For over two years, many areas of the Nineveh Plains in Iraq were subjected to Daesh (Islamic State, or ISIS) destruction, after it established the self-proclaimed caliphate. However, the reign of Daesh, which preyed on religious minorities in Iraq (and Syria), was ill-fated. While Daesh seemed to be able to flourish unabated in Iraq and Syria for over two years, this changed in the second half of 2016, when the Iraqi army began to win back its rightful territories.

What the Iraqi army found in the Nineveh Plains after Daesh’s occupation was only a shadow of what the region had been before Daesh arrived. There was no life. Most people fled the Nineveh Plains in mid-2014, just hours before Daesh arrived in their villages and towns. Buildings were destroyed; properties, shops, medical centers, and churches were all looted. Today, months after the areas have been taken back from Daesh, many people are still not returning.

This is the reality in much of the Nineveh Plains after Daesh. However, there are some exceptions. The village of Teleskof is being rebuilt, and over 430 families have already returned. The reconstruction of Teleskof and the willingness of people to return give some hope that there is a future for the rest of the Nineveh Plains. However, Teleskof had not been subject to such devastating destruction as other areas such as Quaragosh—one of the biggest Christian towns in the region. Rebuilding the Nineveh Plains will be a massive project requiring substantial funding. Aid to the Church in Need has assessed the cost of rebuilding nine villages in the region at $200 million.

Quaragosh Cathedral in Nineveh Plains, Iraq. November 2016.
Outside the Quaragosh Cathedral in Nineveh Plains, Iraq. November 2016. Photo provided by Ewelina U. Ochab.

Many people who fled Daesh want to return to their homes in the Nineveh Plains. They also have a right to do so because the right to return is protected under the Iraqi Constitution (and international law). However, the right to return means nothing if that right is not adequately respected and protected. People will have to return to the rubble left after Daesh. Moreover, they cannot return if there is no protection from Daesh or any other terrorist groups that may come after them.

How can the right to return be made possible and safeguarded?

When President Trump took office in January, he made a promise to help persecuted Christians worldwide, and especially Christians subjected to the Daesh genocide in Syria and Iraq. In an attempt to fulfill this role, in his first executive order on foreign policy, the so-called “Trump Ban”, he made a clear commitment to prioritize religious minorities persecuted by Daesh. However, the first order was replaced by a second executive order on foreign policy with more apparently “politically correct” language. The prioritization of religious minorities was removed.

Subsequent months have not seen any significant attempt to assist the persecuted religious minorities. However, civil society groups continue to put pressure on President Trump, calling on him to establish safe zones in Iraq. While there is no progress to date, the President continues to discuss the possibility of establishing safe zones in Syria for all civilians fleeing from conflict and associated persecution.

Bartellah, Iraq. Nineveh Plains.
In Bartellah, Iraq. November 2016. Photo provided by Ewelina U. Ochab.

The proposal to develop safe zones to protect minorities from the Daesh atrocities is commendable as religious minorities in Iraq were specifically targeted for destruction by Daesh. They now require urgent assistance, including security. Without security, any assistance will not be sustainable—as it may only be a matter of time before another extremist group will target post-conflict vulnerable communities.

However, there are also questions relating to the effectiveness of safe zones in provision of safety and security. Safe zones have been established in a number of post-conflict regions over the years, including Bosnia and Rwanda. But despite being called “safe zones” they were far from safe or secure.

History has shown how such safe zones have contributed to post-conflict re-traumatization of already vulnerable people. Although the “safe zones” established in Bosnia in 1993 or Rwanda in 1994 provided humanitarian assistance, they failed to provide effective protection for vulnerable civilians in a post-conflict situation.

Bartellah, Iraq. Safe Zones. Nineveh Plains
In Bartellah, Iraq. November 2016. Photo provided by Ewelina U. Ochab.

The calls to establish safe zones raise another important issue: religious minorities must be protected throughout all of Iraq and not only within the borders of the proposed safe zones. This is essential to help religious minorities feel fully part of Iraqi society and for communities to work together to combat tensions and remove the atmosphere of mistrust. Without this, minority groups remain vulnerable and susceptible to further persecution. Therefore, they cannot provide a long-term sustainable solution.

Changes and new approaches are urgently needed. Previous cases of the implementation of safe zones in post-conflict regions must be analyzed to identify failings which contributed to re-traumatization and abuse of victims. Lessons learned must be taken into account to ensure that previous mistakes are not repeated.

If these lessons are learned and the other causes for concern are addressed, there may be a genuine opportunity to provide feasible policies which will enable religious minorities to return to their homelands and maintain their religious traditions in the countries in which they were born.

Baroness Caroline Cox is a member of the British House of Lords where she sits as an Independent member of the House of Lords and is a frequent contributor to Lords debates on the humanitarian situation and human rights violations in Sudan, India, Nigeria, Uganda, Burma, and more. Baroness Cox is also an advocate for Muslim women suffering gender discrimination from the application of Sharia Law in the UK. Baroness Cox is the founder and CEO of the Humanitarian Aid Relief Trust.

Baroness Cox’s humanitarian aid work has taken her on many missions to conflict zones, allowing her to obtain first-hand evidence of the human rights violations and humanitarian needs. Areas travelled include the Armenian enclave of Nagorno Karabakh; Sudan; Nigeria; Uganda; the Karen; Karenni; Shan and Chin peoples in the jungles of Burma; and communities suffering from conflict in Indonesia.

For her international humanitarian and human rights work, Baroness Cox had been awarded the Commander Cross of the Order of Merit of the Republic of Poland; the prestigious Wilberforce Award; the International Mother Teresa Award from the All India Christian Council; the Mkhitar Gosh Medal conferred by the President of the Republic of Armenia; and the anniversary medal presented by Lech Walesa, the former President of Poland.

Ewelina U. Ochab is a human rights advocate and author of the book Never Again: Legal Responses to a Broken Promise in the Middle East. Ochab works on the persecution of minorities around the world, with main projects including Daesh genocide in Syria and Iraq, Boko Haram atrocities in West Africa, and the situation of religious minorities in South Asia. Ochab has written over 30 UN topical reports (including Universal Periodic Review reports) and has made oral and written submissions at the Human Rights Council sessions and the UN Forum on Minority Issues. Ochab is currently working on her Ph.D. in international law, human rights and medical ethics.

Photo Credit: Soldiers from the Nineveh Plain Protection Unit patrol a mountainside during a react to contact training exercise at their training facility in the Nineveh Province, May 18, 2016. The NPPU are a small group of fighters who came together to protect their people in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. Training focused on the Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve overall mission to build partner capacity and increase the military capacity of local forces fighting ISIL. (U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Sergio Rangel/RELEASED)