Thank you so much.
I have eight minutes to tell you everything that's wrong with Iraqi minorities and a solution to fix the problem. I'll try to move as fast as I can.
Over the past three and a half years since the Yazidi genocide began, I have been repeatedly asked to give lectures, presentations, and briefings such as this one to members of parliaments and congresses and numerous government agencies on the status of Sinjar and on the question of how we can help the Yazidis and other minorities in Iraq. But the advice that I and other advocates have consistently given to the officials of western governments has never been followed. That advice is to get involved directly in the internal political morass in Iraq that is by definition the cause of the abuse, the discrimination, and the systematic disenfranchisement that afflicts Iraqi minorities and places their very future existence in their homelands at risk.
Operatives of the Islamic State organization, or IS, still exist in Iraq. Even if its organizational structure and ruling capabilities have been broken, the extremist ideology of religious intolerance continues to thrive within many segments of the society. This will remain a perennial problem for religious minorities.
While IS is certainly the most brazenly depraved actor in the region, IS is not the player that most jeopardizes the future of minorities in Iraq. The actors who are most responsible for endangering the survival and continuity of religious minorities in Iraq are not Islamist extremists but so-called legitimate political entities jostling for territory and power. This competition centres around the problem with the disputed territories, which include areas high in minority populations, such as Sinjar and Nineveh, that became contested between the central government in Baghdad and the Kurdistan regional government in the north after Saddam Hussein's regime fell in 2003.
In Sinjar, from the fall of Saddam to the Yazidi genocide in 2014, Baghdad was responsible for the budget for Sinjar's infrastructure and services, but Sinjar was controlled by Kurdish armed forces and security. These peshmerga forces are not a national Kurdish military but partisan militias controlled by specific political parties. Sinjar fell under the control of the forces loyal to the Kurdistan Democratic Party, or KDP, the ruling party of former president Masoud Barzani. This party did not allow the central government to play a role in Sinjar's administration. Instead, the KDP unilaterally appointed most of Sinjar's administrative officials, without elections or any say on the part of the local Yazidi population. Further, the KDP began to use repressive techniques against political rivals in Sinjar, intimidating and jailing Yazidis who joined political parties that favoured local governance and direct engagement with Baghdad rather than the annexation of Sinjar to the Kurdistan region. This is all prior to the genocide.
Nevertheless, some Yazidis in Sinjar hoped that Kurdish rule might advance the status of the marginalized Yazidi minority. These hopes were irreversibly shattered on the day the Yazidi genocide began. This was one of the most egregious instances of disregard for an ethno-religious minority in our era. As the IS jihadists approached Sinjar, the peshmerga forces affiliated with the KDP, who were responsible for Sinjar's security, were ordered by the Kurdish authorities in Erbil to withdraw. These forces never engaged the enemy but withdrew prior to the arrival of the jihadists. Instead of facilitating an evacuation and providing cover to civilians, the peshmerga fled even before the Yazidi families could leave. They refused to leave weapons behind, even when the Yazidis begged them for weapons to defend their families. We all know the result: over 6,000 Yazidis enslaved, more than half of them female, and as many as 10,000 Yazidis killed.
Following the genocide, the overwhelming majority of Yazidis from Sinjar have understandably rejected Kurdish claims to Sinjar's administration. Since August 2014, Yazidis have consistently demanded that Baghdad work directly with their community to develop local non-partisan administrative and security institutions so that Yazidis can govern their own affairs within the framework of a united Iraq, just as Abid told us via teleconference.
The Yazidis and advocates like me have also repeatedly begged the international community and western governments to facilitate this process by working directly with Baghdad to support the process and hold them accountable. The survival of the Yazidi minority in their homeland depends on making Sinjar safe and stable. But instead of pursuing this form of action, countless world leaders have done photo ops with Nadia Murad, have made overtures about the rights of Yazidis, and in some cases have designated certain funds for humanitarian relief.
Over four years after the genocide, Sinjar is neither safe nor stable. Instead, the Kurdistan Democratic Party has targeted Yazidis with increasing levels of abuse and political violence. Angry that the PKK-affiliated forces that defended Sinjar from the jihadists later established a permanent presence that has resisted KDP attempts to reassume control over the disputed territory, the KDP implemented an economic blockade that prevented the Yazidis who survived the genocide from transporting foodstuffs, household goods, school supplies, farm equipment, and reconstruction materials needed to rebuild their own destroyed homes.
