National Security & Defense

Genocide: The Weight of a Word

The State Department at last has recognized ongoing genocide at the hands of ISIS. What comes next?

Rwanda’s soil was soaked in the blood of genocide in the spring of 1994. The mass slaughter of Tutsi and moderate Hutu by members of the Hutu majority that spanned April to June resulted in the loss of life of nearly 70 percent of the Tutsi population and 11 percent of Rwanda’s total population.

Former President Bill Clinton later called our nation’s failure to intervene in Rwanda one of his biggest regrets of his administration. In March 2013, Clinton said he believed that marginal U.S. intervention at the beginning of the genocide might have saved at least 300,000 lives.

As a nation, we have failed at times to respond with moral courage in the face of an ongoing genocide. Reason is often overrun by political machinations, and clarity of facts is obscured where political will is lacking. Politics can too easily take precedence over the lives of the most vulnerable of people, even those facing the atrocity of genocide.

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But the past need not become prologue. And this week, Congress and the Obama administration took a step to ensure it doesn’t. 

Christians, Yazidis, and other religious minorities are facing a genocide at the hands of ISIS.

In early August 2014, Secretary of State John Kerry noted that the campaign by Islamist militants in Iraq showed “all the warning signs of genocide.” In the year following, the administration struggled to conjure political will in the face of the growing human-rights catastrophe. Despite a mounting international consensus that a genocide was ongoing, including from some of America’s strongest allies, Kerry told Congress in late February 2016 that the administration’s consideration of the crimes committed by ISIS was inconclusive. Kerry claimed to have been briefed on the question of Christian genocide for the first time only a few weeks earlier, and the administration felt that it was still lacking the necessary evidence to make a designation. Non-governmental organizations swiftly moved to fill the gap, providing that information. And the evidence was overwhelming.

Last week, the Knights of Columbus and In Defense of Christians, the organization I help to direct, submitted to Secretary Kerry a nearly 300-page report relating irrefutable evidence of the ongoing genocide of the Christian community in Iraq and Syria under ISIS. The report chronicles the names of over 1,100 Christians known to be murdered by the terrorist group (the real number of dead is undoubtedly higher, while many more are missing); 125 destroyed Christian churches, schools, and monasteries; price menus for Christian and Yazidi women and girls for sale in the ISIS sex-slave trade; stories of rape, mass murder, beheadings, and crucifixions of the Christian community; the abduction of nuns and religious leaders; and a long accumulation of ISIS propaganda promising its intent to eradicate from the land a nearly 2,000-year-old Christian heritage and community. And in the days since the report was submitted, further evidence continues to pour in from the region. Last weekend, ISIS released a video purporting to show members of its religious police burning hundreds of Christian books in a furthered attempt to erase all traces of Christianity from the land.

On March 14, Congress passed, by a historic, unanimous 393–0 vote, House Continuing Resolution 75, recognizing the ongoing genocide of Christians, Yazidis, and other religious minorities under ISIS.

Seven days later, Secretary Kerry followed suit. “Daesh is genocidal by self-proclamation, by ideology, and by actions,” Kerry said. “We must recognize what Daesh is doing to its victims.”

A genocide designation from the United States is important, first and foremost, because the communities laid waste by these crimes deserve that their stories be told — not as a historical fact, not in the aftermath, but in real time. If an entire population is targeted for eradication — including culture, history, and languages — the world should know.

Islamic extremists continue to bleed the Middle East of the rich cultural heritage of ethnic and religious diversity spanning two millennia. The moral weight of the word “genocide” sends a message to the world about the scope of the barbarism of these crimes. It makes clear that the existence of entire communities and cultures hangs in the balance.

In the past, acknowledging genocide has proven to mobilize public conscience, galvanizing the international community to overcome political hurdles and swiftly deliver aid and protection.

Contrary to popular fears, the possible American response to genocide is not narrowly confined to military intervention.

Second, the designation is important because it helps ensure that the rights and needs of the victimized communities are not overlooked in shor-t and long-term domestic and international policies.

Contrary to popular fears, the possible American response to genocide is not narrowly confined to military intervention. Responses can include refugee aid, expanded refugee asylum rights, economic sanctions for countries enabling genocide, protection and preservation of religious sites, international representation for Christian and other minorities in negotiations about their future, and the creation of internationally protected safe havens where displaced communities can return to their native land and once again thrive in a rebuilt economy. All of these tactics drive toward the goals of removing people from immediate danger, alleviating the suffering of communities and refugees, and ensuring the long-term aim to protect and preserve ancient communities in their rightful, ancestral homelands.

Finally, naming a genocide is important because it unites our voice to an internationally growing consensus. The European Union, Pope Francis, Hillary Clinton, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, and genocide scholars from around the world have all called the present-day eradication of Christians, Yazidis, and other religious minorities under ISIS a genocide. The United States cannot stand shamefully silent on the sidelines in face of such a growing human-rights tragedy.

Christians — once one of the largest religious minorities in the region — are losing their lives as the daily targets of ISIS. The images of their beheadings have been broadcast for the world to see. Hundreds of thousands of those who have survived are living as internally displaced persons and refugees in foreign lands. Having lost everything, and with little real support from the West, they are being condemned to a future without education, without medical care, without proper shelter, without enough food, without a home — a future without hope.

Pope Francis recently said: “Perhaps more than in the early days [Christians] are persecuted, killed, driven out, despoiled, only because they are Christians.” He continued: “Today too, this happens before the whole world with the complicit silence of many powerful leaders who could stop it.”

This week, Congress and Secretary Kerry made it clear to the world that the United States will not be among them.

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