Yazidi Genocide — [Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]

– in Westminster Hall at 9:30 am on 8th February 2022.

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Photo of Philip Hollobone Philip Hollobone Conservative, Kettering 9:30 am, 8th February 2022

Before we begin, I remind hon. Members that Mr Speaker encourages everyone to observe social distancing and to wear masks.

Photo of Brendan O'Hara Brendan O'Hara Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Inclusive Society), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution), Shadow SNP Deputy Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered the Yazidi genocide.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Hollobone. I begin by thanking the Backbench Business Committee for giving time for this important debate.

On 3 August 2014, Daesh launched a violent attack against the Yazidis in Sinjar, in Iraq. A few days after that attack, it also attacked the Nineveh plains, forcing 120,000 people to flee for their lives in the middle of the night. Daesh fighters killed hundreds if not thousands of men, abducted boys to turn them into child soldiers, and kidnapped for sexual slavery thousands of women and girls, 2,763 of whom are still missing to this day. In a reign of terror lasting more than two years, Daesh murdered, enslaved, deported, and forcibly transferred women and children, and imprisoned, tortured, abducted, exploited, abused, raped, and forced women into marriage, across the region.

It was not until the allied forces finally started to recover regions of Iraq from Daesh that the sickening scale of what was happening to the Yazidis and other religious groups became clear. That is why, in April 2016, the House of Commons voted unanimously to recognise the atrocities committed by Daesh as genocide. That was the first ever such determination by the House of Commons, and it was made while the atrocities were still ongoing. Since then, however, the UK Government have steadfastly refused to follow suit; they have hidden behind the defence that somehow it is not for Governments to determine what is and is not a genocide, and that only a competent court or a tribunal can determine that.

In my time in this place, I have taken part in many debates that have called on the Government to recognise what has happened as a genocide. That happened most recently a couple of weeks ago, when we debated the findings of the Uyghur Tribunal in a debate secured by Ms Ghani; the Government again used the “competent court” defence to avoid taking a stance.

Photo of Nusrat Ghani Nusrat Ghani Conservative, Wealden

I thought that it was appropriate to intervene, given that my constituency was mentioned. I congratulate the hon. Member on securing this important debate. There are five markers of genocide that that tribunal was able to expand on; and there is no denying that Daesh has the intent to destroy. Let me quote what Daesh itself has said:

“Upon conquering the region of Sinjar…the Islamic State faced a population of Yazidis, a pagan minority existent for ages in regions of Iraq and Shām”, which is Syria.

“Their continual existence to this day is a matter that Muslims should question as they will be asked about it on Judgment Day”.

It is very clear that Daesh’s perverted view of the Islamic faith meant that it had to destroy the Yazidi. No doubt the hon. Member will agree with that.

Photo of Brendan O'Hara Brendan O'Hara Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Inclusive Society), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution), Shadow SNP Deputy Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

I absolutely agree, and I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention. The point about intent is crucial when deciding on genocide; I will expand on that later.

What sets this debate apart from all the others that we have had is the conviction in Germany in November 2021 of the Daesh terrorist Taha al-Jumailly for crimes including genocide and crimes against humanity. Not only is al-Jumailly the first Daesh member to be convicted of genocide against Yazidis, but his conviction means that the threshold demanded by successive UK Governments—that only a competent court can decide what is a genocide—has now been met. By the standard that the Government themselves set, they are now in a position to formally recognise the atrocities carried out by Daesh on the Yazidi people as a genocide.

I will first look at how the UN defines genocide. Then, using harrowing eyewitness testimony from survivors, I will set out why what happened to the Yazidi people more than reaches that threshold. Then I will examine the UK Government’s long-held position on declaring a genocide, and show how the ruling of the Frankfurt criminal court must force them to fundamentally alter how they define genocide and what Daesh did to the Yazidis and other minority communities during its reign of terror.

The United Nations genocide convention has been in place for more than 70 years. It clearly mentions killing, causing serious bodily or mental harm, inflicting conditions calculated to bring about physical destruction, preventing births within a group, and transferring children to another group. When that is done

“with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group”, it constitutes genocide. There is irrefutable proof that what Daesh did meets every single one of those tests without exception.

Since the initial attack on Sinjar, Daesh has killed hundreds, if not thousands, of Yazidis; we do not know the exact number—and may never know it, because graves containing the remains of Yazidi men and boys continue to be discovered to this day. In “They came to destroy”, the United Nations report on Daesh crimes against the Yazidis, the UN stated that Daesh

“swiftly separated men and boys who had reached puberty from women and other children…Following this separation,”

Daesh

“fighters summarily executed men and older boys who refused to convert to Islam...Most of those killed were executed by gunshots to the head;
others had their throats cut…Other captives, including family members, were often forced to witness the killings.”

Daesh also attempted to destroy the Yazidi people by inflicting conditions calculated to bring about their physical destruction, including by cutting off food, water and medical assistance to those who fled to Mount Sinjar to escape the violence. In the summer of 2014, with temperatures rising to above 50°C, American, Iraqi, British, French and Australian forces had to air-drop water and other supplies to the besieged Yazidis on Mount Sinjar. Daesh shot at the planes dropping humanitarian aid and attacked the helicopters attempting to evacuate the most vulnerable in the community.

A favourite Daesh tactic was to separate children from their parents, with girls aged nine years and over being sold as sex slaves, while boys were sent from the age of seven to military training bases in Syria and Iraq. In “They came to destroy”, a 12-year-old boy told of his experiences at the hands of Daesh. He was taken from his family and sent to a camp. He said:

“They told us we had to become good Muslims and fight for Islam. They showed us videos of beheadings, killing and ISIS battles.”

He said that Daesh said:

“You have to kill kuffars even if they are your fathers and brothers, because they belong to the wrong religion and they don’t worship God”.

