Medya News spoke to Nadine Maenza, the Chair of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) on the 7th anniversary of the Yazidi genocide. She spoke about the Yazidi genocide (which began on 3 August 2014), her work in North East Syria and US policy towards the Autonomous Administration of North East Syria.
The US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) is an independent, bipartisan federal government entity established by the US Congress to monitor, analyse, and report on religious freedom worldwide. USCIRF makes foreign policy recommendations to the President of the United States, the Secretary of State, and Congress intended to deter religious persecution and promote freedom of religion and belief.
In May 2020, Maenza was re-appointed by the White House to a second two-year term as Chair of USCIRF, having served as its Vice Chair in 2019.
Maenza has represented USCIRF in delegations to Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Myanmar, Bahrain, Indonesia, Iraq, Azerbaijan, Thailand, Taiwan, and Uzbekistan. She has travelled in her own personal capacity to better understand religious freedom conditions in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, and Bangladesh as well as recently spending time in northeast Syria.
Speaking on the 7th anniversary of the genocidal attacks against the Yazidis by the so called Islamic State (IS, also referred to as ISIS) in August 2014, Maenza spoke about the warnings that USCIRF had given in reports in the years leading up to the Yazidi genocide and the sense of impunity that minority communities had felt in the area that there was nothing being done to stop the violence and that radical groups such as ISIS felt emboldened to commit war crimes against the Yazidis, Christians and minority groups in Northern Iraq.
Maenza said that the international community needs to assist Yazidi victims with humanitarian assistance as Sinjar (Shengal) has hardly been rebuilt. She appealed to countries in the anti-ISIS coalition to do more to assist but she especially appealed to the US because of its history of involvement in Iraq.
Maenza then spoke about her time in North and East Syria when she first visited the region in 2019 after the Turkish invasion of Afrin and she spoke about how she was so impressed with the ‘incredible governance’ that the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) had developed after they had defeated ISIS. She spoke about the vital importance of political recognition and economic support for AANES as a way to protect religious freedoms and to develop democracy in the region.
Maenza stated that she was able to visit AANES a number of times over the past year, to be able to better understand the workings of the Autonomous Administration which she describes as ‘incredible,’ especially with regard to its policies on religious freedom and gender equality but also more broadly with the governance of democratic representation of all peoples, ethnicities and religions.
She thinks that the progressive policies and work that AANES does needs to be more widely known, especially as the US government indicates its willingness to support AANES in the immediate future. Maenza pointed to positive signs, including the recent sanctioning of Turkey’s affiliated armed gang Ahrar al Sharqiya and it’s leader Abu Shaqra by the US Treasury Department.
Maenza stated that these are all signs that the US administration is ‘paying attention’ and she was particularly pleased with the sanctioning of the leader of Ahrar al Sharqiya, Abu Shaqra, as he was present at the brutal execution of the Kurdish female politician Hevrin Khalaf during the first days of Turkey’s military operation in North East Syria, in October 2019.
Maenza expressed her concerns that “Afrin has become a caliphate.”
“The ISIS caliphate in Raqqa had put these conditions that were so horrific and the world united against them, yet Turkey in Afrin creates the same type of environment and the world looks away,” she observed.
“And so that’s what we saw couple of years ago when I first came upon what was happening here, and I think what is happening now is that the world is not looking away quite as much. Now, they are being forced to admit the truth which is that these atrocities are unacceptable under any circumstances, unacceptable when ISIS was doing it and it should be unacceptable when Turkey, a NATO ally, is doing it. And what is especially heartbreaking is that they’ve gone into a place that had religious freedom, where women were treated equally and really turned it into these horrific conditions,” she noted.
“So, I’m hopeful in that what I’ve seen from this administration is a real willingness to look at what’s happening and to consider the options and I’ve certainly met with a lot of officials and been welcomed and I’m encouraged that those dialogues are happening and I’m hoping, as they reevaluate their Syria policy, that they [i.e., the US administration] will follow USCIRF’s recommendations to support the Autonomous Administration,” she said.
For further reading please check out the 2020 Report on International Religious Freedom: Syria.