On March 15, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a unanimous resolution declaring that ISIS' attacks against religious minorities in Iraq and Syria constitute genocide. Two days later, Secretary of State Kerry affirmed that "Daesh is responsible for genocide against groups in areas under its control, including Yezidis, Christians, and Shia Muslims." In light of these declarations, Cornerstone asks: What legal and moral obligations, if any, does the United States have in designating ISIS' attacks as genocide?
By: Jeremy P. Barker
In the summer of 2014, ISIS captured international headlines when it became clear that the group was no longer simply concerned with fighting against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Its objective was solidifying control of new territory in an attempt to create a so-called Islamic State and reinstate the caliphate.
By June 10, ISIS captured Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, sending more than 500,000 fleeing for their lives. Then the targeting became more explicit. An ultimatum was issued that all Christians in Mosul, once as many as 50,000, must convert to Islam, pay the jizya, or “if they refuse there is nothing for them but the sword.” On August 3, it was not Christians but Yazidis who were the minority targeted for destruction. In a wave of swift attacks, thousands were killed, more than 5,000 women and girls were abducted to be forced into slavery or given as prizes to fighters, and nearly 500,000 Yazidis were driven from the towns and villages across the northern Nineveh Plain and Sinjar Mountains.
By August 8, the Christian towns and villages of the Nineveh plains, Qaraqosh, Bartella, and Hamdaniya, were attacked. 125,000 Christians were displaced, emptying these villages of Christians for the first time in nearly 2,000 years.
This brief summary gives just the contours of the atrocities committed by ISIS that have killed thousands and displaced more than 3 million people.
Genocide, however, is not just the commission of horrific actions of large scale. The reason it is the “crime of crimes” is because the definition also requires a mental element, the “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.”
The genocide in Iraq has explicitly been carried out along religious and ethnic lines, and ISIS has publicized its rationale for doing so. The result is that there are direct implications for religious freedom both now and in a post-ISIS Iraq.
The designation of the current atrocities as genocide is only the second time a U.S. administration has labeled an ongoing conflict as genocide; the other was Darfur in 2004.
Such declarations are often limited because, as Rebecca Hamilton has noted, absent public statements of intent, the rationale for the genocidal acts would have to be inferred by outside observers. ISIS is a noted exception to this.
The group has gone to great lengths to insure the world understands both the religious targets of their atrocities and the religious rationale they have used to arrive at these conclusions.
Take, for example, the speech entitled "Indeed, Your Lord is Ever Watchful" by spokesman Muhammad al-Adnani. In it he says, “Let your slogan be, “May I not be saved if the cross worshipper and taghut [ruler ruling by manmade laws] patron survives.” Also, A Message Signed with Blood to the Nation of the Cross, in which 21 Christians are executed in Libya, the speaker says, “O Crusaders, safety for you will be only wishes.”
In its Dabiq publication, the group has provided rationale for many of its actions from sexual slavery for Yazidis, to legitimatizing attacks on Muslims who do not accept their views.
The rhetoric has been matched by action. I have heard firsthand from women and girls who escaped ISIS just days and weeks earlier of the theology of rape and how women were bought and sold. My friends have pointed to the pictures of the churches where they worshiped, as ISIS posted photos boasting of their destruction.
Recognizing the explicit intent that has animated these attacks and divided the country along religious lines highlights the important role that robust religious freedoms must play in a post-ISIS Iraq.
The religious landscape of Iraq has been populated by diverse ancient communities. Yazidis, Christians, Shabaki, Turkoman, and Jews are all as much a part of the fabric of Iraq as its Kurdish and Arab, Sunni and Shi’a communities.
Any future for a unified Iraq must be built on the cornerstone of religious freedom that recognizes that each of these groups are free to practice their beliefs in public and private. They must also have full participation and rights in the political, economic, and civil spheres of the country.
The declaration of an ongoing genocide from the United States (also, the UK House of Commons, for the first time ever) likely will not immediately change the military efforts or even the humanitarian response.
The designation does still carry with it a powerful weight that the world is also bearing witness to the atrocities these communities have suffered.
Murad Ismael, Executive Director of Yazda and a powerful advocate for the Yazidi community, told me, “In my assessment there has been no tangible impact on the ground for the Yazidis [following the designation]. However, recognition has created a hope for the Yazidis, I often hear from people that they will hold to their hopes as long as the case remains alive and the world is not silent about it.”
The same sentiment is shared by many in the Christian community as well. What the genocide designation means more than anything is that the world is still watching.
It tells those whose brothers have been killed, whose sisters are still held captive, whose homes have been demolished, whose churches have been bombed, that their suffering has been acknowledged for what it is.
It tells Nadia Murad, Murad Ismael, Vian Dakhil, Father Douglas Bazi, Patriarch Louis Sako, and many other voices asking whether the minorities of Iraq have been forgotten, that they have not.
The concrete steps to bring to justice those responsible for these atrocities, to rebuild what has been lost, and to provide a lasting security for all of Iraq’s religious minorities may still lie at the end of a very long road, but the recognition of the genocide by the United States provides a flicker of hope that perhaps that road can be travelled.
There may be a future still for these communities in their homelands and the United States is committed to helping see that future restored.
Jeremy P. Barker is a co-founder of EDGE Institute, which works to promote education for global engagement particularly in conflict and post-conflict settings, including ongoing projects with internally displaced people in Iraq's Kurdistan region.
This piece was originally authored on May 9, 2016 for the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.