We know all too well the serious bodily and mental harm suffered by Yazidi women, who were subjected to appalling, barbaric treatment by Daesh, including rape, sexual violence, sexual slavery, forced sterilisation, torture, and all manner of inhumane and degrading treatment. Some may recall that on the day before our debate in 2016, the a 15-year-old Yazidi girl, Ekhlas, spoke to parliamentarians about her experience when Daesh arrived in her village. I will remind Members of what she said:

“There was knock at our door…My father and my two brothers were killed in front of me. They took me away from my mother. He grabbed my arm and my leg and then he raped me. He was 32 years old;
I was 15. After they raped me, they took my friend and they raped her. I could hear her shouting, ‘Where is the mercy? Where is the mercy?’…Any girls over the age of nine were raped”.

That was as difficult to read as it was to hear, but the voices of that community have to be heard, regardless of how harrowing or sickening the detail might be.

Just one of those atrocities would be enough to meet the definition of genocide in the UN genocide convention, if it was perpetrated with the intent of destroying a group in whole or in part. In the case of the Yazidis, every single prohibited act set out in the convention was used by Daesh, and it was done, as the hon. Member for Wealden said, with specific intent to destroy the community. That can be seen in multiple publications by Dabiq, the official mouthpiece of ISIS, that have said absolutely that this assault was planned with the intent of destroying that community. Let us have no debate about Daesh’s intention, because that is very clear.

Photo of Nusrat Ghani Nusrat Ghani Conservative, Wealden

Does the hon. Member share my anxiety that the Minister may, in his response, refer to the terms of the UN genocide convention? We should alert him to the fact that the 2007 ruling of the International Court of Justice in the case of Bosnia and Herzegovina v. Serbia and Montenegro says that when a state—not a court—learns of a serious risk of genocide, then it must act. We cannot keep relying on a defunct UN resolution when we have the ICJ’s 2007 case behind us, supporting the Government’s taking action.

Photo of Brendan O'Hara Brendan O'Hara Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Inclusive Society), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution), Shadow SNP Deputy Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

I thank the hon. Lady for that contribution, which I am sure the Minister heard. I will come on to exactly what the Government have to do, and what they have so far failed to do.

It is beyond question that under international law, the Yazidi people—and other religious minorities in Iraq—were victims of genocide. One would hope that the Government would call these crimes exactly what they are, particularly given that back in 2016, Parliament voted by 278 votes to zero that this was a genocide. By any measure, and on any interpretation of the UN genocide convention, these atrocities clearly meet the legal definition of genocide.

For more than 50 years, successive UK Governments have said that genocide can be declared only by a “competent court”. Many of us have long argued that this was an absurd position for the UK to adopt, because there was absolutely no legal basis for it. Indeed, as the hon. Member for Wealden said, that position is contrary to the UK’s obligation as a signatory to the UN genocide convention, under which the UK has promised to act to prevent genocide the instant it

“learns of, or should normally have learned of, the existence of a serious risk” of genocide.

It is a remarkable feat of political, moral and linguistic gymnastics to reach a position that says that a genocide can be declared only after the event, and only after a court has decreed it a genocide. I have always viewed that as both a legally and morally flawed position that is rooted more in an unwillingness to make hard choices, and a fear of economic consequences or the international strategic implications of upsetting a powerful ally, than in legal principle. It is also a position that our greatest and most powerful ally has diverted from in regard to the Yazidi and other minority communities. In 2016, the United States, under Secretary of State John Kerry, declared:

“Daesh is responsible for genocide”.

That was confirmed in 2017 by his successor, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who said that Daesh was “clearly responsible for genocide” by self-proclamation and deed. Having spoken to former State Department advisers, I know that those words were not said lightly, but came after serious, prolonged analysis and consideration.

The UK Government have had every chance to review and revise their flawed long-standing policy on genocide determination, but they have refused to do so, despite the fact that other states with a similar approach to genocide determination, most notably Canada and the Netherlands, have changed their approach in the light of the evidence. As recently as 27 May last year, the UK Government’s position was reiterated by Lord Ahmad. He could not have been clearer:

The UK policy remains…that the determination of genocide should be made by competent courts, not non-judicial bodies. This includes international courts, such as the ICC, and, indeed, national criminal courts that meet international standards.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 27 May 2021; Vol. 812, c. 178.]

In November 2021, a competent court that meets international standards recognised that Daesh atrocities against the Yazidi people were genocide. When Iraqi national Taha al-Jumailly went on trial accused of genocide and crimes against humanity, he was not tried as a German national. His victims were not German, and his crimes were not committed on German territory; but under the principle of universal jurisdiction, German courts have the authority to preside over cases of genocide and crimes against humanity. Al-Jumailly was found guilty of purchasing and enslaving a five-year-old Yazidi girl and her mother. They were subjected to forced conversion and suffered great physical abuse, including battery and starvation. One day, to punish the child, al-Jumailly chained that little girl outside in the baking sunshine, and left her to die of thirst while her mother was forced to watch.

Following al-Jumailly’s arrest, the court in Frankfurt put the evidence of the Daesh atrocities under detailed legal scrutiny, and applied all relevant international and domestic law before finding him guilty of genocide. The UK Government therefore now have the competent court ruling that they have long desired. I can see so no reason whatsoever why the Government should delay any longer before recognising what Daesh did to the Yazidi people and other religious minorities as genocide. Will the Minister confirm what we all want to hear, and call this barbarism exactly what it is—a genocide?

Other hon. Members are eager to speak; I am extremely grateful to them for coming along this morning. I am sure that they will make the appeal that justice for victims and survivors should be first and foremost in our mind, and will call for the thousands of missing women and girls to be found and returned. I also hope to hear about plans to stabilise the region; an absence of genocide does not mean that Daesh and its hideous ideology have been banished from the region—far from it. There is a genuine fear that they could return at any time.

Finally, later this year the UK is hosting a ministerial summit on freedom of religion or belief. Today, we have an opportunity to show international leadership on that issue by declaring to the world that what happened to the Yazidi community and others was indeed genocide, and by standing in solidarity with the victims and survivors in saying—and meaning—“Never, ever, again.”

