Opinion & Features

Our quest to bring ISIS to justice

The living quarters of Iraqi Christian refugees in a church compound in Amman (AP)

Listening to Karlus’s testimony was almost unbearable. When I had asked him how he felt about ISIS, he had looked at me with his kind, tired eyes. Speaking slowly, he said that what had happened was not easy to share, but that in the end he was trying to forgive. Then he added: “I want the world to know.”

As I sat with him in a small church in the Jordanian capital, Amman, he told me exactly what ISIS had done to him. Karlus had been tortured for more than six weeks: hung by his left leg from the ceiling, beaten and sexually abused. They wanted him to convert to Islam and fight on their side. He refused.

As critical as aid is, so is recording evidence of ISIS atrocities against Christians, Yazidis and other religious minorities in Syria and Iraq. With the conquest of territories by ISIS, especially since the taking of the Nineveh Plains in August 2014, minorities have been executed, tortured, kidnapped or forced to flee their homes by the tens of thousands. Together with some colleagues, I have taken witness statements from Iraqi Christians who have fled to Jordan.

We risk losing the evidence of atrocities with every passing day. According to the families we encountered, no one has expressed any interest in their situation or their stories, except for some small Christian relief services. One mother of three told us how her brother had refused to renounce his faith in Jesus Christ. They tortured, crucified and shot him, while his wife and children were forced to watch for five hours. Another person told us about his cousin who had been abducted by ISIS from her home and has been missing for two years now. I wonder how countries are to prevent and punish crimes of violence and genocide when the victims have no one to report these crimes to.

Responding to genocide is not arbitrary. In the wake of World War II, 147 states signed the Genocide Convention, obliging them to prevent this crime. It was meant to be “never again”, yet we are letting it happen again right now. Evidence is needed to hold the perpetrators to account and secure justice for the victims.

In Jordan, we visited a pre-school, an oasis for Iraqi refugee children. “Men in black, with beards, guns and knives” and “the men who don’t like us”: this is how the little boys and girls talked about ISIS. How easy will it be for the terrorists to simply shave off their beards, take off their masks, fade into society and go on living their “normal” lives? Once defeated, their victims want to see the perpetrators in jail. Many told us that it was important not only to punish ISIS, but also to “end the idea of ISIS” – the ideology that seeks to “kill anyone who doesn’t agree with them”.

It is vital, therefore, to record the atrocities in the right way, so that they withstand the scrutiny of lawyers and tribunals. We documented the victims’ contact details, dates of birth, places of origin, and details of their relatives in Jordan and abroad. We videotaped their testimonies. We asked for their written consent to use their statements in front of courts and media.

ADF International, the legal organisation I work for, will now send the evidence to representatives of appropriate international bodies such as the UN Security Council. The UN may authorise the use of force, impose sanctions that are effective around the world and refer serious crimes to the International Criminal Court. It can also establish ad-hoc tribunals to go after the perpetrators, as it did in Yugoslavia and Rwanda.

To achieve this, nine out of 15 votes are needed from the members of the security council. But the five permanent members – the US, Britain, France, Russia and China – could use their veto to prevent such a motion from passing, as already happened with a resolution on Syria in 2014.

The Christian families we visited kept asking us why so little has been done to help them. Clearly, urgent action is needed. Sadly, there seems to be little political will. Evidence is crucial and we need to make it known to the world.

I was humbled by the testimonies that Iraqi families shared with me. Their conviction is unwavering despite all the atrocities they have been through. In fact, they claim that their faith has never been stronger. A group of Iraqi refugees prays regularly for ISIS. They ask God to convert the hearts of their tormentors. Many mentioned the necessity of forgiveness.

But they do still ask for justice. Karlus would be willing to testify in court. Many others would be ready to do so as well. We need to forgive – but we must never forget.