- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 17, 2016

Secretary of State John F. Kerry’s declaration that the Islamic State is engaged in a genocide against Christians and other religious minorities in Syria and Iraq met with wide approval Thursday, but major questions loom over whether the designation will result in any serious move by the Obama administration to stop the carnage.

While pro-Christian groups hailed Mr. Kerry’s designation, the first by the U.S. government since the George W. Bush administration declared a genocide was underway in Sudan’s Darfur region in 2004, there was uncertainty over the extent to which it has any real legal or military implications for the war against the Islamic State — or was a purely political and rhetorical move by an administration on the defensive for allowing the terrorist group to thrive.

By most estimates, 1.5 million to 2 million Christians of various denominations lived in Iraq in 2003. Today, there are fewer than 300,000, and Christian groups say they are under increasing threat of extinction from a region where they have lived for two millennia.

A report last week by the Knights of Columbus — the world’s largest Catholic fraternal organization — found that 1,100 Christians have been killed in Iraq since 2003, targeted first by al Qaeda in Iraq and Shiite militia groups and more recently by the Islamic State.

Administration officials rejected the idea that politics played a role in Mr. Kerry’s genocide call, despite mounting pressure from outside groups and Capitol Hill in recent weeks.

“I want to be clear,” Mr. Kerry told a State Department briefing Thursday. “I am neither judge, nor prosecutor, nor jury with respect to the allegations of genocide, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing by specific persons.”

“Ultimately,” the secretary of state said, “the full facts must be brought to light by an independent investigation and through formal legal determination made by a competent court or tribunal.”

If recent history is any indication, the effects on the Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL, will take years to play out.

As secretary of state in 2004, Colin L. Powell made the Darfur declaration. He acted only after State Department attorneys advised him that the declaration would not obligate the U.S. to take any action to stop the genocide.

According to The Associated Press, department attorneys determined at the time that the 1948 U.N. convention against genocide did not require nations to prevent genocide from taking place outside of their territory.

State Department officials suggested that Mr. Kerry received similar legal advice — that the Islamic State had carried out “genocide against groups in areas under its control, including Yazidis, Christians, and Shia Muslims.”

“Naming these crimes is important, but what is essential is to stop them,” Mr. Kerry said.

Pressure from the Hill

Several members of Congress applauded the Obama administration’s decision.

Lawmakers included a provision in the omnibus spending bill passed late last year mandating the State Department to declare by March 17 whether or not a genocide had occurred.

The House on Monday approved on a 393-0 vote a resolution declaring that the atrocities targeting Christians and other religious and ethnic minorities in the Middle East constituted genocide.

“The administration made the right decision,” Rep. Vern Buchanan, Florida Republican, said Thursday. “ISIS is the face of evil, and there is no room for equivocation. Their actions clearly constitute genocide.”

But House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Edward R. Royce, California Republican, said President Obama must now “step up and lay out the broad, overarching plan that’s needed to actually defeat and destroy ISIS.”

“This administration’s long pattern of paralysis and ineffectiveness in combating these radical Islamist terrorists is unacceptable,” he said.

Some legal observers said Mr. Kerry’s declaration was a key step toward the eventual prosecution of the Islamic State’s leader via international trials comparable to what Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic faced in The Hague after the collapse of his country.

The former Serbian leader, who was charged by the U.N. International Criminal Court with “complicity in genocide” against Bosnian Muslims, died in 2006 while still on trial.

Douglas H. Napier, the senior counsel and executive director of Alliance Defending Freedom International, which pushed for the amnesty declaration, called Thursday’s development “an important first step in the necessary process by the [U.S.], the U.N. and the international community to stop the atrocities against Christians and other religious minorities in Syria and Iraq and bringing the perpetrators to justice.”

“Once it is recognized that genocide is happening, the 147 countries who are party to the U.N. Genocide Convention, including the U.S., have an obligation to do all they can to bring the killing of innocent people to an end,” Mr. Napier said in a statement.

Others pointed to more immediate U.S. policy implications.

“For the Obama administration to use the genocide label, it must consider the ways in which it — and the international community — can do more to protect religious minorities,” said Robert McKenzie, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World.

“In the immediate and short term, I think, the rhetorical power of the label will certainly impel the U.S. government to fashion a more comprehensive policy for helping to protect Christians and other minorities being targeted and persecuted by ISIS,” Mr. McKenzie said in an interview.

“For example, it could have implications for larger numbers of religious minorities being resettled as refugees to the U.S. and other Western countries,” he said. “In the mid- to long run, after areas have been liberated and there is peace, the international community will need to provide additional support to repair infrastructure and help displaced persons and refugees return home, all of which will require a significant amount of resources and coordination by the international community.”

Andrew Walther, vice president of media, research and development for the Knights of Columbus, acknowledged uncertainty over the next steps.

“The questions now are, how do you stop the killing and how do you create a situation in the region where the rights of minorities are protected and respected?” Mr. Walther said.

“One thing is stopping the killing and the other thing is bringing the perpetrators to justice, and both of those are important,” he said.

“The fact is, the first right step has been taken,” Mr. Walther said. “Now the details have to be worked out.”

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