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Discussions of the 2014 genocide committed by the Islamic State against the Êzidîs (also known as ‘Yazidis’ or ‘Yezidis’) have generally focused on murder, slavery and sexual exploitation. In this paper we analyze the destruction of Êzidî tangible and intangible cultural heritage as a significant facet of the Islamic State’s policy of ethnic cleansing and genocide. Evidence of destruction is collected and presented in context with other criminal acts.
In international discourse the destruction of cultural heritage sites is most often placed under the heading of war crime. Several convictions by the ICTY and the conviction of Malian Islamist Al-Mahdi by the ICC are well-known. However, heritage destruction may also be prosecuted as the crime of persecution, a crime against humanity. Numerous indictments and convictions before international courts attest to the viability of this approach. Finally, as per explicit caselaw of the ICJ and ICTY, destruction of tangible heritage also serves as evidence of the special intent to destroy a protected group under the crime of genocide.
The Êzidî are an endogamous community at home in northern Iraq for whom faith and ethnic belonging are inextricably linked. Belief in God and TawûsÊ Malek (the highest angel), and reverence for Lalish as the holiest place on earth are the defining features of the Êzidî faith. Historic and sacred places are an essential part of the Êzidî identity and are considered vital to life by the local population. The Islamic State made no secret of its intention to eradicate the Êzidî community and commenced a policy of ethnic cleansing and genocide on 3 August 2014. All victims were abused and tortured. Male Êzidîs above the age of 12 were killed. Female Êzidîs were enslaved and traded in a complex and public network of sexual slavery. Boys were trained in ISIS camps and militarized. Those who fled to Mount Sinjar were besieged in order to ensure death from starvation, thirst and the blazing sun. Bases of economic support, such as olive groves and irrigation wells, were systematically destroyed and many areas of the Êzidî homeland were sown with landmines and improvised explosive devices (IEDs) to prevent the population from returning.
We provide original research, evidence and context on the destruction of Êzidî tangible cultural heritage in the Bahzani/Bashiqa and Sinjar areas of northern Iraq. We present satellite imagery analysis conducted by the EAMENA project, drawing on data provided by Êzidî representatives. According to the Department of Yazidi Affairs in the Ministry of Awqaf and Religious Affairs in the Kurdistan Regional Government 68 Êzidî sites were destroyed by the Islamic State. We consider 16 sites in the Bahzani/Bashiqa area and 8 in the Sinjar area to which access was possible and which could be documented. We conclude that the destruction of the cultural heritage of the Êzidî people constituted a war crime, a crime against humanity (persecution) and compelling evidence of genocidal intent. We recommend the consideration of cultural heritage destruction in any prosecution of atrocity crimes, especially the crime of genocide.