By The Guardian
The US House of Representatives has voted to call atrocities committed by the Islamic State against Christians and other religious minorities in the Middle East “genocide”, a move that could pressure the Obama administration to ramp up action in the fight against Isis.
The Republican-dominated House voted 383-0 on Monday in favor of a resolution to declare those who commit or support atrocities against Christians, Yazidis, and other ethnic and religious minorities, guilty of genocide.
But as calls to label the acts as genocide have grown across the world – the European parliament unanimously backed a resolution in favor of the designation last month – the Obama administration has hesitated to make such a declaration.
“Regardless of whether their conduct satisfies certain legal definitions, including genocide and crimes against humanity, the United States has been clear that our interest in accountability for the perpetrators remains undiminished,” a State Department spokesman, John Kirby, said hours before the vote.
The secretary of state, John Kerry, must declare whether or not the atrocities are considered a genocide by Thursday because of a deadline Congress wrote into the omnibus spending bill passed in December.
Kirby said Kerry is still evaluating evidence of the atrocities. “I’ll also just say that he has taken [this] very, very seriously and wants to make sure that whatever determination that he makes, it’s fact-based and that it’s adequately reflective of what we’re seeing on the ground,” he said.
Historically, the US has been reluctant to declare genocide because the UN’s 1948 convention on the prevention and punishment of the crime of genocide stipulates that if an act is deemed a genocide, then punishment is necessary by the signatories.
“If we call it something else – ethnic cleansing, mass atrocity – then punishment is not required under the law,” said Elisabeth Hope Murray, an assistant professor of security studies and international affairs at Embry-Riddle University.
Intervention is not mandatory under the convention, though that is how such a declaration has been interpreted over the past 70 years since it was enacted, Murray said.
Should the Senate vote in favor of the companion resolution, Congress will officially recognize the acts of Isis as genocide. This will test what constitutes recognition under the convention, especially if the White House and State Department continue to avoid calling it a genocide.
“It won’t lead to an automatic military response or a stronger diplomatic response, but it will definitely shed a light on Obama’s legacy,” said Kyle Matthews, senior deputy director of the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies at Concordia University.
Matthews said the resolution would put “enormous pressure” on Obama and have a significant impact on how the debate on action against Isis is framed “and highlight to other governments around the world that the fight against Isis is not only a security one but also one based on international human rights”.
The bipartisan resolution was introduced in September 2015 by Anna Eshoo, a Democrat from California and Jeff Fortenberry, a Nebraska congressman who represents the largest Yazidi population in the US.
The genocide resolution said that Christians and other ethnic and religious minorities “have been murdered, subjugated, forced to emigrate and suffered grievous bodily and psychological harm, including sexual enslavement and abuse, inflicted in a deliberate and calculated manner in violation of the laws of their respective nations, the laws of war, laws and treaties forbidding crimes against humanity”.
Though the White House and State Department are under increased pressure to make a decision on whether they classify the violent acts as genocide – they can also hold the decision until the next president takes over.
“Look, what’s happening to Christians in the Middle East in that area is horrific. What is happening to Muslims is horrific. It is disgusting,” Sanders said last week. “I don’t know that we have to put a word on it, but when you have a group, I mean, what can we say about these people.”
Senator Ted Cruz said in November that Isis is engaging in genocide against Christians. When asked about the violence inflicted on Muslims in the region, Cruz responded that, “they’re not facing genocide the way Christians are”.
His comment highlights concerns about the resolution’s emphasis on Christians.
“It doesn’t matter to some people in this country if you follow the Muslim faith and read in that faith a very peaceful teaching of the Prophet Muhammad,” said Murray. “To those people, even if there are Muslim groups that have been victimized, they don’t matter as much as the Christian groups that have been victimized.”
Mustafa Akhwand, executive director of Shia Rights Watch, told Politico he was concerned about State Department officials overlooking the danger faced by Shia Muslims in Syria and Iraq. “Kidnapping, killing, slaughtering, sexual abuse. Everything that other minorities are facing are faced by the Shiites, too, maybe worse,” Akhwand said.
The vote came less than a week after the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic fraternal organization, presented a 280-page report to the State Department which the group said shows evidence of a genocide against Christians and other religious minorities by Isis. From 2003 to 9 June 2014, 1,131 Iraqi Christians died in the region, according to the report.