Photo of Philip Hollobone Philip Hollobone Conservative, Kettering

The debate will last until 11 o’clock. I am obliged to call the Front-Bench spokespeople no later than 10.27 am, so we have about 40 minutes of Back-Bench time.

Photo of Margaret Ferrier Margaret Ferrier Independent, Rutherglen and Hamilton West 9:47 am, 8th February 2022

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate Brendan O'Hara on securing this important debate, and thank the Backbench Business Committee for agreeing to it. I also thank Ms Ghani for her moving contribution.

I am glad that hon. Members here recognise the genocide perpetrated against Christians and the Yazidi people by Daesh, but I am disheartened by the fact that the Government have not yet followed suit. Almost two weeks ago, many of us contributed to the Backbench Business debate marking Holocaust Memorial Day, in which we again committed to learning the difficult lessons of the holocaust and of genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur. Exactly a week before that, many of us urged the Government to at least assess whether there has been a genocide of the Uyghur people. It is disappointing to be highlighting another instance of the very worst actions of mankind in hopes of Government recognition. It is devastating that such events continue in the modern world at all.

By not acknowledging the plight of the Yazidis as a genocide, the Government are failing the victims. This House voted unanimously to recognise it as such in 2016. This is not an argument of politics or about the technicalities of international law; it is an argument of morals, and of what we are willing to sit by and silently watch continue. In the past year or so, women across the UK have been incensed with rage at the murder of women at the hands of men. The Government voiced their support for those British women, and condemned the violence and abuse suffered every day by thousands across the country. Does the Government’s responsibility to promote and protect women’s equality stop at the UK’s borders? Is women’s equality elsewhere not our problem to worry about or make determinations on?

Where there are wide-reaching campaigns of persecution, such as Daesh’s against Christians and Yazidis, women and girls face the most inconceivable and haunting horrors; we have heard about some of them. We cannot even begin to imagine those horrors, no matter how hard we might try—the trauma of forced sterilisation, rape, sexual mutilation perpetrated against children, lives destroyed before they have even begun, women abused and raped in front of their children, and women sold like cattle from man to man, time and again. There are still 2,763 women and children missing, and they have been missing for seven years. What contribution have this Government made to finding them, rescuing them or even finding out if they are alive? It is not enough simply to condemn these atrocities. The Government will not even use the word that defines them—genocide. Imagine, as a survivor, how that must feel.

There needs to be recognition of what survivors have lived through, and of what many did not survive. We all remember the headlines from those early years of conflict—the frequent news stories of British citizens leaving the UK to join Daesh in the conflict, or of those who joined Daesh but remained here at home. The UK is not entirely removed from these crimes against humanity in ways, we might argue, we are from other conflicts. Have the Government made any assessment of how many British citizens had a hand in these crimes?

No colleague here will need reminding of my final point. Unfortunately, the UK has its own issues that it must address when it comes to religious intolerance. There is a risk, whenever issues such as this come back into the public spotlight, that everyone of the same background becomes tarred with the same brush. Islam is a peaceful religion, as most are, when they are observed as they were intended to be. The word “Islam” means peace and submission. We must not let those who subvert its teachings to justify terror and atrocities stoke fear of religion, or fear of those of the faith. These atrocities are not committed in the name of Islam, but in the name of control. We cannot allow Daesh to retain control of this narrative.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health) 9:51 am, 8th February 2022

I thank Brendan O'Hara for setting the scene so well. He illustrated the issues, which are painful to listen to; I find it incredibly difficult, but as I said to Feryal Clark before the debate, we want to ensure through this debate, our Government and our Minister that the issue of the Yazidis and Christians who were horribly mutilated, abused and kidnapped, and whose lives changed for ever because of the evil intent of Daesh/ISIS and radical Islamicists, is not ignored. Today, in this House, we have a chance to remind the world of what happened and ask our Minister and Government to take forward our pleas on their behalf.

In 2017 or 2018, I had occasion to visit Iraq with Aid to the Church in Need. It was before Mosul fell. I remember being on the plains of Nineveh, which the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute referred to. We became very conscious of where the saints had walked, according to the Bible, and, secondly, where Yazidis and Christians had at one time lived in peace and harmony with their neighbours. The people we spoke to told us the stories that were happening and the change in their lives. That reminded us clearly of the suffering and pain.

As chair of the all-party parliamentary group on international freedom of religion or belief, I am, very sadly, all too familiar with the issue of genocide and ethnic cleansing. There is not a day when we are not reminded of where that is taking place across the world. We have had debates in this Chamber about the Uyghurs, and our debate a few weeks ago reminded us of other atrocities across the world. We have a prayer time in the morning when we remember all the places across the world where many have evil intent and the innocence of families—women, girls, boys and men—is abused by evil people.

Today, we need to state that it is critical that Her Majesty’s Government recognise a genocide for what it is. We hope that that might help bring dignity to the victims and aid the prosecution of the perpetrators. I am a great believer—you probably are as well, Mr Hollobone—that when this world ends, the next world will come. There will be a judgment day for the people who carried out these most horrific and horrible of crimes. I would love to see them getting their judgment earlier—in this world, rather than in the next. I would expedite that if it was humanly possible, because those people who wander the world and commit awful crimes seem to think that they are above the law. No, they are not, and this debate aims to hold them accountable in law. Again, we are eternally grateful to the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute for securing the debate.

In April 2016, the House voted unanimously to recognise Daesh’s crimes against the Yazidis and other religious minorities as genocide; that followed similar motions in the House of Lords—a combination of the two Houses together. However, the Government’s long held position, that they should wait for a ruling from a court or tribunal before declaring a genocide, prevented recognition of the crimes at that time.

