USCIRF: Iraqi government paralysis negatively impacts ethnic and religious minorities

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The latest report of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedoms (USCIRF) about religious freedom in Iraq indicated a decline in the governmental role in protecting the religious rights and freedoms of Iraqi minorities.

The report, written by the Policy Analyst Susan Bishai, explained religious freedom in Iraq in relation to the federal government’s political crises in 2021 and 2022. It also analyzed obstacles arising from the tumultuous political situation in Baghdad and the hopes of religious minorities for the administration newly instituted in October 2022.

According to the report, the Iraqi government’s role in protecting religious minorities, including Sunnis, Christians, Yezidis, and others, has weakened with the accession of political parties associated with Shia Cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

The government’s inaction in the second half of 2022 has frozen potential programs and funds that would benefit religious minorities and diverted attention from crucial issues affecting these groups, in addition to escalating the religious division already present in Iraq’s political environment.

Effects on the Yezidi Community

Yezidis in Iraq have felt the effects of recent political dynamics particularly strongly, according to the report. The Yezidi Survivors Law (YSL) was enacted by the Iraqi parliament in March 2021, some seven years after the Islamic State (ISIS) began its genocide against the community. The YSL attracted notice because it was “the first law that offers restitution and help for victims of conflict-related sexual abuse in Iraq” and because it specifically referred to the atrocities committed by ISIS as genocide and crimes against humanity.

The law applies to female survivors from the Yezidi and other minority communities — Turkmen, Christian, and Shabak — who were targeted by ISIS for kidnapping, rape, and systemic sexual enslavement. The YSL also provides support for male Yezidi, Turkmen, Christian, and Shabak abduction and mass murder survivors.

To streamline YSL applications, the General Directorate of Survivors Affairs (GDSA) was formed within the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the GDSA signed a Cooperation Agreement to further support the implementation of the YSL, but it took an additional year and a half for the YSL to be put into action. According to IOM, “many survivors remain in prolonged displacement, and those who have returned home are not considerably better off.”

The United Nations Refugee Agency estimates that over 200,000 Yazidis are still displaced, many of them living in “severe poverty” in informal settlements and internal displacement camps within the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI).

The protracted political instability in Baghdad during most of 2022 prevented applicants from accessing the money they qualified for, even though the Council of Ministers decided to provide a portion of the 2022 financial budget for GDSA to implement the YSL. Human rights organizations have urged the GDSA to find capable service providers to assist in closing ongoing “service gaps” in the government’s provision of restitution, wages, and other benefits to recipients. Civil society organizations have also voiced concern that the government’s inadequate implementation of the YSL may have prevented some qualified survivors from submitting applications in addition to potentially preventing financial help for accepted applicants.

The Iraqi federal government’s ongoing crisis has hindered the implementation of other initiatives intended to address the urgent needs of the wider Yazidi community, which includes people still displaced from the Sinjar district that formed the epicenter of ISIS’s genocidal violence. Chief among these projects is the Sinjar Agreement, which the United Nations in 2020 helped broker between the central Iraqi government and the KRG—who have conflicting claims to the territory—in part to help stabilize and secure Sinjar for displaced Yazidis’ return. USCIRF has urged the U.S. Government to encourage the Iraqi government and the KRG to comprehensively implement that agreement in consultation with Yazidi community members.

Other attempts meant to meet the pressing needs of the larger Yezidi community, including individuals still displaced from Shigur (Shengal / Sinjar), the epicenter of ISIS’s genocidal atrocities, have been hampered by the current crisis facing the Iraqi federal government. The most important of these initiatives is the 2020 UN-mediated “Sinjar Agreement” between the federal government and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) — who have competing claims to the territory. USCIRF has pleaded with the US government to press the Iraqi government and the KRG to fully carry out that agreement after consulting Yezidi community members.

The terms of the agreement, including the appointment of an independent mayor, the expulsion of all armed groups from Shigur, and the establishment of a local security force made up of members of the local Yezidi Shengal Resistance Units (Yekîneyên Berxwedana Şengalê; YBŞ) remained largely unfulfilled throughout Baghdad’s year-long political crisis. Similar to the delay in the activation of the YSL, Baghdad’s political paralysis revealed a lack of resources to strengthen local law enforcement and capacity-building, as well as political resolve to invest in Sinjar.

The current behavior of the Iraqi government in Shigur has occasionally crossed the line from passivity to damage, “adding insult to injury”. In May 2022, a military operation by Iraqi forces against the YBŞ resulted in the largest displacement of Yezidis since the 2014 genocide — approximately 3,000 people. Many of these individuals were traumatized returnees who suffered extra injury from Turkish bombings in the area.

Effects on Other Minority Communities

Many of these communities have also been traumatized by years of violence by ISIS and its remnants — as well as Turkey, Iran, and their proxies. Other religious minorities in Iraq have asked the federal government to take greater action in protecting their communities. In contrast to their calls, government organizations sent eviction notices to Christians living in a relocation community in Baghdad’s Zayouna area when the political crisis was resolved in October 2022, leaving the families facing homelessness in the coming winter.

Chaldean–Syriac–Assyrian and other minority families, many of whom ISIS had driven from their homes in Nineveh Plains in 2014, as well as Chaldean Catholic Patriarch Cardinal Sako, petitioned the government to put off the evictions and assist in rehousing the families. Community members, including children, addressed their cries to al-Sadr as a still-potent political force and populist leader, who before his resignation is said to have restored several expropriated properties to their Christian owners. The evictees’ own appeals attempted to go beyond inattentive Baghdad officials.

Other indigenous ethnic and religious minority civil society leaders have expressed their confidence that the newly elected government will overcome the unwillingness of past governments to address the problems facing their communities. Women’s groups in the Sabaean Mandean and Shabak communities have declared their determination to press the incoming administration for constitutional protections for minorities and other legal safeguards.

The report concludes that Iraq’s political crises have significantly complicated circumstances for religious minority groups. During and in part due to the prolonged political deadlock, the government demonstrated a lack of “real will” to address the significant and persistent challenges facing religious minorities. The United States has a role to play in encouraging Iraq to accelerate and intensify its efforts to improve religious freedom for all Iraqis.