Beyond Genocide: Toward Justice and Conciliation After ISIS

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: Eric Patterson


Last month, the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry declared that the actions of Islamic State (ISIS) constituted genocide. I will leave it to others to go into detail about the specific findings that led to this conclusion, but I will comment on why the United States has a unique and critical role to play with regard to this genocide determination and talk about concrete next steps in the pursuit of justice and security.

First, many voices in civil society have been calling the actions of ISIS “genocidal,” specifically those that target anyone they consider to be polytheists (such asYezidis and Trinitarian Christians) for death or slavery. Those voices have ranged from the unknown blogger in Raqqa to Pope Francis, but none of these voices are as important as that of the United States. The reason for this is that the United States remains the indispensable actor in international relations and without its leadership, little will happen.

Pope Francis, international NGOs, civil society, and even small countries do not have the firepower or political will to halt a genocide. Moreover, unless the United States forcefully is willing to act, it is fairly certain that even our close allies will not do so. Look, for example, at Libya. Some of our closest allies, including the United Kingdom and France, were urging action against Gaddafi, but until the United States went along, they were not willing to engage militarily. The same was true regarding Syria’s use of chemical weapons: Although our allies were bitterly disappointed that President Obama was unwilling to use force, those same allies did not engage their armed forces.

So, the United States remains indispensable strategically. This is also true morally. When the United States makes a promise, it typically keeps that promise. The nation is usually reluctant to take on massive new responsibilities, often those called for by redistributionists at the United Nations each September, because unlike most other governments, when it commits, it then feels ethically obligated to follow through.

Thus it is no surprise that the U.S. government was very deliberate before saying the word “genocide” because that word triggers, under the Genocide Convention, a set of responsibilities. It is beyond the space of this short essay to discuss those, so let’s fast-forward to what might make for an enduring situation of transitional justice and enduring security in the shattered hinterlands of Syria, Iraq, and Iraqi Kurdistan.

In a recent talk sponsored by the Institute for Global Engagement (IGE) that I attended, Luis Moreno Ocampo (the first prosecutor of the International Criminal Court) outlined five components of a “comprehensive project” for transitional justice, a “multi-prong approach” for the war crimes of ISIS.

The first of his five elements is “truth telling,” to ensure that the voices of victims are heard and that the crimes of ethnic cleansing, slavery, mass rape, and the like are documented for history.

Second, there should be trials of the perpetrators, although this is admittedly difficult when most ISIS fighters are willing to kill themselves rather than face capture. Nonetheless, from the failed suicide murderer to the captured leader, juridical proceedings are important.

Third, there must be some form of reparations for the victims. I asked Ocampo about where the money for such would come from, and he noted the vast financial reserves that ISIS has at its control, particularly from seizing Iraqi banks to oil income. Ocampo argued that these monies could be appropriated and used. My own view is that these monies will be increasingly hard to come by and that the governments of Syria, Iraq, and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) will want to get their hands on them.

Fourth, Ocampo argued that there must be a security guarantee provided by the international community that there will be no return to genocide.

Fifth, there must be a right of return for internally and externally displaced persons, so that they can return home with both security and some provision for their welfare. 

These five elements, he argued, are a multi-pronged effort at justice, security, and ultimate peace. These suggestions align with arguments made by other organizations, such as Stephen Hollingshead (In Defense of Christians), Tina Ramirez (Hardwired), John P. Gallagher (IGE), and others.

In conclusion, does the reader realize that the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda’s 1994 genocide only closed shop in December 2015? Less than 50 people were held to account by the ICTR despite the hundreds of millions of dollars spent and its legions of personnel. More important were local and national efforts at securing the country (under the RPF) and localized mechanisms for justice and reconciliation. With this in mind, I agree with Ocampo that a comprehensive project is important. As I have argued in my book Ending Wars Well (Yale University Press, 2012), the United States and international community must not get bogged down by a tedious, expensive UN-style bureaucracy and paperwork, but must focus on security, political order on the ground, and efforts at justice and longer-term conciliation. 

Eric Patterson is a research fellow at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs. 

This piece was originally authored on April 26, 2016 for the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.

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