Acknowledging the deep psychological trauma that has been inflicted on the affected families and communities would be a good place to start. At the moment they feel abandoned. Statements by religious leaders, ecumenical and interfaith bodies all help, as does the series of prayers released this week by the Archbishop of York.
It would be helpful if the British Government and others followed suit. It is pretty shocking that the ethnic cleansing going on in parts of Northern Iraq is happening in full sight with little if no condemnation. Last week, the situation featured as no more than an aside in a speech by the UK Ambassador to the UN. There has yet to be any official statement on the subject by the new Foreign Secretary. This silence merely reinforces the sense of abandonment and despair.
Acknowledging the trauma is one thing, but we need also to recognise the full-scale of the crisis. We shouldn’t allow our concern with the fate of the Christians of Mosul to blind us to the tragedy experienced by other minority groups – Shia, Shabaks, Turkmen Yazidi and others – who are being persecuted on the grounds of their religion and ethnicity.
Nor should we overlook the wider destruction caused by the conflict. I’m not just referring to the physical loss of ancient shrines and sites of worship, such as the Prophet Jonas Tomb and Mosque in Mosul – although that is a form of cultural vandalism that is truly shocking – but rather to the 1.2 million people, mostly minority members who have now fled the northwest of Iraq.
The Special Rapporteur on the human rights of internally displaced persons, Chaloka Beyani, noted this week: “This huge displacement is turning into a humanitarian crisis. History has shown that minority communities are particularly vulnerable to displacement. Special protection for them and other internally displaced people in Iraq is now vital.”
Let’s be clear here – if we don’t provide this protection, the displacement of religious and other minority groups from Iraq could well prove irreversible. UN Officials admit that the Government of Iraq’s and the Kurdistan Region Government’s capacity to adequately and rapidly respond to the increased needs of the affected populations has been quickly overwhelmed.
The UK has committed over £600 million to help those affected by the Syrian conflict. Given that this conflict has now drawn Iraq in to its centre some of this money now needs to be earmarked to assist with the resettlement of refugees and IDPs in north Iraq and in Kurdistan.
Iraq might not be as sexy or as profitable a crisis to respond to as Gaza, but agencies like Christian Aid, CAFOD and Islamic Relief need to look at ways in which they can respond to this crisis. It would be great if they could work together on this.
Hopefully the Government has learnt the lessons from last year’s mishandling of the resettlement of Syrian refugees here in the UK. Obviously, we must do everything to support those who want to remain in the region, but we must also be willing to use the Vulnerable Persons Relocation Scheme to provide refuge to a fair share of those most at risk.
Engaging with the displaced families and communities is also vitally important if we are to document effectively their testimonies. ISIS and other armed groups stand accused of gross human rights abuses, some of which may amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity. Documenting alleged abuses now will help ensure prosecution at a later date, but it might also send a clear signal of intent to those who are committing such atrocities that at some point they will be held accountable for their actions.
Responding to the immediate situation is one thing, developing an effective strategy to counter the ISIS challenge is another thing entirely.
Sadly, we might need to accept that while the military advance of ISIS has been stopped, it will take a concerted effort by the Iraqi government, regional allies as well as the wider international community to reverse the territorial gains. Even if a reversal is possible – and it’s worth remembering here that Mosul hasn’t been under Baghdad’s rule since 2005 – any counter–terrorism strategy is going to take time to draw up and implement.
It is possible then that time might be the best solution to ISIS.
It’s difficult to see ISIS meeting the needs and aspirations of those that it governs. The relationship between ISIS and disenfranchised Sunnis looks like a marriage of convenience that could quickly end in divorce. There are already signs that Iraq’s moderate Sunnis are cooling to ISIS rule.
That’s not to say that Baghdad, Tehran, Brussels and Washington should sit back and do nothing. There is a lot that can be done to reinforce the national rather than sectarian identity of Iraq.
Developing a representative government in Bagdad that is capable and willing to govern for the common good would help to rebuild legitimacy and restore trust. Being open to a more consociational system of government might provide for greater regional autonomy while also helping to lessen the burden on Bagdad.
Religious leaders both in Iraq and further afield have a role to play not least by avoiding a sectarian response. We need to store up the moderate ground by encouraging religious leaders to speak out together against a cruelty that contravenes all sacred texts. The Vicar of Baghdad is doing some good work here.
There are some positive signs here which give grounds for hope. Following a meeting in Najaf on Thursday with His Eminence Grand Ayatollah Al-Sistani, the UN General Secretary said:
In this time of crisis, when we see the shocking treatment of minorities by the Islamic State, His Eminence continues to preach peace, love and unity among all elements of Iraqi society. I encourage all religious authorities to follow that example and stand up for tolerance, mutual respect and non-violence. Such calls would help silence the voices of those who wish to advance their own violent and divisive agendas. Such appeals would contribute to the unity of the country.
It would be great if religious leaders and communities here in the West helped support this process by moving beyond talking about the atrocities experienced by their own communities to speaking up for the rights of others. The Al-Khoei Foundation has taken the lead here by focusing its official statements on the Christian community of Mosul rather than its own besieged Shia flock. It would be good to reciprocate.