Why We’re Helping Yazidi Americans Get Justice
New York Times
Dec. 17, 2023
By Amal Clooney and Lee Wolosky
Nadia Murad with her brother …Credit...Ivor Prickett for The New York Times
ISIS was one of the most brutal terrorist organizations in modern history. At its peak, it exercised control of territory the size of Britain, recruited tens of thousands of fighters and carried out or inspired attacks in over two dozen countries. It relied on a network of financiers to realize such global ambitions. But most of that network’s members have yet to face justice, and most ISIS victims have yet to receive any compensation for their losses.
That is why we filed a federal lawsuit last week on behalf of more than 400 American members of the Yazidi community, a religious minority systematically persecuted by ISIS, to hold responsible an international conglomerate that paid millions of dollars to ISIS while the terrorists were committing a well-documented genocide against them.
Far too often, private entities have escaped responsibility for fueling conflicts around the world, and victims have struggled to receive compensation for the violence that followed, even genocidal violence. This can change only if all those complicit in international crimes are brought to justice for their roles in the atrocities — including through cases, like this one, that are filed by their victims.
The world has learned about the plight of the Yazidis thanks to the brave advocacy of our lead plaintiff, the Nobel laureate Nadia Murad. She was 21 when ISIS invaded her hometown in August 2014, murdering thousands of men, raping young girls and displacing her tight-knit community in northern Iraq.
She was kidnapped, sold into sexual slavery and abused by 12 ISIS assailants over many weeks. Many of her family members, including her mother and six brothers, were murdered. Her young niece and nephew are still missing.
Sadly, Ms. Murad’s experience is shared by many, including other plaintiffs in our case. Almost 10 years on, over 200,000 Yazidis are still internally displaced, many of them living in squalid camps. But they have had little hope of receiving meaningful compensation for the injuries they suffered at the hands of ISIS — until now.
Ms. Murad is part of a group of over 400 Yazidi Americans suing the French company Lafarge, one of the largest cement companies in the world. Last year Lafarge (now a subsidiary of the Swiss-based Holcim Group) pleaded guilty in the United States to conspiring to provide material support to ISIS.
Lafarge, and its Syrian subsidiary that operated a cement factory in Syria, admitted to an illegal conspiracy to pay ISIS and the Nusra Front, another U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organization, nearly $6 million in exchange for various benefits, including getting ISIS to take out its competition by blocking or taxing the import of competing cement.
And Lafarge did not just provide money to the terrorist group; it also provided cement that ISIS reportedly used to construct underground tunnels in which it held and tortured Yazidi and Western hostages. All of this was a crime under U.S. law — as the company knew.
Lafarge’s deal with the devil was made at precisely the time when ISIS’ tactics were at their most brutal and public. Lafarge admitted to paying ISIS as early as August 2013, the same month the terrorists kidnapped an American aid worker, Kayla Mueller. As ISIS invaded Yazidi villages in Sinjar, Iraq, a year later, Lafarge ramped up its support by agreeing to give ISIS a share of the revenue from its Syrian plant.
On Aug. 5, 2014, just two days after the Sinjar invasion made news worldwide, Lafarge’s point man shared a written draft of this revenue-sharing contract with a company executive. Later that week, as President Barack Obama announced targeted strikes on ISIS to avert a genocide of Yazidis, Lafarge confirmed its agreement to the terms of the deal.
On Aug. 15, as Ms. Murad’s village was attacked by ISIS convoys and her mother and brothers were executed, the company agreed to ISIS’ request to sweeten the deal, giving ISIS 25 percent of the value of its raw materials, as well as 10 percent of its cement.
And as ISIS released videos of the beheadings of the American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff and the U.N. Security Council warned that trade with ISIS would “support their future terrorist activities,” Lafarge finalized the deal. It has since admitted that payments continued for months after the genocide began.
In 2022, when Lafarge pleaded guilty to conspiring to provide material support to a terrorist organization, it was the first time the U.S. government had prosecuted a corporation for that crime. The company admitted its illegal behavior and was subject to penalties of over $777 million.
But the victims of ISIS were never given the opportunity to be heard, and no portion of the financial penalty that the company paid to the Department of Justice has been used to compensate them.
We are asking Attorney General Merrick Garland to exercise his discretion to remedy this injustice and see that those funds are used to compensate the people who suffered under ISIS’ brutality. Victims should also have access to the Department of Justice’s seizure of three terrorist organizations’ cryptocurrency accounts — its largest ever.
When Lafarge was prosecuted in the United States, the F.B.I. assistant director in charge stated that this “should serve as an example to others.”
And though legal accountability often remains elusive, more and more private entities are being held to account.
In 2014 the French bank BNP Paribas was fined almost $9 billion for violating sanctions in place against Sudan, Iran and Cuba, and it is being investigated in relation to accusations of complicity in war crimes in Sudan.
A court in Denmark convicted the fuel company Dan Bunkering of breaching international sanctions by selling $101 million worth of jet fuel to two Russian companies active in Syria.
The Castel Group, a French beverage conglomerate, is under investigation for possible complicity in war crimes committed in the Central African Republic.
Corporations can no longer expect to wash their hands of responsibility for human rights abuses committed by subsidiaries abroad. But legal recourse remains difficult to achieve, and victims’ right to redress must be made a priority.
This month, as we mark 75 years since the adoption of the Genocide Convention and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, wars and atrocities continue around the world. It is more important than ever to show that private actors who fuel the flames of violence can be held accountable — and that victims can obtain justice — no matter how long it may take.
Amal Clooney is a lawyer who specializes in international law and human rights in Britain and the United States and was an associate at the international law firm Sullivan & Cromwell. Lee Wolosky served under four U.S. presidents in senior national security and legal positions, most recently as special counsel to President Biden, and is currently a partner at the international law firm Jenner & Block.
A version of this article appears in print on Dec. 20, 2023, Section A, Page 23 of the New York edition with the headline: Yazidis Are Owed Justice.
Copyright 2023 The New York Times Company, Amal Clooney, and Lee Wolosky