Beliefs Brian Pellot: On Freedom Culture Ethics Institutions Opinion

Do ISIS’s atrocities against Christians, Yazidis and Shias really amount to genocide …

A masked, black-clad militant, who has been identified by the Washington Post newspaper as a Briton named Mohammed Emwazi, stands next to a man purported to be Steven Sotloff in this still image from a video obtained from SITE Intel Group website February 26, 2015. The "Jihadi John" killer who has featured in several Islamic State beheading videos is Emwazi, a Briton from a middle class family who grew up in London and graduated from college with a degree in computer programming, the Washington Post newspaper said. In videos released by Islamic State (IS), the masked, black-clad militant brandishing a knife and speaking with an English accent appears to have carried out the beheadings of hostages including Americans and Britons. The Washington Post said Emwazi, who used the videos to threaten the West and taunt leaders such as President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron, was believed to have travelled to Syria around 2012 and to have later joined IS. British government sources and the police refused to confirm or deny the report, citing a live anti-terrorism investigation, a position mirrored by a spokeswoman for Cameron. REUTERS/SITE Intel Group via Reuters TV (CIVIL UNREST CONFLICT POLITICS SOCIETY) ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS PICTURE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. REUTERS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THE AUTHENTICITY, CONTENT, LOCATION OR DATE OF THIS IMAGE. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. THIS PICTURE IS DISTRIBUTED EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS. MANDATORY CREDIT - RTR4R9OY
(RNS1-JUNE 30) A portrait of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, leader of The Islamic State, is rendered on the wall of a building in St. Romain, France. For use with RNS-THE-ISLAMIC-STATE transmitted June 30, 2014. Creative Commons image by Thierry Ehrmann

(RNS1-JUNE 30) A portrait of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, leader of The Islamic State, is rendered on the wall of a building in St. Romain, France. For use with RNS-THE-ISLAMIC-STATE transmitted June 30, 2014. Creative Commons image by Thierry Ehrmann

The International Religious Freedom Roundtable, an informal group of multi-faith advocates in Washington, D.C., is calling on President Obama and U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to declare “that the Islamic State’s actions against religious and ethnic minority populations in the Middle East is genocide.”

Doing so could open new doors to military, diplomatic and humanitarian intervention by the international community, intergovernmental organizations and individual countries.

This latest call to declare ISIS’s atrocities “genocide” is being led by former U.S. Congressman Frank R. Wolf and his newly established 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative, a Christian organization that campaigns for international religious freedom.

In a fact sheet released last week, Wilberforce outlines how ISIS’s actions against Christians and Yazidis in Iraq constitute a “clearly-defined case of genocide” under Article II of the United Nations 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.

That’s the same criteria the International Criminal Court uses to prosecute crimes of genocide, defined as “any of the following acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group:

  • killing members of the group;
  • causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
  • deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
  • imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
  • forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”

In a report released in March, U.N. human rights investigators said many violations and abuses perpetrated by ISIS “may amount to war crimes, crimes against humanity and possibly genocide.”

In April, the International Criminal Court’s prosecutor Fatou Bensouda, whose office is responsible for the prosecution of such crimes, said the ICC has no territorial jurisdiction over crimes committed in Iraq and Syria because both states are not party to the ICC’s founding treaty, though foreign fighters could theoretically be prosecuted.

That punts responsibility to the U.N. Security Council, which would need to refer both countries to the ICC for investigations to begin. Joshua Keating at Slate points out that such a referral would be tricky given Russia’s support for Syrian forces, who could face prosecution along with other combatants in both countries.

Other Security Council member states could step in but probably won’t. A representative of the U.K. government said the ICC, not individual states, should decide what amounts to genocide. Bringing us back to square one.

To bypass this jurisdictional loop of political buck-passing, I went straight to more than a dozen experts who focus on international human rights law, religious freedom and genocide to get their take on whether ISIS’s atrocities amount to genocide and what should be done about it if so.

