Sally Armstrong is a journalist, author and human-rights activist
Thundering hordes of refugees have become the new normal. Their horrific stories – murder, torture, rape – swamp our psyches and rattle our conscience. Then they disappear. The wretched overcrowded camps full of malnutrition, violence and predictable diseases such as cholera, cycle around like reruns of a bad movie as though nothing can be done to alter the course. While some refugee problems are too complicated to solve quickly, others aren’t. The Yazidis, for example, who live mostly in northern Iraq and are one of the world’s oldest monotheistic religions, have dropped off the rescue radar.
We can do something. Consider the Yazidis, who claim the Islamic State attack in northern Iraq on Aug. 3, 2014, was the 74th genocide they have suffered. Today, while our collective gaze has moved away, 450,000 Yazidis are displaced, living in tents in refugee camps in northern Iraq and wondering why the world has forgotten them. They want to go home. The land they left is mostly vacant and waiting for the people who settled it 8,000 years ago to return.
While Canada is bringing some 1,200 Yazidi families here, particularly those suffering from extensive physical or psychological injuries, it is not the way to end the suffering and restart the lives of the rest. The Canadian military is no longer training the peshmerga (Kurdish militia) soldiers. They are advising the Iraqi government and providing security in Mosul. As much as the Islamic State is presumably defeated or has slithered back into desert caves, Iraq is a quarrelsome place today. Islamic State prisoners are being tried hastily in the courts or shot illegally in the fields. Justice is not being served. What’s more, the state of Iraq is in danger of imploding since the various factions – the Kurds, the Sunnis, the Shi’ites and other ancient dwellers – cannot get along. Canada was asked to continue its military presence because they know the landscape and the backstory. They are therefore key to getting the Yazidis home and emptying the refugee camps they’ve been in since 2014. Help would come in two parts.
Part 1: For thousands of years, the Yazidis lived along a 100-kilometre stretch of land called Shingal Mountain and in Shingal City on the west side of the mountain where it slopes toward Syria. (It’s known in the Arab world as Sinjar Mountain but the Yazidis call it Shingal.) They have lived on this patch of land all their lives. They don’t expect anyone else to rebuild their wrecked homes or fix their ruined roads. What they want is assurance that someone will protect them so that it’s safe to go home. Canada could send 500 of our well-trained soldiers to guard Shingal Mountain. No one is going to attack them. This is peace building writ large.
Part 2: Canada needs to address the fact that there are 5,000 women and girls who were held as sex slaves by the Islamic State. The atrocities committed against them are almost unspeakable. One woman I interviewed said, “Whatever is the hardest, toughest thing you can imagine is what they did to us. Anything morally dirty, they did it. They took our honour, they took our men and our boys, they raped us and beat us. They took everything from us.” A 12-year-old who escaped from the Islamic State fighter who kept her as a sex slave said, “He tied me up and put me at the end of his prayer rug. When he was finished praying he would untie me and rape me.” These women and girls cannot move ahead without help. They need therapy. The girls and women don’t need expensive one-on-one therapy. They need time with a therapist who has the skills to lead them in a group discussion about how to heal. Canada can put that together – language, numbers, methods – it’s what we’re good at.
We already have the mandate, the paperwork and the authority. It’s called the Responsibility to Protect, written and developed right here in Canada by Lloyd Axworthy. The language of the document says: The Responsibility to Protect (R2P) is a global political commitment which was endorsed by all member states of the United Nations at the 2005 World Summit in order to address its four key concerns to prevent genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. The same mandate can be used for the Rohingya once it’s safe for them to go home with a military escort. The masses of people currently fleeing violence make the R2P an ever more usable document and Canada the country that best knows how to employ it. Start with the Yazidis and show the world how well it would work.