Secretary of State John Kerry today formally declared the Islamic State group to be perpetrators of “genocide” against ethnic minorities in the Middle East, including Yazidis, Christians and Shia Muslims, capping a months-long internal Obama administration debate about how to address the atrocities committed by the terror group.
“We must recognize what Daesh [the Arabic name for ISIS] is doing to its victims,” Kerry said, speaking from the State Department podium. “We must hold the perpetrators accountable.”
As first reported by Yahoo News last November, the State Department has been weighing the extremely rare move of invoking a 1948 international genocide treaty, drafted in the wake of the Nazi Holocaust, as a means of ramping up global pressure against ISIS. The treaty commits signatory nations to take steps to “prevent and to punish” the “odious scourge” of genocide.
At the time, the administration was primarily focused on invoking the treaty because of the Islamic State’s actions against the small Yazidi community in northern Iraq, including mass executions of males and sexual enslavement of women and children.
Members of the minority Yazidi sect hug each other in April 2015 after being freed by ISIS militants who had held them captive. (Photo: Ako Rasheed/Reuters)
But members of Congress and Christian groups in the U.S. lobbied the administration to take a broader approach and designate the Islamic State’s actions against Christian minorities, Shia Muslims and other minority groups as genocide. The Knights of Columbus began running TV ads highlighting ISIS atrocities. Presidential candidates, including Hillary Clinton and John Kasich, endorsed the calls, and the House unanimously passed a resolution favoring a broader designation.
Today Kerry answered those calls, declaring Shia Muslims and Christians victims of genocide as well. State Department officials said the U.S. intelligence community had helped gather evidence of executions and mass graves in support of the designation.
“Daesh kills Christians because they are Christians,” Kerry said. “It kills Shia because they are Shia. It kills Yazidis because they’re Yazidis.”
In reaching his decision, Kerry had asked the U.S. intelligence community to assist State Department officials to help collect comprehensive information on mass graves, executions and other Islamic State atrocities, according to Rabbi David Saperstein, the State Department ambassador at large for international religious freedom, who along with other department human rights officials had pushed for the designation.
“The genocide treaty was created as a way for the world to say there are certain crimes that are so abhorrent to the conscience of humanity that they must be called for what they are,” said Saperstein. “This is a historical designation that hopefully will galvanize the conscience of the world.”
The move won immediate praise from members of Congress who had been advocating for the designation. One leading member said it will bring a “new cause for hope” to threatened minority groups.
Displaced Christians at a church in Irbil, northern Iraq, in 2014, after militants overran a cluster of predominantly Christian villages alongside the country’s Kurdish region, sending tens of thousands of civilians and Kurdish fighters fleeing from the area. (Photo: Khalid Mohammed/AP)
“The genocide against Christians, Yazidis and others is not only a grave injustice to these ancient faith communities; it is an assault on human dignity and an attack on civilization itself,” said Republican Rep. Jeff Fortenberry of Nebraska, the lead sponsor of the House genocide resolution. “The United States has now spoken with clarity and moral authority. I sincerely hope that the genocide designation will raise international consciousness, end the scandal of silence, and create the preconditions for the protection and reintegration of these ancient faith communities into their ancestral homelands.”
The U.S. has rarely invoked the genocide treaty. The last instance came more than a decade ago when Secretary of State Colin Powell declared the killing of non-Arab people in Darfur genocide. That was the first time the U.S. government had made such a declaration during an ongoing conflict. But it remains unclear what practical impact today’s move will have on U.S. military strategy. Administration officials have privately insisted the Pentagon is already committed to a strategy aimed at destroying the group, and said the genocide designation will not change its military plans.
But advocates say the move is an important step toward mobilizing a broader international effort to seek out and protect the threatened minority groups, including rescuing thousands of women still being held as sexual slaves by ISIS. Kerry said today that the move would also commit the U.S. to gathering evidence of Islamic State atrocities, presumably for international war crimes trials that could be held after the group is defeated and its leaders captured.