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U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry delivers a statement on Daesh and Genocide in the Press Briefing Room at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C., on March 17, 2016. [State Department/Flickr]

John Kerry's Righteous Genocide Designation and the Policy Challenges Ahead

Nina Shea

History was made today. Secretary of State John Kerry officially recognized that ISIS is waging genocide against Christians, Yazidis, and Shiites in the areas under its control. This is only the second time the U.S. government has condemned an ongoing genocide: In 2004, Secretary of State Colin Powell designated what was going in Darfur as genocide. And today’s declaration, as I wrote yesterday, almost didn’t happen — owing to resistance from some quarters.

Kerry’s announcement was a surprise, one that defied deliberately lowered expectations. There was a State Department notice just yesterday that any such designation required longer deliberation and wouldn’t be made in time to meet the March 17 congressionally mandated deadline. But at 9 a.m. Eastern, Secretary of State Kerry took to the podium and asserted: “In my judgment, Daesh is responsible for genocide against groups in areas under its control, including Yazidis, Christians, and Shia Muslims. Daesh is genocidal by self-proclamation, by ideology, and by actions — in what it says, what it believes, and what it does.”

This official American genocide designation is a critically important step. Genocide is internationally recognized as the most heinous human-rights offense. Legally, it is known as the “crime of crimes.” And while the Genocide Convention does not prescribe specific action to “prevent and protect” against genocide, the conscience does.

This designation will not only lift the morale of these shattered religious groups, it also has the potential of serving justice through the prosecution of those who aid and abet ISIS as fighters, cyber recruiters, financiers, arms suppliers, and artifact smugglers.

Military action is also important. Kerry discussed military measures that would help these victims of ISIS: “We are preparing for future efforts to liberate occupied territory — with an eye to the protection of minority communities. In particular, the liberation of Mosul, of Nineveh province in Iraq, and parts of Syria that are currently occupied by Daesh, and that will decide whether there is still a future for minority communities in this part of the Middle East. For those communities, the stakes in this campaign are utterly existential.”

But Pentagon action alone won’t be enough to preserve these besieged minorities. The genocide designation must also serve as a State Department policy platform to help the victims in several pragmatic ways, immediately and into the future. Here are just five examples of how genocide designation can be used to focus and prioritize State’s help for these minorities:

Refugee-resettlement visas: Christians from Syria have been grossly underrepresented in the numbers resettled in the U.S. from that country — only about 60 Christians and 1 Yazidi over five years of Syria’s conflict have been given U.S. resettlement visas. In Iraq, most of the Christians and Yazidis are displaced in Iraqi Kurdistan, where they do not have resettlement rights. Because they technically remain in Iraq, they cannot claim refugee status and therefore are not included in refugee-referral programs. This de facto discrimination must end for these genocide victims, many of whom are too traumatized to ever return to their homes. In the event that their areas are not liberated, they all will have to be resettled in the West.

Land and property restitution: These minorities lost their homes, businesses, and farms to ISIS, and others have now taken possession of them. Governments must be pressed to give priority recognition to titles of the genocide victims.

A place at the peace table: Christians are currently excluded from the Syrian peace talks, at which, eventually, borders will be redrawn and constitutions drafted. Their voices need to be included, lest they be marginalized in, or even shut out of, whatever replaces the old Syria.

Humanitarian aid: Many of these genocide victims are now displaced from their homes. They cannot seek shelter in U.N. camps, because those places are too dangerous for minorities — and therefore they must depend heavily on church and private relief. Even as donor fatigue sets in as the conflicts persist, U.S. aid programs must ensure that these genocide victims are not shortchanged.

Reconstruction aid: If and when they do return to their homes after the defeat of ISIS, the genocide victims will need help in reconstructing their houses, towns, and churches. America’s reconstruction aid to Iraq after the military surge was largely diverted away from the Christian areas by national and local governments. The U.S. government must recognize the specific challenges facing these minorities and provide greater and more direct help and greater transparency and oversight on their behalf. Secretary Kerry’s fine words, “What Daesh wants to erase, we must preserve,” cannot be made a reality without this.

These issues are urgent. The situation on the ground is dire. And the U.S. government will soon be in transition. A policy roadmap and action to implement it cannot wait.

In his announcement today, Secretary Kerry took pains to point out that he is “neither judge, nor prosecutor, nor jury with respect to the allegations of genocide,” and that a formal legal and judicial procedure will be needed. But his genocide designation today was a bold step, and he has the power, now, to make it a significant one.

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