Pressure is growing for the Obama administration to formally determine whether the Islamic State group is committing “genocide” against Christians, Yazidi and other religious and ethnic minorities in the Middle East.
The U.S. State Department faces a Thursday deadline set last year by Congress, whose lower House of Representatives on Monday will vote on a Republican-led resolution on the violence in Syria, Iraq and Libya.
Secretary of State John Kerry is said to be leaning toward the rare, fraught determination, according to The Associated Press, but likely will miss that deadline while awaiting the results of a legal review. Such a designation – which the United States previously has invoked just once during an ongoing conflict – carries unclear political and legal implications.
"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," Nebraska Republican Jeff Fortenberry said in a statement last week. He had introduced the House legislation in September.
A 1948 United Nations treaty on genocide requires signatories, including the United States, to "undertake to prevent and to punish” acts intended “to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group...."
In 2004, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell determined that the mass rape and slaughter in Sudan’s Darfur region was genocide. He reached that finding after State Department lawyers determined the United States was not legally compelled to prevent genocide occurring outside its own boundaries, the AP reported. Powell urged the U.N. Security Council to create a commission to investigate whether the crimes constituted genocide and to act accordingly.
Defining the legal standard
With a genocide determination against the Islamic State, Kerry also probably would refer the matter to the Security Council for possible prosecution by an international tribunal, according to the AP.
Kerry last month testified before Congress that the atrocities must meet the legal standard of genocide and that he’d asked State Department lawyers to evaluate and re-evaluate evidence. He promised a response "very, very soon."
Detailed report on atrocities
Last week, the international Catholic fraternal group Knights of Columbus and the U.S.-based nonprofit In Defense of Christians released a report citing witness accounts of atrocities such as beheadings, crucifixions, rapes and sexual enslavement.
The report listed 1,131 Christians killed in Iraq and 125 churches attacked there from 2003 to 2014, according to the Religion News Service. RNS noted support for the report's findings from groups such as Genocide Watch and the Hudson Institute.
An unnamed State Department official was quoted by RNS as saying that, "regardless of whether Da'esh’s conduct satisfies certain legal definitions, including genocide and crimes against humanity, the United States has been clear that our interest in accountability for perpetrators remains undiminished."