Office to the United Nations - Geneva

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).

Tribal Societies: Survival and Transformations

In Being a World Citizen, Cultural Bridges, Current Events, Environmental protection, Foundations for the New Humanism, Human Development, Human Rights, International Justice, Solidarity, The Search for Peace, United Nations, World Law on August 9, 2014 at 10:46 AM

TRIBAL SOCIETIES: SURVIVAL AND TRANSFORMATIONS

by René Wadlow

 

August 9 has been chosen by the UN General Assembly as the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples.

As Paulo Freire has written, “While both humanization and dehumanization are real alternatives, only the first is man’s vocation. This vocation is constantly negated. It is hindered by injustice, exploitation, oppression, and the violence of the oppressors; it is affirmed by the yearning of the oppressed for freedom and justice, and by their struggle to recover their lost humanity.

The world society is filled with many different types of collective actors: clans, tribes, castes, ethnic groups, cities, races, social classes, religious organizations, nation-states, multi-state alliances for military or economic goals, transnational corporations and associations. Each is the creation of individuals who have grouped together − or have been grouped together − to achieve goals considered common to the group’s members. All such collective groups have techniques to socialize new members to share the common values, to accept the ideology and beliefs of the tribe, the nation-state or the association. This socialization process goes so deeply that a person’s sense of identity becomes associated with these collective identity, the school, the army, the church, the political process and institutions − each propose a sense of group purpose.

Yet none of these groups is static and unchanging. Even clans and tribes whose members often consider that they have a common ancestor do, in fact, change. Tribes merge and divide; new identities are formed; new ancestors are created to justify the new groupings.

Some types of collective belonging are more easily left than others. One can move relatively easily from a city and take on the character, the values and the goals of a new city. Social mobility can produce changes in social class, and even caste lines become blurred. Persons change nationality or acquire new nationalities as frontiers are modified. Race is less easily changed but definitions of what constitutes a race do change. Ethnic identity is often associated with birth, but parents can belong to different ethnic communities, although the child is usually raised as belonging to the more dominant group. However the socialization process of group identity goes to the level of sub-conscious behavior and is not easily set aside.

In Peru, some tribes remain uncontacted. Some live no more than 100 kms from the legendary mountain site of Machu Picchu. Today, however, the future of these tribes who live in the heartland of the ancient Inca Empire is threatened by a gas project. (C) Survival International

In Peru, some tribes remain uncontacted. Some live no more than 100 kms from the legendary mountain site of Machu Picchu. Today, however, the future of these tribes who live in the heartland of the ancient Inca Empire is threatened by a gas project. (C) Survival International

Today the nation-state claims to be the dominant collective association − setting the boundaries of loyalty and identity. The State claims the right to set out the major collective goals and values. Through laws, the State claims the right to set out the rules by which other collective entities may pursue their goals; through taxation the State draws the resources to further the goals it has set, and the State claims to have the only legitimate use of violence to punish those who break the laws and rules it has set.

There have always been tensions between these collective groups for their spheres of goal-setting and value-setting have overlapped. Thus there have been tensions between religious organizations and the State as to who should set what goals and the means to achieve these goals. There have also been tensions between economic classes and the State when it was felt that the State was dominated by another economic class who used its power within State institutions not for the good of all but only to advance class interests. The same is true of other collective units − races or ethnic groups − excluded from power within State institutions.

Today in many parts of the world those most excluded from power within State institutions are people living in alternative structures of authority, goal-setting and rule-making: persons living in tribal societies.

Tribal societies predated most of today’s nation-state. A tribal society usually has all the same functions as the nation-state: it sets out membership, loyalties, common goals and rules of behavior. It has sanctions against those breaking the laws of the tribe and has − or had − the monopoly of the legitimacy of using violence against those breaking the laws. Tribes are, in fact, more realistically “nation-states” if one defines nation as a common language, a common history and a common will to act together.

Thus because the tribal society is the closest in function to that of the nation-state, it is also the most feared. Tribes are institutions with whom it is difficult to compromise because they have the same pretensions as the State. It is relatively easy for a government to offer higher wages to the industrial worker or higher prices to the farmer as these social classes do not claim to carry out an alternative way the functions of the State. It is more of a challenge to the State’s image of its role to allow tribal societies to set out a land policy or fishing rights or trans-frontier trading rights because these activities conflict directly with the functions that the government has set for itself.

