Kerry calls ISIS actions 'genocide.' Does the label matter?

The secretary of State declared Thursday that the atrocities of Islamic State qualify as genocide against Christians, Yazidis, and Shiite Muslims.

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
US Secretary of State John Kerry listens to President Obama speak at the Chief of Missions Conference at the State Department in Washington, Monday.

With the backing of Congress, Secretary of State John Kerry on Thursday condemned the actions of the terrorist group known as Islamic State (IS) as genocide against Christians and other minorities in Iraq and Syria.

The announcement is largely symbolic and carries no promise for action. It has been, however, long pushed for by human rights groups, and could inspire increased efforts in helping victims of the group.

In his review prompted by the House, Mr. Kerry said he had determined that Christians, Yazidis, and Shiite Muslims are victims of genocide, defined by United Nations as “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.”

Earlier this week, the US House of Representatives unanimously passed a non-binding resolution making the same declaration.

"In my judgment Daesh is responsible for genocide against groups in territory under its control" Kerry said. “Daesh” is the Arabic name for the Islamic State group, which is also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS.

"Daesh is genocidal by self-acclimation, by ideology and by practice,” he went on, outlining specific acts of violence IS has committed, against both civilians and historical and religious sites.

According to a recent report by the Knights of Columbus and In Defense of Christians, more than 1,100 identified Christians have been killed by Islamic State, and many more kidnapped, raped, sold into slavery, and driven from their homes. But a 2014 UN report found that in one year, IS killed 8,493 Iraqi civilians, a group that includes not only Christians but also Muslims.

Careful not to advocate for any more US action, Kerry added that criminal charges against IS must come from independent international investigations. The designation of the militants' killings as genocide can be seen as an implicit criticism of President Obama’s passive stance against them and a push for the White House to take more action, as the Monitor's Howard LaFranchi reported on Tuesday.

“Administration critics say military action is not the objective of the genocide push. But to some degree the ‘genocide’ designation does appear 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.”

Kerry's determination marks the second instance a US presidential administration classified an ongoing global conflict as “genocide.” In 2004, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell declared that atrocities in Sudan's Darfur region constituted genocide, but only after he was advised that making such statement would not obligate the US to take any specific action.

Kerry had initially missed the Wednesday deadline to make the declaration, imposed by Congress, for which he was criticized. But his eventual decision was well received.

On Thursday, Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R) of Nebraska, the author of the House bill, commended Kerry's decision.

"The United States has now spoken with clarity and moral authority," Mr. Fortenberry said in a statement.

"I sincerely hope that the genocide designation will raise international consciousness, end the scandal of silence, and create the preconditions for the protection and reintegration of these ancient faith communities into their ancestral homelands."

This report contains material from The Associated Press.

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