“Sympathy is not enough..”

1 Jun

Sympathy is not enough..”


Ten days ago, while attending the opening ceremony of a conference in Vienna commemorating the 25thanniversary of the Vienna Declaration ofHuman Rights, I was struck by the simple words and sad demeanor of Nadia Murad, a Yazidi survivor of ISIS captivity featuring sexual slavery and institutionalized rape. [For an illuminating commentary on the Yazidi ordeal see Cathy Otten, “Slaves of Isis: the long walk of the Yazidi women,” The Guardian,25 July 2017]


Nadia Murad’s words contained a single message: “Sympathy is not enough. Sympathy does not create change. We need action.” Her manner as a speaker was exceptionally calm, her intonation almost without inflection. Her words were enveloped in an aura of resignation and despair, but her talk avoided the shocking details of her experience, the details where horror resides. I grasped her words as they were being spoken as the gentlest of indictments. Her meaning came across. Empathy although welcome, does not save lives. Sympathy does not stop crimes against humanity. Action might. Action could be relevant. Action was not forthcoming when needed by the Yazidi communities in northern Iraq.


Her words were a muted cry for help, but after the fact. It is true that understanding must precede action, but most of us are content to brood over the human condition that let’s such brutality pass almost unnoticed. Despite the War on Terror the Yazidis were compelled to depend on their own meager resistance capabilities to survive to tell their latest story of abuse, and survival.


The Yazidis are an old syncretist religion that draws inspiration from Christianity via baptism, Islam via circumcision, and Zoroastrianism via fire. The religion is not theological. Its main practices consist of visiting sacred places and telling stories of their endurance and affliction. The ethnicity of Yazidis is primarily Kurdish, and they accept neither converts nor dilution of Yazidi identity (if a Yazidi marries outside the religion, it is assumed she or h has converted). The Yazidis were often persecuted by the Ottoman Empire as an infidel sect, somewhat similar to the perception of Bahi’as by Iran after 1979. The Yazidis number less than one million, many fleeing to Europe and elsewhere after the ISIS takeover of their region. The long history of the Yazidi people is one of struggle, persecution, and persistence of which this latest phase is perhaps the most excruciating.


Listening to the soft-spoken Arabic words of Nadia Murat I could not refrain from thinking of Palestinian suffering. Sympathy for Palestinians is widespread these days in response to the Jerusalem embassy move by the United States and IDF massacre of unarmed Palestinian demonstrators at the Gaza fence, yet still far less intense than Palestinian prolonged suffering and subjugation deserves. Action on their behalf remains anemic, and is subject to social, and even legal, pushback, even punishment. Israel shirks   responsibility. Israeli leaders offer allegations and inducements intended to distract onlookers, and heaps denunciation on those who do choose to act, however mildly.




Nadia Murad’s words were best heard as a non-accusatory lament, although inevitably also a commentary on the human condition: So long as evil is bold and good is pacified by its benign intentions, genocides will continue to happen. The Genocide Convention is there waiting to be implemented in more than a dozen places, but who among the movers and shakers of this world cares enough to lift a finger?


I believe that is what Nadia Murad’s brave witnessing was trying to teach us during her brief remarks in Vienna.





9 Responses to ““Sympathy is not enough..””

  1. Beau Oolayforos June 2, 2018 at 11:14 am #

    Dear Professor Falk,

    You mention that the Yazidi are largely of Kurdish ethnicity. Although our government (and Israel’s?) has been mainly supportive of Kurdish aspirations, have the Yazidi ever benefited from any of that? Is it too late now to condition our substantial material aid to the Kurds on them helping their own brethren?

    This might be criticized as passing the buck, but could be defended as desiring the most self-determination, and the least foreign intervention possible.

    • Ceylan June 3, 2018 at 2:20 am #



      About 2,700 Yazidis live in limbo in Turkey having not been granted official refugee status by the Turkish authorities. This means access to benefits such as free healthcare are being denied to them.
      “If we want to go to the hospital, we can’t,” says Haliqi, who was a dental assistant in Iraq. “If we want to emigrate to the West we first need Turkish residency, and they won’t give us that.” The office in Ankara of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) did not respond to requests for comment.

      Yazidi Girls: Prisoners of ISIS

    • Mike 71 June 3, 2018 at 6:49 am #

      Beau, for once I agree with you! The Kurds are just as deserving of self-determination as are the Israelis and Israel has been consistently supportive of Kurdish nationalism. Both Kurds and Israelis will have to win their independence and security through “armed struggle,” just as the Vietnamese and many former colonies of the major powers in Africa have done.

      • Richard Falk June 3, 2018 at 7:59 am #

        Although an absurd comparison, its tone at least is civil..

      • Richard Falk June 5, 2018 at 12:55 am #

        Mike 71:

        As log as your messages contain personal insults they will be blocked. Don’t waste your time
        submitting them..

      • Mike 71 June 5, 2018 at 2:55 am #

        There was not a personal insult; just a serious questioning of your argument.

        BTW: The correct Wikipedia cite for Uti Possidetis is: http://www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uti_possidetis

        As a purported “scholar” of International Law, you should be familiar with that concept!

      • Richard Falk June 11, 2018 at 11:00 am #

        We have different understandings of wha
        t is insulting, as well as of the reality of international law, and even the underlying facts.

      • Richard Falk June 5, 2018 at 3:07 am #

        We have a different understanding of what is insulting. As long as
        you attack my professional competence or integrity I consider that
        to be an insult, indeed, defamatory. Such comments will be blocked.


  1. Yazidi women: in defense of human rights sympathy is not enough - June 4, 2018

    […] Posted Richard Falk June 1 2018. […]

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