Under the omnibus bill passed in December, the State Department has until March 17 to speak on a declaration of genocide.
The debate over whether Christians should be included as genocide victims stems back to reports last fall that a genocide declaration by the State Department was imminent – but only Yazidis would be included as victims.
The reported omission was significant. “This has very serious consequences for the Christians, and there is ample evidence to show that they have suffered serious bodily harm, which is a standard in the genocide convention,” said Nina Shea, director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom.
Christians, she told CNA, “were inflicted serious bodily harm with the intent of eradicating them,” another standard for genocide under the U.N. convention.
The United Nations’ definition of genocide, as laid out in the 1948 convention on genocide, is actions taken with “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” The actions include murder, torture, birth prevention, and “deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part.”
ISIS atrocities committed against Middle Eastern Christians and other religious minorities meet this definition, advocates insist, and the word has significance.
If the U.S. declared that genocide was taking place against these minorities, it would put further pressure on the United Nations Security Council to issue a similar declaration. That could bring the next step of trying the perpetrators in the International Criminal Court.
Additionally, a genocide designation is important because it creates a legal – and moral – requirement for further action, Shea explained. The action doesn’t necessarily have to be military in nature, but it can involve granting refugee status to genocide victims and increasing their humanitarian aid.
The State Department was reportedly basing its limited genocide designation off a Holocaust Museum report “Our Generation Is Gone: The Islamic State’s Targeting of Iraqi Minorities in Ninewa,” or the Nineveh Plain in Northern Iraq. The museum led a fact-finding mission to Iraq in September of 2015 to investigate reports of genocide.
The mission never went to the actual Nineveh Plain, Shea said, but rather went to Iraqi Kurdistan and interviewed survivors of the ISIS onslaught. The report was quite “limited,” Shea insisted, both in its “locale” and its “time frame.” It only focused on ISIS activity on the Nineveh Plain in Northern Iraq between June and August of 2014.
As a result, while the report recognized atrocities committed against various ethnic and religious minorities, it only declared that the Yazidis around Mount Sinjar were victims of ISIS genocide.
“The self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS) perpetrated crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing, and war crimes against Christian, Yezidi, Turkmen, Shabak, Sabaean-Mandaean, and Kaka’i people in Ninewa province between June and August 2014,” the report stated.
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“We believe IS has been and is perpetrating genocide against the Yezidi people,” it added. “IS’s stated intent and patterns of violence against Shia Shabak and Shia Turkmen also raise concerns about the commission and risk of genocide against these groups and requires further investigation.”
Yet a growing consensus has emerged recognizing that genocide is being committed against Christians and other ethnic and religious minorities as well.
Both the European Union and the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom – a bipartisan federal commission that advises the State Department – have declared that genocide is taking place against these minorities.
Members of the International Association of Genocide Scholars signed an appeal to the U.S. Congress last fall saying that ISIS has committed genocide against Christians, Shi’a Muslims, Sunni Kurds, Yazidis, “and other religious groups.”
Pope Francis said in July that “a form of genocide is taking place” in the Middle East against Christians. Presidential candidates including Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton and Republicans Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio have also said that genocide is occurring.
Secretary of State John Kerry himself acknowledged it might be taking place in August of 2014. “ISIL’s campaign of terror against the innocent, including Yezedi and Christian minorities, and its grotesque and targeted acts of violence bear all the warning signs and hallmarks of genocide,” he stated.