An Islamic fighter covers the Cross of an Assyrian church in Sinjar with the black flag of ISIS.(AINA) — Earlier this month, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, through his spokesman, condemned “the recent upsurge of violence in Iraq at the hands of terrorist groups including the Islamic State (IS)” and stated “Reports of mass summary executions by IS are deeply disturbing and underscore the urgency of bringing the perpetrators of such crimes to justice.” The Secretary-General’s special envoy for Iraq, Nickolay Mladenov, also head of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) stated that the “systematic persecution of minorities” and destruction of cultural heritage sites show that IS have total contempt for human values. The Secretary General went so far as to “warn” against sectarian rhetoric that could further exacerbate the conflict while welcoming the voice of Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani demanding calm.
UNAMI has worked since 2003 to oversee and assist on managing the humanitarian crises in Iraq. The UN Human Rights Council also has recently expressed “grave concern” for the physical safety of Christians, Shias, Yezidis and others in the North. The group’s Special Rapporteur even went so far as admitting receiving reliable information that religious minorities were being specially targeted by IS. We can guess that Secretary Ban’s words together with other UN agency cautions will have as much impact and influence as UNAMI has had in deterring the horrors inflicted on Assyrian Christians and other non-Muslims in Iraq over a decade of turmoil (report). In this regard, the U.S. Government’s role through 2012 equally signaled to fundamentalist and retributive Muslim groups that there would be no heavy interference in their ethnic cleansing activity against North Iraq minorities.
In the face of an ongoing human rights emergency and genocide of this ancient Assyrian culture whose conversion to Christianity in the earliest days of the newly spreading religion, and ancient Aramaic tongue used in every Assyrian family, the words and cautions of international bodies cautioning IS are wholly insufficient. The genocide is happening now, today, and protestations and the cautions of international bodies will not stop IS in its rampage.
The truth is that the United Nations was never equipped to stop ongoing humanitarian disasters. Even where peacekeepers and watchdog soldiers were placed in strategic regions to protect civilians, the result has been an ineffective, and sometimes abusive UN peacekeeping force; ineffective to stop further assaults when launched by aggressors, as in Darfur, Rwanda and Lebanon, and physically and sexually abusive, as in Bosnia and Kosovo, South Sudan and Mali.
What do we know about the current situation in Iraq regarding Christians, almost all of whom are Assyrians (with religious groups of Chaldean Catholics, Eastern Orthodox and Evangelicals, all descendent of the Assyrian people where Nineveh, now Mosul, was Capitol)? Modern history has shown a tragic and single-minded drive to rid the entire Middle East of its native Christians. Those in Iraq are now simply suffering a similar fate to those in Turkey, Iran, and Syria, the neighboring states comprising the Mesopotamian Assyrian Syriac region. As IS seized control of towns and cities it has destroyed churches (AINA 2014-07-29), murdered those who object, marked the doors and thresholds of Christian households with the red letter “Noon” (AINA 2014-07-19), N in Arabic for the identification of a Nasrani, a person from Nazareth, meaning Christian, and robbed and terrorized these families forcing them out of Mosul by demanding conversion to Islam or ongoing payment of infidel taxes (AINA 2014-07-20). Killings have been systematic including of those speaking out, caught protesting robbery and violence on their families, and those too slow to evacuate in the estimation of their persecutors.
Read Time Line of ISIS in Mosul
We know that there are few left of these original people of Mesopotamia. We know that they suffer because of their religion. From a handful of millions remaining at the end of the bloody Turkish genocide of Assyrians in World War One, where 750,000 Assyrians were killed (75%), as well as 1.5 million Armenians and 500,000 Pontic Greeks, there remained a sizeable enough population to carry on throughout consecutive blows of persecution and killings suffered after various rounds of Arab grievances with the West, for which somehow Assyrians are blamed despite being indigenous to Mesopotamia.
The abandonment by the U.K. of its promise of an independent and autonomous region to Assyrians for guarding its soldiers against insurgent attacks resulted in 1933 in the rapid killing of over 3,000 Iraqi Assyrians in Simmele, Iraq as Arab reprisals for allying with England. Attacks and slaughter followed each World War and again with the outbreak of the Arab-Israeli wars in 1956 and 1973. The wonderful and special civilization of Iranian Assyrians, a highly educated and successful, happy and uplifting people whose villages around Lake Urmiah and those populating the Tehran universities, were decimated soon after Khomeini’s promises of protection in 1979.
