The power of precise language was on full display Thursday morning, when Secretary of State John Kerry announced that the United States believes ISIS is carrying out genocide against Arab Christians, Yazidis, Shia Muslims, and other religious minorities as it blazes a horrific trail of violence across Syria and Iraq. Kerry was explicit in his assertion that ISIS, which he referred to by the derogatory title “Daesh,” was a genocidal entity.
“In my judgement, Daesh is responsible for genocide against groups in areas under its control including Yazidis, Christians, and Shia Muslims,” Kerry said. “Daesh is genocidal by self-proclamation, by ideology, and by actions. In what it says, what it believes, and what it does.”
The announcement came just days after the House of Representatives unanimously passed a non-binding resolution accusing ISIS of actively committing genocide against several religious minorities, demanding the State Department publicly declare the group genocidal. The bill was a rare moment of bipartisan agreement within America’s infamously gridlocked Congress, with supporters that included deeply liberal Democrats and conservative evangelical Christian leaders such as Tony Perkins, head of the right-wing Family Research Council.
"Now words need to be backed up with actions so that the international community not only speaks with one voice but works to isolate ISIS and those facilitating their reign of terror,” Perkins said of Kerry’s announcement on Thursday.
Taken at face value, the statements from Kerry and Perkins appear obvious. ISIS’s horrific tactics have been covered extensively by a number of media outlets, especially their penchant for offering Christians under their rule a choice between paying a tax, converting to their widely discredited religion of hate, or being slaughtered in cold blood — often by decapitation. ISIS also garnered significant attention in 2014 when their soldiers threatened to extinguish an entire community of Yazidis (an ancient religious minority in Iraq) and force any women they didn’t kill into sex slavery — a gruesome threat that has since become an unspeakable reality for an as yet unknown number of Yazidi women and girls. All this in addition to destroying Christian churches, sacred sites, and Shia mosques in an effort to erase any trace of religion other than their own.
But Kerry’s announcement wasn’t about rehashing the ever-growing number of atrocities committed by ISIS minions. It was about using a very specific — and highly controversial — word to describe their actions: genocide.
Although seemingly simple in concept, genocide has a long and complicated history in international politics. After the planet bore witness to the massacre of Armenians in modern-day Turkey during World War I and the systematic murder of 6 million Jews during the Holocaust, the newly-formed United Nations convened in 1958 to adopt the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. The treaty, which is ratified or acceded by 147 states as of 2015, requires that all participating countries promise to “prevent and to punish” those responsible for genocide in their lands, whether carried out in war or in peacetime. It also details examples of acts that could constitute genocide as long as they are “committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.”
Kerry cited this particular definition during his speech on Thursday, drawing a clear connection to ISIS’s actions.
"One element of genocide is the intent to destroy an ethnic or religious group in whole or in part," he said. “[ISIS’s] entire world view is based on eliminating those who do not subscribe to its perverse ideology."
The accusation is highly unusual: the United States has only wielded the designation of genocide six times in its history — most recently to condemn the killings of people in Darfur in 2004. Even then, a secret memo sent from the State Department to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee insisted that the moniker had “no immediate legal — as opposed to moral, political or policy — consequences for the United States.”
Growing global outrage over ISIS’s worship of violence could make this time different, although it’s even rarer for the international community to agree on an instance of genocide. Since the treaty was created, the United Nations has utilized the international law only twice — once to try and convict leaders who played a role in the Rwandan genocide in 1998, and later to rule that Serbia had failed to prevent the Srebrenica genocide that occurred in 1997. In fact, arguments still abound over whether or not the mass killing of Armenians during World War I — which helped spark creation of the treaty in the first place — “counts” as genocide, since labeling it as such would have political implications for Turkey (to this day, no sitting American president has officially classified the slaughter as a genocide).
The reticence surrounding the classification — especially for an ongoing conflict — is largely because using the term implicitly equates an existing atrocity with the Holocaust, which had profound cultural and political implications for the entire planet (e.g., recognition of Germany’s horrors against the Jewish people helped galvanize support for the creation of Israel). If the international community agrees that ISIS’s actions are as bad as something like Germany’s “final solution” or the Rwandan genocide, then there is global moral (and legal) compulsion to act.
Thus, Kerry accusing ISIS of enacting the international definition of genocide is likely a strategic move — it allows for the possibility of involving the U.N. Security Council, which could broaden and intensify the international effort to contain ISIS. It’s important, for instance, that Kerry described the victims of ISIS’s genocide as more than just Christians, but also other religious minorities in Syria and Iraq such as Shia Muslims.
Time will tell whether America’s use of the term will be enough to garner additional administrative and military support to tackle ISIS. But as Kerry pointed out on Thursday, calling out ISIS for committing “the worst” of all crimes can at least afford the victims some semblance of catharsis.
“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,” Kerry said.