Secretary of State John Kerry announced on March 17 that, in his judgment, ISIL is committing genocide against a number of minority groups in Syria and Iraq, including Christians:
Daesh is responsible for genocide against groups in areas under its control, including Yezidis, Christians, and Shia Muslims. Daesh is genocidal by self-proclamation, by ideology, and by actions—in what it says, what it believes, and what it does. Daesh is also responsible for crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing directed at these same groups and in some cases also against Sunni Muslims, Kurds, and other minorities.
Although he concedes that the record is incomplete, he indicates that his conclusion is based on a review of information gathered by the State Department, the intelligence community, and outside groups. This evidence reveals that members of these groups have been killed, subjected to sexual slavery, starved, and forced to convert or face death, and that individual victims are being targeted because they are members of these groups. In his words:
I hope that my statement today will assure the victims of Daesh’s atrocities that the United States recognizes and confirms the despicable nature of the crimes that have been committed against them.
In closing, Secretary Kerry notes:
Naming these crimes is important. But what is essential is to stop them. That will require unity in this country and within the countries directly involved, and the determination to act against genocide, against ethnic cleansing, against the other crimes against humanity must be pronounced among decent people all across the globe.
The Obama Administration had been under considerable pressure to declare acts of genocide not just against the Yezidi, but also against Christian and other ethno-religious groups — an issue that has apparently been under consideration for weeks. (See this letter and legal analysis from the American Center for Law & Justice and other NGOs — some faith-based — to Secretary Kerry; my take on the question, and the legal and evidentiary challenges it poses, is here.)
Earlier this week, the US House of Representatives unanimously passed a resolution accusing both ISIL and the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad of committing international crimes, including genocide on the part of ISIL. The resolution — sponsored by Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.) with 213 bipartisan co-sponsors (148 Republicans and 65 Democrats) — expresses
the sense of Congress that the atrocities perpetrated by ISIL against religious and ethnic minorities in Iraq and Syria include war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide.
In addition to citing the United States’ genocide statute, which could be used to prosecute offenders, the Resolution also invokes the US War Crimes Act, which largely could not. That statute would not reach many of the acts of violence under consideration because it applies only when the victim or the perpetrator is a US national or member of the US armed forces (an unfortunate accountability gap that leaves the United States out of compliance with the Geneva Conventions, as I’ve discussed at length here and here). The resolution also mentions the prohibition against crimes against humanity, although the United States has no crimes against humanity statute at all (another statutory gap I’ve long argued should be filled).
A companion resolution (H. Con. Res. 121), sponsored by Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ) and passed with overwhelming bipartisan support, condemns the Government of Syria and its allies, Russia and Iran, for their commission of war crimes and crimes against humanity. It goes farther, however, and asks President Obama to direct Ambassador Power to promote the establishment of a war crimes tribunal to prosecute these acts. Specifically, the House:
urges the President to direct the United States representative to the United Nations to use the voice and vote of the United States to immediately promote the establishment of a Syrian war crimes tribunal, a regional or international hybrid court to prosecute the perpetrators of grave crimes committed by the Government of Syria, its allies, and other parties to the conflict.
The resolution takes note of the fact that the international community has previously established ad hoc or regional tribunals to bring to justice individuals accused of international crimes in Yugoslavia, Rwanda, and Sierra Leone, among other places. The prospects of a tribunal dedicated to the conflict(s) in Syria and Iraq is something we’ve discussed at length on these pages (see here and here, as well as in this longer paper).
This is not the first such use of the term “genocide” in connection with events in Syria and Iraq, although this statement is the most pointed yet from the Administration. In August 2014, President Obama framed the US intervention in part as a response to “a potential act of genocide” against the Yezidis. In a contemporaneous op-ed, Secretary Kerry condemned ISIL’s “nihilistic vision and genocidal agenda” and urged the international community to unite to counter this scourge; in a statement, he noted that ISIL’s campaign against minorities “bear all the warning signs and hallmarks of genocide.” As I have noted, late last year, the US Holocaust Memorial Museum released its analysis of the situation in Northern Iraq, concluding that genocide was being committed against the Yezidi. Its conclusion was based in part on an analysis of ISIL doctrine that rendered it impossible to accommodate the Yezidi faith and group in its world view.