The Yazidi Case

IS committed international crimes including genocide against the Yazidis

In the early hours of 3 August 2014, IS launched a coordinated attack across the Sinjar region of Northern Iraq, homeland to the Yazidi ethno-religious minority. The attack came from Mosul and Tal Afar in Iraq, and from Al-Shaddadi and the Tel Hamis region in Syria, besieging the population from all four sides. The Kurdish Peshmerga forces mandated to protect the area abandoned bases and checkpoints, leaving the local population unprotected and largely defenseless in the face of IS’s advance.


In the hours and days that followed, approximately 12,000 Yazidis were killed or abducted by IS. The perpetrators systematically divided Yazidis into different groups:

  • Young women and girls, some as young as 9 years of age, were forcibly converted and transferred to and between various holding sites in Iraq and Syria to be used as sabaya (sex slaves) or forced wives by IS fighters, a practice that was officially endorsed and regulated by IS leadership;
  • Yazidi boys who had not yet reached puberty were considered to have malleable identities. They were therefore separated from their mothers, brain-washed, radicalized, and trained as child soldiers; and
  • Older boys and men who refused to convert to Islam, or in some cases even those who agreed to convert under pressure, as well as some of the older women, were summarily executed by shooting or having their throats cut, their bodies often left onsite or dumped in mass graves. Those who were forced to convert to Islam and spared were relocated by IS to abandoned villages and exploited as forced laborers.


IS’s attack also caused an estimated 250,000 Yazidis to flee to Mount Sinjar, where they were surrounded by IS for days in temperatures above 40 degrees Celsius. IS prevented any access to food, water or medical care in a deliberate attempt to cause large numbers of deaths. Hundreds of Yazidis perished before a coordinated rescue operation involving Yazidi volunteer defenders, the Syrian Kurdish forces (YPG) and Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), along with an international coalition, led to the  opening of a safe passage from Mount Sinjar to Syria from 7 to 13 August 2014.


IS destroyed Yazidi religious  sites in the territories it occupied. Yazidi homes and properties were destroyed or looted, severely hampering the prospects of surviving Yazidis returning to their homeland swiftly after liberation.


The United Nations Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic (‘Inquiry on Syria’) found that IS’s actions against the Yazidis amounted to multiple war crimes and crimes against humanity, as well as genocide.


There is a range of compelling evidence that a genocide took place against the Yazidis and is ongoing. The accepted definition of genocide is set out in the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, which was ratified by virtually all countries in the world including both Iraq and Syria. That definition requires the existence of various constitutive elements, all of which are met in the case of the Yazidi genocide by IS:

  • Protected group: Genocide must be committed against a ‘national, ethnical, racial or religious group’. The Yazidis, as an ethno-religious minority, clearly fall within this category.
  • Acts of Genocide: Genocide may be committed by any of the following: (a) killing members of the group; (b) causing serious bodily or mental harm; (c) deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; (d) imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; and/or (e) forcibly transferring children of the group to another group. In addition, in 1998, rape was recognized in international law as a constitutive act of genocide. The UN Inquiry on Syria found evidence that IS perpetrated all categories of genocidal acts set out above against the Yazidis, including systematic sexual violence as a strategy of genocide.
  • Intent: The crime of genocide requires that the perpetrator has a special intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a protected group. The genocidal acts must be committed against a person because of his or her membership in that group and as an incremental step in the overall objective of destroying the group. IS has openly stated that its aim is to destroy the Yazidi minority. In an article published in its English language magazine Dabiq, for instance, IS declared that ‘upon conquering the region of Sinjar… the Islamic State faced a population of Yazidis, a pagan minority existent for ages in the regions of Iraq and Sham [Syria]. Their continual existence to this day is a matter that Muslims should question as they will be asked about it on Judgment Day.’


The Islamic State singled out Yazidis and gave those whom they captured one choice: convert to Islam or die. Compelling evidence suggest that a genocide took place against the Yazidi people and that the Genocide is still ongoing. The United Nation, European Union, the United States, UK, France, Canada and other countries have formally recognized the Yazidi Genocide.

Important reports:

1- Mortality and kidnapping estimates for the Yazidi population in the area of Mount Sinjar, Iraq, in August 2014: A retrospective household survey

2- “They came to destroy”: ISIS Crimes Against the Yazidis*