Charles Haynes

Charles Haynes, Director of the Religious Freedom Center at the Newseum Institute.

Charles Haynes, Director of the Religious Freedom Center at the Newseum Institute.

Director of the Religious Freedom Center at the Newseum Institute

“The term ‘genocide’ should be used sparingly, applied only when overwhelming evidence proves systematic persecution targeting religious and ethnic minorities. The world now has such evidence. The time has come for the U.N. and the U.S. to label the actions of ISIS ‘genocide.’ Declaring ISIS guilty of genocide raises the stakes for a world community where many actors, especially in the Middle East, have failed to do what will be required to defeat ISIS. If ISIS is committing genocide — and clearly it is — then all nations have a moral obligation to act immediately to stop these crimes against humanity.”

Lyal S. Sunga, Head of the Rule of Law Program at The Hague Institute for Global Justice

Lyal S. Sunga, Head of the Rule of Law Program at The Hague Institute for Global Justice

Lyal S. Sunga

Head of the Rule of Law Program at The Hague Institute for Global Justice

“Islamic State atrocities certainly appear to constitute genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. The world cannot afford to stand by while IS deliberately targets defenseless civilians for massacres, rape, torture and forcible expulsion, and that means that the U.N. Security Council has to take effective military action to prevent further violence and ensure that individual perpetrators are brought before the International Criminal Court. The world’s citizens deserve no less.”

Elizabeth Shakman Hurd

Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, associate professor of political science at Northwestern University.

Elizabeth Shakman Hurd

Associate Professor of Politics, Northwestern University

“In the widespread suffering of the people of this region, singling out particular communities for special protection is not the answer. Defining violence as ‘genocide’ is a political move—it isn’t an objective fact of the situation. It involves a political judgment that some victims are deserving of special protection, and it serves particular interests. The real political challenge facing the international community today: ending the violence against all civilians of the region, regardless of religion or ethnicity.”



Nina Shea

Director of Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom

“The Islamic State’s convert-or-die policy against Christians and Yazidis fits the legal definition of genocide. IS has the intent to eradicate the entire presence of these groups and has carried it out in part with the killing of men, enslavement of women and children, and the destruction of their churches and temples. Governments — including the U.S. and the U.N. — are reluctant to formally declare genocide because they would then be responsible for stopping it by, for example, giving asylum to these targeted groups. This is why I’m working in a private effort to find other states to take these horribly persecuted people. ”

Michael De Dora

Michael De Dora is director of CFI’s Office of Public Policy and represents CFI at the United Nations. He heads CFI’s Campaign for Free Expression, which launched in 2012 to increase public awareness of threats to this fundamental right.

Michael De Dora

President of the U.N.’s NGO Committee on Freedom of Religion or Belief and Director of Public Policy at Center for Inquiry

“Many, if not most, of ISIS’s crimes amount to genocide as broadly defined by the U.N. Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. ISIS’s campaign against Yazidis and Shiite Muslims — including persecution, enslavement, and outright extermination — quite clearly fits the U.N. definition. In addition, while ISIS’ actions against Christian minorities — including intimidation, oppression, coercion, and in some cases murder — are not necessarily aimed at outright extermination, they cause grave harm to Christian minorities and in the long-term are likely intended to effectively destroy their groups, which would qualify as genocide under the U.N.’s definition. That said, regardless of where one stands on this question, we should all strive to understand the fault-lines within ISIS’s various pogroms, as these differences may have significant consequences for the kind of action the international community can and should take to counter and liberate everyone under ISIS’s control.”

Greg Stanton

Greg Stanton

Gregory Stanton

Founding President of Genocide Watch

“Genocide is the intentional destruction in whole or in part of a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group.  ISIS’s mass murders of Chaldean Christians, Coptic Christians, Yazidis, Shia Muslims, and other groups that do not conform to ISIS’s fanatical definition of totalitarian false ‘Islam’ definitely meets even the strictest definition of genocide. ISIS leaders should be prosecuted in the International Criminal Court for their crimes. The U.N. Security Council should act swiftly and firmly, and follow-up with force to arrest ISIS leaders.”

