The U.S. State Department is facing a congressionally mandated deadline to make a choice: Will the U.S. follow in the footsteps of the European parliament and a growing global consensus on telling the truth about the genocide of Christians and other religious minorities in Iraq and Syria?
L. Martin Nussbaum is a religious-liberty attorney in Colorado Springs. He serves as legal counsel for the Knights of Columbus and In Defense of Christians, which Thursday released a report of the evidence that what is happening is, in fact, a genocide. The report entitled Genocide against Christians in the Mideast is available here. Nussbaum is one of the lawyers who worked on the report’s legal brief and talks about it here. – KJL
Kathryn Jean Lopez: How clear is the genocide case?
L. Martin Nussbaum: It’s clear. ISIS has systematically targeted Christian communities in Iraq and Syria, killing or abducting thousands of Christians in those countries. In Iraq alone, 200,000 Christians have been displaced from their historic homeland on the Nineveh Plain. ISIS and its affiliates have wiped out almost every trace of Christian civilization there, destroying hundreds of churches and other holy sites, some dating back to the earliest centuries of Christianity. And ISIS is explicit about its goal: the total annihilation or subjugation of Christian people. “We will conquer your Rome, break your crosses, and enslave your women,” they have said. In light of the atrocities they’ve committed in the Middle East, Africa, Europe, and elsewhere, we should take them at their word.
This ongoing genocide has been recognized by 28 European countries, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Iraqi and Kurdish governments, major world leaders (including Chancellor Angela Merkel and Pope Francis), and U.S. presidential candidates of both parties. The United States government stands virtually alone in refusing to acknowledge the genocide.
Lopez: Why is naming it as genocide so important, when the policy implications aren’t clear at all?
The United States government stands virtually alone in refusing to acknowledge the genocide.
Nussbaum: First, it’s the truth. ISIS’s stated goal is the establishment of a “caliphate” and the eradication of all who refuse to submit to its warped vision, including Christians. Hence the genocidal atrocities we’ve seen in Iraq, Syria, and Libya. Second, the word “genocide” actually means something — morally, politically, and legally. The United States, like all signatories to the 1948 Genocide Convention, has an obligation to prevent and punish genocide. But, as our government’s own U.N. ambassador Samantha Power lays out in her groundbreaking book, “A Problem from Hell”: America and the Age of Genocide, the United States has historically dithered about genocide, refusing to acknowledge it even when it’s unfolding before our eyes. Why? Because to call it genocide means we have to do something about it. Critically, though, it doesn’t necessarily mean “boots on the ground.” As our report lays out, we’re asking for the State Department to recognize the ongoing genocide and to immediately take concrete — though at this point, relatively moderate — steps, including investigation and collection of evidence of genocide, referral to the U.S. Department of Justice and the United Nations Security Council for investigation and possible criminal indictments, and exploration of whether to set up a hybrid international criminal court to bring ISIS and other perpetrators to justice.
Using the word “genocide” also sensitizes the public and the international community to the plight of Christians and other religious minorities in the Middle East. In the long term, it may mean enhanced humanitarian assistance, preferential refugee status, and efforts to protect these ancient faith communities.
Lopez: How did you go about putting together the brief?
Nussbaum: It has been a massive fact-gathering exercise, and it continues. The Knights of Columbus and “In Defense of Christians” have contacts with religious leaders in the Middle East, with NGOs, and with individuals on the ground giving assistance to the victims. The Knights of Columbus sent its own fact-gathering team to Iraq to interview displaced Christians, many of whom are living in squalid, temporary camps in Iraqi Kurdistan. And our team here has been scouring publicly available sources, databases, and reports, bringing together everything we know about this genocide so far.
Lopez: Why did you mention that “probable cause” business?
Nussbaum: For months, we’ve heard that State Department lawyers are reviewing the evidence and the law. This has us concerned that they have too high a bar in mind – beyond a reasonable doubt, which is what is necessary for a criminal conviction. Under the law in this setting, the State Department is not acting as a criminal court, but more like a prosecuting attorney who only needs to satisfy a probable-cause standard.