As the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute mentioned, on 30 November, in a court in Frankfurt, Taha al-Jumailly—hell will never be full until he is there, that is for sure—became the first member of ISIS to be convicted of genocide against the Yazidis. The landmark ruling fulfils Her Majesty’s Government’s requirement of a competent court ruling on genocide. Following that, a letter was sent to the Prime Minister, asking whether his Government would now recognise the crimes. So far, there has been no response to the letter. I ask the Minister—I say this respectfully, as he knows—to remind the Prime Minister that it is time to respond to the letter so that this House, through today’s debate, can see what is happening.

The UK would not be alone in recognising the genocide; in fact, it would join some of our country’s closest allies. The USA was the first country to recognise the Daesh genocide, under the Obama Administration. In 2016, both Canada and the Netherlands also recognised the genocide, after a report was published by the UN Investigative Team to Promote Accountability for Crimes Committed by Da’esh, entitled “‘They Came to Destroy’: ISIS Crimes Against the Yazidis”.

It is horrible to recount what has happened to a group of gentle people who have a religious belief. We in this House, including all those who have spoken in the debate and all those who are present, speak up for those with Christian beliefs, those with other beliefs and those with no belief. We believe in the freedom to exercise one’s religious belief and that human rights are so important and need to be retained. That is why we are here today to make this plea on behalf of the Yazidis.

There is a strong legal justification for the UK to recognise this horrendous act as genocide, and it is time that it did. The reasons for the urgency can be summarised as follows. First, it is important to acknowledge what has happened. The act of genocide is a deliberate attempt to destroy a targeted group of people, and Daesh/ISIS set out to do that with vengeance and cruelty. In acknowledging what has happened, we have a duty to protect the victims and ensure that there are safeguards to prevent future atrocities.

It is important to remember that this is not a historical event, but a situation in which action is still needed to help the survivors. Tens of thousands of Yazidis are still living in tent camps, unable to access Government funds to rebuild their towns and villages, which were destroyed by Daesh. I know that the issue is not the Minister’s direct responsibility—it is the responsibility of another Minister at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office—but what can be done to help those families get back to their homes and build their houses, villages and towns so that they can try to restart their lives, ever mindful of the horrible atrocities carried out against them? Some 2,700 Yazidi women and children are still missing, having been kidnapped by Daesh. Many are believed to be held in al-Hawl and al-Roj detention camps, trapped with 60,000 former Daesh members and fighters. We need little imagination to recognise and imagine the horrors that women and girls suffer daily in those camps.

It is important to recognise this as a genocide because it is important to prosecute the perpetrators and put them in jail—if the death penalty were still available, we should give them that for what they have carried out. It is very clear in my mind what they have done, and I recognise their brutality and murderous intent. It is time for them to take responsibility for their actions. The prosecution of those who carry out such crimes provides justice for the victims and sends a strong message to the perpetrators of other genocides that the international community, including here in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, are watching and will hold actors accountable for their actions. Prosecutions will also allow for the seizing of assets—yes, hit them where it hurts, in their pockets—used for the conduct of genocide. The removal of assets prevents ongoing atrocities and aids reparations for surviving victims. Ultimately, victims need money and finance when they go back to rebuild their lives.

Unfortunately, prosecution has been slow. So far, only one member of Daesh has been prosecuted with charges relating to genocide, in a criminal trial in Germany. The UK has prosecuted nationals who have returned from Iraq and Syria after joining Daesh. I welcome that, by the way, as a clear statement and clear action, but all 40 of those individuals have been prosecuted under anti-terror legislation, with no reference to crimes related to genocide or the sexual exploitation of women and children. Will the Minister respond on that?

Recommendation 21.b of the Bishop of Truro’s review of Christian persecution recommends that those at the FCDO

“champion the prosecution of ISIS perpetrators of sex crimes against Yazidi and Christian women, not only as terrorists.”

I am ever mindful that some parts of the Bishop of Truro’s report have not yet been acted on, but I thank the Government and the Minister for the conference that will take place in July this year to highlight all the issues. The Government have been a driver in this, and I give credit to those who have tried hard to make things happen. On the issue of recommendation 21.b, I ask the Minister to give us some thoughts. Her Majesty’s Government have pledged to adopt all recommendations of the Truro review by the summer of 2022. That is coming soon, so in the next three or four months we want to see that happening. To meet that recommendation, the UK needs to expand prosecutions against former Daesh members to include those crimes.

Finally, it is important to recognise genocide, as part of our international obligation to prevent future genocides. Ms Ghani was here earlier; for the record, I should say that I greatly admire her fortitude and courage in speaking out for the Uyghurs and doing the same again here today on behalf of others. That illustrates our frustration as elected representatives: we recognise evil and the evil intent of people, but we expect—I say this with respect—our Government and Minister to do something about it, after the pleas we make on behalf of those who have suffered.

The UK is a signatory to the 1948 convention on genocide, which governs the steps that states must take to prevent genocide from occurring and to punish perpetrators after the crime has been committed. Today, in the debate, we need assurances so that we are confident that our Government and our Minister are taking every step possible to ensure that the perpetrators of those evil crimes will go to court and be subject to whatever the judgment of the court will be.

Her Majesty’s Government’s approach of waiting until a court or tribunal has ruled on genocide prevents the UK from doing more to stop genocides from occurring before they happen. With real grief in my heart, I look to the Government and the Minister to recognise the words that we are saying, although words in no way encapsulate what we are trying to say—words barely describe the issues. I know that the Minister understands, because he is of the same mind as me and as others present who find what has happened grievous to listen to, and more so when considering what we need to do.

In recommendation 7 of the Bishop of Truro’s report, he asks the Government to

“Ensure that there are mechanisms in place to facilitate an immediate response to atrocity crimes, including genocide…and…be willing to make public statements condemning such atrocities.”

I have mentioned the report a couple of times—the earlier recommendation and this one. We look to the Government’s commitment that the adoption of all the recommendations will be finalised and concluded by the summer of this year. We need to have that assurance.

