DEC 23, 2016.
Around Christmas 2015, numerous voices within the international community raised their concerns that the persecution of Christians, Yazidis and other religious minorities in Syria and Iraq reached the threshold of "genocide" under international law. The movement was highly visible in the United States, led by the Knights of Columbus, followed by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, the president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention Russell Moore, and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. Despite growing consensus on the issue in the United States, the U.S. Government has remained silent for months.
Europe, however, has witnessed a markedly different response to the same legal question: The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) and the European Parliament (EP) adopted resolutions recognizing the persecution against Christians as genocide on January 27 and February 4, respectively. The PACE resolution condemned the Daesh atrocities as genocide and called upon the member states to "act on the presumption that that Da’ish commits genocide and should be aware that this entails action under the 1948 United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide." The resolution further emphasized the states’ obligation to prevent genocide including preventing their nationals from participating in the genocidal acts. The EP resolution urged "the members of the UN Security Council to support a referral by the Security Council to the International Criminal Court (ICC) in order to investigate violations committed in Iraq and Syria by the so-called "ISIS/Daesh" against Christians, Yazidis and religious and ethnic minorities."
Subsequently, on March 17, 2016, the U.S. Department of State recognized that Daesh’s atrocities against Christians, Yazidis and other religious minorities in the Middle East amounted to genocide. As U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry announced, the government determined that Daesh’s crimes met the threshold of genocide under international law: "Daesh is genocidal by self-proclamation, by ideology and by actions. What it says, what it believes, and what it does." The UK Parliament followed that recognition a month later. On April 20, 2016, the UK House of Commons unanimously passed a motion recognizing the Daesh genocide and calling upon the government to table a UN Security Council resolution referring the situation in Syria and Iraq to the ICC.
Although the long-awaited recognitions of Daesh genocide were significant, actions did not follow. On the contrary, June 2016 brought some developments that took away the hope for decisive steps from persecuted Christians in the Middle East. On June 16, 2016, the International Independent Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, a United Nations body, released a report, They Came to Destroy: ISIS Crimes Against the Yazidis, confirming that the atrocities against the Yazidis amounted to genocide. Christians were not considered in the report at all (apart from a brief reference to Christian groups in one paragraph of the lengthy report). While the Commission indicated its intention to consider the Daesh atrocities committed against Christians, half a year later, this has not been done yet.
The report of the Commission was not irrelevant. It was the first UN report that clearly recognized the Daesh atrocities as genocidal. The report has also caused some movement to help the victims, especially in Canada. On June 16, 2016, Minister of Foreign Affair Stephane Dion made a statement at the Canadian House of Commons confirming Canada’s recognition of Daesh genocide of the Yazidis. Dion called upon the UN Security Council to undertake urgent actions. Canada indicated that it would be sending a fact-finding mission to Iraq to establish the best practices of how to help the Yazidis in Iraq. In October 2016, the Canadian House of Commons unanimously passed a motion recognizing the Daesh genocide against the Yazidis and calling upon the government to open the doors for the Yazidi refugees within the following four months. Christians were not included again. From the point in time of releasing the report, the previously common efforts to recognize Daesh genocide against Christians, Yazidis and other religious minorities, shifted into a movement focusing on Yazidis only. This was also visible during the UN Forum of Minority Issues in November 2016. This trend continues.
Do we have any good news for religious minorities in the Middle East this Christmas? Despite some positive steps taken by a few states, including Canada to help Yazidis and Hungary pledging help for Christians, this is yet a minority response. The rest of the world continues to watch on and discuss whether this is genocide or not. While the genocide survivors are still awaiting decisive steps to help their critical situation, additionally no steps have been taken to bring the perpetrators to justice. No legal steps have been taken to investigate the crimes and prosecute the perpetrators.
(Image courtesy of the writer)
On April 8, 2015, the ICC prosecutor refused to initiate preliminary examinations into the atrocities committed by Daesh foreign fighters, despite the fact that the ICC would have personal jurisdiction over the foreign fighters that are nationals of state parties to the Rome Statute. The ICC prosecutor claimed to have too narrow jurisdiction. The ICC prosecutor indicated that the UN Security Council could confer the required jurisdiction onto the ICC. However, over the last 20 months, the UN Security Council has not attempted to exercise its right to do so.
In September 2016, the UK, Belgium and Iraq called for cooperation in the fight against Daesh impunity. However, despite time passing by, there is still no indication of what mechanism will be chosen to prosecute the Daesh perpetrators. Will it be an ad hoc tribunal as for Bosnia and Rwanda? A national option as for Cambodia? Or a regional mechanism as for Somalian piracy cases? There is also no information on how the negotiations are progressing or whether they are progressing at all.
Despite the fact that since last Christmas, the world has seen many positive developments to recognize the Daesh atrocities as genocidal, we are still far from telling the persecuted minorities that their future will be bright. We also do not have good news for Christians in the Middle East that they will not be forgotten or that there is a future for them in the Middle East. Actions are urgently needed before the hope is gone. These actions are long overdue.
- Ochab is a Ph.D. candidate and author of 'Never Again: legal Responses to a Broken promise in the Middle East.