In the Summer of 2014, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (“ISIL”) set out on a brutal campaign across Iraq and Syria marked by summary executions of civilians, widespread torture, sexual violence, enforced disappearances, slavery, and genocide.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called the campaign against religious and ethnic minorities under ISIL’s control “genocidal by self-proclamation, by ideology, and by actions.” Yazidis—an ethnic-religious community based in the Iraqi-Syrian border area of Mount Sinjar—were singled out for extermination. In August 2014, ISIL launched a campaign across Yazidi-concentrated towns throughout Sinjar district – capturing fleeing civilians at checkpoints, separating the men, boys, and women and girls. Men were forcibly conscripted or summarily executed. Boys were forced to become child soldiers. More than 5,000 women and girls were enslaved.
ISIL’s publicly-declared ideology not only expressly permitted sexual abuse of Yazidi women and girls, but explicitly encouraged and regulated it on a massive scale. Unmarried women and girls over the age of nine were taken to processing centers where they were registered and photographed. ISIL fighters then selected which women and girls they wished to purchase as slaves. Many Yazidi women and girls were sold in physical markets (souk sabaya) run by a central Committee for Buying and Selling of Slaves, while others were sold on online. Yazidi women and girls were property in every sense: they could be purchased, gifted, resold, and even bequeathed in wills.
While in ISIL captivity, Yazidi women and girls were subjected to violence and forced servitude, while regularly denied access to adequate food and medicine. Attempts at resistance were met with the threat or perpetration of gang rape and beatings. The United States and the United Nations both confirmed that ISIL’s treatment of the Yazidis amounted to genocide.
By 2017, ISIL’s territorial gains were largely reversed and most of the group’s leaders captured or killed. In the years since, thousands of bodies have been discovered in mass graves across northern Syria and Iraq.
National accountability for ISIL’s crimes remains deeply flawed. Human Rights Watch documented dozens of arbitrary arrests and enforced disappearances by Iraqi counter-terrorism forces between 2014 and 2017. Detainees have alleged widespread torture of alleged ISIL suspects in Iraqi detention. ISIL-related cases in Iraq are prosecuted in specialized terrorism courts, which have been criticized for their failure to adhere to international fair trial standards, and from which victims and the media are excluded. Critically, the vast majority of trials simply ignore the grave human rights abuses committed by ISIL, focusing instead on terrorism-related offences. This has created a serious gap in accountability.