Kerry declares ISIS's actions 'genocide': Will the label have an impact?

US State Department acted amid pressure from Congress and outside groups. But the designation, announced by John Kerry Thursday, doesn't have automatic policy implications. 

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Secretary of State John Kerry speaks to reporters in Washington on Thursday, March 17, 2016. He said the Islamic State group is committing genocide against Christians and other minorities in Iraq and Syria.

[Updated at 1:40 p.m. Eastern Time on March 17

Now that the State Department has determined that the violence the Islamic State is perpetrating against Christians and other minorities in the territories it controls in Iraq and Syria does indeed constitute genocide, the question arises – what difference will the designation make?

"Now that we’ve named the crime, does that translate into any type of clear action to protect the victims of that crime?" says James Waller, a specialist in genocide studies at Keene State College in New Hampshire. Just "the naming of it is irrelevant without clear policy decisions – from the US, the UN, and others – to protect the people being victimized by genocide."

In announcing Thursday a decision that many in Congress and among religious freedom advocates had long pressed for, Secretary of State John Kerry suggested more robust US action against the Islamic State could lie ahead. “Naming these crimes is important, but what is essential is stopping them,” Mr. Kerry said in a televised statement.

But some US officials have said the designation would not change US policy – which as ordered by President Obama is already aimed at degrading and ultimately destroying IS, also known as ISIS.

Instead, momentum is likely to build to hold accountable the perpetrators of the internationally defined crime of genocide before some form of international tribunal, religious freedom advocates say. At the same time, the US designation should serve to pave the way for more victims of religious persecution at the hands of IS to enter the US as refugees, these advocates add.

“Genocide is the crime of crimes, the most heinous of human rights crimes, and so yes, its victims are regarded as worthy of special measures to protect them and prevent further genocide,” says Nina Shea, director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom in Washington.

Underlying the critical question of “genocide or not” that has been debated in Washington over recent months is a swirl of other issues the debate raises – ranging from what designating IS as a perpetrator of genocide would accomplish to whether or not such a designation would obligate the US to carry out more robust action against the terrorist group.

Longtime supporters of a genocide designation by the US insist that while it would almost certainly result in a number of favorable steps for IS’s Christian victims, it would not require the US to take military action to rescue those victims, as some have argued. “The warning we’ve heard that taking this step would require putting boots on the ground is just preposterous,” Ms. Shea says.

What a genocide designation would bring with it, she adds, is a “range of policy actions” that might include designated aid, priority status for refugee and resettlement programs, and, in the case of Syrian victims, a seat at the table for peace talks and negotiations toward a Syrian political transition.

The Obama administration had been viewed as reluctant to issue a finding of genocide – something the US has not done since then-Secretary of State Colin Powell made a determination of genocide in Darfur in 2004 – but an unusual unanimous vote in the House of Representatives Monday (383-0) to support an ISIS genocide resolution may have made any other finding untenable.

“There is no question this vote in the House ...put a lot of pressure on the White House and the State Department to finally make this designation,” says Kristina Olney, government relations director for In Defense of Christians (IDC), a Washington-based advocacy group for Christians and other religious minorities in the Middle East.

Pointing out that other governments and leaders have already moved in favor of a genocide designation, including the European Parliament and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Ms. Olney adds, “This administration is really behind on this issue.”

In recent comments the administration had indicated its reluctance to embark on the genocide path. Designating genocide “involves a very specific legal determination that has, at this point, not been reached,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said earlier this month. Kerry recently told a congressional hearing that the issue of Christian genocide at the hands of IS “only reached my desk a couple of weeks ago” – even though, as supporters of a genocide designation like to point out, Mr. Kerry had asserted at another congressional hearing on Iraq in August 2014 that IS’s “acts of violence bear all the warning signs and hallmarks of genocide.”

In recent weeks some religious leaders and genocide experts said their discussions with administration officials suggested the administration might stop short of a finding of genocide, based on evidence that the persecution of Christians, as abhorrent as it may be, does not clearly constitute genocide.

One administration argument the advocates heard is that IS appears to recognize Christians as “people of the book” by taxing them as non-Muslims under an old Islamic system known as “jizya.” That is not the same as eradicating a people for their religious beliefs, some officials have argued.

But supporters of a genocide designation said such an argument is objectionable because it appears to find justification for IS actions – and also because it fails to take into account what has happened to Christians who paid “jizya” but then were unable to continue paying.

In a lengthy report on the genocide question released last week by the Knights of Columbus, a national Catholic organization, and the IDC, the two groups concluded from interviews with victims, refugees, and religious leaders from the region that “jizya” was often a “prelude to killings, kidnappings, rapes, and the dispossession of the Christian population.”

The White House also appeared to be wary as well that a genocide designation would put additional pressure on the US to take steps to protect the geographically dispersed Christian population under IS control. Former President Bill Clinton famously rebuffed calls to label events in Rwanda in 1994 as genocide, because he was convinced doing so would require him to take military action.

Administration critics have insisted that military action was not the objective of the genocide push. But to some degree the campaign for a “genocide” designation has appeared to be aimed at Mr. Obama’s foreign policy generally and his strategy against IS in particular – both of which are viewed as limp and overly cautious by Obama critics.

Last week Nebraska Republican Sen. Ben Sasse told the Monitor that a widely favorable congressional vote on IS committing genocide in the Middle East would have “real implications for what a recovery of foreign policy in the next administration looks like.”

But others say the genocide designation is not primarily about a future US foreign policy but about rescuing the Middle East’s Christian population now.

“The Christian population [in Iraq] has gone from 1.4 million to less than 300,000 in a matter of a few short years, with thousands killed and ancient Christian villages systematically targeted and destroyed, ” says Hudson’s Shea. “At that rate, there soon won’t be a Christian population to worry about.”

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