June 17, 2021 - University of Houston Law Center Associate Professor of Law and Political Science Zachary D. Kaufman testified before the Belgian Parliament on Tuesday. Kaufman discussed and answered parliamentarians’ questions about the Islamic State's genocide of the Yezidi people in Iraq and Syria. Nobel Peace Prize laureate Nadia Murad, a survivor of the genocide, testified the following day.
Throughout his remarks during the four-hour hearing, Kaufman presented multiple international and domestic options to prosecute suspected Islamic State members, including more than 500 Belgian citizens and residents who allegedly joined or supported the Islamic State.
Internationally, Kaufman recommended that Belgium pursue one or more of the following options: advocate for the UN Security Council either to refer the Yezidi genocide to the International Criminal Court or to create an ad hoc international criminal tribunal with jurisdiction, as occurred for Rwanda and for the Former Yugoslavia, or lobby for the establishment of either an ad hoc treaty-based tribunal or an ad hoc hybrid tribunal, the latter of which would combine laws and staff from the international community and Iraq and/or Syria.
Domestically, “Belgian courts could prosecute certain genocide suspects through jurisdictional ties involving a case’s link to Belgium,” Kaufman said. “For example, if either Belgian citizens or foreigners with their principal residence in Belgium participated in the Yezidi genocide, then Belgian courts could prosecute them under the current Belgian Penal Code.”
Kaufman emphasized that some Belgians should be investigated for participating in the Yezidi genocide. Citing a report by the European Commission's Radicalization Awareness Network, Kaufman stated that more than 42,000 foreign terrorist fighters traveled from more than 120 countries to join the Islamic State. Five thousand were from Europe, Kaufman noted, with approximately 520 arriving from Belgium.
“Other countries whose citizens joined the Islamic State and then returned home have been pursuing prosecutions,” Kaufman testified. “For example, last year Germany initiated what is regarded to be the first trial anywhere to include genocide among the charges for crimes committed against the Yezidis.
“Therefore, the Belgian government should thoroughly investigate Belgians suspected of joining the Islamic State. Following the precedent set by Germany, alleged foreign fighters should then be prosecuted for genocide and, where convicted, punished under the Belgian Penal Code.”
To prepare for the testimony, Kaufman worked with one of his Research Assistants, Micah Hawkins, a member of the Law Center Class of 2024 and a student in Kaufman’s Criminal Law course last year. Kaufman credits Hawkins for tirelessly helping with multiple aspects of the groundwork.
"Micah translated several sources from French to English, researched numerous topics, and cite-checked the written version of my opening oral testimony, all under extremely tight time constraints," Kaufman said. "His contributions illustrate how Research Assistants can make real-world impact on high-profile matters."
Hawkins described the experience with Professor Kaufman as an “incredible opportunity.”
“As a member of the part-time program and still working full-time in construction, I worried about having time to gain meaningful legal experience before graduation,” Hawkins said. “Next thing I know, I'm researching, drafting, Bluebooking, and editing both objective and persuasive writings on international crimes, then receiving immediate constructive feedback on that work from a world-renowned expert in international law. I can't imagine legal experience any more meaningful!
“I was able to practice my legal research and writing skills while playing a small part in seeking justice for genocide - all in my "spare time." I'm extremely grateful to Professor Kaufman for this opportunity, and to UHLC for enabling and encouraging faculty to involve student Research Assistants in their pursuit of such impactful work.”