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State Department Declares ISIS Attacks On Christians Constitute Genocide


Today, Secretary of State John Kerry declared that Islamic State attacks on Christians and other minorities constitute genocide. The House of Representatives and other organizations had already made that determination, but the State Department had to build a legal case. As NPR's Tom Gjelten reports, by saying the Islamic State is engaged in genocide, the U.S. could now be obligated to take additional actions against the group.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: Congress, three months ago, ordered the secretary of state to say whether genocide is occurring in the Middle East and gave them until today to make that determination. Just yesterday, a spokesman suggested that Kerry wasn't quite ready. But overnight, the secretary himself decided to go ahead and make the call. He referred to the Islamic State as Daesh for its initials in Arabic.


JOHN KERRY: In my judgment, Daesh is responsible for genocide against groups in areas under its control, including Yazidis, Christians and Shia Muslims.

GJELTEN: The Yazidis are an ancient religious minority in the Middle East. The Islamic State has singled them out for extermination. As a Sunni Muslim group, it has targeted Shia Muslims. It's also gone after Christians, though of the building a case that Christians, too, have been victims of genocide required gathering a lot of evidence.

International law defines genocide as actions committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, racial or religious group. Kerry says he now sees that all three groups have been victims of genocide.


KERRY: Daesh kills Christians because they are Christians, Yazidis because they are Yazidis, Shia because they are Shia. Its entire worldview is based on eliminating those who do not subscribe to its perverse ideology.

GJELTEN: The question now is - what does it mean for the U.S. government to declare that genocide is taking place? It's done so only five times since the United Nations approved the Genocide Convention in 1948. The U.S. most recently found that genocide occurred in Darfur. Such a declaration does bring obligations. Parties to the convention agree that genocide is a crime they will, quote, "undertake to prevent and to punish."

NAOMI KIKOLER: The clearest obligation is to punish.

GJELTEN: Naomi Kikoler is deputy director of the Center for the Prevention of Genocide at the U.S. Holocaust Museum.

KIKOLER: And what would it mean for the U.S. government to uphold that? It would mean that they would be, today, really redoubling efforts and committing to the documentation of the crimes on the ground.

GJELTEN: Because punishing the perpetrators of genocide means holding them accountable in a court of law. That means treating the battlefield as a crime scene and gathering evidence. But who would do all this? Secretary Kerry said today it's someone else's responsibility.


KERRY: I am neither a judge, nor a prosecutor, nor a jury with respect to the allegations of genocide, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing by specific persons. Ultimately, the full facts must be brought to light by an independent investigation.

GJELTEN: With the formal determination being made, he says, by a court, perhaps an international criminal tribunal. The responsibility to protect victims from ongoing genocide is not so clearly laid out in the convention. State Department officials say the U.S. military efforts in Syria and Iraq already have that goal. But Naomi Kikoler and other anti-genocide advocates are not so sure.

KIKOLER: We have people on the ground who are, on a daily basis, facing mass atrocities being perpetrated by the Islamic State, and bombing from the air doesn't necessarily do anything to protect those people.

GJELTEN: Of course, if more military action is to be taken in Syria or Iraq, Congress may want to weigh in. But with the House already unanimously on the record that genocide is occurring there, it may be awkward for members now to oppose any escalation of the war. Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Gjelten reports on religion, faith, and belief for NPR News, a beat that encompasses such areas as the changing religious landscape in America, the formation of personal identity, the role of religion in politics, and conflict arising from religious differences. His reporting draws on his many years covering national and international news from posts in Washington and around the world.
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