Interview: Coalition for Genocide Response chair talks to JURIST about UK finding that Daesh crimes against Yazidis are genocide Features
Iraqi Yazidi refugees in Newroz camp receive help from International Rescue Committee - © Rachel Unkovic/International Rescue Committee, CC-BY 2.0 // Portrait provided by Ewelina Ochab // Images combined
Interview: Coalition for Genocide Response chair talks to JURIST about UK finding that Daesh crimes against Yazidis are genocide

The UK Government formally acknowledged on Tuesday that atrocities committed against the Yazidi people in 2014 by Daesh, commonly known as ISIS, constituted genocide. The UK government’s statement follows a January 2023 German Federal Court of Justice ruling which found a former Daesh fighter guilty of acts of genocide and crimes against humanity. The determination by the UK Government comes ahead of events marking the nine-year anniversary of atrocities committed by Daesh against the Yazidi people.

In response to the UK Government’s announcement, JURIST spoke to Dr. Ewelina Ochab, Co-founder of the Coalition for Genocide Response and a Program Lawyer at the International Bar Association Human Rights Institute who has been working to secure a determination of genocide in the case. Dr Ochab also provides services to the UK All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on the Yazidis. She has worked tirelessly to secure justice for the community, including for missing Yazidi women and girls.

Dr. Ochab was interviewed for JURIST by UK Senior Editor James Joseph. 

JURIST: Dr. Ochab, what has been your involvement with the Yazidi genocide and in assisting the UK to make this determination?

Dr Ochab: “I started working on the Daesh atrocities in 2015. Initially, it was to produce an analysis of the atrocities, explaining whether the atrocities meet the legal definition of genocide in Article II of the Genocide Convention. This analysis was used by parliamentarians in the UK, including Lord Alton of Liverpool and Fiona Bruce MP – who also secured the determination of the atrocities as genocide by the UK House of Commons in April 2016.

Subsequently, I have been working on legal avenues for justice and accountability for the crimes, including supporting the work of Pieter Omtzigt, PACE Special rapporteur on bringing Daesh to justice. Since approx, 2020, I have been supporting the APPG on the Yazidis, under the chairmanship of Brendan O’Hara MP, with the Coalition for Genocide Response. Brendan O’Hara MP, but also vice-chairs of the APPG – Lord Alton and Baroness Kennedy KC, made it their mission to ensure that the atrocities are recognised for what they are. We organised several parliamentary sessions on the topic, produced briefings, joint letters and petitions – including letters after each court determination in Germany. These letters were widely supported by civil society organizations – including YazdaFree Yezidi Foudation, NI, Yezidi Emergency Support and others.”

JURIST: What does the UK determination mean in practice, especially as there have only been five previous genocide instances determined by the UK?

Dr Ochab: “The UK Government relies on court determination to formally recognise atrocities as genocide. This approach is flawed and is not grounded in law, however, despite several Parliamentary debates on the issue, including around the Genocide Determination Bill and Genocide Amendment to the Trade Bill, the Government refused to change its position. As there have been three determinations of the atrocities against the Yazidis as genocide, and this done by competent courts (German criminal courts), we have been pushing the UK Government to act on its ‘long-standing policy’ and recognise the Daesh atrocities for what they are. The UK Government has finally done this.

While appreciated, the determination cannot be an end it itself and must follow with decisive actions – including to investigate and prosecute British Daesh fighters for their involvement in genocide, and not terror related offences only. This is crucial as a means of punishing the perpetrators for the crimes they committed, rather than lower offences, but also to deter similar atrocities in the future. We cannot send a message that if you commit genocide abroad, you can get away with it or you will only get a slap on your hand (with lower offences). The UK must do more, including by way of collaborating with UNITAD (UN Investigative Team to Promote Accountability for Crimes Committed by Da’esh/ISIL), CIGE (Commission for Investigation & Gathering Evidence) and others to ensure that justice and accountability prevail.

JURIST: How will this determination assist survivors and justice for victims of the Yazidi Genocide?

Dr Ochab: “This is a crucial step to establish truth. However, actions should follow, including to ensure justice and accountability but also to support the community. To this day, over 2,700 yazidi women and children are missing and there have been no international actions to find and rescue them. Until this day, thousands of Yazidi people live in camps and cannot return home and resettlement options are severely limited. Until this day, the communities are not provided with the assistance they need, and even the limited support gets smaller by the day.”

JURIST: What next steps can the UK and other international actors now take as a result of this?

Dr Ochab: “There are several actions that can be taken, including by proactively supporting justice and accountability efforts in the UK and abroad, as well as humanitarian support and resettlement options for Yezidi people. Furthermore, the UK could play a more proactive role in supporting Iraq in the ensuring comprehensive protections for the communities, assistance on the ground, and creating opportunities for members of the community.”

JURIST: What else would you like to see happen in order that the Transitional Justice process may take place and close the impunity gap that’s existed since 2014?

Dr Ochab: “As recommended by Pieter Omtzigt in his latest PACE report, mentioned earlier, we need to revive the efforts to establish an ad-hoc tribunal to prosecute Daesh. The conversations on the topic have never gone far enough. However, considering the number of foreign fighters who joined Daesh to contribute to the horrific atrocities – we, as the international community, must do more. The burden should not be only on the Iraqi courts to deal with the issue.”

What the UK Government will do next, and whether more governments will follow suit is yet to be seen.