The removal of the Saddam Hussein regime and the subsequent U.S. occupation in Iraq freed up religious inspired movements to again attack Christians and other non-Muslims fiercely and violently without fear of retribution or consequence. As fundamentalism grew in a formerly secular Iraq Christians faced the brunt of what Islamic fundamentalism means to the unconverted.
Genocide is both a legal and common word. Its precise definition under international law has varied but the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide defines it this way:
acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group, as such: killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part1; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; [and] forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.
Under this definition prosecutions have been brought in various courts (the Convention confers universal jurisdiction on any member state’s legal bodies) against leaders of Burundi Hutu tribes for slaughter of Tutsis, and vice versa, the gassing of Kurds in Halabja, the Khmer Rouge leaders in Cambodia for their relentless killings of Vietnamese, Chams and Thais, and Buddhist monks and in Equatorial Guinea the execution of its first President, Mac? Nguema, for overseeing the slaughter of up to 80,000 of his only 300,000 countrymen and women. While the Nazis probably harbored no illusion that their industrial slaughter could exterminate all Jewish people globally, their single-minded focus was to rid their areas of control of all its Jewish people.
In these and most cases of Genocide, a crime punishable under international law in legal proceeding, the fact of the systematic annihilation of the last remaining Christians in Iraq more closely resembles historic examples of extermination of an entire group or population of a vulnerable people already struggling to survive. These particular situations deserve at least the action and response of international groups and governments as other acts of genocide, and should be particularly identified and highlighted as situations of likely extermination.
The murder and cannibalism of tens of thousands of Pygmies in the rainforest of the Democratic Republic of Congo from 1998 — 2003 by several tribal groups was intended as a campaign of extermination and had a government code name: Effacer le Tableau, basically, wipe them all out. Unlike many identifiable world populations the Pygmies did not enjoy millions of tribal members and organized groups speaking on their behalf. Each one killed was a hack at the legs holding up a very sensitive “tableau” of survival or extinction.
Another example is the killing, over time, by the Indonesian government of Papuans in West New Guinea since independence from the Netherlands in 1963. The Papuans are not likely to die out entirely because of those in Papua/New Guinea and the ability to flee across the island border. Nevertheless those in Western Papua and the native lifestyle of many rainforest dwelling people leave those in Indonesia vulnerable to extermination in that country.
Like the Tatars in Russia and Crimea, who once numbered over five million, and the Uighar people of North West China, who up until 2004 were estimated to number 8 million remaining in their native lands, Assyrians are vulnerable, without military or militia protection or armies, and alone in Iraq without support of neighboring Assyrians in adjacent countries, there is nowhere to flee, and nowhere to go if they cannot get to the West. Their religion targets them. Their language and culture identify them. They do not wish to convert to Islam — which renders them most vulnerable.
Many studies and much work has been done on the subject of outlining a safe haven or autonomous protected area for Christians in Iraq along a path running Northwest from Southeast of Mosul up to an area south of the Dohuk province of the Kurdish North. Work done in this area by Michael Youash of the Iraqi Sustainable Democracy Project and the Assyrian Universal Alliance under the Australian leadership of Mr. Hermiz Shaheen and supported by Assyrian human rights groups lead to areas to explore as solutions to this ongoing and immediate emergency.
Safe havens were temporarily organized by the international community to Tutsi refugees fleeing Hutu persecution in Rwanda and Burundi. Similarly Bosnians were provided regions of protected lands overseen by military guards while Serbian militias were kept at bay. Even if an area is determined as temporary safe have until the IS threat is neutralized or softened, ChaldoAssyrian populations in Iraq, together with their non-Christian Yezidi brothers, must find immediate safety as the threat of extermination is real and immediate.
James Y. Rayis is an international attorney in the Detroit area with Giarmarco, Mullins & Horton, P.C. He is the former Director of Global Justice Project Iraq, a U.S. State Department funded initiative on judicial and lawyer independence in Iraq. He has served as Chairman of the American Bar Association Middle East Committee and was U.S. Presidential Delegate to AIJA, a global bar association of younger lawyers. He served as a director on the boards of the Chaldean/Assyrian/Syriac Council of America, the Assyrian Aid Society of America and served as Special Legal Advisor to the Assyrian Universal Alliance. His published Articles include The Christian Crisis in Iraq (2005) with author Nina Shea, Get Out the ChaldoAssyrian Vote (2005) and Conditions for Judicial Independence in Iraq (2008), along with professional academic articles.
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