Speech by Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock at the event Voices of Strength and Resilience

03.07.2024 - Speech

Translation of the German speech

Jihan Alomar, you once said that what you feared most was that what happened would be forgotten.

That people in Iraq would be forgotten. You were ten years old when the IS henchmen attacked your village. When IS men came looking for women and girls, abducted and raped them. When they plundered and killed.

You described how your mother cut your hair in captivity so that you would look like a boy and the IS wouldn’t “chose” you – as you said – to do what they wanted with the girls.

The pain that you and your family experienced is hard to imagine. Your sister Sawsan was released from captivity after eight years.

We’re incredibly grateful that both of you are here today – together with Layla Mirza and many others who managed to escape the IS terror.

The terrorists wanted to silence you all, to extinguish your light. However, you’ve shown that this won’t happen. Because you’re so much stronger than the terror. Courageous. Luminous. Just as Shirin, a Yazidi woman, describes in her book I Remain a Daughter of the Light.

I read this book when I travelled to northern Iraq for the first time. And I think about it often in the midst of all the crises in the world. I think of how strong you all are. How you shine. You were, you are, you remain daughters of the light.

How you managed to shine after the darkest hours, after the worst that human beings can inflict on each other, not only sends a message, thus reminding us and so many others that our collective strength is needed. A reminder – when we sometimes despair, lose heart and think our problems are big – what real challenges and problems are.

You help us not to forget. And you help us to keep on carrying the light. You remind us that we have a responsibility to ensure that a barbarity of this kind is never repeated.

I’d like to quote from the book once more. Jan Kizilhan, as a psychologist you not only collaborated on this difficult book but also told us – including the Federal Foreign Office and Land Baden-Württemberg – about these fates and helped us to realise what it means to shoulder responsibility, to help others to shine.

You speak in the book of a mother who was forced by an IS terrorist to read from the Koran every day. And because she made mistakes while reading, the terrorist put her two-year-old daughter in a metal box – for many hours in temperatures of 50 degrees. To this very day, this mother sees the corpse of her little daughter before her.

The trauma of the survivors. The scars of the past will never heal. Through your work, however, you’re helping to ensure that this trauma isn’t passed down from generation to generation. You do this not only through your work here in Germany but also locally, by training people as trauma therapists, thus helping us to face up to our responsibility together.

We recently saw what that means to people during a visit to Iraq, in Kocho at the foot of the Sinjar Mountains. The local population has set up a small museum in a building which was once a school. Photos portraying life before August 2014 are on display there. The daily lives of around 1800 people – teachers, smallholders, sheep farmers. Mothers, daughters, sons, grandchildren.

When the IS henchmen attacked the village, they beheaded several hundred Yazidi men. Women and girls were abducted, enslaved.

To this very day, I remember one comment: “But you knew where we were. GPS data were sent. Why didn’t you do anything?”

Remembering is one thing, but not forgetting these questions is another. It was important to me that questions such as these were included in our strategy on feminist foreign policy. I’d like to point out that feminist foreign policy, just like many other things, is not a magic wand. But the fact that it can’t resolve all problems straightaway doesn’t mean that it’s not needed. This question: “But you knew where we were. Why didn’t you do anything?” would have perhaps not have been asked so openly 20 years ago. I’ve thought about it often. Whether we would have acted differently if it had been a different religious community, if it hadn’t been women but maybe men, if they’d have had a different nationality.

We can’t undo the mistakes of the past. But we can see these mistakes as an obligation for us today.

We can assume responsibility and ensure that we not only thank and show respect to the courageous Yazidi women here today, and the many others in Germany, in Europe and around the world, and especially in northern Iraq and in Syria, but – mindful of this responsibility – say: how can we ensure that this question is never asked again? And how can we ensure that their light continues to shine?

It’s therefore good that the German Bundestag has finally done that by recognising these crimes for what they are. It was important that we decided together in the Bundestag that the terrible crimes committed by the IS against people in Iraq, especially against the Yazidi community, constituted genocide. However, that’s not enough. Rather, it presents us with a mandate, a responsibility. I’d like to highlight three things here.

Firstly, that we must preserve the memory of these crimes.

That’s why evenings such as this, the film, the photo exhibition we see today, are so important.

And that’s why it’s so important, for instance, that we build a community archive in Iraq together with Háwar Help. Where the memory will always be kept alive. Where Yazidi men and women can preserve their testimonies themselves.

