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
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.