On March 17, 2016, a landmark statement was made by the U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry who termed the atrocities committed by the Islamic State (ISIS) against the as ‘genocide.’ At a news conference at the State Department he stated, “My purpose here today is to assert in my judgment, [ISIS] is responsible for genocide against groups in areas under its control including Yazidis, Christians and Shia Muslims.” Kerry went on to say “Daesh [Arabic name for ISIS] is genocidal by self-proclamation, by ideology and by actions – in what it says, what it believes and what it does.”
This powerful statement has been a long time in the making and discussions regarding the nature of ISIS atrocities in the Middle East have been prevalent since early 2014. This decision by the Obama administration to declare that ISIS are perpetrating genocide follows increasing pressure from international organizations and influential people including the European Parliament, Pope Francis, the US House of Representatives, and the Iraqi government, among others. It marks the first time that the U.S. has declared genocide since Darfur in 2004, and only the second time in history that the U.S. has used the term in reference to an ongoing conflict.
Discussions regarding genocide are heavily weighted with legal, political, and social responsibility, therefore governments can be reluctant to declare that genocide is being perpetrated. One of the major issues now faced by the U.S. is whether they are now obligated to act to stop genocide and take further action against ISIS. At the very minimum, the statement will probably be accompanied by a referral to the UN Security Council for action by the International Criminal Court. In his statement, John F Kerry said that the US strongly supported a full independent inquiry into the atrocities being perpetrated but did not yet confirm how his declaration would affect US military and political involvement in areas occupied by ISIS. Although the practical action that will be taken remains to be seen and the important first step of defining the ongoing atrocities as genocide has been taken.
To learn more about that atrocities committed by ISIS against ethnic minorities, read the USHMM’s November 2015 report The Horror in Northern Iraq.
A Yazidi Iraqi refugee with his daughter. Photo credit: Ahmad al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty