Is ISIS committing genocide?

On January 27 the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (Strasbourg) adopted, almost unanimously, a resolution recognising that “individuals who act in the name of the terrorist entity which calls itself Da’ish” “have perpetrated acts of genocide and other serious crimes punishable under international law.”

In this resolution, the Assembly continues “States should act on the presumption that Da’ish [i.e. ISIS] commits genocide and should be aware that this entails action under the 1948 United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide” (§2).

The Assembly also “recalls that under international law States have a positive obligation to prevent genocide, and thus should do their utmost to prevent their own nationals from taking part in such acts” (§ 3). The Assembly calls on its 47 Member States as well as on its observer and partner’s States (including Mediterranean States) to, inter alia, “fulfil their positive obligations under the 1948 United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide by taking all necessary measures to prevent genocide”.

This decision gave renewed energy to calls in the UK for the government to name the action against religious minorities as genocide.

On 10 February Hilary Benn put down a written question: “To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, whether the Government recognises the killing of the Yazidis by Daesh as genocide.” Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond replied with the government’s stock response: “I condemn the atrocities committed by Daesh against all civilians, including Christians, Mandeans, Yezidis and other minorities, as well as the majority Muslim population in Iraq and Syria who continue to bear the brunt of Daesh’s brutality. It is a long-standing policy of successive governments that any judgements on whether genocide has occurred are a matter for the international judicial system rather than governments or other non-judicial bodies. Ultimately, the best way of preventing future atrocities is to defeat Daesh and its violent ideology.”

On 18 February a letter from Leading UK Lawyers and Human Rights Campaigners – including the former Lord Chancellor – was sent to the Prime Minister calling for the British Government to declare the atrocities committed against Christians and Yazidis as a genocide.

Dear Prime Minister,

Genocide perpetrated by Daesh/ISIS against minorities

We write further to the letter of 21 December 2015 in which 75 members of both Houses wrote to you regarding the atrocities unfolding in the Middle East.

On 9 February 2016, replying to the oral question as to whether the Government would condemn the actions of Daesh/ISIS in the Middle East as genocide, the Earl of Courtown confirmed that Her Majesty’s Government would not take a view on whether genocide was occurring in the Middle East, as such a decision was a matter for the “international judicial system” and not governments or other non-judicial bodies. Furthermore, the request to take the matter to the UN Security Council was left unanswered (HL Deb 9 Feb 2016, Cols 2119-2120).

Prime Minister, we urge you to revisit this position for the sake of tens of thousands of Christians and other religious minorities who are currently subject to acts of genocide in the Middle East.

As a signatory to the 1948 UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, the United Kingdom has an obligation under international law to “prevent and punish” acts of genocide. In order to take decisive action to prevent genocide, the very first step must be recognition that genocide is in fact taking place. In the light of horrific and overwhelming evidence emanating from the region, refusing to recognize the current acts as genocide begs the question, for what reason is the United Kingdom a party to the Genocide Convention?

Moreover, Her Majesty’s Government proposes that such decisions be made by the “international judicial system.” Yet what is the mechanism for engaging this system?

As Syria and Iraq are not parties to the Rome Statute, the only way in which the International Criminal Court can investigate and prosecute acts of genocide is with a referral from Syria or Iraq, which at this moment appears unlikely, or with a referral from the UN Security Council, of which the United Kingdom is a prominent and permanent member. This was made clear in a Statement of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, Fatou Bensouda, on 8 April 2015.

Therefore, even if it is accepted that a recognition of genocide should only be made by the “international judicial system” – a position not shared by many of our European neighbours – the starting point for such action must come from the members of the UN Security Council, including the United Kingdom. Moreover, regardless of any authoritative judicial decision, there is nothing to prevent Her Majesty’s Government forming and acting upon its own view.

We therefore ask Her Majesty’s Government to reconsider its position and to clarify why it operates a policy of refusing to recognize acts of genocide, when so many other nations do not?

We further ask what action Her Majesty’s Government plans to take through its preferred means, the UN Security Council and the International Criminal Court?

Lastly, we respectfully ask you to consider the concluding words of Fatou Bensouda’s statement of 8 April 2015:
“As Prosecutor of the ICC, I stand ready to play my part, in an independent and impartial manner, in accordance with the legal framework of the Rome statute.”

In order for the international judicial system to play its part, Her Majesty’s Government must first act.

We look forward to hearing from you.

Yours ever,

Lord Alton of Liverpool
Vice Chair
All-Party Parliamentary Group on Freedom of Religion or belief

And the following signatories:

Lord Brennan QC, Baroness Kennedy QC, Lord Carlile of Berriew QC CBE, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, Baroness Cox, Lord Pannick QC

In November 2015 Business Insider UK reported that the Obama administration was considering using the term “genocide” to classify the campaign of ethnic cleansing ISIS perpetrated against the minority Yazidi community in northern Iraq, which could have major implications for US foreign policy in the Middle East.

It continued “The word carries a certain power as an official designation. A 1948 treaty, signed by the US and 147 other nations, declares genocide a crime under international law and states that countries need to work together “to liberate mankind from this odious scourge.”

“The report about the possible genocide designation, from Yahoo News’ Michael Isikoff, coincides with the release of a report from the US Holocaust Memorial Museum.

“That report said that the organization believes that ISIS — aka ISIL and the Islamic State — “has been and is perpetrating genocide against the Yazidi people.”

“Even if the US accepts that the crimes against Yazidis are genocide, it’s unclear what action the US and the international community would take if ISIS’s crimes were officially declared as such. But it could put pressure on other countries to intervene and stop the ongoing atrocities.

“Before, we were talking about a 1948 convention on genocide that’s predicated on the notion that only states commit these crimes,” Cameron Hudson, director of the Holocaust Museum’s Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide, said at a press conference on Thursday.

“He added: “This is not a 20th-century crime anymore. It’s a 21st-century crime, and that crime looks different today than it did 70 years ago. But the effect on civilian populations is the same.”

“ISIS accuses Yazidis of being devil worshippers who are not “people of the book” — protected religions mentioned in the Quran. Yazidi women have been used as sex slaves for ISIS fighters.

The report found that:

  • ISIS targeted groups on the basis of their identity and as part of its military, economic, and political strategy.
  • The Iraqi government failed to protect these groups.
  • Early warning signs were misunderstood or went unnoticed.
  • And some of these mass atrocities are ongoing.

If the US government attaches the genocide label to these crimes, it could open the door to prosecutions of ISIS leaders in international criminal court, Naomi Kikoler, deputy director of the Simon-Skjodt Center and author of the report, told Business Insider.

“One of the biggest obligations coming out of the genocide convention is to punish perpetrators, and it should … mean that they would hopefully try to bring this issue to the security council,” Kikoler said.

But the fact that ISIS is not a state, despite governing a swath of territory across Iraq and Syria, could create some challenges.

“For genocide, it’s often seen as being kind of a state-committed crime. So in many ways, it would be a new area for courts to deal with, but it’s not one that creates insurmountable challenges,” Kikoler said.

In any case, there are still issues that the US has to work through, considering that a genocide designation could “require an adjustment to US military strategy,” according to Yahoo.

Isikoff, Yahoo’s chief investigative correspondent, wrote that the US “has historically been reluctant to invoke the genocide treaty because of concerns it might create a moral, if not a legal, obligation to act in ways that previous administrations were not prepared to do.”

The current administration is aware of the Holocaust Museum report, a White House representative told Business Insider.

“We welcome all efforts to deepen the historical record when it comes to mass atrocities, because we know that historical memory is a tool of prevention,” the statement said.

“In authorizing a military and humanitarian effort to help save Iraqi Yezidis trapped on Mt. Sinjar in August 2014, President Obama stated that ‘When we have the unique capabilities to help avert a massacre, then I believe the United States of America cannot turn a blind eye. We can act, carefully and responsibly, to prevent a potential act of genocide,'” the statement also said.

It continued: “Secretary Kerry also stated in August 2014 that ISIL’s actions bore ‘all the warning signs and hallmarks of genocide.’ Following the President’s decision, the United States launched a military and humanitarian effort to thwart ISIL’s campaign against the Yezidi people.”

Last year, the US conducted airstrikes against ISIS to halt its advance on Mount Sinjar. The US also carried out airdrops of supplies in the area.

Hudson estimates that 1,500 Yazidis have been killed, 3,500 have been kidnapped, and hundreds of thousands more have been displaced since ISIS took control, according to Yahoo.

Atrocities against Yazidis differ from those against other minority groups targeted by ISIS, Kikoler said. Christians, for example, have been given the option of paying a protection tax if they refuse to convert to Islam.

“What is different is with Yazidis — there is no other option,” Kikoler said. “When we do look at whether or not the Islamic State killed and enslaved other communities, we don’t see that same pattern, that deliberate effort to eliminate a particular group in the same way.”

Yazidis were “targeted for the harshest punishment” and “were consistently the ones who were killed and kidnapped and enslaved,” she said.

These reports come as local ground forces in Iraq’s Sinjar Mountains, where ISIS killed and enslaved thousands of Yazidis, have launched a major offensive to take back the area from ISIS. The offensive is backed by US airstrikes.

