For a Yazidi Woman, Justice for ISIS Crimes Is Still Elusive


Iraqi Yazidis who escaped the Islamic State from Sinjar enteing Dohuk Province, in Iraqi Kurdistan, from Syria in 2014. Kurdish fighters helped them.ADAM FERGUSON FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES

Nadia Murad was 21 years old when, she says, Islamic State fighters abducted her, beat her and raped her. Her offense: belonging to the minority Yazidi community, whom the Islamic State regards as infidels. Her cause for the last two years: demanding justice for the Islamic State’s atrocities.

This week, Ms. Murad clinched a small, but important victory. Her country, Iraq, agreed to let the Security Council appoint a panel of independent investigators to gather evidence of the most serious crimes committed by the Islamic State, and not just those against Yazidis. Lacking that, the Security Council would have had to adopt a resolution to create such a panel.

Still to be resolved is where and how those crimes will be prosecuted, and how to make sure those trials are credible and not displays of victor’s justice.

Ms. Murad’s quest poses an acute test for the promise of international justice, born from the ashes of Nazi genocide 70 years ago, after World War II.

If the most powerful countries in the world cannot hold accountable those who are accused of enslaving women for sex, beheading their perceived enemies, turning children into suicide bombers and carrying out what an international panel believes could be an act of genocide against the Yazidi people, what is the very notion of international justice good for?

The Islamic State, also known as ISIS, is accused of some of the gravest crimes known to humanity, and not only against the Yazidis. It does not have powerful countries defending it, as does say, the government of Syria, which also stands accused of a raft of war crimes.

Anti-ISIS activist Nadia Murad in 2016. A member of the Yazidi community, she has spent two years seeking justice for crimes she says ISIS committed against her and others. ELIZABETH LIPPMAN FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES

Not least, the Islamic State committed these atrocities at a time when the world has a set of firmly established laws and a permanent International Criminal Court in The Hague precisely to deter and punish those who commit such crimes.

The I.C.C. has no jurisdiction in Iraq, though; the nation is not a member of the court, and there is no appetite on the Security Council’s part to refer the conflict in Iraq to the court.

In early August, the United Nations-authorized Commission of Inquiry urgedworld powers to recognize the crime of genocide against the Yazidis and to “undertake steps to refer the situation to justice.” Yet, even with that, the effort to investigate — let alone prosecute — those crimes has not been so straightforward.

The Security Council has the power to dispatch investigators to collect evidence or to set up a special tribunal. But it was reluctant to do either without Iraq’s consent.

That consent came Wednesday. In a letter to the United Nations, Iraq’s foreign minister, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, said his government would work with the British government on a draft Security Council resolution seeking “international expertise to criminalize” the Islamic State. The political sensitivities were clear in his letter. Mr. al-Jaafari emphasized Iraq’s “sovereignty and jurisdiction” in adopting any such resolution.

Iraqi special forces searching in July for remaining Islamic State fighters still hiding in the destroyed Old City of Mosul. IVOR PRICKETT FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES

Amal Clooney, a British lawyer and rights activist who represents Ms. Murad, said she welcomed Iraq’s consent for an international investigation, as a first step.

“Yazidis and other ISIS victims want justice in a court of law, and they deserve nothing less,” Ms. Clooney said in a statement Wednesday. “I hope that the Iraqi government’s letter will mark the beginning of the end of impunity for genocide and other crimes that ISIS is committing in Iraq and around the world.”

Justice, of course, means different things to different parties.

Iraq has arrested thousands of suspected Islamic State members under its counterterrorism laws, which include the death penalty for membership in a banned terrorist group.

Islamic State fighters are facing trials in domestic courts from Tunisia to Germany to Iraq, although it remains to be seen how or where the group’s most senior leaders will be tried for the most serious international crimes, including genocide.

Trying such crimes in local courts can be tricky. “Most significantly,” said Balkees Jarrah, senior counsel with Human Rights Watch, “political will to permit independent and impartial criminal prosecutions can be in short supply in countries affected by conflict.”

Ms. Murad, now 24, is barely five feet tall. She does not smile much, and she rarely veers away from her prepared remarks, in Arabic. She favors solid black tunics and shoes made for walking. She sometimes looks as though she would rather be doing anything other than recounting for well-dressed, influential world leaders the horrors she lived through.