ISIS, genocide, and international inaction

(Alice Martins/For The Washington Post)

The sister of Salam Mukhaibir collapses as her brother’s body arrives at a Yazidi temple near Iraq’s Mount Sinjar. The 18-year-old was killed in clashes against peshmerga forces in Khana Sour. (Alice Martins/For The Washington Post)

A year ago, I wrote a short blog for Stop Genocide Now that made note of the significant move that ISIS had been declared “genocidal” by the United States. On March 17, 2016, then U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry stated, “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.” The statement was made in reference to the genocide committed against groups in areas under the control of ISIS, including Yazidis, Christians, and Shia Muslims. This was especially significant because it was only the second time that the U.S. government had used the term “genocide” in reference to an on-going situation (the first being Darfur in 2004).

At the time, this seemed like a landmark statement and possibly motivation for real action. There was little knowledge of what may happen as a result of this recognition of genocide, but it perhaps gave the victims some hope that someone, somewhere, had recognized that what was happening was not within the normal rules of warfare. At the very least, it appeared as though ISIS would be referred to the UN Security Council for action by the International Criminal Court (ICC).

One year later, and any hope must now be in tatters. Civilians are still being slaughtered, refugees continue to flee the affected areas, and attacks in Aleppo, Mosul, and of course many other areas, remain daily news. It appears as though the international community is fatigued, and the lack of practical action is symbolic of the lack of real progress that can be made. Moreover, any attempts by the UN or ICC to address the actions perpetrated by ISIS through legal channels face stumbling blocks and complicated questions of cross-border jurisdiction. To date, any legal efforts against ISIS have focused on individual actors in specific countries, such as individuals returning from fighting abroad or individuals being detained prior to traveling to fight with ISIS. In part due to the cross-national nature of ISIS-controlled territory, the ICC is struggling to assess how to deal with the crimes. The ICC was established with the aim of addressing state atrocities, not necessarily non-state militant actors who control swathes of territory. Thus, they have been challenged by this case.

The current U.S. administration’s lofty aim to “defeat ISIS” does not reflect the practical realities of life in ISIS-controlled territories. It also ignores the complexities of this long-running conflict. The U.S. Congress should take the first steps towards actually helping the victims of ISIS by reintroducing Resolution H.R. 390, which calls for the provision of emergency aid for the victims of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity in Iraq and Syria. This would be but a first step toward the ending of the genocide, and should be reinforced by legal and practical action to end civilian suffering.

Throughout history, there are scores of examples of forgotten conflicts and of victims who do not receive the justice they deserve. We are at a unique time now, the term “genocide” has been used while crimes are still being committed and the world is able to see the atrocities perpetrated through television, newspapers and social media. There should be no reason that this genocide is added to the lengthy list of those forgotten, or that the victims should not receive justice.

Anna Gopsill

Anna was awarded a Masters in Holocaust and Genocide studies from the University of Amsterdam in 2014. She currently writes and researches for Stop Genocide Now with a specific interest in sexual violence, transitional justice and how genocide is perpetrated.

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