Doug Johnston

Doug Johnston

Doug Johnston

President and Founder of the International Center for Religion & Diplomacy

“It seems clear that the so-called Islamic State (IS) has committed acts of genocide against the Yazidi population. Although it may be somewhat questionable that its actions toward Christians and Shi’a Muslims qualify as genocide in the strictest sense of the term, they certainly qualify as ‘crimes against humanity.’ However, unless more effective action is taken to stem the Islamic State’s behavior, it seems highly likely that these crimes against humanity will soon devolve into clear-cut cases of genocide.

There is an engrained reluctance among policymakers to label genocide for what it is because of the perceived increased moral requirement for taking international action to stop it (compared to that required for ‘war crimes’ or ‘crimes against humanity’). More often than not, nation-states do not have the political will, either singly or collectively, to address the problem.”

Robert P. George

Robert P. George

Robert P. George

Chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom

“The hallmark of genocide is the intent to destroy a national, racial, ethnic, or religious group, in whole or in part. ISIL’s intent to destroy religious groups that do not subscribe to its extremist ideology – particularly Yazidis and Christians, but also Shia Muslims and dissenting Sunni Muslims – in the areas it controls or seeks to control in Iraq and Syria is evident not only in its barbarous acts, but also in its own propaganda, which is easily found on the internet. This is why USCIRF recommended in our 2015 annual report that the U.S. government should call for or support a referral by the U.N. Security Council to the International Criminal Court to investigate ISIL’s atrocities against religious groups in Iraq and Syria.  President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry have called ISIL’s acts potentially genocidal, as have UN officials including U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid al Hussein. The United States and other countries also are working to counter ISIL militarily, but there still needs to be an international effort to bring ISIL to justice for its horrific crimes, including its acts of genocide.”

Elisa Forgey

Elisa Forgey

Elisa von Joeden-Forgey

Assistant Professor and Director of the Master of Arts in Holocaust and Genocide Studies Program at Stockton University

“In my opinion, ISIS is committing genocide against religious minorities and is a genocidal organization. The gendered pattern of persecution pursued by ISIS against groups it considers to be infidels conforms to well-known historical patterns of genocide, particularly the killing of men and teen boys alongside the rape and enslavement of women, teen girls and children. Forced conversion can also be a crime of genocide if it fits into a wider pattern of destroying group identity. The way ISIS seeks to govern in areas it has occupied—its pursuit of cultural purification, mutilation and murder of people considered to be apostates, attempts to control women’s bodies and the reproductive system, and enrichment through plunder—is typical of genocidal regimes.

The term ‘genocide’ is rarely used in public anymore, by officials and by the press, much to the detriment of human security in general. In part this stems from confusion around the definition of the crime. Many people do not understand that genocide is not merely mass killing and that patterns of genocide can be identified before we have mass graves. So there is a ‘leave it to the lawyers’ mentality in the international community when it comes to naming atrocity crimes. Moreover, naming something ‘genocide’ will always be controversial, and there is no incentive to do so if it is not clear what steps should be taken to address it or if the steps are considered to be too politically risky.

It serves nobody’s interest to ignore the term, since genocidal violence tends to radicalize and cross borders, leading to mass atrocity, mass trauma and mass displacement. States and international organizations should use the term forensically; doing so can help marshal resources and focus policy, leading to better short- and long-term outcomes. Certainly in terms of ISIS this needs to be done immediately.”

