Global irresponsibility: The lack of ISIS war crimes trials

Where are the war crimes indictments for ISIS members? Where are the charges of crimes against humanity? Where is the Nuremberg of today?

August 23, 2019 03:53
SYRIANS EXCAVATE a mass grave in Syria in the wake of the ISIS war

SYRIANS EXCAVATE a mass grave in Syria in the wake of the ISIS war. (photo credit: REUTERS)

Four years ago a shrine named Mar Elian in Syria near the town of al-Qaryatain was bulldozed by Islamic State. It had existed since the sixth century, and was a site of devotion for Christians as well as locals. It was one of many crimes of ISIS that stretch from Iraq to Syria and beyond. Yet few have been prosecuted for these crimes, and there have been no war crimes trials charging senior or mid-level ISIS members with the systematic genocide and destruction that they wrought on communities throughout the Middle East.

In almost every other example of genocide since the Holocaust, trials have been held or at least countries have sought to prosecute criminals from the regimes involved. This includes the Nuremberg trials (November 1945 to October 1946), the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (established 1997), the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (1993), the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (1994) and the International Criminal Court (ICC) investigations in Darfur (2005). However imperfect some of these tribunals and UN-linked attempts have been, they place a clear stamp of international condemnation on the crimes involved and the perpetrators who have been detained.

In fact, the ICC and various special courts such as the Special Court for Sierra Leone have gone after war criminals involved in conflicts from the Congo to West Africa. So where are the war crimes indictments for ISIS members? Where are the charges of crimes against humanity? Where is the Nuremberg of today? Victims of ISIS, such as Nobel Peace Prize winner Nadia Murad, have pleaded again and again for trials and justice. Yet despite lip service across Europe and in the US, there have been no trials.

This is not because there are a lack of suspects. The Syrian Democratic Forces, the main partner of the US-led anti-ISIS Coalition in Syria, have detained more than 10,000 suspected ISIS fighters. According to a lead inspector-general report at the Pentagon, there are 2,000 foreign ISIS suspects held in eastern Syria. Of these, at least 800 hold European country citizenships, and some 450 of those are thought to hold French citizenship. There are 1,200 from other countries around the world. These are what remains of the 50,000 ISIS volunteers who came from all over the world, including 5,000 from Europe. There are also tens of thousands of wives and children of the fighters held in Al-Hol camp. Some of them are fanatic supporters. Some of the adult women are thought to have committed war crimes, such as one German woman who was put on trial for her involvement in murdering a five-year-old Yazidi girl.

The acts that ISIS committed were of the most horrid nature. They burned people to death, beheaded them, sold young girls into slavery to be mass raped, tortured people, committed genocide, buried the murdered in mass graves, and systematically destroyed the cultural heritage of Iraq and Syria.

ISIS continues its campaign of global genocide today, aimed at Sri Lankan Christians, Afghan Shi’ites and other groups that it views as sub-human. These crimes aren’t that difficult to investigate, surely no more difficult than Rwanda, Cambodia or the crimes of German Nazis and their collaborators.

For instance, there are social media channels that include ISIS members talking about selling slaves or posting photos of women to be raped and sold on Telegram or other apps. Besides the electronic intercepts of ISIS, there are also extensive ISIS legal documents created by ISIS itself to regulate its provinces. These regulated the trade of people as well.

ISIS was not some band of hooligans raping and pillaging; they were systematic in their attempts to commit genocide and destroy. When they arrived in places like Mosul in Iraq, they set upon groups one at a time. For instance, the Camp Speicher massacre of Shi’ites took place in June 2014, and only later did they order Christians to leave and then planned the genocide of Yazidis. They also destroyed dozens of Yazidi shrines.

ISIS destroyed ancient archaeological sites such as Nimrud, Hatra and the tomb of Jonah (Yunus) between 2014 and 2015. It blew up churches, ripped down crosses and beheaded images of Jesus. Some of this destruction I saw in Iraq in Nineveh Plains after the areas were liberated.

ISIS was thoughtful in its destruction: it would carry out absolute destruction of ancient archaeological sites for instance, destroying what it saw as pagan images; for the churches, the buildings might be left intact but the images and crosses were ripped down.

To understand the war that ISIS waged is to understand that it was not just a war or a terrorist operation, it was Nazi-like in its totality. It wanted to totally erase the existence of history and of minorities – generally non-Sunni Muslims and everyone else – from areas it took over. Thousands of years of history were destroyed in the fall of 2014 and the spring of 2015. Much of this can never be recovered, although there have been attempts to rebuild some churches or shrines. For example, a Shi’ite shrine in Sinjar has been reconstructed, but not Yazidi temples. The Mar Behnam monastery has been brought back from the crimes of ISIS.

But where are the trials and the catharsis that is needed to show that ISIS crimes will not go unpunished, and to send a message that the world cares about what happened? Instead of putting their citizens on trial or helping to form an international tribunal, most European states have sought to pretend they know nothing of the crimes of those who went to Syria and Iraq. The UK has stripped its ISIS members of citizenship. These include some of the worst alleged criminals, such as those who murdered journalists Steven Sotloff and James Foley. Yet members of the Beatles, the squad allegedly responsible for many of these horrid crimes, are relaxing in detention in eastern Syria, with every country throwing up its hands and refusing responsibility.

Almost a dozen countries have used, or are considering using, aspects of universal jurisdiction to prosecute crimes in the past. Yet only ISIS seems to escape this jurisdiction. Countries do not prosecute their own citizens, they seem opposed to Iraq or Syria prosecuting them, the SDF do not want to prosecute them, and these countries don’t even want to help refugees like the Yazidis who fled to Germany receive justice.

Even though there is a preponderance of evidence against some individuals, there is a “see no evil, hear no evil” approach. It is a kind of conspiracy of silence. Is this because countries have jettisoned morality and decency, or that they are afraid of putting an ISIS member on trial who might shout and scream about his extremist view of religion on the stand? Are they so afraid of putting ISIS members in prison that they prefer the poorest areas in the Middle East shoulder the burden? Why is eastern Syria a dumping ground for thousands of foreign ISIS members and tens of thousands of ISIS supporters? Don’t wealthy countries have a responsibility to stop their citizens from modern day colonial-style Nazi crimes? Have they learned nothing since 1945?

In Syria, the shrine of Mar Elian may recover, even if no one will be prosecuted for harming it.

“Here’s hoping the town’s physical and social fabric can be restored as well,” writes Alberto Fernandez, president of the Middle East Broadcasting Networks. Restoring what ISIS harmed is an important message, like trying to restore the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan that were destroyed by the Taliban in the 1990s. The question is whether we have learned the lessons of the ISIS war if we do not prosecute the war criminals.

The writer is the author of After ISIS: American, Iran and the Struggle for the Middle East. Follow him at @Sfrantzman.

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