This is my last paragraph. The international obligations are important, as they help prevent future crimes. Sadly, the genocide against the Yazidis by Daesh is not unique. It is terrible to recall what happened, but we also recognise that genocide has been carried out in other parts of the world. Religious or ethnic minorities are at risk, including of genocide, in many situations.

In conclusion, I thank the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute and other speakers, and I look forward to the contribution from Bambos Charalambous, who would contribute to a debate such as this even if he were not shadow Minister. I also look forward to hearing from Martyn Day, my friend and colleague from the APPG, who understands these issues well.

We have a duty to speak up for the Yazidis and Christians and that is what we have done, in a compassionate way that matters to us. We look to the Minister and our Government to ensure that there is accountability for what has happened to the Yazidis and Christians in northern Iraq and elsewhere. There must be accountability, recognition of genocide and completion of the recommendations in the Bishop of Truro’s report.

Photo of Feryal Clark Feryal Clark Shadow Minister (Health and Social Care) 10:06 am, 8th February 2022

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I start by paying tribute to Brendan O'Hara for securing today’s debate, for his advocacy on the issue, as vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on British Turks and Kurds, and for setting out clearly the steps our Government can take to correct a wrong.

I am an ethnic Kurd and speak Kurdish—something I share with the Yazidi Kurds in Iraq. In 2014, I watched as thousands of Yazidis were dislocated from their homes and I felt really helpless. I wrote to my MP, and tried to get their voices heard and recognised. I am proud to be here as a voice for the Yazidis and to support colleagues in this debate.

I was pleased when a debate finally took place in the House in 2016; this is not the first time the issue has been brought to the UK Parliament. In April 2016, the voice of the House was expressed clearly when it voted 278 to zero to recognise the atrocities committed by Daesh against the Yazidis and other religious minorities.

Unfortunately, the Government did not listen then, deeming that it was up to a credible court to make such a designation. As we heard from the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute, the criteria have been met as a result of the conviction in Germany. I am keen to hear from the Minister the steps our Government will take in response. Too often, sadly, it feels as though these discussions are treated as symbolic—merely a gesture to be made. That approach completely fails to acknowledge the duty imposed on states under international law, the role that developed nations such as the UK should play, and the real stories behind the genocide.

By recognising genocide, we are not just making a statement. We are taking practical steps to support those affected by the atrocities committed. In the case of the Yazidi genocide, the stories from victims should compel all of us to act. Daesh did not seek only to eradicate the Yazidi people; they sought the utter destruction of a community, its culture and its dignity.

Article 2 of the convention on the prevention and punishment of the crime of genocide sets out the prohibited acts that constitute genocide. One such condition is:

“Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part”.

It is on this that I will focus the remainder of my remarks. By subjecting women to organised sexual violence and enslavement on such a massive scale, Daesh undoubtedly sought their physical destruction. Rape, mutilation, forced sterilisation—these are just some of the things Daesh subjected Yazidi women to. This was not just violence and it was not an act of war: it was an attempt to systematically break the spirit of a people and bring about their physical destruction.

We have heard harrowing accounts of Yazidi women and girls from other hon. Members. I will share a testimony from a girl captured by Daesh at just 12 years old. She said:

“We were registered. ISIS took our names…where we came from and whether we were married or not. After that, ISIS fighters would come to select girls to go with them. The youngest girls I saw them take was about 9 years old. One girl told me that ‘if they take you, it is better that you kill yourself.’”

This girl was just 12 years old when she was captured. She was held by Daesh for seven months and was sold in that period four times. She was not thought of as a child, as vulnerable; she was treated as a commodity to be traded for the gratification of ISIS men. Daesh had so low a view of the value of Yazidi life that they stripped away all basic humanity and treated these women as mere goods.

Recognising the Yazidi genocide is not a gesture. It is not symbolic. It is an acknowledgement of how these women suffered and a commitment to help them. We know that thousands of Yazidi remain missing, yet we do nothing. We know the humanitarian crisis is ever growing, yet we do nothing. We can no longer stand by and look the Yazidi people in the eye and do nothing. Recognition is not an end point; it is not the conclusion of our responsibilities. It is the start of properly understanding the events that took place and of playing our part in ensuring that they never happen again.

The Government must act now and take steps to call this what it is: a genocide. I look forward to the Minister’s response and to hearing his views on the criteria that have been met and what our Government will do.

Photo of Philip Hollobone Philip Hollobone Conservative, Kettering

We know come to the Front-Bench spokespeople, the first of whom will be Martyn Day from the SNP.

Photo of Martyn Day Martyn Day Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Health and Social Care) 10:13 am, 8th February 2022

I am grateful to my hon. Friend Brendan O'Hara for securing this important debate and for his important work with the all-party parliamentary group, championing this issue over recent years. As we have heard, the Yazidis are a religious minority primarily residing in northern Iraq. Yazidism is one of the world’s oldest monotheistic religions and has survived many genocides throughout history; a figure of 74 genocides has been quoted by the Yazidis themselves.

In August 2014, Yazidis were attacked by Daesh, who then controlled significant amounts of territory in Iraq and Syria. In addition to the attacks against the Yazidis, Christians, Mandaeans, Turkmen, Shabaks and other minorities were also targeted. There was mass slaughtering that wiped out entire villages, forced conversions, thousands of young women sold into slavery and raped and young boys trained as child soldiers. Figures from last year estimate that there were some 200,000 displaced Yazidis, with thousands of women and girls missing, still in Daesh captivity. It is estimated that more than 5,000 were killed, although the actual number is uncertain, as is the number captured or missing. Unquestionably, the treatment of this minority is an atrocity and something that we can all unite in calling out. We can also all unite in our opposition to Daesh, and in sympathy with the plight of the Yazidis.

However, the question is, what can be done about it? What can we do to help, and how can we hold the perpetrators of this violence to account? We have already heard quite a number of constructive suggestions, but so far, very few of the perpetrators have been brought to justice. Recognising the atrocities as genocide, and as crimes against humanity, is therefore a first key step.

