Five Yazidi women held as slaves by an Islamic State fighter are appealing to the UN to intervene in their case for compensation in a move lawyers hope will help fix a “lawless” global system that is failing torture survivors.
The women, captured in Iraq in 2014, were taken to Syria as slaves by IS fighters, including the Australian citizen Khaled Sharrouf, who was pictured standing next to his young son holding a severed human head.
The women, in a case due to be filed next week, want the UN’s Committee Against Torture to remind Australia of its obligation to provide survivors of violence with redress under the UN’s torture convention, which the country has ratified. The Australian authorities have so far denied all requests for compensation.
Lawyers had argued that the women were entitled to compensation under New South Wales law because Sharrouf was born in Sydney and NSW was his last known place of residence. The NSW Victims Rights and Supports Act entitles survivors to $10,000 and other means of support. However, the Australian courts, including the high court, ruled against the women.
Philippe Sands KC, one of the lawyers leading the case, said the purpose of taking the complaint to the UN committee is to end the impunity of western governments who have pledged to support Yazidis in their quest for justice.
“You’ve got a situation of utter lawlessness in which western 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,” said Sands.
“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.”
In their complaint to the UN, the women argue that Sharrouf’s crimes were of universal jurisdiction, and Australia’s obligation to act under the torture convention is not limited by territory. They also state that Australia had failed to prevent Sharrouf from leaving the country, despite previous arrests for terror offences.
Yasmin Waljee, the international pro bono partner at the law firm Hogan Lovells, which is representing the women, said the women cannot be compensated by IS or the perpetrator, as Sharrouf is presumed to have been killed in a 2017 US airstrike. Waljee said the case highlighted how difficult it is for survivors to access compensation, even when their abuse had been widely condemned.
“We’ve got women who experienced sexual violence and violence generally as part of this horrific movement which the world condemned, and yet they’ve left the victims on their own without any remedy,” said Waljee. “It’s shocking – you’re dealing with post-traumatic stress, suicides, all sorts of horrendous long-term impacts.”
Waljee said survivors have short and long-term needs – like healthcare, mental health support and accommodation – that require money. While a positive ruling from the UN committee cannot compel Australia to provide compensation, she said, a finding that the government had breached the convention against torture would be “a move forward” in international law.
“It is important that the experience of these courageous women is widely recognised, documented and remembered. If we don’t draw these issues into the light, there’s no hope that improvements will ever be made,” said Waljee. “The world condemned this movement [IS] and continues to condemn it, but then doesn’t try to support the victims in any way.”
Lawyers believe the outcome of this case can have implications for survivors of violence in other conflicts, especially those by non-state militias.
Erin Rosenberg, senior legal adviser to the DRC-based Mukwege Foundation, said: “Right now in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, for example, one of the most vicious and brutal is a non-state actor, M23. It’s crucial that victims could be provided with redress even when the perpetrator is a terrorist or militia.”
Rosenberg, who previously worked at the international criminal court, said that international justice is too focused on prosecuting individuals for crimes against humanity and does not offer enough support for victims. The need for compensation is recognised by most countries but, in reality, few are willing to pay.
“We see a lot of rhetoric from a lot of states about the idea of a victim-centred approach, ensuring victims are provided with redress and able to rebuild their lives, but these talking points are often deprioritised when it comes down to the nuts and bolts of paying,” she said.