Victims of Islamic State War Crimes take their case to the UN Committee on Torture
London, 24 March 2023 – An international team of human rights lawyers instructed by Hogan Lovells, comprising 11 KBW Chambers, Matrix Chambers, Doughty Street Chambers and Twenty Essex, has filed a joint communication to the UN’s Committee Against Torture highlighting the failings in the global system for reparations for victims of torture and sexual violence in conflict. It has long been recognised that those victims have a right to redress and justice but, in practice, such justice has proved illusory for most victims.
The complaint was filed on behalf of five Yazidi women who were kidnapped from Iraq, forcibly transferred to Syria, enslaved and subjected to torture and other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. This is just one example of atrocities committed against Yazidi women by the Islamic State (IS). The man responsible for enslaving and torturing the women was an Australian citizen, Khaled Sharrouf, who was also a notorious and high-profile member of IS.
The Communication seeks to recognise the responsibility of States, in this case Australia, to ensure that justice is done for the victims. Many States have ratified the UN Convention Against Torture, been vocal in condemning foreign fighters’ involvement with IS and even instituted confiscation proceedings for the assets of the perpetrators.
Yet in practice authorities have so far denied all requests for compensation and other support for the victims. This is despite the freezing of extensive assets as a result of sanctions, amounting to hundreds of thousands of pounds, which will remain frozen in circumstances where they might otherwise be re-purposed for the benefit of survivors.
Professor Philippe Sands KC, who is leading the team of international human rights lawyers working on the case, said: “The purpose of taking the complaint to the UN Committee is to end the impunity of governments who have pledged to support Yazidis in their quest for justice.”
“You’ve got a situation of utter lawlessness in which governments who have committed to rooting it out seem unwilling to take responsibility to provide the institutional and financial mechanisms to deliver on that commitment. If there’s a gap, and unless that gap is filled, you have impunity and more lawlessness.”
“The legal framework as it stands seems incapable of delivering, so this application is intended to fill that gap and seek to recognise the responsibility of a state like Australia to ensure that justice is done for the victims.”
A spokesperson for Nadia’s Initiative, founded by Nobel Laureate Nadia Murad said, “We have been waiting for many years to see proper accountability of Da’esh perpetrators who have committed the most serious of atrocity crimes, many of whom were foreign fighters. Justice can take the form of criminal prosecution but for many survivors that avenue is not possible. The international community therefore needs to recognise the right to reparations and underwrite that collectively to ensure it is a reality for innocent survivors, whose lives have been devastated by foreign fighters.”
Taban Shoresh, founder of the Lotus Flower Foundation who support the survivors said, "After so many years, we hope this process will finally go towards securing justice for these five Yezidi women, and that it will signal a long overdue change to international law and the way crimes against humanity and genocide are dealt with.”
The Hogan Lovells team advising on the case includes International Pro Bono Partner Yasmin Waljee OBE, counsel Helen Boniface, associates Alex Riposi and Haylea Campbell, trainee solicitor Shah Warraich in the UK, and partner Scott Harris and associate Adam Aarons in Australia, along with international lawyer and investigator Paul Nahmias. The counsel team includes Professor Philippe Sands KC (11 KBW Chambers); Dr Tatyana Eatwell (Doughty Street Chambers); Joanna Buckley (Matrix Chambers); Dr Brendan Plant (Twenty Essex); and Robbie Stern and Tim James-Matthews (Matrix Chambers); and Kate Eastman SC.
From 2014, the world witnessed a wave of violence and repression perpetrated by the so-called Islamic State (“IS”) against the Yazidi and other minority communities. The atrocities that followed – including torture, mass executions, mutilations, forced abduction, enslavement, widespread sexual and gender-based violence, forced conversions, forced recruitment of children and other crimes – are harrowing and unprecedented in the twenty-first century. It is widely recognised that the atrocities perpetrated by IS amount both to acts of genocide and crimes against humanity.
Each of the Complainants is a Yazidi woman who was kidnapped from Iraq, forcibly transferred to Syria, enslaved and subjected to torture and other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. Each of the Complainants has sought redress for the wrongs committed against them but has, to date, been left with no remedy or relief, and nowhere to turn.
The Complainants’ experience sadly reflects that of many other Yazidi women who have survived the atrocities committed against them by IS. By January 2020, the former Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions had concluded that:
“For the thousands of Yezidi women, enslaved by Da’esh members and their families, including so-called foreign fighters, subjected to the worst possible forms of sexual violence, there has been no victory, no peace, no justice, no reparations. Just largely official indifference to their plight and cold-hearted judicial decisions rejecting jurisdiction and denying them remedies… Justice for crimes against humanity and genocide cannot be held hostage by ill-fitted laws. The roots of the accountability deficits for the victims of Daesh are political first and foremost.”
The man responsible for enslaving and torturing the Complainants was Khaled Sharrouf (“Sharrouf”). Sharrouf was an Australian citizen, a notorious and high-profile member of IS, referred to by Australian authorities in August 2014 as “one of the most notorious Australians fighting with [IS]”. In August 2014, Sharrouf tweeted a photograph of his son holding the severed head of a Syrian soldier. The then Secretary of State for the Government of the United States of America, John Kerry, described the image as “one of the most disturbing, stomach-turning, grotesque photographs ever displayed.” Sharrouf was designated for acting for and on behalf of IS by the Australian government and the US Department of Treasury.
IS’s actions were, and continue to be, uniformly condemned by the UN’s bodies and its Member States, including Australia. These same bodies and Member States have spoken on multiple occasions of the need to provide the survivors of these crimes with redress.
As recently as November 2021, the Australian government issued a joint statement along with the governments of the United Kingdom, Canada, New Zealand, Indonesia, Hungary, Lithuania, Latvia and Liberia on preventing sexual violence in conflict. The statement noted that, “[w]e need a stronger international response for all affected by sexual violence in conflict, the vast majority of whom are women and girls…We condemn the use of sexual violence and rape as weapons of war as a ‘red line’ akin to chemical weapons…Together, we will support survivors, hold the perpetrators to account and put an end to these heinous acts.”
Most recently on 16 December 2022, as part of the Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative international Conference hosted by the UK, the Australian Government endorsed the Political Declaration on Conflict-Related Sexual Violence which stated that progress must be accelerated to, inter alia, support survivors of conflict-related sexual violence. By means of the Declaration, Australia committed to “…drive change in a survivor-centred way through amplifying their voices, empowering them to live their lives to the fullest, tackling stigma, and enabling access to truth, justice and accountability and to holistic support, including comprehensive health services, psychosocial services, and the livelihood support needed to recover and heal.” Further, that “[v]ictims, survivors and children born as a result of conflict-related sexual violence and affected communities must be able to access meaningful justice as defined by survivors themselves, with judicial systems designed to respond effectively to their needs”.
Despite these statements of support, the Australian State has failed to provide the Complainants with any mechanism by which to apply for, or obtain redress, or any other relief. The Complainants sought to obtain redress through the Australian legal system but their applications for compensation were rejected on the basis that the compensation scheme to which they applied related only to acts of violence committed in Australia and the lack of ability to finance reparations.