S. occupation of Iraq, the book presentation was enough to have some accuse the Mandaeans of being Saddam Hussein supporters. Under increasing pressure, the vast majority of Mandaeans left Iraq for Syria (the frying pan into the fire image). Now they are caught in the Syrian civil war, unable or unwilling to return to Iraq. A small number of Mandaeans have been granted refugee status in the US and Western Europe.

There has been some intellectual mutual interplay among the Mandaeans and the Yazidis, but they are separate faiths and located in different parts of Iraq. The structure of the Yazidi worldview is Zoroastrian, a faith born in Persia proclaiming that two great cosmic forces, that of light and good, and that of darkness and evil are in constant battle. Man is called upon to help light overcome evil.

Sabean Mandeans perform baptisms for the faithful, in Iraq's Tigris River. (C) The Washington Post

Sabean Mandeans perform baptisms for the faithful, in Iraq’s Tigris River.
(C) The Washington Post

However, the strict dualistic thinking of Zoroastrianism was modified by another Persian prophet, Mani of Ctesiphon in the third century CE who had to deal with a situation very close of that of ours today. Mani tried to create a synthesis of religious teachings that were increasingly coming into contact through travcl and trade: Buddhism and Hinduism from India, Jewish and Christian thought, Helenistic Gnostic philosophy from Egypt and Greece as well as many smaller, traditional and “animist” beliefs. He kept the Zoroastrian dualism as the most easily understood intellectual framework, though giving it a somewhat more Taoist (yin-yang) flexibility, Mani having traveled in China. He developed the idea of the progression of the soul by individual effort through reincarnation − a main feature of Indian thought combined with the ethical insights of Gnostic and Christian thought. Unfortunately, only the dualistic Zoroastrian framework is still attached to Mani’s name − Manichaeism. This is somewhat ironic as it was the Zoroastrian Magi who had him put to death as a dangerous rival.

Within the Mani-Zoroastrian framework, the Yazidi added the presence of angels who are to help man in his constant battle for light and good, in particular Melek Tawis, the peacock angel. Although there are angels in Islam, angels that one does not know could well be demons, and so the Yazidis are regularly accused of being “demon worshipers” [ii].

The faravahar is one of the best-known symbols of Zoroastrianism, the state religion of ancient Iran.

The faravahar is one of the best-known symbols of Zoroastrianism, the state religion of ancient Iran.

With the smaller Mandaean faith, originally some 60,000 people, now virtually destroyed in Iraq and unable to function effectively in Syria, the idea of ridding a country of the near totality of a faith is not for the ISIS an “impossible dream”. There are probably some 500,000 Yazidis in Iraq. Iraq demographic statistics are not fully reliable, and Yazidi leaders may give larger estimates by counting Kurds who had been Yazidis but had been converted to Islam. There had been some 200,000 Yazidis among the Kurds of Turkey but now nearly all have migrated to Western Europe, Australia and Canada.

Already in the last days, some 150,000 Yazidis have been uprooted and have fled to Iraqi Kurdistan. Thus most Yazidis could be pushed into an ever-smaller Kurdish-controlled zone of Iraq and Syria. The rest could be converted to Islam or killed. The government of the autonomous Kurdish region of Iraq has done little (if anything) to help the socio-economic development of the Yazidis, probably fearing competition for the Kurdish families now in control of the autonomous Kurdish government and society. Now the Kurdistan government and civil society groups are stretched well beyond capacity with displaced persons from Iraq and Syria.

Thousands of Yazidis previously trapped by Isis have been rescued by Kurdish peshmerga forces. (C) Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Thousands of Yazidis previously trapped by Isis have been rescued by Kurdish peshmerga forces.
(C) Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

If one is to take seriously the statements of the ISIS leadership, genocide − the destruction in whole or in part of a group − is a stated aim. The killing of the Yazidis is a policy and not “collateral damage” from fighting. The 1948 Convention for the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide allows any State party to the Convention to “call upon the competent organs of the United Nations to take such action under the Charter of the United Nations as they consider appropriate for the prevention and suppression of acts of genocide.” Thus far no State has done so by making a formal proposal to deal with the Convention.

With the incomplete evidence at hand, I would maintain that the ISIS policy is genocide and not just a control of territory. Although the UN “track record” of dealing with genocide is very mixed, the first immediate step is for a State to raise the issue within the UN in order to set a legal approach in motion [iii].

Prof. René Wadlow is President of the Association of World Citizens.

 

[i] See the website of the Christian Peacemaker Teams: www.cpt.org.

[ii] A Yazidi website has been set up by Iraqis living in Lincoln, Nebraska. The website is uneven but of interest as a self presentation: www.yeziditruth.org.

[iii] See the very complete study: William A. Schabas, Genocide in International Law (Cambridge Univesity Press, 2000).

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