In late August of 2015, I travelled to Kurdistan with a small group led by the former Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, Luis Moreno Ocampo. Determined to help the Yazidis prosecute ISIS for genocide in the International Criminal Court, we gathered in a conference room in Dohuk, a small city 74 kilometers from ISIS-held Mosul, and we prepared to record testimony from women who had been held captive by ISIS and later escaped.
Our cameraman had not arrived, so I gathered everyone’s iPhones together and prepared to film. On one side of a long table sat four chairs for the members of our team: Luis Moreno Ocampo, activist Kerry Propper, head of the Yazda Foundation, Murad Ismael, and me, the only woman. On the other side of the table sat one empty chair and a glass of water. It was the setting, it seemed to me, of an inquiry, designed to compound the victims’ shame. I knew that the abuse they had endured stigmatized them among some in their own communities, and the last thing I wanted to do was contribute to their suffering. When the first women entered the room, her eyes filled with fear, and I looked at the floor. When I finally gathered the courage to raise my head, the woman and I locked eyes, and I sensed that she relaxed somewhat. Moreno Ocampo asked the questions, but when she answered she spoke to me. As one woman after another told her story, tears flowed from my eyes, and also from Kerry’s and Murad’s eyes. Moreno Ocampo, the veteran prosecutor, pushed ahead with his questions.
One woman came into the room with a new baby, and when she told her story of captivity and daring escape when she was pregnant, she held her chin high and looked from me to Moreno Ocampo with her steady brown eyes. I had never seen such strength and determination in my life. When her baby started to cry and squirm, the woman handed her to me.
After the testimonies, several of the women we had interviewed approached me, put their hands on my shoulders and told me that the stories they had told were too much for me to bear at first. “But then you get stronger,” one of them said. Another woman lifted the scarf from my head and wiped off my tears.
The next day Kerry Propper and I began to discuss how we could reach Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, to pressure her to take action on behalf of the Yazidis. Samantha Power, a long-time genocide activist, had been the subject of a film Kerry produced called Watchers of the Sky, about the history of genocide and the creation of the International Criminal Court. I suggested Kerry send her a picture of what we are seeing and tell her, “It’s On U” – a play on the White House “It’s On US” campaign against sexual violence on campuses. The It’s On U campaign to pressure the U.S. government led to a new petition that seeks to pressure the Iraq Government to help the Yazidis prosecute ISIS in the ICC.
The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court limits the Court to cases involving nations that are signatories of the Statute, and only when those nations are unable or unwilling to pursue an investigation themselves. The ICC can also pursue cases that are referred by the UN Security Council. Because Iraq is not a signatory of the Rome Statute, the ICC may not be able to help the Yazidis in Kurdistan unless Iraq grants temporary jurisdiction to the Court for the area around Sinjar where many of the worst crimes perpetrated by ISIS against the Yazidis have taken place.
A conviction of genocide in the International Criminal Court can compel states to act on behalf of victims even when action does not serve the interests of politicians. A successful conviction could lead to military intervention on behalf of the Yazidis, increased humanitarian aid, reparations, political asylum, restoration of lands, and many other protections and benefits. According to Moreno Ocampo, recognition of genocide also helps the survivors begin to heal as a community.
Murad, a survivor of ISIS captivity and violence, has become the face of the Yazidi cause and of the petition to pressure the Iraq Government. Nadia, who has suffered and witnessed the worst violence a woman can endure, has spent the last year traveling the globe to raise awareness about the genocide of her people. Like the women who gave testimony in Dohuk, she is not hiding from the world. By facing the world and asking that we join her in stopping the kind of crimes that threaten all of humanity, she inspires resilience in women everywhere.
Elizabeth Schaeffer Brown is the Co-Founder of Uncommon Union.