In 2016, a UN human rights panel and the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, described the actions against the Yazidis as constituting genocide. A further UN investigative team in 2021 concluded that there was “clear and convincing evidence” of genocide. As we have heard, in April 2016 this Parliament unanimously voted—278 to nil—to recognise the Daesh atrocities against the Yazidis, and others, as genocide. As we know, the UK Government did not recognise it as genocide, instead standing by their policy that determination of genocide is a matter for a competent court to decide, rather than Governments. Competent courts include the International Criminal Court, the International Court of Justice and national criminal courts, so it is significant that the German court found a Daesh fighter guilty of genocide on 30 November 2021—the first genocide conviction of a Daesh fighter in the world.

The UN Investigative Team to Promote Accountability for Crimes Committed by Da’esh/Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant works to prepare evidence to support national authorities’ efforts to bring prosecutions. It has identified 1,444 potential perpetrators of attacks against the Yazidis.

While usually a state only has jurisdiction if crimes happen on its soil, or are committed by its nationals or against its people, the Germans, as we have heard, used the principle of universal jurisdiction—a principle that came into existence following the second world war, as some crimes were considered so grave that they could be prosecuted universally, irrespective of where they took place. That verdict by a competent court must surely now lead to the UK’s recognising the crimes as genocide. I add my voice, and those of my party, to calls for the UK to do that.

There is so much more that I would like to see the UK Government do. Hundreds of thousands of Yazidis now live in displacement camps, and have for seven years. Without a timeline to close those camps, there is no end to the misery and displacement in sight. Kris Phelps, of the British charity War Child—one of the few international non-governmental organisations still working in the Yazidi camps—said:

“Yazidis feel betrayed by their neighbours, forgotten by their government, and the provision of aid is dwindling…It’s really striking to see the surge and ebb in attention the Yazidis have received”.

UK aid should be supporting those desperate and largely ignored families but, as we know, UK bilateral aid into Iraq has all but dried up. We ask, therefore, that the UK Government provide more bilateral aid and improve funding to the United Nations Development Programme’s funding facility for stabilisation, providing some basic services in Iraq.

On top of that form of abandonment, the UK Home Office has so far not taken a single Yazidi refugee. That should be contrasted with the UK Government’s having spent £8.4 billion on military operations in Iraq between 2003 and 2009. More needs to be done. The UK must work with international counterparts to help trace the thousands of missing Yazidis, and to advocate for and better fund the full provision of the Yazidi survivors law, which passed in Iraq in March 2021.

Perhaps the Minister can explain why the UK Government still do not have a whole-of-government atrocity prevention strategy, or why they do not designate the destruction of cultural heritage as an early warning sign of atrocity crimes—something that happened in the Yazidi case—in line with the requirements of the UN framework of analysis for atrocity crimes. It is not good enough. Atrocities are becoming more commonplace across the globe, and there appears to be a rising sense of impunity among the perpetrators. Only one person has been convicted following the atrocities committed against the Yazidi people.

I hope that the Minister will step up to the mark and show willing for the UK to take the lead in rectifying those wrongs. A good starting point is with the recognition of the crimes as genocide. Then, perhaps, the UK Government could press for the use of universal jurisdiction to be replicated by Governments around the world in such cases. We need to improve legislation globally and avoid loopholes through which perpetrators can escape justice. More support from the UK Government must be provided to Kurdish and Iraqi authorities to help them improve their judicial systems. We also need to tackle questions of immunity of senior Syrian officials to make sure that nobody stands above the law. In short, we need firm action—not lip service.

Photo of Bambos Charalambous Bambos Charalambous Shadow Minister (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs) 10:20 am, 8th February 2022

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I thank Brendan O'Hara for securing this important debate. Many horrors, atrocities and human rights abuses have been committed during the war in Syria, but the genocide against the Yazidi people carried out by Daesh between 2014 and 2017 must rank as one of the worst.

Human rights and international law must always be our guiding principles as Members of Parliament. Only by standing up for human rights and the rule of international law can we in the UK have any moral authority in the eyes of the world; only by standing up for those values can we transcend the push and pull of sectarian politics. When it comes to the horrific situation endured by the Yazidi people, the Labour party, including myself, believes that the UK Government must do everything in their power to ensure that there is justice for the victims. The UK Government must recognise their duty to stand up for human rights in this situation.

In an ideal world, the determination of genocide would be made by a competent court with full access to all necessary evidence. Unfortunately, as hon. Members present will appreciate, the world is far from ideal. There are many situations where the international courts are unable to make that determination, either because of questions relating to the jurisdiction of the court or because the process has been blocked by a party to the proceedings. In such cases, when the preferred legal routes to recognising genocide are blocked, it falls to Parliament to take action as a last resort. In this case, that action is to recognise what happened to the Yazidi people as genocide.

The definition of genocide is very important, both as an assertion of the truth and as a crucial step to establishing international mechanisms for accountability. As the hon. Members for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) and for Strangford (Jim Shannon) have mentioned, in 2016, the House of Commons voted 278 to zero that IS, or Daesh, was committing genocide against the Yazidis, Christians and other ethnic and religious minorities in Iraq and Syria; yet the Government did not accept that expression of the will of the House, instead arguing that the matter of genocide should be decided by a competent court. So, while the Government have condemned the atrocities against the Yazidis, they have not done the one thing in their power that could really help the situation.

In fact, I argue that the Government’s long-standing policy that any determination of genocide should be made by competent courts, rather than the Government, is unhelpful to the victims of the genocide and the international pursuit of justice. As my neighbour and hon. Friend Feryal Clark stated, recognising the genocide of the Yazidi people would be a practical step in helping the victims.

