The Gendering of Genocide: ISIS’s Crimes Against the Yazidis

Publication Date: 
Thursday, August 4, 2016
Médecins Sans Frontières, 2014

ISIS is committing genocide and other international crimes against the Yazidi minority in Iraq and Syria, as determined by the latest report of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic. According to the Commission, at least 3,200 Yazidi women and children remain in the hands of ISIS, and thousands of Yazidi men and boys are missing, meaning that “[t]he genocide of the Yazidis is ongoing.” The Commission’s report also underscores an important realization – that the logic, nature, and commission of genocide is highly gendered – and that legal, policy and humanitarian responses must take account of this reality.

First they kill the men, then they take the women

With its attack on the Sinjar region of northern Iraq on 3 August 2014 - two years ago this week - ISIS set in motion a targeted campaign of destruction of the Yazidis, a small ethnic and religious minority long persecuted as accused ‘unbelievers’ or ‘infidels’. As ISIS targeted the Yazidi community – both men and women – for destruction as a distinct religious group, argues the report, its violence followed strictly a gendered logic and pattern.

After capturing Yazidi families in Sinjar, ISIS fighters first separated men and boys from women and younger children. For thousands of Yazidi men and boys aged approximately 12 and above, this initially meant forced conversion to Islam or summary execution. Those forcibly converted to Islam were transferred to other sites and forced in labor as ISIS captives; many were not heard from again. While Yazidi boys were initially held captive along with their mothers, those aged seven and above were eventually separated and taken to ISIS training camps, where they are indoctrinated as ISIS fighters alongside Sunni Arab boys, while also being systematically stripped of their Yazidi identities – including through forcible conversion to Islam and the imposition of new names and identities.

For thousands of Yazidi women and girls aged 9 and above, capture means forced separation from their families and transfer to multiple holding sites in Iraq and Syria where they have been held captive, abused, and sold at market to other ISIS members as sex slaves. Younger children were initially held in captivity and slavery along with their mothers – suffering abuse and violence as well as witnessing the prolonged and intensive suffering of their mothers. Upon reaching the age of nine, girls have also been separated and sold into slavery.

The “distinct and systematic violations” suffered by each group, notes the report, are sanctioned under ISIS’s strict ideological framework. This radical theology, writes Rukmini Callimachi, emphasizes a “narrow and selective reading of the Quran and other religious rulings to not only justify violence, but also to elevate and celebrate each sexual assault as spiritually beneficial, even virtuous.”

Gender and genocide

ISIS’s highly gendered crimes against Yazidi women, men, girls, and boys – amounting to genocide in the view of the Commission – follow a pattern seen in a number of other conflicts, from Bosnia and Rwanda to Darfur, Iraq and Syria. While research shows that sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) is not inevitable in armed conflict, preventing, suppressing and punishing such violence remains a major challenge. Moreover, developments in international law and jurisprudence in recent decades have ensured that SGBV, while still prevalent, is now punishable as an international crime. Therefore, the handling of SGBV serves as an illustrative lens for understanding the evolution of international law with regard to gender and atrocities; as previously noted here, IHL explicitly prohibits sexual violence as a weapon of war, and a growing list of sexual and gender-based crimes are punishable internationally, including as war crimes, crimes against humanity and of genocide.

The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) was the first to recognize rape and sexual slavery as war crimes and crime against humanity, starting with a 1996 indictment and 2001 conviction in the Foca case. The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC), adopted two years later, also defines rape as a war crime, crime against humanity and acts of genocide; this year, the Bemba case (2016) marked the ICC’s first conviction of sexual violence crimes, with rape as both a war crime and crime against humanity.

Sexual and gender-based violence is also increasingly recognized as a central element of the crime of genocide. Article II of the 1948 Genocide Convention defines genocide as:

any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

(a) Killing members of the group;

(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;

(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;

(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;

(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

While gender is not explicitly listed as one of the protected groups (i.e. national, ethnical, racial or religious) under the Convention – and was not considered by the drafters at the time – it is implicit in several of the prohibited acts, including the prevention of births and forcible transfer of children.

However, sexual and gender-based violence has increasingly been recognized as a key component of genocide through the jurisprudence of international criminal tribunals. In 1998, for instance, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) issued the first ever conviction of rape as a component of genocide in the Akayesu case. The Trail Chamber held that:

These rapes resulted in the physical and psychological destruction of the Tutsi women, their families and their communities. Sexual violence was an integral part of the process of destruction, specifically targeting Tutsi women and specifically contributing to their destruction and to the destruction of the Tutsi group as a whole (para. 731).

