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: Alberto M. Fernandez
On March 17, 2016, the U.S. Department of State joined a wide spectrum of other organizations in declaring that the Islamic State had carried out genocide against Christians, Yazidis, and Shi’a Muslims under its control. This welcome declaration came after weeks of handwringing in the Obama administration about whether or not there was enough evidence for such a designation. The U.S. House of Representatives, unanimously, and the EU Parliament had already made that decision.
Secretary of State John Kerry made all the right points in his remarks announcing the decision, noting that ISIS must not only be defeated but also “bigotry and discrimination—those things that facilitated its rise in the first place.” He eloquently noted that what ISIS “seeks to erase, we must preserve.” These are fine and, no doubt, heartfelt words but words that must be put into context of the political inertia that often occurs after such decisions when the obligations to act are less legal than they are moral.
Despite the great work of human rights activists in securing this admission from the U.S. government, the real battle comes now, after the word “genocide” has been used, in translating it into tangible action and, more importantly, into action that addresses the actual act rather than tangential elements of the problem.
In 2004, the State Department decided that the government of Sudan had committed genocide against the Fur, Zaghawa, and Masalit people of Darfur. Darfur was—briefly—fashionable with large demonstrations, earnest young people, grassroots activism, and posturing by politicians (including Barack Obama).
When I arrived in Khartoum as U.S. Charge d’Affaires in 2007, much of that righteous, if shallow, indignation had dissipated. Tangible action in Darfur then meant not restitution for the victims or their safe return to their lands, or even justice against the perpetrators, but actually the clumsy implementation of a large, expensive UN-African Union Hybrid Force with its own internal logic and pace. The initial genocide faded, and the facts on the ground made by it were unreversed. There is the possibility today that, in the quite understandable focus on militarily defeating the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the urgency of “preserving what ISIS sought to erase” will also be lost.
By the time ISIS is defeated, the work of genocide against precarious communities of Yazidis and Assyro-Chaldean Christians may be completed, with these communities dispersed, destitute, and desperate. The liberation of Shingal (Sinjar) from ISIS control in November 2015 is an object lesson. Military victory was followed by political confusion, insecurity, ethnic score settling, and most importantly, a dearth of reconstruction assistance as families struggled to return.
The time to help these communities, to plan for their return and reconstruction of their lives is now, not after ISIS is defeated or territory is taken. It is only with the timely, tangible provision of a minimal level of security, economic progress, and educational opportunity that these communities, which were literally robbed at gunpoint of all they had, can be re-established in territory like the Nineveh Plains.
Secondly, there is a need to expand the circle of countries and international actors committed to making these battered communities whole and openly refuting the ideology that made it possible. All too often this is seen as a Western project, a sideshow, because "Western countries care about these religious and ethnic communities." This burden and duty must not be shared by the West (or the Iraqi government) alone.
The murderous ideology that ISIS used to justify its genocide is widespread in the Muslim world and based on a very specific reading of formative Islam and Islamic history with its own proof texts, scholars, sources, and propagation networks. The horrific treatment of the Yazidi community meted out by ISIS is one that is found in every school of Islamic jurisprudence.
When ISIS single-handedly resurrected the jizya poll tax in 2014 (ironically abolished by an actual ruling caliph in 1856), it was more of a Salafi caliphate publicity stunt than anything else. There are no real Christian communities anywhere in ISIS (or Al-Qa’ida) ruled territory—no open churches, schools, or flourishing families. And yet talking about jizya has become almost as fashionable as talking about the caliphate in Salafi circles. The same justifications that ISIS used existed in Saudi government fatwas, and even the leader of the bitter Syrian rival to ISIS, the Al-Qa’ida-affiliated Nusra Front (JN), trumpeted the same use of the jizya in JN-controlled territory as a mark of Islamic authenticity in the treatment of minorities.
Because ISIS is so extreme and a light has rightly been shined on their genocide, we may lose sight of the fact that at least some of the same thinking can be found among other Salafi jihadists and Islamists region-wide. These ideological roots of ISIS genocidal action, these words that kill, must be brought out and examined in the clear light of day, despite the resistance of some governments to do so. What are the real-world political implications of using words like Kufr, Shirk, or Murtad against civilian populations, of dubbing communities as Rafida? And if they are all too often used as a license to kill or enslave, how does the international community redefine those terms? Or are they to remain, like landmines or grenades, for the next version of the Islamic State to pick up and use?
Honestly, the U.S. government is not well-positioned to translate this late, if welcomed, designation of ISIS as genocidal into a realistic program of action. The parts of government that care most about this don’t have much clout or bandwidth. Overall, administration credibility and leadership are in short supply. So much energy is being devoted to defeating the enemy and keeping fragile Middle East states from unraveling even further, that it is all too easy to think mere words of solidarity and condemnation translate into consequential action in reversing the results of genocide. Rhetoric or “process” are not enough.
Alberto M. Fernandez is vice-president of the Middle East Media Research Institute and a member of the board of directors of George Washington University's Center for Cyber and Homeland Security.
This piece was originally authored on April 28, 2016 for the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.