As ISIL continues its brutal rampage across Iraq and Syria, a recent United Nations report found that ethnic and religious minorities are facing crimes against humanity, and even genocide. For Christian Assyrians, these atrocities evoke terrible memories of the genocide their ancestors endured under the Ottoman Government (‘the Young Turks’), known by the community today as Seyfo, or “the sword”. Prevention of genocide can only be effective if patterns are identified early, and if the world is willing to intervene when the warning signs become clear. Strong parallels in both ideology and strategy between the Young Turks and ISIL are a significant indicator of potential genocide.
The Assyrian Australian community, which numbers more than 30,000, has asked the Government to take concrete action to assist persecuted minorities in Iraq. However, the Australian contribution to the meeting of the Small Group of the Global Coalition to Combat Daesh (ISIL), held on 2 June in Paris, appears to have been limited to reiterating Australian support for the Building Partner Capacity initiative, and an $8m increase in humanitarian aid. And although the Prime Minister called on our regional partners to work collaboratively on counter-terrorism at last week’s Countering Violent Extremism Summit in Sydney, a strategic political solution for protecting Iraqi minorities from potential genocide seems ever more elusive.
The Assyrian community is one of the world’s most ancient nations with a deep connection to its indigenous territory of the Nineveh Plain, which fell to ISIL in 2014. Just as Assyrians were marched out of their villages a century ago, hundreds of thousands of Assyrians have today been exiled or fled from ISIL-controlled territory under threat of death, perhaps never to return. Other crimes against humanity including massacres and abductions, forced conversions and sexual violence, form an overall picture of genocidal intent, based on religious hatred and a desire for an ethnically homogenous region. All of this mirrors the Assyrian genocide of 1915.
In August last year, when the severity of ISIL’s crimes against minorities became clear, the Australian Government announced that both Yazidis and Iraqi Christians would be added to the eligibility list for special humanitarian program visas, though it refused to increase the number of places. Since the UNHCR is now giving out assessment dates as late as 2021, surely this cannot be the extent of Australian assistance. And although an increase in visas would be welcome, it would not address the root cause of the humanitarian crisis.
While the Assyrian community is often subsumed within the broader category of ‘Christians’ their plight is not purely based on religious persecution. The community must be allowed to practise its religion, of course, but it also asserts the right to its historic homeland, resisting the relocation of civilians as a permanent solution. Assyrian Australians are calling on the Australian Government to support the establishment of a safe haven in the Nineveh Plain, along with self-administration and autonomy for the Assyrian community.
A number of defensive militias are preparing to retake towns in the Nineveh Plain, once Baghdad moves to expel ISIL from Mosul and surrounding areas. At the meeting of the Global Coalition to Combat Daesh, Iraqi Prime Minister al-Abadi reportedly outlined a plan for recapturing ISIL-controlled territory. However, specific strategies to ensure the rights of Iraqi minorities do not appear to have been developed. Such rights are, in fact, guaranteed by the Iraqi constitution and must form part of any long-term vision developed by the Global Coalition.
Finally, cultural destruction and plunder are often harbingers of genocide (and, once again, these were employed systematically by the Young Turks). ISIL’s strategy of looting, trading or obliterating priceless archaeological treasures simultaneously achieves enormous financial profits and the demoralisation of minority communities.
Mr Joseph Haweil of the Assyrian Church of the East Relief Organisation explains that witnessing black ISIL flags billowing on the tops of Assyrian churches in place of the Christian cross is all the more devastating since these places of worship are the focal point of community life, having been built from the ground up over countless generations. “Without a swift international response,” fears Mr Haweil, “ISIL’s genocidal terror could spell the end of Assyrian continuity in lands they have inhabited since time immemorial.”
Last month, the UN passed a non-binding resolution condemning ISIL’s tactics of cultural destruction, though unfathomably describing it as a “new phenomenon” and in doing so, ignoring the widespread cultural and religious destruction that accompanied the Assyrian genocide a hundred years ago. In light of the UN’s call for all states to support Iraq in preventing the trade of stolen artefacts, the Australian Government could take the concrete action of raising with its Turkish ally, the issue of looted property finding its way over the Iraqi-Turkish border, not to mention ISIL recruits crossing into Iraq from Turkey to commit crimes against humanity.
Australia’s position on the Global Coalition to Combat Daesh should not be wasted, and discussions being held with our regional partners must keep in mind the pressing concern of protection of minority groups in Iraq. Australia can help to ensure the contemporary pages in the long Assyrian story tell of a free and flourishing community, rather than one that is quickly disappearing.
Nikki Marczak is a research, writer and policy analyst in Holocaust and Genocide Studies. Nikki’s area of focus includes women’s experiences of genocide, the Armenian Genocide, current persecution of ethnic and religious minorities and Holocaust memory work.