[…] Sexual violence was a step in the process of destruction of the tutsi group -destruction of the spirit, of the will to live, and of life itself (para. 732).

That same year, the ICTY confirmed in the Furundžija case that rape may be a tool of genocide, and in 2001 it established a link between rape and ethnic cleansing as a precursor to genocide in the Krstić case.

Indeed, the pattern of genocide in Bosnia, as in other countries, showed strong similarities with that of ISIS against the Yazidis, including the capture and separation of men from women and children, execution of men, forcible transfer and systematic rape and sexual slavery of Bosniak women and girls. A notable difference between the two cases is the forced impregnation of Bosniak women with “Serb” babies, whereas ISIS has forced birth control on Yazidi captives to prevent births; both methods, however, seek to prevent births within the group and transfer children to the other group – prohibited acts of genocide.

“In the public imagination, genocide often signifies organized mass killing,” says Sareta Ashraph, chief analyst on the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, “The ongoing genocide of the Yazidis underscores that genocide can be committed through gendered non-killing crimes, such as rape and violence. Historically, alongside killings, it is these prohibited acts that often comprise the female experience of genocide.”

Sexual and gender-based violence can therefore be considered a crime in multiple senses: as an act of genocide; as a war crime or crime against humanity against the women (and men) who suffer it directly; and as an offense against the relatives and communities of the victims. As the Commission’s report notes, “Yazidi women and girls are not […] simply vessels through which ISIS seeks to achieve the destruction of the Yazidi religious group. Rape and sexual violence, when committed against women and girls as part of a genocide, is a crime against a wider protected group, but it is equally a crime committed against a female, as an individual, on the basis of her sex.” Furthermore, sexual and gender-based violence against women in conflict is also a means of targeting men and their masculinity; violence against women serves as tactic to symbolically ‘emasculate’ enemy men by demonstrating their failure to protect the physical and moral integrity of ‘their’ females, and by extension, their communities.

Seeking a path to justice          

While increasing international attention has focused on recognizing sexual and gender-based violence as a crime under international law, a significant gap remains in accountability for the vast majority of perpetrators, and in justice and assistance for the vast majority of victims. Nadia Murad, a survivor of these atrocities and now a Yazidi rights activist, has been particularly outspoken in demanding justice for these crimes:

We don’t need more speeches, we need justice. […] It is time for this tragedy to stop, and it is time for the world to see our wounds. […] It is my right to ask the world to be on my side. ISIS attacked us and killed us in our houses. They killed my brother and my mother. They kidnapped me and other girls with me. It is my right to request you to bring justice.

Murad and the Yazidi organization Yazda are seeking an investigation and prosecution by the ICC for crimes against her and the Yazidi community. The Commission’s report is an important step in this direction. “Of course,” says Commissioner Carla del Ponte, “we regard that as a road map for prosecution, for future prosecution.” Yet thus far, as the report notes, the path to prosecution of ISIS members for these crimes has been largely blocked by international politics and the lack of ICC jurisdiction over crimes committed in Iraq and Syria.

There remains a critical need to open new avenues for accountability – whether through a Security Council referral to the ICC, the establishment of an ad hoc tribunal, or domestic prosecutions in national jurisdictions of ISIS members- as well as need to improve the assistance available to victims. To fight the prevailing culture of impunity for sexual and gender-based violence in conflict requires states and the international community to overcome the political barriers to prosecution of these crimes – whether at the domestic or international level – and to provide more effective assistance to victims with gender-sensitive needs in mind. Given the ongoing nature of these violations, it also means developing more effective tools of prevention and repression of these atrocity crimes. And for humanitarian actors, it means enhanced provision of psychological, material and legal support to victims, especially the many Yazidi female survivors now living in displacement, as well as contributions where possible to documentation, advocacy and accountability efforts on their behalf.

“With so many highly traumatized but living victims of this genocide,” says Ashraph, “one sees clearly what the drafters of the Genocide Convention understood: it possible to destroy a protected group, without necessarily killing all, or even most, of its members.” Now, these survivors are demanding assistance from an international community that many feel has already betrayed them.

