A Yezidi mother rocks her sleeping child on a hot afternoon in the tent they are living in on Mount Shingal earlier this month. Photo: Hannah Lynch/Rudaw
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – The protection of minority groups who suffered genocide and crimes against humanity at the hands of ISIS is a “human rights priority” for the administration of US President Donald Trump, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said on Tuesday in a statement on the release of his department’s annual religious freedom report.
Yezidis have welcomed the sentiment but want to see real action on the ground, especially as Erbil and Baghdad tussle for control of disputed areas home to many minority communities.
“ISIS is clearly responsible for genocide against Yezidis, Christians, and Shia Muslims in areas it controlled. ISIS is also responsible for crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing directed at these same groups, and in some cases against Sunni Muslims, Kurds, and other minorities,” said Tillerson.
“The protection of these groups – and others who are targets of violent extremism – remains a human rights priority for the Trump Administration.”
Murad Ismael, executive director of the Yezidi activist group Yazda, tweeted that he was “glad” of Tillerson’s comments and now is the time for “active work.”
This means developing “a robust strategy focused on administration and security” to rebuild areas that minority communities call home, Ismael told Rudaw English by email.
The future of these areas, including Shingal and the Nineveh Plains, is currently part of a “heated debate” between Erbil and Baghdad, he said, as they are among the disputed areas claimed by both governments and expected to take part in the Kurdistan independence referendum in September.
Having been subjected to years of brutal violence under ISIS, with the fates of thousands of Yezidis still unknown – either in ISIS captivity or killed and buried in mass graves – Ismael wants a clear decision about the future of Shingal and the Nineveh Plains, one that removes Yezidis from disputes between Erbil and Baghdad.
To accomplish that, he wants the international community to play a role, giving minorities active participation in dealings with the regional and central governments “to get minorities’ areas out of the chamber of conflict between the rival powers and then work toward a sustainable solution” that would provide security, accountability, reconstruction, and finally administration that assures their future security.
Shingal and the Nineveh Plains are expected to take part in the September 25 Kurdistan referendum on independence. Kurdistan President Masoud Barzani has said they will respect the result of the vote in the disputed areas that are claimed by both his government and Baghdad.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has called the planned vote “unconstitutional, illegitimate” but has ruled out a military response, saying he would not deploy tanks.
Both sides have stressed their commitment to dialogue and negotiation.
Northern areas of the Shingal region have been rid of ISIS for nearly two years, although many Yezidis still remain in camps in Duhok and elsewhere inside the Kurdistan Region.
Several groups claim to be providing security and some humanitarians have previously told Rudaw English that access is often a problem.
The UN’s humanitarian coordinator in Iraq, Lise Grande, told Rudaw earlier this week that reconstruction of Shingal “has to be treated as a priority” because people cannot go home until electricity and water are fully restored and it is safe.
“There is so much to do,” she said.