Thus there has been a long history of the State destroying alternative institutions of governance on its territory. The nation-states of Europe were built upon the ruins of feudal institutions; much of Asia on the destruction of local rulers. We see the pattern today as we watch traditional chiefs in Africa lose their authority to the heads of State and the military. In the Americas, many of the indigenous tribal societies were destroyed. Others were pushed into areas that those who controlled the government did not want − the “reservations” of the USA and Canada.

In Latin America and Asia, there is still active struggle going on between those trying to preserve their tribal institutions and homelands and the State which claims complete authority over all its territory and who often wished to put new settlers on tribal lands.

A Koma tribe woman at her farm. Alantika Mountain, Cameroon. (C) Middle Africa The Koma people are indigenous hill-dwelling people occupying the Alantika Mountains in northern Adamawa State, Nigeria and in Northern Cameroon (Faro National Park), near the border with Adamawa State.

A Koma tribe woman at her farm. Alantika Mountain, Cameroon. (C) Middle Africa
The Koma people are indigenous hill-dwelling people living in the Alantika Mountains in northern Adamawa State, Nigeria and in Northern Cameroon (Faro National Park), near the border with Adamawa State.

The amount of violence and suffering is considerable. Slowly, the fate of tribal societies has come to the attention of the United Nations (UN). The UN was set up to facilitate relations among nation-states. However, because wide-spread violations of individual rights had been one of the consequences of the Second World War, a Universal Declaration of Human Rights was drafted and proclaimed by the UN General Assembly in December 1948. The aim of the Declaration is to stress the rights of the individual − a natural consequence of the philosophy of the drafters. The rights of collective bodies which the drafters knew were also protected: trade unions, churches, professional associations. However tribal societies were not particularly thought of as one sees by reading the drafting negotiations. Thus, the Universal Declaration protects the rights of all individuals − including, of course, individuals living in tribal societies − but there is no direct recognition of the functions of tribal societies.

Thus for many years, indigenous and tribal peoples were the forgotten stepchildren of the UN system dealing with human rights. Yet they needed protection at least as much as those on whom the political limelight had focused. The situation began to change with the publication by the International Labor Organization’s study Indigenous Peoples: Living and working conditions of aboriginal populations in independent countries (1953). This was followed by the study by Jose Martinez Cobo Study of the Problem of Discrimination Against Indigenous Populations of the UN Commission on Human Rights (1986). While the Cobo study was being written, a Working Group on Indigenous Populations was set up under the then-existing Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities under the dynamic leadership of Erica-Irene Daes.

The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, a document that was long awaited by indigenous peoples and their defenders throughout the world.

The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, a document that was long awaited by indigenous peoples and their defenders throughout the world.

From the Working Group, with a good deal of interaction with the representatives of Nongovernmental Organizations and tribal groups came a United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (A61/295) in 2007 after some 20 years of efforts. The Declaration sets out a useful framework for action. A UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues has been created and meets once a year in New York. Conditions “on the ground” change slowly but there is now a UN institutions where issues can be raised. It is still the task of non-government organizations and tribal groups to continue to draw attention and to seek cooperation with governments.

See the useful Making the Declaration Work published by the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (Copenhagen) available on their website: www.iwgia.org.

 

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

Could the Use of Rockets Be Banned in the Middle East?

In Conflict Resolution, Current Events, Middle East & North Africa, The Search for Peace, United Nations, World Law on August 1, 2014 at 8:50 PM

COULD THE USE OF ROCKETS BE BANNED IN THE MIDDLE EAST?

By René Wadlow

 

The use of rockets by Islamic groups from Gaza toward Israel and the more deadly use of rockets and bombs by Israeli forces toward Gaza have raised in a dramatic way the possibility of banning rocket use in the Middle East.

