Yazda: Statement on postponed exhumation of mass graves in Sinjar

Updated: Mar 22, 2019

Sinjar, November 1, 2018 | Yazda welcomes the Iraqi authorities’ decision to briefly postpone the start of exhumations in Sinjar to ensure these operations are carried out in accordance with international standards and in consultation with the Yazidi community.

Since ISIS’s attack on the Yazidi community in Sinjar in August 2014, Yazda has worked to document the mass graves in Sinjar. In 2016, we published the leading report on this topic, “Mass Graves of Yazidis Killed by the Islamic State Organization or Local Affiliates On or After August 3, 2014”, supplemented and updated in August 2018 by the report “Against the Clock: Documenting Mass Graves of Yazidis Killed by the Islamic State."

For over four years, Yazda has been calling for meaningful action in relation to the mass graves, including the identification of victims and repatriation of their remains to grieving families in accordance with international standards and with full respect for the dignity of the survivors.

At the end of last month, Yazda was notified by the Martyrs Foundation, the governmental organization responsible for mass graves in Iraq, that an exhumation was scheduled to take place in Sinjar on November 1, 2018. While we welcome the Iraq Government’s resolve to take action, Yazda has raised a number of concerns directly with the Iraqi authorities and with United Nations representatives about the planned exhumations. As a result, these exhumations have been postponed until our concerns, which are shared by a number of stakeholders, are addressed in a concerted and inclusive manner.

Our principal concerns are as follows:

-  Identification and investigation in accordance with international standards: ISIS’ coordinated attack on the Yazidis was a genocide, and involved crimes against humanity and war crimes. This has been recognized by the United Nations, the German Supreme Court, numerous national parliaments, and the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, among others. The mass graves do not only containthe remains of our loved ones; they are also crime scenes, containing the evidence of crimes committed by ISIS for which Yazda continues to seek justice. It is essential that the exhumation of these mass graves be conducted in accordance with international standards, to ensure the reliable identification of remains and the protection of the probative value and admissibility of any resulting information and evidence before national, regional and international courts and tribunals. The expertise of, and standards applied by, those undertaking the exhumations must be clarified as a priority.

-   Involvement of the Yazidi community: Members of the Yazidi community, in particular survivors and relatives of the victims of ISIS, were not duly consulted orsufficiently informed about the planned exhumations. Information, including how remains would be exhumed, preserved and analyzed, as well as the proposed timeframe for repatriation of remains should be provided to the Yazidi community to allow their burial in accordance with Yazidi religious rites.

-  International involvement and cooperation: The Terms of Reference of the UN Investigative Team for Accountability of Da’esh/ISIL (UNITAD), agreed to by the Iraq Government, confirm that the Team would include experts in “forensics, notably with respect to mass graves” and that it would be responsible for “acquiring forensic material” in line with the highest international standards. UNITAD should be fully involved in any exhumation process, and all evidence of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes must be collected, preserved and stored as part of UNITAD’s work to support accountability for the crimes committed by ISIS.

We call on all parties, including the judicial and technical authorities in Iraq, members of Iraqi Parliament representing the Yazidi community, UNITAD led by Karim Khan QC, the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq, and relevant non-governmental organizations, cooperate to develop and implement a trusted, transparent, standardized and comprehensive process that includes the following minimum guarantees:

-  Consult with surviving family members of victims and representatives of the Yazidi community of Iraq about any future plans and process on exhumations.

-  Provide timely and detailed information about the methodology and schedule (including location and dates) of the planned exhumations, the process for removal, transport, storage, forensic analysis of the remains, and the timeframe for when a respectful burial, according to Yazidi religious rites, will be possible.

-  Guarantee the dignified and respectful treatment of remains and survivors, included by providing material support, protection and a contingency plan to deal with the renewed trauma that the exhumations may cause to survivors.

-  Guarantee that any action (including exhumation, collection, analysis, preservation and storage of the resulting evidence) takes place in coordination with the UN team led by Karim Khan QC in accordance with the highest international standards, with a view to ensuring that all identifications are reliable, and that evidence collected is admissible in any future proceedings before national or international courts.

Yazda calls on UNITAD and the Martyrs Foundation to work cooperatively to ensure that exhumations in accordance with the above requirements can start as soon as possible, and calls on the international community to provide funding and professional expertise to UNITAD to ensure a timely, professional and dignified process.

We call on allies working to secure justice for the Yazidi community of Iraq to add their voices and their force to our demands. 

Point of Contact:

Saad Babir, Director of Media and Relations,