On 2 November, in Erbil, the Director-General of UNESCO met with representatives of diverse Iraqi communities and minorities – including from the Shabak, Bahii, Yazidi, kakiee, Sabian Mandaée, Assyrian and Chaldean communities, members and former members of the Kurdistan Parliament and of the Council of Representatives of Iraq.
In opening the meeting, Irina Bokova voiced her grave concern at the systematic persecution of minority communities and the attacks against their cultural and religious heritage – reiterating her call for end to cultural cleansing by extremist groups.
She thanked the representatives present for their courage and commitment to standing up against these attacks, to protect the human rights and dignity of all citizens of Iraq; and expressed UNESCO's solidarity and readiness to support.
“These are intolerable attempts to destroy the diversity, that is part of the DNA of this country, that testifies to a long history of coexistence and dialogue between peoples and communities, across all cultural and religious lines,” declared the Director-General.
Irina Bokova echoed the statements of the United Nations Secretary General, and his Special Representative, as well as the United Nations Security Council, that these attacks, the systematic and deliberate cleansing of territories, the brutal killings of civilians – all of this stands in direct violation of international humanitarian and human rights law.
Recognizing the urgent need for the persecuted communities to regain a sense of security and normalcy, the Director-General highlighted the importance for these communities of upholding their traditions and cultures, while rebuilding Iraq's rich social fabric. “I am here to explore with you the way forward - how we can build trust and confidence between all segments of the Iraqi society, how Iraqis can learn to live together in a society respectful of communities' cultural identity and expressions” she said. "Education, the media and the protection of the wealth of diversity of Iraq's cultural heritage are fundamental for reconciliation amongst Iraqis. This is why I am here to listen to you", added the Director-General.
She also noted her high appreciation for the special role of host families and communities, who, despite hardships, are doing everything they can to help, at the risk of being overwhelmed by the crisis.
Discussion with the representatives of minority communities focused on the experience of human rights violations, stigma and discrimination, before and during the current crisis. Many highlighted the tragic lack of trust today, and the deep desire for basic respect and the return to normalcy.
The conditions for minority communities of Iraq’s diverse population remain distressing. It is estimated that out of the 5.2 million people affected during the current crisis, 1.8 million people have been displaced in 2014 alone.
Groups that are most at risk are minorities, some of whom have little or no established links with host communities, or who have been trapped in crisis areas. In addition to being subjected to extremely difficult living conditions, with overcrowding, insufficient sanitation and psychosocial trauma, affected minority groups suffer from persecution with regards to their religious and ethnic backgrounds and infringement on their basic human rights, leading to a loss of connections and ties with their original cultural milieu.
The current crisis has escalated the flight of such minority communities as Yezidis, Christians, Fayli Kurds, Shabaks and Turkomen, while also affecting Shiites and Sunnis.
“As a country traditionally comprised many groups of diverse cultural and religious backgrounds, Iraq now stands at a crossroads with serious threats to its social cohesion and unity,” said the Director-General. “We cannot let this happen; we must recognize the vital contribution of the each community to the welfare of society as a whole and the future of Iraq,” she concluded.