Geoffrey P. Johnston
According to the U.S. State Department, ISIS — also known as the Islamic State, ISIL and Daesh — committed genocide against Yazidis, Christians and Shia Muslims during a bloody reign of terror in parts of Iraq and Syria.
Although ISIS has been defeated on the battlefields of Iraq and Syria and the so-called caliphate has been smashed, the horror continues for thousands of Yazidi women and girls, who continue to be held by ISIS members as sex slaves. “We call on the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS and its local partners to establish a task force to rescue #Yazidi captives who continue to be held by ISIS,” declared Nadia Murad on Twitter on March 8. Murad is a Yazidi survivor of the genocide and human trafficking perpetrated by ISIS. She won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2018 and is a self-described “advocate for victims of sexual violence.” Despite ample evidence, few members of the terrorist movement have been put on trial for their crimes. “It’s been quite apparent to me that, despite a five-year military plan to defeat ISIS, it seems like there has been absolutely no thought given to what to do with them when you defeat them,” Kyle Matthews, executive director of the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights, said in a telephone interview. Story continues below The genocide expert noted that thousands of ISIS fighters have recently surrendered in Syria. And while Kurdish forces allied with the West are asking western countries to repatriate the captured fighters, Matthews said the West does not want to deal with the problem. “I have been very adamant that the Canadian government should be prosecuting returning ISIS fighters for the crimes of genocide and crimes of against humanity,” Matthews stated. He is clearly frustrated by the lack of prosecutions in the West. “No one is sure what they are going to do,” he said. And the human rights defender noted that the Belgium government has suggested setting up an international tribunal along the lines of the one that was established to prosecute war crimes and crimes against humanity committed during the Balkan wars of the 1990s. Sweden has made a similar suggestion. Matthews thinks that Canada should take the lead on the international stage by establishing an international tribunal to try members of ISIS. Hydra The threat posed by ISIS is not going away, Matthews warned. In fact, the jihadist movement is spreading around the globe. “ISIS has expanded to Nigeria, to Libya, to Somalia, to the Philippines,” Matthews said. “This is truly almost like a hydra that is growing around the world.” But holding ISIS fighters to account for their crimes is a good way to combat the spread of their extremist ideology, he asserted. “All these people are claiming that they want to come back to Canada, France or Germany,” Matthews said of defeated ISIS fighters. And many of these terrorists improbably claim to have been “a bottle washer” or some other supposedly innocuous member of the jihadist army. Nevertheless, Matthews said that returning ISIS members must stand trial. Canada already possesses the legal authority to pursue criminal prosecutions of ISIS members. “We do have the War Crimes and Crimes against Humanity Act,” Matthews said, adding that the law has been used to prosecute the perpetrators of the 1994 Rwandan Genocide. The fact that ISIS fighters have returned to Canada and are now walking the streets is troubling, Matthews said. “We’ve had Yazidi women being targeted by these guys upon their return,” he said. And he contends that it is important to send a clear message that Canada will protect the persecuted and punish the perpetrators. Statute of Rome Under the Statute of Rome, which established the International Criminal Court (ICC), Iraq has the first crack at prosecuting ISIS members. The ICC only intervenes when a country can’t or won’t hold to account perpetrators of war crimes, genocide, or crimes against humanity. When it comes to the ICC and possible prosecutions of ISIS members, the situation is complicated, Matthews said. For example, Syria is not a party to the Statute of Rome. And he said there is no chance that the United Nations Security Council will refer the crimes committed by ISIS in Syria to the ICC. Iraq is not a member of the ICC, either. And Matthews said the Iraqi government is probably afraid to bring in the ICC to prosecute ISIS, because of alleged atrocities committed by Shiite militias during the conflict. However, Matthews noted that Iraq has been receiving financial support from the British government to build up the capacity of the Iraqi judicial system in order to prosecute ISIS. “Iraq is starting to [prosecute ISIS members],” Matthews said, noting that an Iraqi court recently found a Belgium-born ISIS fighter guilty of crimes committed in Iraq and condemned him to death. Is the West’s response to the genocide and atrocities committed by ISIS a litmus test for the ICC and the rules-based international order? “Yes, of course,” Matthews replied without hesitation. “This is one of the first times that we have seen a group draw over 40,000 foreign fighters from all parts of the world to actually take over parts of two different countries; taking over an area the size of Belgium; launching attacks on western countries and against other countries in the Middle East; posting social media propaganda that’s going to take years to take down.” “This is a threat to the liberal international order,” Matthews said for added emphasis. “These guys are against democracy, the UN, and human rights.” In addition, Matthews said ISIS tried to destroy multiculturalism and diversity in the Middle East. “We need to take them seriously,” he advised. Should Canada invoke the Statute of Rome, or just use existing criminal laws to try ISIS members? “I think we can invoke the Rome Statute,” Matthews replied. However, he suggested finding another way to deal with this transnational problem, namely an international tribunal. “I know Nadia Murad, the Nobel Peace Prize winner, has asked for this,” Matthews said. Why has the ICC failed to address the genocide and mass atrocities committed by ISIS? “I think it has failed, because they haven’t had the power to do anything,” Matthews replied. And he pointed out that the UN Security Council has not called upon the ICC to do an investigation of the crimes committed by ISIS. “I think if we can’t do it through the ICC, then I think we have to find another way out,” Matthews said of criminal prosecutions. Hydra in Canada If Canada fails to prosecute returning ISIS fighters, will the hydra spring up in this country? “If you have people returning here, and the only reason they are coming back is because their project was defeated and they still hold the ideology, then it can lead to problems in the future,” Matthews replied. For example, he said the returning ISIS members could radicalize other individuals. Moreover, ISIS fighters with weapons training could eventually commit violent acts in Canada. Canadian military trainers are deployed in northern Iraq, where mass graves are being uncovered. Should Canada also deploy investigators to gather evidence for prosecutions of ISIS members? “I think it would be a wonderful thing if we did deploy some expertise to help Nadia Murad and the Yazidis identify remains [of the victims],” Matthews answered. “They need to have forensic anthropologists who have all the tools.” Matthews stressed that the Nobel laureate is asking for help from the international community, but so far only the French government has responded to her request. In the final analysis, Matthews said that western leaders are “extremely naive” if they think ISIS is merely “a flash in the pan.”