Nine years later: the Yazidi cultural genocide and the risk to legal impunity

The crimes perpetrated by the so-called Islamic State since August 2014 against the Yazidi minority represent a tragic example of an unrecognized cultural genocide, a heinous crime which still lacks a comprehensive legal definition and escapes the grip of international law.

By Martina Biral

The evolution of the concept

Set at the interstices of international human rights and criminal law, cultural genocide remains a highly contentious topic. Its inception dates back to 1944 when Raphael Lemkin, a Polish-Jewish jurist, first conceptualized it in his pursuit to condemn Nazi Germany for the heinous crimes committed during the Holocaust. In the aftermath of World War II, States were determined to increase cooperation also through the implementation of legal systems aimed at strengthening both human rights and criminal law. This seemed to be the momentum for opening discussions on cultural protection. Despite post-war efforts, challenges persisted. Notably, the attempt to include the cultural component in the newly born Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide of 1948 was unsuccessful. Additionally, the proposal of a minority rights provision intended at serving as the counterpart of cultural genocide to be inserted in the upcoming Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, faced a similar fate. Fast-forwarding to more recent times, the widespread and systematic destruction of Yazidi cultural heritage in Syria and Iraq by ISIS has reignited the urgency of legally conceptualizing cultural genocide.  

The persecution of Yazidis

Yazidis are a Kurdish heterodox minority[1]. Originally located in remoted areas of Iraq, Turkey, Syria, and Iran,[2] Yazidis are among the most ancient communities in the world with an history of more than 6500 years. However, their origins are blurred. According to some scholars. their history is rooted in the Sumer and Babylonian civilizations. For others, they would be descendants of the Parsees.[3] The same uncertainties are related to their religion. Yezidism is considered an ancient faith which incapsulates elements of Zoroastrianism and Mithraism. Jewish, Christian, and Islamic elements are revisable as well. Due to the absence of a sacred book, their veneration of God (Azda-Khuda) in his “oneness and multiplicity” and their belief in Malak Ta’us or Peacock Angel the symbol of evil in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam traditions, they have been frequently referred to as devil worshippers.[4] Their perceived idolatry is at the basis of the long trail of persecutions. Yazidis suffered a total amount of seventy-three genocides, beginning from the period under the Ottoman Empire and culminating with ISIS attacks of 2014. This long history of violence had an impact on their demography but also on their cultural and religious heritage.

The destruction of tangible and intangible cultural heritage

On 3rd August 2014, the Islamic State launched a devastating assault on the ancestral homeland of the Yazidi community in the region of Sinjar. In a distressing twist of events,  Kurdish forces entrusted with the region’s security abandoned the area as also the Yazidis did, in an attempt to find refuge in the Sinjar mountains. Yazidi tangible heritage was left vulnerable to the brutal onslaught of ISIS militants. The attacks represented more than a military operation, resulting in a violation of the sanctity of their ancestral lands. Yazidi cultural heritage was composed of religious sites, places of worship, sanctuaries, and mausoleums that have been razed to the ground.[5] A total amount of sixty-eight shrines have been destroyed in the main villages of Bashiqa, Bahzani, Sinjar and Walat Sheikh.[6]
While the attacks were justified by the Islamic State by invoking religious conservatism and perceived idolatry, it became evident that the indiscriminate destruction undertaken by the militants was determined by a different interplay of intentions. Criminal acts were part of a broader strategy which aimed at cutting ties that bound the minority communities to their ancestral land and traditions, and at erasing their tangible heritage to annihilate them as a community to create a homogenous group based uniquely on the Sharia law. Those acts have been repeatedly described as cultural cleansing or cultural genocide by the international community. However, no conviction for cultural crimes occurred.

Cultural destruction as genocide

As reported by the International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, ISIS destroyed shrines and temples as part of its widespread plan of minority destruction.
The deliberate destruction of Yazidi shrines and cultural property not only resulted in an immeasurable cultural loss, but it also hindered the community’s ability to carry out its rituals and practices, leading to the rupture of social bonds and the erasure of the community itself. Future generations will grow up in a completely different environment with little knowledge of their own religion, heritage, and culture, and this will inevitably jeopardize the survival of the group itself. As underlined by ICC Prosecutor Bensouda in Al-Mahdi judgment, these acts deliberately inflicted on the group’s life conditions, calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part,[7] aligning with provision (d) of Article II of the Genocide Convention. One further element is often disregarded, namely the consequent mental harm inflicted upon the minority. The mass displacement of the Yazidis, which was a direct consequence of the genocidal campaign inflicted on them, and the destruction of their built environment[8] had a profound psychological impact on the community. The erasure of the memory, social experience, and the religious and cultural practices of the group created a sense of loss and disorientation, constituting the mental harm referenced in Article II (b) of the Genocide Convention. Notably, the ambiguous nature of these provisions, which do not necessarily imply the physical destruction, make them useful to condemn acts that would more properly fall under the cultural genocide label, if one day this will be legally conceptualized. To date, attacks toward culture have been used only to prove the genocidal intent.  

Nine years after

After nine years from the attack, the impact of the abovementioned abuses, violations, and crimes on survivors remains ongoing and deeply profound. Yazda, a global community-led organization promoting accountability and justice for the genocide committed by ISIS, has underlined this in the conference held in Ebril on the occasion of the nineth anniversary from the beginning of the attacks. It was underlined how this anniversary is an opportunity to reflect on the ongoing armed conflict in the Sinjar region and the profound influence on its inhabitants. Dozens of States and International Institutions have now officially recognized ISIS crimes committed against the Yazidis as genocide, including the UN. Although these steps are welcomed, more needs to be done. To date, only four judgements on ISIS fighters have been delivered, the most recent one on 29th August 2023 against Jennifer W. sentenced to fourteen years of imprisonment. In no judgement the attacks to culture have been considered as genocidal. Through a report delivered on the same day of the conference, Yazda presents the testimonies of three Yazidi victims and describes the destruction of the villages of on Ger Zerik, Siba Sheikh-Kheder and Tel Azer[9] in which every trace of culture has been erased. The report proposes itself as a testament of what happened, with a view to provide the basis for future investigations and to support victims who poignantly ask: “Let them write about us and our history and teach this in schools so that no one forgets about what happened to us and what we went through.”[10]


[1] FUCCARO, N., “Communalism and the State in Iraq: The Yazidi Kurds, c.1869-1940”, Middle Eastern Studies, vol. 35, no. 2, 1999, p.1.
[2] ALLISON, C., “The Yazidis”, Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Religion, Oxford University Press, 2017, p.1.
[3] “Destroying the soul of the Yazidi”, RASHID International, Yazda et EAMENA Project, 2019, p.29.
[4] Ibidem.

[5] BACHMAN, J., Law, Politics, and Global Manifestations, Routledge Studies in Genocide and Crimes against Humanity, 1st ed., 2019, p. 115-117.
[6] “Destroying the soul of the Yazidi”, p. 19.
[7] The Prosecutor v. Ahmad Al Faqi Al Mahdi, Statement of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, International Criminal Court (ICC), ICC-01/12-01/15, 22 August 2016 in ELLIS, M.S., “The ICC’s Role”, op. cit., p. 29.
[8] BACHMAN, J., Law, Politics, and Global Manifestations, Routledge Studies in Genocide and Crimes against Humanity, 1st ed., 2019, p. 214.
[9]“From Resistance to Rubble: The Stories of Ger Zarik, Siba Sheikh-Kheder and Tel Azer”, Yazda, 3 August, 2023.
[10] Ibidem, p. 60.

Foto copertina: the Yazidi cultural genocide and the risk to legal impunity