In effect, the Iraqi Kurdish powers have deliberately prevented the reconstruction of Sinjar, and have prevented displaced Yazidis, who have been living in tents for over four years, from returning home and continuing their lives. Human Rights Watch reported on this blockade, but in almost three years since it was first implemented, the road from the Dohuk region to Sinjar remains completely closed.
KDP's security forces have arrested, beaten and intimidated Yazidis who have joined, or attempted to join, PKK-affiliated militias in order to defend their homeland. They have also expelled the destitute civilian families of young Yazidi men who join non-peshmerga Iraqi militias to help liberate Yazidi villages from IS jihadists. The KDP has at times prevented medicine from reaching Sinjar—I saw this personally—and has prevented NGOs from conducting humanitarian and reconstruction work in Sinjar.
Most recently, KDP security forces have threatened scores of displaced Yazidis living in camps in the Kurdistan region with expulsion from the camps if they vote for independent Yazidi candidates running in Iraqi parliamentary elections, i.e., Yazidis not affiliated with the KDP ticket.
The answer to the question of the status of Iraqi minorities post-IS, therefore, is that local political competitors continue to abuse them, and many of their homelands remain unlivable.
The situation of the Assyrian Christians is similar to that of the Yazidis. The KDP authorities use a number of manipulative and coercive tactics to impose unilateral control over the Nineveh plain against the wishes of the majority of Assyrians who, like the Yazidis, would prefer to develop forms of local governance and security within the framework of a united Iraq rather than see their homelands annexed to a Kurdistan region, whose leaders have sworn to pursue an end goal of secession from Iraq.
Unfortunately, western officials rarely hear the real voices of these minorities because of the clever strategy of the KDP's financial patronage system. The KDP co-opts significant Yazidi and Assyrian community figures, including priests, bishops, other clergy, university professors, tribal leaders and political elites, by placing them on the party's payroll. As soon as a tribal leader, or a bishop, for example, accepts a KDP salary, they have effectively eliminated their own ability to speak out in defence of the rights of the community. To criticize KDP policy would mean the loss of the financial patronage that they have come to enjoy. In this way, the KDP has managed to eliminate almost all public opposition.
When western governmental entities such as this committee solicit the recommendations of visible Yazidi and Assyrian political elites in Iraq, these figures are almost always KDP affiliated. They therefore deliver a message consistent with KDP ambitions rather than one that reflects the true sentiments of their constituencies. This strategy has had a tremendously destructive impact on the status of these minorities, who have effectively become sheep without a shepherd.
Most recently, the KDP and other political entities have exploited the minority quota system to elect their own appointees to the Iraqi parliament. There is a minority quota system in Iraq, whereby Assyrians are guaranteed a certain number of seats within the system. Yet, because the law is broken, voting for those seats is not restricted to Assyrians; technically, Muslims can vote for these seats.
What happened this year was that several non-Assyrian political parties, including the KDP, influenced thousands of Muslims, who have never visited Nineveh in their lives and who inhabit non-Assyrian districts on the other side of the country—places like Basra and Kirkuk—to vote for co-opted Assyrian figures running on the tickets of these non-Assyrian parties like the KDP. As of this year, despite a quota designed to guarantee that Assyrian Christians will enjoy a minimum level of political agency, the Assyrians of Iraq have virtually no government representation.
There is going to be a report released on this very soon that I recommend you read. On political patronage, there's a report that was issued last year. I was a co-author. It's called “Erasing Assyrians”. It's easy to find if you google it. That gives a lot of information about the patronage system. The new report is going to be coming from the Assyrian Policy Institute. It's going to talk about all of these election fraud tactics.
I'm pretty much done.
I know that those of you sitting on this committee probably think this is quite sad but that it's difficult to do anything about it, especially if your focus is immigration to Canada and not foreign affairs. However, I want to emphasize that if we really want to do something to solve the situation of Iraqi minorities, which keeps coming up—even if it seems like a remote and minor issue compared to everything else that our constituencies deal with, it keeps coming up—it's going to involve direct political action.
I propose a commission, established by one or more governments that have influence in Iraq, that can work directly with Baghdad, which I think would be very receptive to this, to resolve the issue of the disputed territories and create the local governance that is needed in Sinjar.
Otherwise, Kurdish parties will take over Sinjar again, and it will be back to the status quo prior to the genocide, and most Yazidis will continue to emigrate from the country to seek refuge in the west.