Does Winning a Nobel Peace Prize Make a Difference?

Nadia Murad’s work on behalf of Yazidi women who’ve suffered at the hands of the Islamic State has earned her a Nobel nomination. But even if she receives the prestigious prize, it may do little to help her cause.

Nadia Murad (center) testifies during a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing in Washington on June 21, 2016. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
Nadia Murad (center) testifies during a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing in Washington on June 21, 2016. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

To close observers of the horrific conflict unfolding in Iraq and Syria, the story of Nadia Murad has come to exemplify the brutal treatment of civilians, and specifically minorities, by the Islamic State. A 21-year-old farm girl from the Yazidi village of Kocho in northern Iraq, Murad was kidnapped in August 2014 and held captive by a series of Islamic State commanders as a sex slave and potential convert. On the day she was taken, her six brothers were brutally murdered in front of her. Her aunts, nieces, and sisters remain either missing — likely dead or still in captivity — or in refugee camps along the Jordanian border that she describes as “unbearable.” She eventually escaped to a refugee camp and later, through a refugee resettlement program, to Germany, where she now lives when she’s not traveling the world, speaking about her ordeal to heads of state, the U.S. Congress, parliamentarians, and journalists. She came into the public eye through the Yazda organization, which initially brought her to testify before the U.N. Security Council and has facilitated her campaign, including a new post as a U.N. goodwill ambassador.

Murad’s advocacy has earned her widespread attention from the international community and recently persuaded human rights barrister Amal Clooney to serve as legal counsel in her as well as the Yazidi community’s attempt to compel the International Criminal Court to pursue a case of genocide against the Islamic State. Earlier this year, the Iraqi government announced that it would nominate Murad for the Nobel Peace Prize for her role as a spokesperson for a generation of Yazidis decimated by the Islamic State, and specifically for Yazidi women who are being held as sex slaves in Mosul and other Islamic State strongholds.

Despite all the publicity, which has veered into tabloids and photo shoots since Clooney’s involvement, Murad is keeping her potential accolades in perspective.

During a Skype interview with Murad and her translator, Murad Ismael, shortly after the nomination, she told me: “If I receive this prize, there will still be thousands of children — Yazidis, Christians, and Muslims — who remain without parents that I would like to take care of. I have seen so many scenes — whether in my imagination or in reality — that I would like to do something about.” While the Nobel would clearly be an enormous honor, as well as a platform to spread awareness of both her horrifying story of enslavement, gang rape, and eventual escape and the larger movement to hold the Islamic State accountable for these deeds, she knows that renown is no substitute for action.

What’s less clear is whether the international community will complement its celebration of Murad’s strong protest for greater international action against the Islamic State by preventing the same crime from being continuously visited upon those she left behind, including her own family. U.N. officials, government leaders, and the media are well-versed in venerating those who bear witness to injustice and atrocity, including 2014 Nobel-winners Malala Yousefzai, who suffered near-fatal retribution for challenging the Taliban’s ban on female education, and Kailash Satyarthi, who fought against child labor and exploitation in India.

Preventing or, harder yet, rectifying the wrongdoing is a far more challenging — and less comfortable — prospect for the international community. Whenever the subject of a wider humanitarian intervention against the Islamic State is raised, the Obama administration and its allies cite a litany of strategic considerations, from the possibility of sparking an all-out conflagration with Russia over Syria, to a similar fault line with Iran in Iraq, to a gut-level (and entirely understandable) aversion to another ground war in the Middle East. But in the face of mounting atrocities, these arguments are wearing thin. The horrific treatment of the Yazidis is only a single chapter in the unspeakable volumes of suffering endured by Iraqis and Syrians since the Islamic State began its rampage in 2013. While international leaders must continue to heed strategic red flags, their unwillingness to consider a middle ground has left a large number of potentially powerful tools — like limited military action against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and increased assistance to rebel groups not affiliated with the Islamic State — off the table.

The exact nature of these tools is even more controversial and poorly articulated than whether or not they should be used. Bearing responsibility for greater U.S. involvement in a ground war in the Middle East, and particularly one whose end-state is uncertain and likely unpalatable at best, is a mantle very few are willing to take on, either within or outside government.

Fortunately, both Murad and Ismael, who quit a lucrative job in the Texas oil industry to devote his life to the Yazidi cause after seeing the devastation being wrought on their community, have some ideas about what greater international involvement in the crisis should entail.

“The airstrikes are not a solution,” Murad says. “A lot of the Yazidis who have been held captive have been killed in airstrikes. The best solution is a ground force that will recapture the areas and clean and secure them. By doing that, you will reduce the areas where IS is in control and free these women and kids in areas that are being liberated.” As she points out, Iraqi and Kurdish Peshmerga forces have tried to recapture areas dominated by the Islamic State for the past two years, with little success. “Some external, international force must be used to defeat IS and to recapture these areas,” she adds. “The military has not only been unable to recapture these areas but did not defend us. We were not defended when the Islamic State came and our areas all fell one after the other.”

Looking at the flip side of the conflict, Ismael speaks passionately about the plight of Yazidi refugees, who in many cases have been unable to find new homes outside of Iraq. “The world has been irresponsive to the Yazidi genocide. No country in the world has taken a single Yazidi refugee because of the genocide [or] because of the persecution,” he says. “They are treated as everyone else, as the Syrians, as the Iraqis, as everyone in the region, Afghans. The Yazidis have not received any special treatment. This program that Germany has created for 1,000 women,” he said, referring to a program designed by the German government to take in women traumatized by the Islamic State and provide them with psychological treatment, “is a very small program compared with a genocide that basically wiped a half-million people from their homeland.”

Murad and Ismael’s solutions are unlikely to serve as a framework for U.S. action, and of course the U.S. government has its own objectives beyond the plight of civilians persecuted and tortured by the Islamic State. There are also limitations on the extent to which the United States and its allies can begin to follow their prescriptions. It certainly wouldn’t be easy to implement either an expanded international ground force to fight the Islamic State or a resettlement program on behalf of Yazidis and others persecuted by the Islamic State. Nor are these surefire ways of resolving the underlying problem that Yazidis face. (Current events on the ground in Fallujah and elsewhere suggest military ground operations — at least those executed by Shiite militias and a hodgepodge of Iraqi forces — will continue to be extremely tricky and potentially counterproductive.) But the international community can and should take steps to bring what Murad and Ismael are advocating closer to reality.

At the very least, Washington should put more political pressure on the Iraqi government to speed up its planned operation to free Mosul — where Murad was held — from the control of the Islamic State. The United States and its allies should also consider providing more military support, including training and equipment to the Iraqi military, Kurdish forces, and others aligned against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. In addition, creating political refugee programs for minorities is incumbent upon the United States, which has accepted a measly 10,000 Syrian refugees since the beginning of the conflict in their country

A Nobel Peace Prize would be a fantastic victory for Murad, but without commensurate action on the ground, such an award would be little more than an empty gesture for the millions of civilians — Yazidi and Muslim, Sunni and Shiite — who continue to suffer at the hands of the Islamic State.

Editor’s note, Oct. 5, 2018: Since publication of this article in 2016, Nadia Murad received the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize, along with Denis Mukwege, for their efforts to end the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war and armed conflict.

Whitney Kassel is a foreign policy analyst based in New York City. Kassel spent four years with the secretary of defense, where she focused on special operations, counterterrorism, and Pakistan. She also served as a senior director focused on strategic analysis and risk management at The Arkin Group, a private intelligence firm. Twitter: @whitneykassel