As ISIS has demonstrated in Iraq and Syria, gender-based crimes remain an all-too-common feature of contemporary conflicts, and a central element of the crime of genocide. Understanding this gendered logic and pattern of violence is key to not only better preventing and punishing such crimes in the future, but also to better serving the needs of victims and their communities for a long time to come.

To learn more about ISIS' crimes against the Yazidis, and the work of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, click here to listen to a podcast interview with chief analyst, Sareta Ashraph.



Hakimi Abdul Jabar's picture

ISIS - Islamists Serial Rapists-Terrorists : Hostis Humani Generis

The UNSC Resolution 2249 (2015) offers the following salient element that among all terrorist groups constituting a major challenge on a regional or a global scale, ISIS is singled out as a ‘global and unprecedented threat to international peace and security,’ a qualification so far no terrorist group has ever been awarded.

Thus, being a “global and unprecedented” threat to international peace and security ISIS requires primary attention, it is not inconceivable that the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group is still committing genocide and other crimes against the Yazidi minority in Iraq, as a statement by the United Nations commission investigating human rights abuses in Syria had stated last Wednesday, 3rd. August 2016.

Despite the colourful essence of Public International Law and its' corps of case scenarios, I find it utterly dumbfounding that despite the mass atrocities of Bosnia & Rwanda as mere examples, the international community finds itself restrained from assisting the innocent Yazidis from the horrendous atrocity crime of genocide that had befallen the Bosniaks/Bosnian Muslims and Hutus & Tutsis respectively.

We are supposed to, in fact are required to prevent this crime of genocide inter alia other crimes as our obligations to our fellow mankind, yet, we fail to understand the gravity of these crimes being perpetrated upon them that challenge their very existence in our shared world. Our Shared World!

How many more mass graves do we need to uncover to account for such deliberate heinousness?

John Kerry doesn't need to convince the world that the Yazidis are facing the incredulous perils of the crime of genocide. Reading the Genocide Convention of 1948 simpliciter, any one will discern the merits of the Yazidis tragic circumstances.

The predicament of many innocent victims and their families will definitely continue without the essentially effective planning of military actions by the UN Military Staff Committee in ensuring its revival from a long period of dormancy in the pursuit of individual criminal responsibility in the Joint-Criminal Enterprise (JCE) via prosecutions in an UN-sanctioned International Penal/Criminal Tribunal.

It's time the UN sets-up an International Penal Tribunal to Prosecute Constitutionally Responsible Rulers, Public Officials or Private Individuals pursuant to Arts. 4 & 6 of the Genocide Convention for the International Crime of Genocide of the Yazidis.

Excerpts from the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (Genocide Convention 1948)

Article 4 Persons committing genocide or any of the other acts enumerated in Article 3 shall be punished, whether they are constitutionally responsible rulers, public officials or private individuals.
Article 6 Persons charged with genocide or any of the other acts enumerated in Article 3 shall be tried by a competent tribunal of the State in the territory of which the act was committed, or by such international penal tribunal as may have jurisdiction with respect to those Contracting Parties which shall have accepted its jurisdiction.

Hakimi Abdul Jabar's picture

The Outstanding Role that the UN Military Staff Committee Could Assist In the Courageous Fight Against International Islamist Terrorism, i.e. ISIS :

The Military Staff Committee (MSC) is the United Nations Security Council subsidiary body whose role, as defined by the United Nations Charter, is to plan UN military operations and assist in the regulation of armaments.

The greatest purpose of the MSC, arising from Article 45 of the UN Charter, was intended to be providing command staff for a set of air-force contingents. These contingents, provided by the Permanent 5 members (P5) of the Security Council (the People's Republic of China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) to be held at ready for the discretionary use of the United Nations.

Hakimi bin Abdul Jabar's picture

It's pertinent to note that the Islamist Terrorist Group (ISIS) deliberately partakes in criminal suicide bombings and there are Islamist clerics being their ideological & theological masters who support such deliberately criminal measures :

Hakimi Abdul Jabar's picture

Very few people realise that the ISLAMIST TERROR Group know by its acronym ISIS is headed by al-Baghdadi, the nom de guerre of an Islamist holder of a bachelors, masters and PhD degrees in Islamic studies from the Islamic University of Baghdad and doctorate for Islamic studies in Quranic studies, from Saddam University in Baghdad.