The probable-cause standard also ties in with what we’re asking the State Department to do, and it makes it easier for State to act. We want the State Department to acknowledge what’s happening and open a formal investigation of genocide. Too often, politics and the fog of war hide what’s really going on in these conflicts. Sometimes, it’s years before we learn the scale and scope of atrocities committed by groups such as ISIS. Recognizing now that this is genocide cuts through all that. It puts the political gears in motion to end these atrocities, and it justifies, at the very least, a criminal investigation by the United States. There is probable cause right now to take that modest step. And the State Department should take it.
Lopez: Did anything surprise you?
We continue to be surprised by the utter savagery and depravity of ISIS. They are a scourge on this planet, the very embodiment of evil. They have to be stopped.
Nussbaum: We continue to be surprised by the utter savagery and depravity of ISIS. They are a scourge on this planet, the very embodiment of evil. They have to be stopped.
Lopez: Is there an image from your findings you might consider THE image for what’s happening?
Nussbaum: The image on the front of our report depicts the slaughter by ISIS of 21 Coptic Christians on a Libyan beach in February 2015. ISIS called the video depicting this massacre a “Message Signed With Blood to the Nation of the Cross.” Those 21 men were killed because of their faith, and they died with the name of Jesus on their lips.
Lopez: Why is this such an important point: The only job of the lawyers in the State Department and the White House is to determine if there is sufficient evidence to support a charge?
Nussbaum: It’s really a point about the burden of proof. At this stage, information is still pouring in. We don’t know everything that’s occurred and is still occurring in places such as Iraq, Syria, and Libya. But the evidence is more than sufficient to call it genocide, open an investigation, and send government teams to these areas to document the atrocities and gather the evidence. That’s what we’re asking for in this report.
Lopez: If you were in the State Department, what would trigger a new sense of urgency about the brief and accompanying report?
Nussbaum: The sheer scale of these atrocities. To date, no one has really gathered the facts and brought the evidence together in one place like the Knights of Columbus’ report does. We are continuing those efforts even now, and we’ll continue to gather this evidence until the government does something about it.
Lopez: You mention in the brief that it is short-sighted to not make the call on genocide. If you were counsel to the presidential candidates, what would you be advising them to say — they have a unique platform for education — and plan to do once in office?
Nussbaum: I would tell them that there are times when true leaders put aside all political calculus and do the right thing precisely because it is the right thing. I would tell them this is one of those times. They should join other political and religious leaders, scholars, and diplomats and call on the United States to model moral courage. International law calls genocide “the crime of crimes” for a reason. The EU countries and other world leaders have led on this issue. Our country needs to follow their lead. We have a moral and legal obligation to put an end to this genocide before Christian people in their historic birthplace are wiped out entirely. The United States cannot stand by, yet again, and passively witness the annihilation of a people.
Lopez: “Failure to act in circumstances like this one are disastrous, both morally and historically.” Why such conviction?
Nussbaum: As Ambassador Power lays out in her book, although the United States signed on to the 1948 Genocide Convention, government officials historically have avoided using the word “genocide.” In this way, Ambassador Power says, our government “can in good conscience favor stopping genocide in the abstract, while simultaneously opposing American involvement in the moment.” Such dithering has to stop. Lives are literally at stake. We cannot stand by while ISIS and other groups continue their ruthless campaign of massacres, rapes, and enslavement of Christians and other minorities. The opening lines of our report say it well: “[T]he history of genocide is written in the blood of its victims. . . . [T]heir blood cries out from the grave and the pages of history in protest against the geopolitical and legal hair-splitting of governments that should have intervened, but did not.” The world has heard these cries. It’s time for Secretary Kerry to hear them, too; to show moral leadership; and to increase U.S. efforts to stop this genocide.