The U.S. House of Representatives has overwhelmingly passed, by a 383-to-0 vote, a bipartisan resolution declaring that systemic violence committed by Islamic State (IS) against Christians, Yazidis, Kurds and other ethnic and religious minorities in Iraq and Syria constitutes genocide.
The resolution calls on all governments — including the United States — to "call ISIL [IS] atrocities by their rightful names: war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide."
The resolution was sponsored by Republican Rep. Jeff Fortenberry of Nebraska and Democratic Rep. Anna Eshoo of California, and had 200 co-sponsors from both parties.
Fortenberry spoke Monday on the House floor, saying the measure rises above partisan politics because IS’s killing of civilians and destruction of churches, temples and monasteries is a threat to civilization itself.
Fortenberry, who said he represents the largest Yazidi community in America in Lincoln, Nebraska, said the resolution is more than just symbolic.
"A genocide designation will raise international consciousness and compel the international community of responsible nations to act, setting the preconditions for the reintegration of ancient ethnic groups and faith traditions into their ancestral homelands," he said.
The measure outlines IS atrocities against Christians and other groups, including "mass murder, crucifixions, beheadings, rape, torture, enslavement and the kidnapping of children." It says those acts are deliberately calculated to eliminate those religious and ethnic communities from the so-called Islamic State caliphate the group has declared across parts of Iraq and Syria.
Democratic Representative Brad Sherman of California also supported the resolution.
He said the most significant thing the United States is doing to defeat IS is conducting airstrikes. Those airstrikes are limited by the rules of engagement, he said, and the U.S. has to be prepared to hit strategic targets such as convoys if it wants to defeat IS. The international community has to work together diplomatically and militarily to stop IS, Sherman said.
Pressure on administration
The vote on the resolution comes just three days ahead of a deadline set by Congress for Secretary of State John Kerry to deliver the Obama administration's decision on whether it will declare that IS atrocities in Iraq and Syria constitute genocide.
Administration officials said the decision will come soon, but added that Kerry may not meet the March 17 deadline set by Congress.
Appearing before Congress last month, Kerry said the determination "has to be done on the basis of the legal standard with respect to genocide and the legal standard with respect to crimes against humanity."
A determination by the State Department has potential legal consequences. This would only be the second time a U.S. administration has declared genocide while a conflict is ongoing — the first time was in 2004, in Sudan's Darfur region.
The House vote is intended to increase the pressure on the Obama administration to make a decision as lawmakers and religious leaders become increasingly impatient.
The House also passed by a 392-to-3 vote a resolution condemning the "gross violations of international law amounting to war crimes and crimes against humanity" by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime, its allies and other parties to the Syrian conflict.
It calls on President Barack Obama to promote the establishment of an international war crimes tribunal to address those crimes.