LONDON -- The British government on Tuesday (August 1) officially acknowledged that the "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (ISIS) committed "acts of genocide" against the Yazidi people in 2014.
The Yazidis -- whose pre-Islamic religion made them the target of ISIS extremists -- were subjected to massacres, forced marriages and sex slavery during the group's 2014-15 rule in the northern Iraq province of Sinjar.
The United Kingdom's foreign office made the announcement ahead of events to mark "the nine year anniversary of atrocities" that ISIS committed against the Kurdish-speaking Yazidi minority in Iraq.
"The UK has today formally acknowledged that acts of genocide were committed against the Yazidi people by ISIS in 2014," the statement said.
So far, the United Kingdom has acknowledged only four other instances of genocide: the Holocaust, Rwanda, Srebrenica (Bosnia) and Cambodia.
"The Yazidi population suffered immensely at the hands of ISIS nine years ago and the repercussions are still felt to this day," UK Middle East minister Tariq Ahmad said in the statement.
"Justice and accountability are key for those whose lives have been devastated," he added.
Of the world's nearly 1.5 million Yazidis, the largest number, 550,000, lived in Iraq before the ISIS offensive of 2014.
The extremists attacked the Yazidi bastion of Sinjar in August 2014, killing more than 1,200 people, leaving several hundred children orphaned and destroying nearly 70 shrines, according to local authorities.
A further 6,400 Yazidis were abducted, around half of whom were rescued or managed to flee -- some 100,000 escaping to Europe, the United States, Australia and Canada, according to the United Nations (UN).
'An important step'
Global Yazidi organisation Yazda co-founder Murad Ismael hailed the UK recognition as an "important step".
"Acknowledgement is the heart of justice process and helping victims to heal from the deep wounds of this genocide," he said.
"I am pleased that the UK government has formally recognised the horrors suffered by the Yazidis as genocide", said Yazidi activist and 2018 Nobel Peace Prize winner Nadia Murad, who found refuge in Germany after her ordeal.
Murad lost her mother and six of her brothers and half-brothers when ISIS overran Sinjar. She was kidnapped by the extremist group and forced into sexual slavery along with 6,000 other Yazidi women and girls.
Since escaping from ISIS, she has campaigned against the use of sexual violence in war, and was present in Sinjar in 2021 for a mass funeral in which the remains of 104 ISIS victims -- including two of her brothers -- were reinterred.
"I hope that the British government will now begin to seek justice for the victims by holding British-born fighters to account," Murad said.
"The world cannot afford to let ISIS members walk free. It sends a message to the world that you can murder and rape with impunity."
German court ruling
In May 2021, a special UN investigation team said it had collected "clear and convincing evidence" that ISIS had committed genocide against the Yazidis.
Six months later, a German court was the first in the world to recognise crimes against the Yazidi community as genocide, when it found a former ISIS fighter guilty of acts of genocide in Iraq.
In a landmark trial, a Frankfurt court in November 2021 sentenced Taha al-Jumailly to life in jail for crimes including the murder of a 5-year-old Yazidi girl in Iraq.
Prosecutors said al-Jumailly in 2015 chained the enslaved child outdoors in extreme heat, leading to her dying of thirst.
Activists hailed the court ruling as a "historic" win.
The verdict was upheld after the German Federal Court of Justice this January rejected the defendant's appeal.
Germany is one of the few countries to have taken legal action against ISIS.
The UK House of Commons had unanimously voted to condemn ISIS's treatment of Yazidis and Christians in Iraq as amounting to genocide in 2016, in a rare instance of parliamentary determination of genocide.
The foreign ministry had refused to acknowledge the genocide then, in keeping with a long-standing policy on the determination of genocide by courts rather than by governments.
Almost six years since Iraq declared territorial victory over ISIS, many Yazidis still have not been able to return to Sinjar, with some saying the ongoing activities of Iran-affiliated militias in their areas have kept them away.
Thousands still live in precarious conditions in displacement camps. Those who have returned face an unstable security situation and inadequate or nonexistent public services.