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.