Samir Kalra

Samir Kalra

Samir Kalra

Senior Director and Human Rights Fellow at the Hindu American Foundation

“The systematic murder and enslavement of Yazidi and Christian minorities in the Middle East by ISIS constitute genocide under international law. The barbaric actions of ISIS have been accompanied by a clear intent to destroy Yazidis and Christians and entirely remove any trace of their religious presence and cultural heritage from the Middle East. Despite the complicated geopolitical situation in the region, the U.S. and the U.N. must take immediate steps to label this ongoing tragedy as a genocide and act accordingly in order to halt any further loss of innocent lives and stop the spread of ISIS’s hateful and draconian ideology.”

Alan Williams

Alan Williams

Alan Williams

Director of Congressional Affairs at Shia Rights Watch

“The term genocide is an accurate description of the actions taken by ISIS against groups such as Christians, Yazidis, and Shia Muslims. ISIS has embarked on a campaign to exterminate members of these groups both living in their territory and abroad. In 2015, Shia Rights Watch has recorded at least 30 violent attacks against Shia Muslims where ISIS has officially claimed responsibility. These numbers do not include the Speicher massacre, which reportedly killed 1,700 Shia Muslims last year, and other attacks where ISIS has not claimed formal responsibility.

It seems that the U.S. and the U.N. have been reluctant to declare the atrocities of ISIS as genocide because it would require greater action from the international community to stop them. Unfortunately, that has led to the continued suffering of ethnic and religious minorities in Iraq and Syria. It is for this reason that religious freedom organization have rallied around this cause.

Brian GrimBrian J. Grim

President of the Religious Freedom & Business Foundation

“ISIS actions clearly count as genocide. There is documented evidence of ISIS committing not just one, but several of the minimum types of acts to be classified as genocide of Yazidis as well as Christians: killing members of the group including children, causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group, and deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part.”


Bob Churchill

Bob Churchill

Bob Churchill

Director of Communications at the International Humanist and Ethical Union

“This is genocide. ISIS has been cornering, hunting down, and murdering or force-‘converting’ Yazidis, Christians, and Muslims who fall outside their narrow and anti-human conception of Islam. ISIS has been summarily murdering people perceived as gay or as committing ‘blasphemy’ or being ‘non-believers’ and anyone standing up to their zealotry. ISIS has been erasing our cultural heritage, ancient and modern, all on ideological grounds. ISIS has a clear and stated intent to impose a singular ideology through the eradication or so-called ‘conversion’ of all opposition. This is genocide.”

About the author

Brian Pellot

Brian Pellot is based in Cape Town, South Africa.


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  • This IS genocide, systematic slaughter and singling out. How sad the question is even asked.

  • “A rose by any other name …” There have been genocides declared before with lots of international outcry but very little action. Would the needed strategy against IS be somehow changed if their acts are officially declared “genocide” by a body authorized to do so? It seems to me the world is spending an awful lot of time overthinking this instead of facing it for what it is. We know of the atrocities not because of clever investigating but because IS wants the world to know what they’re doing. So what is left to do? We’ve been talking about IS since before President Obama referred to them as “JV”. We little people have little hope that much more will happen than what is already happening.

  • “Would the needed strategy against IS be somehow changed if their acts are officially declared “genocide” by a body authorized to do so?”

    Kinda. It would be far easier to mobilize UN forces to both combat IS and protect their victims. Plus it puts IS leaders on notice that their capture will lead to international tribunals.

    Btw Elizabeth Shakman Hurd’s answer was complete garbage. The only one of the group who wasn’t crystal clear that we are seeing genocide here. She is denying that genocide should ever be used to describe such situations. A way to denude genocide from its real meaning and impact by feigning concern for all forms of violence.

  • For once, I am in agreement with Larry. As for Hurd, just read her articles and see where she’s coming from. I find her views wrong-headed and even deplorable, you’ll find an icy consistency to them once you read her writings.

  • Do ISIS’s atrocities against Christians, Yazidis and Shias really amount to genocide? – Of course they do and all dictated by the koran.

  • And yet they are being protected by the Kurds. People who happen to be Muslim as well. In fact Kurds are the only combatants in the Syrian Civil War who have provided protection of religious minorities targeted by IS.