Can international law save Iraq’s Yazidis?

All the ‘genocide’ talk is unlikely to result in any action to alleviate the plight of the Yazidis a

The Islamic State group has captured and killed thousands of Yazidis in northern Iraq [EPA]

After the Islamic State’s recent incursion into Iraqi Kurdistan and its targeting of minorities, and particularly Yazidis, the response of major world powers has been remarkably contradictory and undermining.

Hundreds of thousands of Yazidis have had to flee their native homeland; some have had to take to the mountains where they were facing starvation and death, while others managed to make it to areas controlled by the Kurdish Regional Government. Thousands were captured and killed by the Islamic State group.

US President Barack Obama’s response was to describe the situation as a threat of “genocide” and say: “Earlier this week, one Iraqi cried that there is no one coming to help. Well, today America is coming to help.”

Obama’s reaction to the potential “genocide” of Yazidis was to send planes dropping food and water to them. And just a few days later, the Pentagon announced that their situation was “not as bad” and therefore, the Yazidi population did not need an “evacuation mission”.

Yazidis fleeing IS stuck in northern Iraq

Meanwhile, US fighter jets have continued to pound Islamic State positions in northern Iraq, making sure that US interests in Iraqi Kurdistan are well protected. 

It is sad to see that the plight of a persecuted group such as the Yazidis, which has endured 72 genocides and are facing the threat of a 73rd by the Islamic State, is first used as an excuse for a possible intervention and then downplayed to justify the absence of a major humanitarian operation.

Rwanda, too, was downplayed as a “humanitarian crisis” until the international community realised that one million people were killed and it had to revert to using the “g-word”. In Rwanda, too, world powers were more concerned about the security of their own personnel and their interests – only to adopt a moral high ground post factum and denounce the violence and mourn the dead.

The problem in Rwanda, as now in Iraq, is that the world’s major powers choose to break international law on a regular basis and only invoke its tenants whenever they align with their foreign policy interests. Thus, situations where certain groups face genocide and crimes against humanity continue to arise, because international law is systematically breached and neglected on a regular basis. In fact, those who violate international law often use the violent consequences following such acts to justify more abuse of the law.

Intervention in international law

Under international law, the international community is required to intervene in jus cogens cases which involve genocide, crimes against humanity, maritime piracy and slavery. In the case of the Yazidis, dropping food from planes hardly constitutes fulfilling commitments to this principle of international law, nor does arming other non-state groups to fight the Islamic State. In fact, what some have celebrated as a humanitarian principle of international law – the Responsibility to Protect Doctrine – has become a tool for major world powers to justify their brutal and illegal interventions. 

If we look deeper into the current crisis in Iraq and the threat of genocide against the Yazidis, we would see that one of its precursors was a major breach of international law: George W Bush’s 2003 invasion of Iraq to “free” its population and destroy “weapons of mass destruction”.

The Bush administration was never brought before a court to answer for the crimes it committed in Iraq. The illegality of those actions remain unaddressed – not only damaging the international law regime, but also fueling internal strife in Iraq. 

There were no weapons of mass destruction present in Iraq before 2003, but the US invasion and occupation created one: the Islamic State. This same group, which has committed massacres of Yazidis and more recently Turkmen, “outraging” the American society, is just one of the many consequences of the illegal 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Throughout the decade that followed the invasion, instability and violence were always used by the occupying forces to justify their prolonged presence and their continuing and increasing use of force. It should not come as a surprise then that the Obama administration was quick to use the Yazidis’ plight to justify its military “help” in the form of more air strikes and more weapons for the Iraqi government and other groups.

It conveniently uses international law terms such as “genocide” and “war crimes” to draw a black-and-white image of what is going on now in Iraq and absolve itself of any responsibility for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, for the deteriorating health of hundreds of thousands of others (which it is desperately trying to cover up!) and for the imminent break-up of the country.

Looking at Rwanda in 1994, Iraq in 2003 and Gaza 2014, one cannot but wonder whose interest the current (dysfunctional) international law system is serving. The truth is, under international law some are more equal than others.

How can a legal system address jus cogens crimes when that system is, in itself, responsible for the jus cogens crimes being committed? Can we blame people in the global south who see international law institutions as tool of imperialism, occupation and oppression? 

Thus, the perpetual violations of international law not only bring violence and death across the world, but also tarnish international law’s image and effectively prevent the implementation of its principles. By now the Responsibility to Protect Doctrine has turned into an “intervention justification doctrine” that paves the way for major powers to pursue their interests and precludes international action to save vulnerable populations. World powers, like the US, who systematically breach international law, are ultimately responsible for the tragic fate of communities like the Yazidis who face the threat of genocide.

Ahmad Moussa is a Palestinian-Canadian writer who holds a Masters in International Law and Human Rights. He is a Visiting Professor at the University of Duhok, in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.