Without the events of 2014 to 2017 being defined as genocide, Daesh fighters are currently predominantly prosecuted for offences other than genocide, with terror-related offences the primary offence used in prosecutions. It is really important that everyone understands that prosecutions for terror-related offences serve only to undermine the true severity of the crimes perpetrated against the Yazidis. While Daesh fighters can be partially held to account via the mechanism of terror-related offences, a formal recognition of genocide would allow for greater justice for victims of genocide.

We saw moral leadership on this matter in Germany in December 2021 when, for the first time, a Daesh member was convicted of genocide against the Yazidi community. Germany’s use of universal jurisdiction in that case can and should be replicated by other Governments, including our own.

I would like to explain why it was indeed a genocide. As is well known, between 2014 and 2017 Daesh committed the most heinous atrocities against the Yazidi community in Iraq. In 2016, a UN human rights panel and the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, described the actions of IS, or Daesh, against the Yazidis as constituting genocide. In 2021, a further UN investigative team concluded that there was “clear and convincing evidence” of genocide against the Yazidis.

It is worth noting exactly what the UN said in its report and why it chose to use the word genocide.

ISIS has sought to erase the Yazidis through killings;
sexual slavery, enslavement, torture and inhuman and degrading treatment and forcible transfer causing serious bodily and mental harm;
the infliction of conditions of life that bring about a slow death;
the imposition of measures to prevent Yazidi children from being born, including forced conversion of adults, the separation of Yazidi men and women, and mental trauma;
and the transfer of Yazidi children from their own families and placing them with ISIS fighters, thereby cutting them off from beliefs and practices of their own religious community”.

It is now known that around 10,000 Yazidis were either killed or captured in August 2014 alone, out of which 3,100 were murdered by gunshots, beheaded or burned alive. Perhaps one of the most horrific aspects of the Yazidi genocide was the way in which Daesh systematically separated the women to rape, sexually mutilate and sterilise, while many children were sent to training camps. Sexual violence against the Yazidi women captured by Daesh occurred on a horrific scale; it was the systematic use of sexual violence as a tool of genocide. Around 7,000 women were sold as sex slaves, or handed to jihadists as concubines. Girls as young as nine were sold off to Islamic State fighters, routinely raped, and punished with extreme violence when they tried to escape. Children were killed as a means of punishing their mothers for resisting.

There is no doubt that the atrocities perpetrated by Daesh, including massacres, enslavement, conscription and rape, have inflicted communal and individual trauma on the Yazidi people. A study published in 2018 by BMC Medicine found that more than 80% of participants, mainly Yazidi women aged between 17 and 75, met the criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder. The rates reached nearly 100% for women who had survived captivity.

There is nothing that can undo this unimaginable suffering and the trauma it has caused for the survivors of the Yazidi genocide, but by showing leadership and formally calling the genocide by its name, the UK Government could establish or strengthen international mechanisms for justice. Crucially, it would be an honest and true reflection of the events that occurred on the ground. For the survivors of the genocide, who still live with unimaginable trauma, the recognition of genocide for what it is might perhaps do something to lessen the emotional weight of the injustice.

I would like to conclude by saying that when it comes to human rights, there is no left or right, only right and wrong. I put the following questions to the Minister: first, would he reconsider the Government’s decision not to declare what has happened to the Yazidi people as a genocide; and secondly, will he do all in his power to help those who have suffered, and continue to suffer, from the Yazidi genocide to get justice? The Government must and should recognise the massacre of the Yazidi people at the hands of Daesh. It is morally and ethically the right thing to do. It is genocide.

Photo of Chris Heaton-Harris Chris Heaton-Harris Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office), Chief Whip 10:27 am, 8th February 2022

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I am grateful to Brendan O'Hara for securing this debate in the time apportioned by the Backbench Business Committee. I pay tribute to his work as a member of the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief. The Minister for the Middle East, North Africa and North America would have been delighted to take part in this debate as part of his responsibilities, but he is travelling on ministerial duties. It is therefore my pleasure to respond on behalf of the Government. While I am sure the hon. Gentleman will understand that I am not the Minister with responsibility for this area, I do recognise the decent and honest conviction and the passion that he brought to the debate.

I am also grateful for the contributions from all other hon. Members, and I will try to respond to many of the points they have raised. I would like to acknowledge the hon. Members for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier), for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for Enfield North (Feryal Clark), as well as the two Opposition spokesmen, the hon. Members for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day) and for Enfield, Southgate (Bambos Charalambous), for their contributions.

It is without doubt that the Yazidis have suffered immense pain and loss through the abhorrent crimes that Daesh has inflicted on them, some of which have been highlighted in the most harrowing terms today. The UK Government are steadfast in our support for the Yazidis and other religious minorities whose human rights have been so brutally violated by Daesh. We are committed to ensuring that the voices of those murdered, persecuted and silenced are heard, and that justice is secured for the survivors.

Nearly eight years ago, Daesh launched a brutal offensive against Sinjar—a region of northern Iraq. It killed up to 10,000 Yazidi people and forced thousands to flee their homes. It subjected them to torture, sexual violence and enslavement. Thousands of Yazidis, among Christians, Turkmens and other minorities, suffered unimaginable violence. The impact of these crimes resonates to this day.

Iraq’s religious and ethnic minority populations have dwindled as so many people have fled conflict and persecution. Amnesty International reports that 2,000 Yazidi children who were captured by Daesh have faced horrendous physical and mental trauma and now require urgent support from the Iraqi Government. Nearly 3,000 women and girls remain in captivity and 200,000 Yazidis remain displaced, living in camps without basic necessities. A wave of recent suicides among Yazidis grimly illustrates the mental health crisis they are facing. We condemn in the strongest terms the atrocities committed by Daesh against all civilians, including Yazidis, other minorities and the majority Muslim population in Syria and Iraq.