The US administration has yet to take this step, however, and last week more than 100 non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and Christian leaders banded together to send a letter to President Barack Obama, urging him to recognize the atrocities that the Islamic State is inflicting upon countless Christians and other minorities as genocide. continued “Family Research Council (FRC), the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), and the Hudson Institute, along with numerous Assyrian and Iraqi groups and more than 100 NGOs and pro-religious freedom leaders have been meeting in Washington, D.C. — banding together to form the International Religious Freedom Roundtable (IRFC). On Wednesday, the group submitted a letter calling for the Obama administration to take a stand for persecuted Christians and other minorities around the world by declaring the numerous massacres orchestrated by ISIS “genocide.”

“There is a growing chorus of political and faith leaders, genocide scholars, human rights experts and numerous Iraqi and Syrian, Christian and Yazidi firsthand testimonies recognizing that the most accurate description for the atrocities unfolding at the initiative of the Islamic State is genocide,” the IRFC letter impressed to Obama, according to the Christian Post.

Signees of the letter pleading with the president to address ISIS’s mass murders as genocide include Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission President Russell Moore, FRC President Tony Perkins, Georgetown University Religious Freedom Project Director Thomas Farr, Middle Eastern Christians Spokesperson Johnnie Moore and Hudson Institute Center for Religious Freedom Director Nina Shea.

Just last week, Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill made a historic public statement regarding the Islamic State: “Whole families, villages and cities of our brothers and sisters in Christ are being completely exterminated.” 

Hillary Clinton, during her Democratic presidential campaign, has also addressed what is taking place against Christians by the Islamic State as nothing short of genocide.

“I am now sure we have enough evidence, what is happening is genocide deliberately aimed at destroying lives and wiping out the existence of Christians and other religious minorities,” Clinton stated just days after Christmas.

The letter urges Obama to take appropriate action in the global stand against the jihadist terrorist groups’ mass killings.

“[Without a formal declaration] the U.S. Government has abdicated its duty and vow to confront the most heinous of human rights violations, namely genocide,” the 100-plus NGOs and global leaders express to the president in the letter. “[B]etween now and March 16, 2016, your Administration has a tremendous opportunity to extend American leadership at a crucial time on behalf of the ancient religious and ethnic minority communities who are experiencing the most brutal reality imaginable — genocide.”

A statement made jointly by the United Nations’ office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and its Assistance Mission for Iraq Human Rights office also addressed the Islamic State’s genocide, which was also quoted in the letter.

“ISIL continue to target members of different ethnic and religious communities,” the letter said, repeating the U.N.’s own words. “(These) acts appear to form part of a systematic and widespread policy that aims to suppress, permanently expel, or destroy many of these communities within ISIL areas of control.”

Shea noted that in October, the U.S. State Department would only call the mass killings of Yazidi populations genocide — not the slaughter of Christians.

“Unnamed administration officials are proffering various arguments to justify omitting the Christians,” she wrote in National Review. “All are flimsy … and point to political motives.”

The letter also puts Obama to task, calling him to live out the words he expressed earlier about his responsibility and desire to take measures against the mass carnage taking place against vulnerable religious minorities.

“[D]esignating the crimes committed by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria as genocide against Christians — Assyrians/Chaldeans/Syriacs, Copts, etc. — Yazidis, Shia Muslims, Turkmen (Shia), Shabak and other religious minority communities would build upon your 2015 National Security Strategy which acknowledges, ‘We have a strong interest in leading an international response to genocide and mass atrocities when they arise, recognizing options are more extensive and less costly when we act preventively before situations reach crisis proportions,'” the letter to the president reads.

Obama’s “Statement on Persecuted Christians at Christmas” — a proclamation he gave several weeks ago on December 23 — is quoted in the letter, and also runs contrary to his continued refusal to recognize the Christian genocide at the hands of ISIS.

“In some areas of the Middle East where church bells have rung for centuries on Christmas Day, this year they will be silent,” the president recently said, according to the letter. ‘[T]his silence bears tragic witness to the brutal atrocities committed against these communities by ISIL.”

The drafters of the letter tell Obama that he must not shirk his duty as commander-in-chief of the world’s greatest power to take the necessary steps needed to address the Christian genocide being administered by the Islamic State — so that America can join the global effort to protect countless innocent lives.

“The world is watching and clear moral leadership by your Administration is needed to declare and subsequently stop such atrocities in order to preserve these ancient communities,” the letter concludes. “It is our belief that officially declaring and subsequently halting this genocide is a matter of vital moral and strategic importance for the United States, the international community, and the overall state of religious freedom around the world.”