The second element which is important to me is that we not only recognise the crimes for what they are but ensure that the perpetrators are prosecuted.

In November 2021, the Higher Regional Court in Frankfurt convicted a former IS fighter of genocide against the Yazidis. This was the first conviction of its kind in the world. That’s groundbreaking and marks an international milestone in the fight against impunity.

It’s so important because the perpetrators were brought to justice. And because the crime was recognised for what it was: genocide. And because it was said that sexual violence against women was deliberately deployed with the intent to destroy societies.

Prior to these convictions, there were discussions about whether it wasn’t enough to charge the suspects with terrorism. But that would have been a mistake. It would have been a mistake to subsume other crimes under the category of terrorism, especially crimes against women. It’s important to point out that we talk much more today about sexual violence being used as a weapon to break women and thus societies. That’s partly thanks to you and the many other courageous women from northern Iraq.

Today, we categorise violence differently, for example the crimes committed by Boko Haram in Nigeria, where women are abducted, raped and held captive for years in order to break women and societies. Or in eastern Congo, where 90,000 people, mainly women and girls, were raped last year. That’s 246 each day. If we don’t spell that out, then nothing will change.

The third element, perhaps the most important, is our support for the victims. But not as victims but as players in the future. Of course, that also means that we have to provide funding. I’m saying that while here in Germany we’re engaged at present in intensive talks about the budget and some people keep asking why we have to fund projects abroad.

But what’s the point in recognising these crimes as genocide and then saying: but we can’t support local projects which enable men and women to take their fate into their own hands. For instance, when you see the energy of the Scoring Girls in Quadiya refugee camp playing football – because they enjoy it, Tugba, but also so that they can again feel their inner strength. It’s this very work which not only transforms a statement by the Bundestag into a pledge but also has an impact on the ground.

We know that there are still hundreds of thousands of IS victims living in refugee camps in northern Iraq.

And we’re aware of the importance of the work done by NGOs such as Better World, which helps young women in camps to, for instance, learn programming so that they can find employment in future.

Our goal remains to make it possible for Yazidis to return home to Sinjar. But only if genuine reconstruction can take place there. It’s particularly important to say this at a time when these refugee camps are due to be closed down. Where should these people go?

When I spoke to women in the House of Co-Existence in Sinjar some of them said: who can we still trust after all that’s happened? Our neighbours? The security forces?

Where’s our sports field? Where can we play football? Where’s the school?

When we say that it must be possible for people to return home, then we have to acknowledge that this can only happen if we as an international community provide assistance. By not only supporting community policing but, above all, the development of local infrastructure.

We have a duty to make it clear to the Iraqi Government that it’s their responsibility and ours as an international community not only to provide prospects for the future, but also to work on genuine reconstruction.

This also means that – and this is the debate we are currently having in this country – when we talk about giving people refuge here this promise of protection must apply in perpetuity.

Much has been said in the last few months about the return of refugees to Iraq, about repatriation. And, of course, this has caused a lot of uncertainty, especially in the Yazidi community.

We’re talking about girls, about women, who have gained a university entrance qualification certificate here in Germany, have begun vocational training, work in hospitals, as metal technicians, in nursing homes.

And who, as Shirin highlighted in her book, had to first of all learn anew what it means to feel safe.

I therefore want to make it very clear that the recognition of genocide isn’t worth the paper it’s written on if when people have settled, feel safe, a debate kicks off on whether refugees have to return home. No, you’re part of our society. And we have a responsibility to ensure that the light that shines carries on shining here.

Because responsibility means seeing the pain of the victims and not leaving them to fend for themselves. Because responsibility means opening our eyes and bringing the perpetrators to justice.

Working for justice, for a future in which Yazidi women, and of course men and children, remain daughters of the light. Strong, courageous and bright.

And as we started this evening by asking about the nature of the times we’re currently living in, I’d like to conclude by saying: yes, we face challenges. Yes, these are not easy times. But what was inflicted on some of us here in this room – the worst thing that humans can do to each other – places us under an obligation. That you, that these women, make it clear to us time and again that not only can we resolve our challenges and problems by putting humanity at the heart of our work, but we can also be grateful to live in a democracy, in freedom and in security. And if we fail to see what unites us all – humanity – and instead allow ourselves to be divided, then we’re in the wrong place.


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