Human rights activist and lawyer, Amal Alamuddin Clooney, has represented many high-profile clients, including WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange; former Ukrainian Prime Minister, Yulia Tymoshenko; former President of the Maldives, Mohamed Nasheed; and Canadian-Egyptian journalist, Mohamed Fahmy. This time, however, she is representing twenty-three-year-old ISIS survivor and Nobel Peace Prize nominee, Nadia Murad, on behalf of the thousands of Yazidi victims of ISIS. This time, Clooney is taking ISIS to court.
Over the past two years, ISIS members have committed murder, torture, rape, and, sexual and child slavery, against the Yazidis in its campaign to eliminate, or “purify” them of their non-Islamic influence. More than 5,000 Yazidis have been killed and at least 3,200 others are still held captive, according to a U.N. inquiry.
Murad, who escaped the clutches of ISIS in 2014 after three months of being a sex slave to the point of unconsciousness and had her mother and six brothers slaughtered, has become the face of the Yazidi plight. On Friday, after being named a U.N. Goodwill Ambassador, she said she was born to be a “simple Yazidi farm girl,” not to make speeches, but that she would strive to bring her people justice.
Clooney, too, spoke at the U.N. in New York City, rebuking the international community for failing to act against what she called a “bureaucracy of evil on an industrial scale.”
“I wish I could say that I was proud to be here, but I’m not,” Clooney said. “I’m ashamed as a human being that we ignore their cries for help.”
From seeking survivor testimonies from refugee camps in northern Greece and programs for asylum seekers in Germany to excavating mass graves, the two women are working to influence the international community to gather evidence so the perpetrators can be held legally culpable.
Clooney said that she and her movie-star husband, George Clooney, have discussed the risks such a case entails but after hearing Murad’s story, she knew she had no other option. She said that her family, particularly her husband, understands how imperative it is that she take this case.
“This is no joke; this is ISIS,” said the Oxford and NYU educated lawyer. “They have sent her really specific threats saying, ‘We will get you back . . . we will do everything to you . . . I met her, and I just thought, ‘I can’t walk away.”
Murad has cited multiple threats to her safety, including one from a young niece who was held as a slave and was subsequently killed, and another from a nephew she says was indoctrinated by ISIS after being captured at age 11 to be enlisted as a “cub of the caliphate.”
"Yes, I put my own life at risk, but I didn't have a life without giving hope to other victims," Murad said.
But jeopardizing their safety to further a noble cause is only the beginning of an uphill battle. The women are lobbying the world body to have the Yazidi genocide brought before the International Criminal Court, which was set up in 2002 to prosecute crimes against humanity. This would only be possible through one of two ways: to have Syria and/or Iraq bring the issue forward, or to have the United Nations Security Council sanction an investigation. Since neither Iraq nor Syria are members of the ICC, however, the former option is not viable. The latter option is also problematic because China and Russia, two of the five members of the Security Council, have previously vetoed the ICC investigating war crimes in Syria. Clooney says that the Russians are "open" to discussing an investigation, and she also plans to meet with Chinese officials to discuss the possibility.
The prosecution by an international tribunal could also be complicated by the unusual nature of the Islamic State, which is not recognized formally as a bona fide state to even begin with, thus deeming ISIS members as 'non-state actors.' Since the group has also attracted recruitments from across the globe, their respective nations may diverge when it comes to deciding treatment of the perpetrators. Moreover, ISIS has an administrative hierarchy, making it difficult to pinpoint which members should be held culpable for acts planned by their superiors.
Where would the potentially large number of detainees even be held? Since Iraq and the U.S. are allies, the detainees could be returned to Iraq but with Syria, where the U.S. has backed rebel factions seeking to oust Assad, who is backed by Russia, it is not as simple.
Furthermore, there is a high standard of what constitutes evidence in order to prove a 'genocide.' Genocide, according to the 1948 Genocide Convention, is an attempt to undermine the integrity of a religious, ethnic, racial, or national group. In the case of ISIS and the Yazidis, the torture being committed is to undermine the viability of the victim group.
Bertrand M. Patenaude, a lecturer in History and International Relations at Stanford University, said that it is, indeed, a genocide because ISIS is using several methods - forcible conversion, rape, murder - to "destroy a gene pool," thereby undermining the "separate identity of the group."
It is, however, not important to toss around the term 'genocide' because it is enough to recognize these barbaric acts as evil, as "crimes against humanity," which was the term under which the major Nazis were convicted of at the Nuremberg Trials.
"My reaction when I saw the U.N. announcement was “yes, it is genocide, but we shouldn’t really need that in order to realize that this is something that should be stopped,” adds Patenaude.
According to Patenaude, U.S. involvement is also crucial to resolving the issue but having a divided government at present makes it a challenge to persuade American citizens to support more international intervention. Having spent almost a decade in Afghanistan and Iraq, Americans are facing 'intervention fatigue', so it seems that they prefer to retreat from the world.
Moreover, certain ethnic and religious minorities will remain vulnerable to violence from other factions whether or not ISIS has been defeated unless the underlying issue of understanding the array of grievances that instigated the terror network to begin with is addressed.