WASHINGTON – U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Thursday declared that the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria is committing genocide against Christians and other minorities.
Kerry’s finding does not oblige the United States to take additional action against the militants and does not prejudge any prosecution against its members.
Kerry was acting to meet a congressional deadline. A day after the State Department said Kerry would miss the deadline, Kerry said he had completed his review and determined that Christians, Yazidis and Shiite groups are victims of genocide and crimes against humanity by Islamic State militants. The House earlier this week passed a nonbinding resolution by a 393-0 vote condemning Islamic State atrocities as genocide.
“In my judgment Daesh is responsible for genocide against groups in territory under its control” Kerry said, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State group.
“One element of genocide is the intent to destroy an ethnic or religious group, in whole or in part,” he said. “We know that Daesh has given some of its victims a choice between abandoning their faith or being killed, and that for many is a choice between one kind of death and another.
“The fact is that Daesh kills Christians because they are Christians; Yezidis because they are Yezidis; Shia because they are Shia.”
Kerry outlined a litany of atrocities that he said the militants had committed against people and religious sites, as well as threats. “Daesh is genocidal by self-acclimation, by ideology and by practice.”
“We know that in Mosul, Qaraqosh, and elsewhere, Daesh has executed Christians solely because of their faith; that it executed 49 Coptic and Ethiopian Christians in Libya; and that it has also forced Christian women and girls into sexual slavery.
“We know that Daesh massacred hundreds of Shia Turkmen and Shabaks at Tal Afar and Mosul; besieged and starved the Turkmen town of Amerli; and kidnapped hundreds of Shia Turkmen women, raping many in front of their own families.
He added, the group has made a “systematic effort to destroy the cultural heritage of ancient communities — destroying Armenian, Syrian Orthodox, and Roman Catholic churches; blowing up monasteries and the tombs of prophets; desecrating cemeteries; and in Palmyra, even beheading the 83-year-old scholar who had spent a lifetime preserving antiquities there.”
Saying that he was “neither judge nor prosecutor nor jury,” Kerry added that any potential criminal charges against the extremists must result from an independent international investigation. Kerry said the U.S. would continue to support efforts to collect evidence and document atrocities.
“I hope that my statement today will assure the victims of Daesh’s atrocities that the United States recognizes and confirms the despicable nature of the crimes that have been committed against them.”
Lawmakers and others who have advocated for the finding had sharply criticized the State Department’s initial disclosure Wednesday that deadline would be missed. U.S. officials said Kerry concluded his review just hours after that announcement and that the criticism had not affected his decision.
On Thursday, Republican congressman Jeff Fortenberry, the author of the House bill, commended Kerry’s decision.
“The United States has now spoken with clarity and moral authority,” Fortenberry, said in a statement. “I sincerely hope that the genocide designation will raise international consciousness, end the scandal of silence, and create the preconditions for the protection and reintegration of these ancient faith communities into their ancestral homelands. Christians, Yezidis, and others remain an essential part of the Middle East’s rich tapestry of religious and ethnic diversity.”
Kerry’s determination marks only the second time a U.S. administration has declared that a genocide was being committed during an ongoing conflict.
The first was in 2004, when then-Secretary of State Colin Powell determined that atrocities in Sudan’s Darfur region constituted genocide. Powell reached that determination amid much lobbying from human rights groups, but only after State Department lawyers advised him that it would not — contrary to legal advice offered to previous administrations — oblige the United States to act to stop it.
In that case, the lawyers decided that the 1948 U.N. Convention against genocide did not require countries to prevent genocide from taking place outside their territory. Powell instead called for the U.N. Security Council to appoint a commission to investigate and take appropriate legal action if it agreed with the genocide determination.
Kerry’s determination followed a similar finding by department lawyers.
Although the United States is involved in military strikes against the Islamic State group and has helped prevent some incidents of ethnic cleansing, notably of Yazidis, some advocates argue that a genocide determination would require additional U.S. action.
In making his decision, Kerry weighed whether the militants’ targeting of Christians and other minorities meets the definition of genocide, according to the U.N. Convention: “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group.”
A recent report from the Knights of Columbus and In Defense of Christians identified by name more than 1,100 Christians who, the groups said, had been killed by Islamic State. The report detailed numerous instances of people kidnapped, raped, sold into slavery and driven from their homes, along with the destruction of churches.