Secretary of State John Kerry on Thursday labeled the Islamic State’s merciless persecution of religious minorities as genocide, a long-awaited determination that resonates politically but doesn’t compel the United States into deeper intervention.
Kerry said the plight of Yazidis, Christians and other sects is “utterly existential” as ancient communities that had survived wars and dictatorships are forced to flee their lands or face slaughter, rape and enslavement by the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or Daesh. Minorities in Syria and Iraq have seen their churches and shrines destroyed, their clergy kidnapped and executed, their villages razed. Taken as a whole, Kerry said, the offenses meet the criteria for genocide.
“Daesh is genocidal by self-proclamation, by ideology and by action – what it says, what it believes and what it does,” Kerry told reporters at the State Department.
Given the nonstop bloodletting in the Islamic State’s so-called caliphate, such a finding might seem obvious, but genocide is a legal term and scholars have debated for more than a year whether the extremist group’s violence in Syria and Iraq falls into that category, or into other categories, such as war crimes or crimes against humanity.
In statements and in interviews, scholars’ take was that the Obama administration reached the correct conclusion of genocide, but probably wouldn’t match its rhetoric with action, given its longstanding aversion to wading deeper into the Syrian conflict.
And there are obstacles to hauling the case before an international court or tribunal, starting with the fact that neither Iraq nor Syria is a state party to the International Criminal Court. An alternative route, via U.N. Security Council referral, carries the risk of deadlock because of members’ different stances on Syria, though an anti-Islamic State measure stands a better chance of winning referral because it’s universally condemned.
Gregory H. Stanton, president of the advocacy group Genocide Watch and a genocide scholar at George Mason University in Virginia, said the determination, which his group supports, raises questions about why other actors in the war haven’t been similarly labeled, including Syrian President Bashar Assad and Nusra Front, an al Qaida affiliate that uses many of the same tactics and sectarian language that Kerry cited in his remarks Thursday.
“Genocide Watch published a report on our website in September that essentially said, a plague on all their houses,” Stanton said. “Our view is that all of them have committed genocide and crimes against humanity and war crimes – all of them have to be put on trial. And we’d say the same about the Russians.”
Although the designation doesn’t mandate intervention, Stanton said, a study by his group of the four most recent genocides – Rwanda, Kosovo, Bosnia and Darfur – found that crimes that were labeled genocidal were more likely to draw “forceful action” than those labeled crimes against humanity or ethnic cleansing. The responses were uneven, Stanton said, but the naming made a difference.
“When the word ‘genocide’ is used, it has an impact,” Stanton said.
Kerry wrestled with the question for months, and the State Department said only Wednesday that he would miss the March 17 deadline mandated by Congress to make a determination. But Kerry’s decision came not 24 hours later, amid pressure from human rights groups and Congress, where the House of Representatives voted unanimously Monday on a genocide determination.
Kerry backed into his announcement by listing U.S. military and humanitarian efforts that already are under way against the jihadist group, as if to deflect the inevitable question: Now that it’s officially genocide, what is the United States going to do about it?
The State Department on Wednesday said that the finding wouldn’t compel the United States to take action, a stance reiterated Thursday by State Department spokesman John Kirby.
“If you’re asking me: Is it going to change the military strategy against Daesh, I don’t foresee that,” Kirby said.
Analysts and scholars of war crimes say politics is always in the background of a genocide determination, with the term used either to justify intervention or not used in order to avoid taking action.
“It appears that – as is often the case, unfortunately – the term ‘genocide’ is being used for its propaganda value rather than for legal purposes,” said John Cox, an associate professor at the Center for Holocaust, Genocide and Human Rights Studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.
While the label “genocide” is used by scholars and activists to gain understanding of a crime or to build a case for prosecution, Cox said, “politicians and diplomats, in the U.S. and elsewhere, often use it for political purposes, because of the power of the term. Or they avoid using, if it’s in their interest to do so.”
Cox cited the case of Rwanda, where, he charged, “the U.S. could have actually done something positive but instead chose to undermine the U.N. peacekeeping mission and to refuse to acknowledge the genocide.”
The United Nations’ definition of genocide, which it deems the “crime of crimes,” is the intentional destruction of an entire people, “in whole or in part.” Thursday marked the first time the United States has declared a genocide since 2004, in reference to atrocities in Darfur, Sudan.
“In that case, the declaration was not very effective; to the contrary, it may have undermined certain regional efforts to arrange ceasefires or temporary settlements,” Cox said, adding that the Darfur declaration “amounted to a case of grandstanding, to no effect.”
On the political front, Kerry’s move drew rare praise for the Obama administration from some Republican lawmakers and conservative Christian groups. Analysts said the decision could reignite a debate over refugee admissions – many of the same politicians who supported a genocide declaration opposed U.S. resettlement for refugees from the Middle East.
Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Fla., said in a statement that “the administration made the right decision to recognize the magnitude of ISIS’s horrific acts.” In such decisions, he added, “there is no room for equivocation.”
Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif., chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said Kerry was “finally making the right call,” though he quickly pivoted to a demand for the administration to respond with a more muscular plan after a “long pattern of paralysis and ineffectiveness in combating these radical Islamic terrorists.”
The Knights of Columbus, a Catholic fraternal organization that presented a 280-page report to the State Department in support of a genocide finding, commended the administration’s “courage” in invoking such a rarely used characterization. The Knights of Columbus report named more than 1,000 Christians who were killed by the Islamic State and described incidents of rape, kidnap, sexual slavery and forcible displacement.
“There is still much work to be done, but this represents an important step forward,” Knights of Columbus CEO Carl Anderson said in a statement.
Other high-profile advocates for labeling Islamic State actions as genocide include Pope Francis, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, the European Parliament and the U.S. Holocaust Museum’s Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide.
A statement from the Holocaust Museum called Kerry’s decision “an essential first step in what must be a broader effort to investigate the full extent of the crimes committed against all populations, hold perpetrators accountable and protect remaining at-risk populations.”