Hakimi bin Abdul Jabar's picture


I first formally came across the terminology "COLLATERAL DAMAGE" in the highly-noted International Law textbook, Starke's International Law (11th. Edition) [1994], when I was formally studying the subject of Public International Law, as it was Anand Raj's teaching material.

In the courageous fight against Islamist Terrorism, ISIS etc., being a global and unprecedented threat to international peace & security pursuant to UNSCR 2249/2015, actions of aerial bombardments by UNSC P5 members being the core of the UN Military Staff Committee, in the engagement of International Islamist Terrorists, which result in resultant casualties of ISIS & Islamist Terrorists' kith & kin, supporters etc., must be considered as Collateral Damage.

Hakimi bin Abdul Jabar's picture

ISIS, Islamism, Islamist Terrorism and the Deliberate Targeting of Catholic Priests and Catholic Christians


These remorseless, loathsome, despicable and pathetic ISIS Islamist Terrorists and their kind had brutally slain an aged 86 year old Catholic priest in France and yesterday, on Sunday, as Catholics were attending mass, a criminal suicide bomber carrying the ‘ISIS flag’ had attacked another Catholic priest and tried to blow up the packed Catholic place of worship!


Thus, it would be pertinent to note that these international criminals are  in effect targeting the Catholic clergy and Catholic congregation as well :

Wolfram Rohde-Liebenau's picture

Thank you so much for your excellent blog on crimes against the Yazidis .

The Report on the crimes and the demands for justice should become widely known.

My only request is: please argue also for acceptance of the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court by the United States - it is difficult for People worldwide to accept that the American Nation does not accept this Court/the ICC.

Hakimi Abdul Jabar's picture

Three months after the publication of this article, it has been reported by Reuters that two mass graves of at least 18 members of Iraq's Yazidi minority, thousands of whom have been killed and kidnapped by Islamic State, have been discovered as security forces fight to dislodge the militants from Mosul.

Geopolitical concerns impede effective and timely prosecution of human rights violations and international crimes. The hands of the International Criminal Court (ICC) appear to be tied and a double Security Council Veto by the permanent members, Russia and China, blocked a resolution to refer the situation to the Court. Despite the draft of a Statute as early as 2013, the call for the establishment of a hybrid tribunal by the UN Commission of Inquiry and academic support for this approach as the next best alternative, no tangible mechanism has resulted thus far.

Perpetrators of the international crime of genocide have not been charged & punished pursuant to Arts. VI & IV of the Genocide Convention of 1948 and remain unencumbered to continuously commit genocide or any of the other acts enumerated in article III of the said Convention. Even as late as June 2016, an U.N.-appointed commission of independent war crimes investigators said that Islamic State was committing genocide against the Yazidis.

What other recourse is there for affected populations of atrocity crimes that have been unequivocally accepted by the international community as international crimes? UNSC Resolution 2249/2015 had already determined that ISIS constitutes “a global and unprecedented threat to international peace and security.”

Even an "internal armed conflict" would still constitute a "threat to the peace" according to the settled practice of the Security Council and the common understanding of the United Nations membership in general. Indeed, the practice of the Security Council is rich with cases of civil war or internal strife which it classified as a "threat to the peace" and dealt with under Chapter VII, with the encouragement or even at the behest of the General Assembly, such as the Congo crisis at the beginning of the 1960s and, more recently, Liberia and Somalia. It can thus be said that there is a common understanding, manifested by the "subsequent practice" of the membership of the United Nations at large, that the "threat to the peace" of Article 39 may include, as one of its species, internal armed conflicts or even international conflicts involving non-state actors and state supported actors etc.

Obviously, paragraph 1 of the resolution, the Council similarly “regards all such acts of [ISIS] terrorism as a threat to peace and security,” which again implicitly invokes Article 39. As the ICJ’s Namibia Advisory Opinion makes clear, the lack of reference to Chapter VII in a resolution does not mean that it is not to be regarded as binding nor does it mean that the resolution does not have operative legal effect. However, for the resolution to have those effects the Council must actually decide to do something or to authorize something.

The resolution calls on states to take all necessary measures in compliance with international human rights law as well as international humanitarian law (and refugee law).

Case Scenario - IRAQ

Iraq is not a Party to the International Criminal Court/Rome Statute and thus far has not chosen to refer the current conflict to the ad hoc jurisdiction of the Court pursuant to Article 12 of its Statute.