Arms control in the Middle East has always been difficult as there is no equivalent of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in the Middle East. The United Nations (UN) as a universal organization has difficulty dealing with security matters on a regional basis. There are UN regional bodies to deal with economic and social issues but not for security matters. Thus, discussions and negotiations on the Iranian nuclear program is an ad hoc grouping. Likewise, negotiations on a Middle East Nuclear-weapon Free Zone often proposed by UN General Assembly resolutions as well as agreed upon during the 5-year reviews of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons has never advanced, though Finland had proposed to host a governmental conference on the issue.

There had been in the 1992-1995 period the creation of the Arms Control and Regional Security Working Group (ACRS) which grew from the Madrid “peace process” with 14 States. In the words of the then United States Secretary of State, James Baker, the agenda of the Working Group was to consider “a set of modest confidence-building or transparency measures covering notification of selected military-related activities and crisis-prevention communications. The purpose would be to lessen the prospects for incidents and miscalculations that could lead to heightened competition or even conflict”. The approach followed the pattern of NATO-Warsaw Pact discussions as part of what was then still the Conference for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The ACRS confidence-building and transparency measures were so modest as to have been unseen when they ended in 1996.

A rocket being fired by the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) to counter an incoming rocket attack from Gaza. (AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov)

A rocket being fired by the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) to counter an incoming rocket attack from Gaza. (AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov)

Arms control can succeed when they are part of a larger process that addresses the human, social and psychological elements that undermine security. The NATO-Warsaw Pact confidence-building measures took place as the first “winds of change” were blowing in Eastern Europe and there were subtle signs of change in the Soviet Union leading to the 1990 Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe.

Unfortunately, confidence and security-building measures that would lead to missile control do not seem to be high on the current agendas of Middle East governments. With violence exploding, hopes for positive steps toward an Israeli-Palestinian accord in the near future seem dim. Some believe that regional arms control can only come after a comprehensive peace has been established in the region, to be followed by a state of peace among peoples beyond the terms of a formal peace agreement. Only then can there be an arms control process linked to confidence-building measures. In this approach, arms are seen as a result of political tensions, not the cause of political instability.

Thus, some feel that pressures to force premature disarmament in the absence of reliable alternative security structures will be seen as efforts to gain unilateral advantage rather than part of a broader approach towards co-operative security and stability.

No one will argue that the general political “climate” is not important to arms control efforts. However, a “one-weapon at a time approach” has had some success at the world level concerning chemical weapons, land mines, cluster bombs, as well as the small-arms trade. In nearly all the “one-weapon at a time approach” non-governmental organizations played an important role in raising the issue at the start and then building momentum once a few governments took an interest and provided leadership within government meetings.

Islamic Jihad rockets, ready to fire, in northern Gaza. (C) Flash90/File)

Islamic Jihad rockets, ready to fire, in northern Gaza. (C) Flash90/File

Thus, the Association of World Citizens (AWC) proposed in an 18 July 2014 message to the UN Secretary General and the Secretary-General of the League of Arab States that serious consideration be given to a pledge by States as well as non-State actors such as Hamas to refuse to use rockets and missiles at any time.

The AWC’s proposal is based on the “no first use” pledges concerning the use of nuclear weapons − a commitment never under any circumstance to initiate a nuclear attack. This commitment has become an accepted international norm though few nuclear-weapon States have made such a pledge. The norm is re-stated in UN General Assembly Resolution 36/100 which states in its Preamble, “Any doctrine allowing the first use of nuclear weapons and any actions pushing the world toward a catastrophe are incompatible with human moral standards and the lofty ideals of the UN.”

The AWC’s proposal follows the pattern of the Protocol for the Prohibition of the Use in War of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or Other Gases and of Bacteriological Methods of Warfare, often called the 1925 Geneva Protocol. The Protocol bans the use, not the possession of poison gas so widely used during the 1914-1918 World War. The idea of inspection and the total destruction of stocks of chemical weapons came much later. It was the signature by Syria of the 1925 Geneva Protocol that led to the recent agreement by Syria to honor the no-use provisions and ultimately to have destroyed existing stocks under the provisions of the more recent Chemical Weapons Treaty which Syria signed as part of the recent agreement. However, it was the 1925 Geneva Protocol, as incomplete as it is, which “opened the door” to effective action.

Thus, efforts to eliminate stocks of rockets and missiles seem unlikely of success in the current context. However, a ban on use might be a real possibility and merits speedy consultations.

 

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

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