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Anfal, Halabja, and Sinjar: How to prevent genocide in the future

The atrocities committed against Ezidi Kurds by DAESH, following the capturing of Sinjar in August 2014, have sparked great international attention and consternation. The UN, as well as the US government and the British Parliament, have labeled these crimes as “Acts of Genocide”. In the past, Ezidis in particular, and Kurds in general, have been subject to numerous genocidal campaigns by state and non-state actors. With a specific focus on the genocides that happened in the course of the Al-Anfal campaign and in Halabja in the past and the atrocities that happened in Sinjar only recently, a public seminar at the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna (Austria) yesterday discussed means and ways to prevent genocide in the future.

Three distinguished experts contributed to the seminar: Dr Mohammed Ihsan (former Minister for Human Rights in Iraq and internationally renowned expert on genocide), Professor Dr Hannes Tretter (Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for Human Rights), and Wieland Schneider (Austrian journalist for Die Presse). Moderated by Austrian journalist Anna Giulia Fink, Dr Ihsan and Mr Schneider provided an unsparing and revealing depiction of the events in the late 1980’s and 2014, while Prof Tretter focused on their legal implications.

Dr Ihsan, who founded the Center for Genocide Studies at the University of Erbil, drew a comparison of numerous past cases of genocide in Kurdistan, committed by both state and non-state actors. In this respect, he highlighted common similarities in the evolution of mass annihilations. Differentiating several stages leading to genocidal campaigns, such as the classification and dehumanization of specific groups, the polarization between such groups, and concrete preparations and implementations of atrocities, Dr Ihsan stated that the best way to prevent similar events in the future is to monitor settings in which tensions between groups emerge and to take preventive action. Moreover, education on these issues, the raising of international awareness, and genocide recognition, are equally of key importance. Finally, he also highlighted the role of bringing perpetrators of genocide to court: “Without justice for perpetrators, history is going to repeat itself again.”

Wieland Schneider, who visited Sinjar shortly after its liberation and who recently published his book “War on the Caliphate – The West, the Kurds, and the threat of the Islamic State”, took a glance at the atrocities committed against the Ezidis. Presenting pictures of mass graves in Sinjar, quoting Ezidis he interviewed, and providing ISIS propaganda portraying their gruesome ideology, the audience received a first-hand impression of the horrible events that happened only two years ago, in 2014.

Prof Tretter, an experienced human rights lawyer and founder of the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for Human Rights in Vienna, explained how genocide is defined in international treaties and how the events in Kurdistan match the definition. The internationally well-known expert, who documented the Srebrenica massacre in Bosnia and Herzegovina for court proceedings at the International Court of Justice, mentioned two legal treaties relevant to convict both state and non-state perpetrators of genocide: The Genocide Convention of 1948, and the ICC Statute of 1998. Moreover, in the scope of their national jurisdiction, states can equally bring perpetrators to court. The big challenge however will be to provide sufficient evidence in order to convict individuals for their atrocities.

The subsequent discussion picked up the question of how international recognition can lead to the prevention of repetition of these atrocities. There was consent among the panelists that international recognition raises awareness and makes international actors more sensitive to the emergence of such events. While this may deter state actors from committing similar crimes against specific groups, recognition would however not influence non-state actors such as ISIS in their decision making, Wieland Schneider stated. Dr Ihsan also stressed, that dysfunctional and disunited states, such as Iraq, are particularly vulnerable to genocide. Therefore, finding a solution for the political and social problems in Iraq is a major necessity to prevent genocide in the future. In this context, Prof Tretter emphasized that a common position of the International Community in general and the European Union in particular towards the current issues that the whole Middle Eastern region is facing is of utmost importance and crucial for finding solutions.