By Matt Hadro
After the United States has declared that genocide is taking place against Christians and other religious minorities in Iraq, what is the next step for genocide victims displaced from their homes?
“Together, we will advocate for the Christian, Yazidi, and other communities in Northern Iraq that they may return to their homes on the Nineveh Plain to be secured there by coalition and successive international forces,” Andrew Doran, senior adviser to the group In Defense of Christians, stated at the Sept. 7 press conference beginning the group’s advocacy convention in Washington, D.C.
The Nineveh Plain is a 1,600 square mile area in northern Iraq that has been home to various ethnic and religious minorities, including Assyrian Christians who have lived there for centuries as one of the earliest Christian communities.
When militants of the Islamic State swept across northern Iraq in 2014, they displaced hundreds of thousands of these minorities from their homes. They killed innocents, raped and enslaved women and young girls, and destroyed churches and shrines.
In March, the State Department declared that the Islamic State had committed genocide against Christians, Yazidis, and Shia Muslims, and had also committed “crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing” against some “Sunni Muslims, Kurds, and other minorities.”
However, advocates insist that declaring genocide is just the beginning of putting back together the shattered society of northern Iraq.
“There has been far too much of a history of sort of declaring something and then everybody packing up their tents and going home,” Katrina Lantos Swett, former chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, stated at the convention press conference.
One of the next steps the U.S. can take now is to help resettle genocide victims in their homes, should they choose to go back. However, what should be the best course of action and how soon must this be done?
The first step would be a safe, secure return for the victims. “The Christians should return to their homes just as quickly as that region is secure,” Doran told CNA.
A coalition of forces, including Iraqi security forces, the Kurdish Peshmerga and local militia, are fighting to eventually retake Mosul, the second-largest city in Iraq. That fighting will be long and difficult, Doran acknowledged, but the Nineveh Plain, which lies north and east of the city, would be the first to be abandoned by Islamic State before the city would fall.
There will be refugees from the city already looking to relocate to the plain, he noted.
“In the long term there would need to be coalition and other successive forces to – not substantial numbers, but some numbers – to patrol and keep safe the region around the Nineveh Plain,” he said. The area “will be relatively easy to secure.”
However, then the area needs to be made livable. And it is here where plans need to be laid for the long-term stabilization of the region.
First, the infrastructure would need to be rebuilt since there are whole villages that are “like ghost towns” and houses that have not been occupied for two years, Doran explained. Then there would have to be economic revitalization of the region, with the help of outside investors.
Finally, efforts would have to be made towards “reconciliation” of the various groups in the region – Christians, Sunnis, Yazidis, and Kurds.
In Defense of Christians is hoping for a congressional resolution to support the policy, which would ultimately have to be proposed by the Iraqis themselves.
“We the organizers of this conference are currently advocating for a new congressional resolution that voices U.S. support for the government of Iraq as it moves to create this province,” Robert Nicholson, executive director of the Philos Project, stated at the press conference.
The province would be semi-autonomous and part of a newly-federalized Iraq, where “power and governance” is relegated to the “lowest level,” Nicholson explained.
The idea isn’t new, advocates maintain, as the Iraqi government had planned to create three new provinces in January of 2014, months before Islamic State took over Mosul and the Nineveh Plain.
“The first community that needs to be helped and empowered” is the Assyrian Christians, Nicholson said. They would need “administrative autonomy in their local affairs” and a security force that would be trained and equipped, along with an “international rapid deployment force based in the Nineveh Plain” and legal protections for their culture and language.
They should still have the rights and duties of Iraqi citizens, IDC said, insisting that the area will not be a “ghetto” for minorities. However, if they need a safe zone they must be self-sufficient, and the Nineveh Plain would provide the best opportunity for that.
Would the de-centralization of Iraq lead to further sectarian conflict?
“I think because it wasn’t decentralized, the sectarian conflict is precisely what led to ISIS,” Doran stated.
“In other words, the Sunni populations of Anbar and Nineveh province who felt alienated by the Tehran-dominated central government, those conditions led precisely to many people in the population welcoming ISIS as an alternative to what they regarded to be an oppressive central government.”