The hon. Member for Argyll and Bute described the Government’s policy. It is the long-standing policy of the British Government that the determination of genocide should be made by a competent court. Whether or not that determination is made, we are committed to robust action. In 2017, the UK was instrumental in the adoption of UN resolution 2379, which established the UN investigative team to promote accountability for crimes committed by Daesh. Since then, a huge amount of work has taken place to gather evidence to map the appalling crimes of Daesh. The UK Government have contributed nearly £2 million to the team, and we continue to champion its vital work. Above all, Yazidis and all other Iraqis deserve a safe and secure future, which is why we remain a leading member of the global coalition against Daesh, supporting the Government of Iraq to ensure that Daesh can never recover and repeat its appalling crimes.

Every hon. Member has asked about the UK Government’s position on the recent ruling of genocide in Germany. I will start by saying we condemn in the strongest terms the atrocities committed by Daesh against all civilians. We note the conviction in the German court on 30 November of a former Daesh fighter for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide against a Yazidi woman and her daughter. We are closely following the case and the review. Following the proceedings in the Frankfurt Higher Regional Court, the Federal Court of Justice is reviewing the case. As a Minister who is not within his portfolio, I am hesitant to comment further on ongoing legal proceedings.

To reduce the risk of a Daesh resurgence, it is essential to build a more stable and inclusive Iraq. The UK has designated Iraq as a human rights priority country. Work to promote and defend freedom of religion or belief in Iraq is at the centre of that strategy. We believe passionately that the freedom to choose and practise a religion or to have no religion at all is a universal human right that everyone should enjoy. We are standing up for those who face religious persecution and those denied the right to practise their faith or belief freely. We continue to press the Government of Iraq and the Kurdistan Regional Government to promote freedom of religion or belief and to improve the lives of religious minorities.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

In my contribution, I asked what would be done to enable Yazidis and Christians to return to their villages, towns and homes and to rebuild their lives, jobs and communities. It is important that, if they wish to return, every encouragement is given for that to happen. I understand that it is not the Minister’s portfolio, but I would be grateful if he could answer that now or perhaps give us an answer later.

Photo of Chris Heaton-Harris Chris Heaton-Harris Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office), Chief Whip

I hope to cover that in the rest of my contribution, but if that is not the case, and the hon. Gentleman taps me on the shoulder afterwards, I will ensure that I write to all present in the Chamber.

The Government of Iraq and the Kurdistan Regional Government must ensure that religious minorities are protected and included in decision making that affects their lives. As part of that, we meet frequently with religious minorities to show support and advocate against the insecurity, discrimination and inadequate public support they experience. His Holiness the Pope’s historic visit to Iraq last year sent a welcome message of peace and reconciliation to Iraqis of all faiths and reminded us all of the importance of dialogue and understanding between religions.

We are also supporting the most vulnerable people in Iraq, including the Yazidis, with humanitarian aid and stabilisation support. We have provided more than £270 million since 2014 in humanitarian support, including emergency food, shelter and medical care, in addition to money through the UN development programme to restore vital services, including hospitals, schools and water networks in areas that are home to Yazidi and minority communities, such as Sinjar and Sinuni.

It is also vital that we ensure that the Yazidis’ cultural identity, memories and practices are preserved, and we are supporting this through the work of the British Council’s cultural protection fund. That fund is helping the AMAR Foundation—a wonderful charity—to record and teach the unique music of the Yazidi people, helping to preserve it for future generations. That includes setting up a women’s choir in one of the camps for internally displaced persons. That cultural protection fund is also supporting the University of Liverpool’s work to preserve Yazidi culture and identity through filming their oral histories, festivals and rituals. We are funding Yazda, a non-governmental organisation, to provide much-needed mental health and psychosocial care to female survivors of sexual violence and conflict.

These projects offer a lifeline, but much more can be done by the Iraqi authorities and the international community. Last year, the Iraqi Parliament passed the Yazidi survivors law, a hugely positive step that officially recognised Daesh crimes against Yazidi and other minority groups as crimes against humanity and genocide. That law promises compensation and rehabilitation measures to support the survivors of Daesh atrocities. The UK will continue to press the authorities on those measures, and we are working with a range of organisations to support the law’s implementation. The Government of Iraq must fully deliver on their promises so that survivors can begin to rebuild their lives and return to the places that they call home. That includes funding for Iraq’s general directorate for Yazidi survivor affairs through our preventing sexual violence in conflict initiative.

I will conclude by again stressing our firm resolve to help Iraq build a future in which all groups can thrive and prosper. I commend the courage of the Yazidi people in continuing their fight for justice; their recovery and rehabilitation remains a priority. I commend every Member who has contributed today, including my hon. Friend Ms Ghani, who was in the Chamber earlier. We will continue to work with the Government of Iraq to secure accountability and justice for Yazidi survivors and the other communities that suffered so dreadfully at the hands of Daesh.

Photo of Brendan O'Hara Brendan O'Hara Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Inclusive Society), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution), Shadow SNP Deputy Spokesperson (Cabinet Office) 10:38 am, 8th February 2022

I put on record my thanks to my hon. Friend Martyn Day, to the hon. Members for Wealden (Ms Ghani), for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier), for Strangford (Jim Shannon), for Enfield North (Feryal Clark) and for Enfield, Southgate (Bambos Charalambous), and to the Minister for what has been an interesting and informative debate. I am glad that the issues of the missing women and girls and of bringing stability to the region have been raised, but the crux of the debate was always that the threshold the Government set themselves has been met. The competent court threshold has been met, and by any standard and any definition, genocide has been established.

I am so disappointed that the Government still will not call this out and call it what it is. I understand that the federal court in Germany is reviewing this case, but across the world, this genocide has been recognised, and we should be taking a lead on this matter, not hiding behind an appeal to a German federal court to block us from doing what we know is the right thing. We wrote to the Prime Minister on this issue, but we have had no response; I would appreciate it if the Minister could raise this with the PM and tell him that we would still appreciate a response. As the hon. Member for Enfield North said, recognition is not an end in itself: it is the start of a process of righting an historical wrong, and we have a moral responsibility to call this what it is. This is a genocide.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House
has considered the Yazidi genocide.

Sitting suspended.