Under pressure from Congress, the Obama administration declared on March 17 that the Islamic State has committed genocide against groups in areas under its control, including Yazidis, Christians, and Shiite Muslims. The designation is only a legal stance, one based on a 1948 international treaty written after the Holocaust. It does not trigger the United States to do more than it already is doing in leading a military coalition to defeat IS.
Yet by pinning this worst of all crimes on IS, the US has now joined many other institutions in taking a moral stance. And by definition, morality is not merely a matter of principled words. As Secretary of State John Kerry said in making the designation against this group of Islamist militants, “What is essential is stopping them.”
Four times in the past, the US has designated mass killing as genocide: in Cambodia in 1989, Bosnia in 1993, Rwanda in 1994, and Sudan in 2004. Except in the case of Bosnia, where the US used bombing to force a peace deal, the effect was mainly to stir a diplomatic response or legal action. What might the world expect now as a result of this US designation? This is an important question to ask if humanity is to finally see genocide as obsolete.
Of the three groups most vulnerable to genocide by IS, the Yazidis are a clear-cut case. This small religious sect was harshly targeted in 2014 simply for their religious beliefs after IS took over their ancestral homes in northern Iraq. Thousands of Yazidi men and older women were killed and buried in nearly two dozen mass graves. An estimated 3,600 girls and young women remain in captivity, many as sex slaves. Another 1,000 boys may have been forced into fighting.
In 2014, US Special Forces helped protect thousands of Yazidis from further attack. Since then, Yazidi refugees have been aided by Kurds and others in Iraq and elsewhere, welcomed as refugees. And many courageous individuals have worked to free hundreds of Yazidi women from IS territory, either by paying ransom or rescuing them through covert means.
Meanwhile, the Iraqi government, along with US help, is planning to retake the key city of Mosul, which would be a major step toward liberating Yazidi areas. The US designation of genocide provides a moral boost to this effort.
In addition, the US action will stir further investigation of specific crimes committed by IS against individual Yazidis and others, creating a body of evidence for later prosecution in an international tribunal. Such prosecutions, as well as making a historic record of IS war crimes, will help deter genocide. Yazidi activists have also filed a 49-page report with the United Nations detailing the IS atrocities.
Together these actions, ranging from UN treaties to stealth rescues, show how taking a moral stance against the most heinous of crimes has compelled many people and countries to replace evil with good and violence with healing. Genocide can be vanquished to the history books.