Small Wars Journal

Nadia Murad's Story Continues: VP Pence, the Yazidis, Human Rights & Humanitarian Assistance

Tue, 01/08/2019 - 2:20pm

Nadia Murad's Story Continues: VP Pence, the Yazidis, Human Rights & Humanitarian Assistance

Whitney Kassel

On December 14, before piles of rubble and threadbare flags, Nadia Murad bestowed one of her three replica Nobel Peace Prizes upon the people of Sinjar, Iraq, her home region and the site of a massacre of her Yazidi people by ISIS in the summer of 2014. The scenery reflected the chaos that has plagued the area since, including the previous day, when Turkish jets dropped three bombs on what little infrastructure remains, ostensibly in their fight against separatist Kurds, but also perhaps to send her a message: your efforts to facilitate the return of your people will not be well-received.  

It was a message made louder by President Trump’s subsequent announcement, on December 20, to withdraw 2,000 United States troops from Syria. While troops levels in Iraq are not expected to change, at least as of yet, the acquiescence to Turkish and Iranian dominance over a region still at risk of deep instability puts the area’s security in even greater peril. Neither party has been a friend to the Yazidis, who have relied on Iraqi security forces and support from the U.S. and other Western governments to survive and attempt to rebuild.

Murad’s return to the area, her first since she was taken from her village of Kocho by ISIS and held as a sex slave for over three months, was triumphant but marred as a mission not yet complete. Since her escape, she has traveled the world telling her story and advocating for the Yazidi people and victims of sexual assault world-wide, a campaign that coalesced in her receiving the 2018 Nobel Prize alongside Dr. Denis Mukwege, a Congolese gynecologist who treated thousands of victims of sexual assault in another nation where rape is wielded as a tool of war.

She accepted the prize with humility and continued her work on behalf of Yazidis suffering in camps in Kurdistan and elsewhere in Iraq. Their return had been stymied by the closure of the Sihela road from Sinjar to Duhuk, the result of political forces ranging from the Kurdish government’s incentive to keep people on their side of the border, to Baghdad’s opposition to Kurdish independence, to Turkey’s desire to separate various groups of Kurds. Murad has relentlessly pushed regional governments, outside powers, and international bodies to help open the road, deliver aid, and promote the rights of victims of sexual assault.

While those other objectives remain works in progress, December 15 – the day after her visit to Sinjar – marked a major success in the long-delayed opening of the Sihela road, a good start if not silver bullet to facilitate the return and rehabilitation of the Yazidis. The plan was negotiated between the new Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi and Masoud Barzani, the President of the Kurdish Democratic Party, between whom relations are reportedly warming. But Nadia’s advocacy played a decisive role; she met with Mahdi the morning of her trip to Sinjar, and he promised the road would be opened the next day, a pledge on which he actually delivered.

Along Murad’s journey to open the road was one particularly strange pit stop, namely an in-person meeting with Vice President Mike Pence and first daughter Ivanka Trump, just after Murad received the Nobel Prize in October. That month, reckoning over the #metoo movement and the confirmation of Justice Brett Kavanaugh reached fever pitch. Activists and survivors across the U.S. raged at the Administration’s support for Kavanaugh, including against Pence, who continued to back the nomination after allegations of sexual assault surfaced.

Pence, of course, has a shameful record on women’s rights, including opposition to reproductive choice, efforts to defund women’s health initiatives, and a ludicrous rule against dining alone with a woman who isn’t his wife. Ivanka, for her part, is arguably a beard for her father’s misogynistic – and frequently worse – tendencies. So why would an advocate for victims of sexual assault, no matter how different the context of her abuse from that of most victims of #metoo, choose to meet with these particular politicians?

It turns out the meeting had a calculated end: Pence’s office is involved in assistance to religious minorities in Iraq, which plays well with his evangelical base. (The majority of such minorities are Christians, who have also been targeted by ISIS). The Yazidis, of course, are not Christians, but Pence has taken on both causes, spearheading efforts to funnel $100 million to religious minorities in Iraq in 2018. Murad’s visit was an effort to direct that support towards policies that facilitate the Yazidis’ return to their homeland, including opening the Sihela road.

Pence’s intervention in aid to Iraq has come under scrutiny for politicizing humanitarian assistance. It has historically been U.S. policy not to allocate aid based on religion, politics, or other affiliations, a position that has garnered support from some Christians in the region who are wary of being viewed as disproportionate beneficiaries of U.S. largess. While the U.S. government’s recognition of ISIS’ actions against Yazidis, Christians, and Shi’ite Muslims as genocide in 2016 put the onus on the U.S. and other signatories of the Genocide Convention to protect those populations, many nonetheless see Pence’s support as motivated by religious bias and political calculus.

Murad, of course, had every right and reason to engage with Pence despite these concerns or his disregard for women’s rights: he appeared to be in a position to help clear the log jam in Sinjar and help her community. In the end, however, Pence came up short, as had many others who promised to intervene on her and the Yazidis’ behalf. Nothing changed on the ground for months after the meeting, or until Murad arrived on the ground earlier this month.

Murad’s advocacy, willingness to tell her heart-breaking story hundreds of times, and tenacity pushed a nearly impossible win across the finish line. Now Trump’s rash choice on troops in Syria may reverse that work. If and when the Yazidis begin to trickle back into Sinjar, they will have Murad, and very few others, to thank.


About the Author(s)

Whitney Kassel is a writer and analyst based in New York City. She was a columnist for Foreign Policy from 2014-2017 and has written for Foreign Affairs, The Atlantic, The Baltimore Sun, Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, and elsewhere. She served in the U.S. Office of the Secretary of Defense from 2008-2011. Follow Whitney Kassel on Twitter @whitneykassel.