March 16, 2016

Washington gathers to commemorate Halabja and discuss ISIS genocide

Washington, DC, USA ( – ‘Today we pay our respects to those who were killed in Halabja in 1988, as well as to the victims of genocide in Kurdistan, in Iraq, and around the world,’ said Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) Representative to the United States Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman at the commemoration of the 28th anniversary of the Halabja chemical attacks.

Members of the US government, media, academics, and Kurdish community members gathered on Wednesday, March 16, 2016 at the Center for Transatlantic Relations at Johns Hopkins University School for Advanced International Studies for a memorial ceremony and discussion of the chemical attacks and recent genocide and other crimes against Yezidi, Christian, Shabak, Turkmen, and other religious and ethnic minorities by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS).

On March 16, 1988, Iraqi Mirage jets dropped bombs containing a sarin, VX, and other deadly poisons and nerve agents on innocent civilians in the town of Halabja and surrounding villages. In a matter of minutes, more than 5,000 lay dead, mostly women and children. Some 10,000 were seriously injured, which many still suffer today. The attack was only the latest in a decades-long campaign of genocide by the Iraqi regime against the people of Kurdistan.

Yerevan Saeed, a journalist and member of the Capital City of Peace organization recanted his personal experiences of the chemical attacks, describing how his family had fled war in Iraq, only to return to Halabja three weeks before the attack. From a cave nearby the city, Mr Saeed witnessed the cruelty of the attacks first hand as the victims poured out of the city to escape the gas.

He said, ‘From the mountain we could see what was going on in Halabja, we could hear the sounds of the bombs and we could see smoke in the town. But we never realized that it could be chemical gas. After a few hours, we saw people coming toward us, to the mountains. They were blind, some had lost their minds, and others had burns. In the afternoon, the Iraqi airplanes followed the fleeing people and they bombed the surrounding areas including the mountains we had sheltered in.’

CTR Senior Fellow Dr Sasha Toperich said, ‘I’ve seen so many people with the scars and trauma over the experiences that so vividly live in their minds and hearts.’ He remarked on the importance of commemoration as critical to the healing process for victims of atrocities.

Gavriel Mairone, a human rights attorney working to prosecute companies who sold chemicals to the Ba’athist regime, discussed the legal battle to get justice and compensation for victims. Mr Mairone said, ‘Saddam wanted to develop chemical weapons, to fight the Iranians and to gas the Kurds. So, he reached out to companies worldwide, and a handful of European companies rushed to Iraq to build the largest chemical weapons factory in the world.’

He continued, ‘Starting in 1985, the Secretary-General of the UN published reports that Iraq was using chemical weapons on the battlefield. And these companies continued to pour in with chemical weapons precursors and other materials, and enlarge the chemical weapons factories and the factories to produce the precursors.’

Naomi Kikoler, the Deputy Director of the Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum provided a global context for the crime of genocide. She said ‘Too many times, the call of ‘never again’ has rung hollow. What is lacking in the world is not only the knowledge of atrocities, but the global will to act.’ She added that the world struggles to recognize early warning signs and prevent genocide, and spends too much time debating whether crimes classify as genocide.

Ms Kikoler also said, ‘There are far too many cases around the world where we fail to see any accountability for mass atrocities created… where the culture of impunity is a driver of conflict… What struck me from my time in Iraq is how many people have been victims of mass atrocity crimes, or their families have been. This is a country for whom atrocity crimes is embedded in the experiences of so many people… We need to recognize that when we think about our strategies for trying to ensure that in 10 years we are not back here talking about mass atrocities occurring in Iraq.’

Representative Abdul Rahman said, ‘After all of these atrocities, killings, destructions of families, livelihoods, and homes, we thought that the dark days of Kurdistan and Iraq were over, that with Saddam out of the way we could begin a new chapter where our people wouldn’t have to suffer genocide again. But in 2014 once against the evil of genocide surfaced in Iraq, this time in the form of ISIS and the remnants of the Ba’athists to form an evil savage force.’

As ISIS swept through Iraq in 2014, the group committed savagery against Yezidis and Christians, as well as other religious and ethnic minorities, in an attempt to exterminate them from the region. As part of this genocide, they conducted massacres of Yezidi men, kidnapped and enslaved thousands of women and children, and demolished dozens of Yezidi holy sites. The Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington released a report in November 2015 that found the case of the Yezidis to fit the legal definition of genocide.

Luis Moreno Ocampo, a former First Prosecutor for the International Criminal Court in the Hague who has worked developing the legal case for the designation of genocide for ISIS crimes against the Yezidis in 2014, spoke about these efforts and the importance of justice for victims of genocide.

He said, ‘[ISIS] is committing genocide right now against the Yezidis. And it is the first genocide that could be accomplished. Because the Kurds were killed in a genocide, but the community was bigger and could resist… Yezidis are a small community. They will disappear as a community, the definition of the word genocide.’

Mr Ocampo stressed the importance for justice as a pillar of defeating ISIS and lasting peace, saying, ‘The Yezidis are still in shock. They need to the world to recognize that they suffered genocide.’ He later added that ‘Without justice, there will only be revenge.’

Among the audience members were representatives from the US State Department: Deputy Assistant Secretary Joseph Pennington, Knox Thames Special Advisor for Religious Minorities in the Near East and South/Central Asia, and Scott Oudkirk, Deputy Director at Office of Iraq Affairs. Also, members of Canadian Parliament Michael Cooper and Tom Kmiec, Iraqi Parliament member Abdulbary Alzebary, and Muhammad al-Quraishi, deputy chief of mission at the Iraqi Embassy. Also in attendance were former commander of the Joint Operations Center in Erbil Lieutenant General Mick Bednarek, Judge Aso Sofi, one of 63 investigating judges who tried Saddam Hussein, Ali Hassan al-Majid, and other Ba’athist leaders, and representatives from the Turkish Embassy, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, the US Institute of Peace, and members of the Kurdish community from cities around the United States.

The event included a film by the director Gwynn Roberts of the Kurdistan Memory Programme.

Representative Abdul Rahman said, ‘Halabja has come to symbolize the genocide in Iraq and Kurdistan. But it also symbolizes peace. And the people of Halabja have always tried to appeal to the better part of human nature, to overcome evil and to believe in good.’
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