The Government of Iraq has requested the United Nations Security Council assist with ensuring accountability, but this does not relieve Iraq from its own obligations to ensure accountability through its domestic jurisdiction. On 6 May 2016, H.E. Mr Mohamed Ali Al Hakim, Permanent Representative of Iraq to the United Nations called upon the UN Security Council to “…set up a specific international legal mechanism for investigating and bringing to justice the criminals of ISIL.” : UN Security Council, 7689th Meeting, (6 May 2016), UN Doc S/PV.7689, 5.

With the traffic of withdrawal states from the ICC itself, thus, the resounding echoes for the establishment of an UN-sanctioned International Tribunal which has been repeatedly approved and endorsed by the "representative" organ of the United Nations, the General Assembly : this body not only participated in its setting up, by electing the Judges and approving the budget, but also expressed its satisfaction with, and encouragement of the activities of the International Tribunal in various resolutions, [(see G.A. Res. 48/88 (20 December 1993) and G.A. Res. 48/143 (20 December 1993), G.A. Res. 49/10 (8 November 1994) and G.A. Res. 49/205 (23 December 1994)], according to the rule of law, it must be established in accordance with the proper international standards; it must provide all the guarantees of fairness, justice and even-handedness, in full conformity with internationally recognized human rights instruments.

Hakimi Abdul Jabar's picture

In further response to my short comment, I must add that the failure, refusal or neglect to refer the situations in Syria & Iraq & ISIS to the ICC or an established competent International Criminal/Penal Tribunal deprive and derogate the affected populations/victims of the Right to a Remedy and Reparation for Victims of Gross Violations of International Human Rights Law and Serious Violations of International Humanitarian Law pursuant to UNGA Resolution 60/147 of 16 December 2005, right of equality before the law and equal protection of the law in accordance with Art. 7 UDHR and other treaties & rights instruments [i.e. international treaties to uphold these rights, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Social, Economic and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). E.g. Syria ratified the ICCPR on March 23, 1976, and the ICESCR on January 3, 1976], the principle of primacy of International Law in a competent International Tribunal established in accordance with the proper international standards which provide all the guarantees of fairness, justice and even-handedness, in full conformity with internationally recognized human rights instruments established in accordance with the proper international standards, prolong the conflicts & impunities and aggravates the atrocity crimes, e.g. the Syrian War/Conflict began 15 March 2011 and is presently ongoing (5 years, 8 months, 2 weeks and 3 days) etc.,

Authorities & References :

PROSECUTOR v. DUSKO TADIC (Jurisdiction) (1996) 35 I.L.M. 35

Hakimi Abdul Jabar's picture


United Nations Security Council Resolution 2249 (2015) has determined that IS constitutes “a global and unprecedented threat to international peace and security.”

Before the Council meeting on Thursday, Russian UN envoy Vitaly Churkin told reporters that one of the main objectives of the new resolution is to “circle IS as a separate, most vital terrorist threat.”

“Formerly… the Security Council’s documents referred to IS as one of Al Qaeda’s divisions,” he said. “Now the document offers expanded criteria of listing, which makes it possible to impose limitations on any individuals or corporates smudged by relations with IS.”

Hakimi Abdul Jabar's picture

The Yazidis Right of Access To Justice

Access to justice is an important element of the rule of law. It enables individuals to protect themselves against infringements of their rights, to remedy civil wrongs, to hold executive power accountable and to defend themselves in criminal proceedings.

My position has always been that the right of access to justice must be considered as an imperative of jus cogens, failing which, must be tantamount to a "complete denial of justice".

This actually protects and preserves the rights of each & everyone pursuant to Article 7 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) which unequivocally states that :

"All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law. All are entitled to equal protection against any discrimination in violation of this Declaration and against any incitement to such discrimination."

And the said UDHR Article is enshrined in the 14th. Amendment in the US Constitution.

Hakimi bin Abdul Jabar's picture


“The international community must also recognize ISIL is committing the crime of genocide against the Yazidis,” the statement concluded, urging action to refer the situation to justice, “including to the International Criminal Court or an ad hoc tribunal with relevant geographic and temporal jurisdiction as well as to dedicate resources to bringing cases before national courts, whether under the framework of universal jurisdiction or otherwise.” The Independent International Commission – comprised of the Chair, Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro, Karen Koning AbuZayd and Carla Del Ponte – has been mandated by the UN Human Rights Council to investigate and record all violations of international law since March 2011 in Syria.

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