WASHINGTON (Christian Examiner) – One day after a US State Department spokesman said Secretary of State John Kerry would miss the March 17 deadline imposed by Congress for deciding whether or not to declare the Islamic State guilty of genocide, Kerry made an abrupt about face and publicly condemned ISIS for the mass killing of Christians, Yazidis and other religious minorities.
In an early morning address, Kerry referred to ISIS by the term "Daesh" – an acronym for the Arabic name of the Islamic State. Daesh is, however, also a play on words. In Arabic it sounds very much like the derogatory word for "bigot" or "one who imposes his will over another."
Kerry said the United States had been combating ISIS since its rise in 2014, when it began to seize territory in Iraq and Syria. In September 2014, he said, President Obama assembled a coalition of 66 nations to help contain the movement and, where possible, reverse it. He claimed the US and its partners have pushed the militants out of 40 percent of the territory they once controlled in Iraq and 20 percent of what they controlled in Syria. He also said the U.S. is working to stop the spread of the radical group.
Kerry then said his purpose was to assert that, in his 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. Daesh is also responsible for crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing directed at these same groups and in some cases also against Sunni Muslims, Kurds, and other minorities."
The sudden act of recognizing the genocidal program of the Islamic State comes as a radical departure from the Obama administration's policy of delay.
Earlier in March, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said the president wasn't ready to call the actions of ISIS genocide because he wanted to sift through the rigorous legal requirements for the crimes. Even Kerry himself said he wasn't certain that the actions of the Islamic State met the legal definition of genocide.
Things changed, however, when the House of Representatives voted unanimously (393-0) March 14 to designate ISIS as a purveyor of genocide. Now, Kerry and the State Department are doing the same, citing the group's abuse of Yazidis, Shia and moderate Sunni Muslims, and Christians.
"We know that in Mosul, Qaraqosh, and elsewhere, Daesh has executed Christians solely because of their faith; that it executed 49 Coptic and Ethiopian Christians in Libya; and that it has also forced Christian women and girls into sexual slavery," Kerry said.
"We know that in areas under its control, Daesh has made a systematic effort to destroy the cultural heritage of ancient communities – destroying Armenian, Syrian Orthodox, and Roman Catholic churches; blowing up monasteries and the tombs of prophets; desecrating cemeteries; and in Palmyra, even beheading the 83-year-old scholar who had spent a lifetime preserving antiquities there."
"We know that Daesh's actions are animated by an extreme and intolerant ideology that castigates Yazidis as, quote, "pagans" and "devil-worshippers," and we know that Daesh has threatened Christians by saying that it will, quote, "conquer your Rome, break your crosses, and enslave your women."
Kerry said ISIS "kills Christians because they are Christians, Yazidis because they are Yazidis, Shia because they are Shia."
As Secretary of State, Kerry said his role is "neither judge, nor prosecutor, nor jury" with respect the allegations of genocide, but he said the United States supports efforts to collect and analyze evidence of atrocities committed by the group, which he said has "self-declared itself genocidal." He added that the US must reaffirm the rights of all ethnic, religious and cultural groups targeted for destruction and reject bigotry and discrimination – "those things that facilitated its rise in the first place."
Naming the crimes of ISIS genocide, however, will not stop the militant group's march across the Middle East.
Kerry said unity among the countries opposing ISIS, the determination to act against genocide and ethnic cleansing, and the desire to defeat hatred "must be pronounced among decent people all across the globe."
While that is true, the State Department has been slow on the uptake of the mantle of defender against genocide. On Feb. 4, 2016, the European Union's parliament made the determination that ISIS had undertaken a program of genocide against Christians, Yazidis and other ethnic and religious minorities.
Late in January, the EU's Parliamentary Assembly Council also passed a resolution that called on parliament to refer openly to ISIS's rampage as what it was – genocidal.
With the EU and the US both designating the terror group as genocidal, the United Nations may also act soon. The UN must refer any action of genocide to the International Criminal Court, which will set up a tribunal to deal with any criminals captured and tried. However, because the US and EU recommend ISIS be designated as committing genocide does not mean the UN will follow through.
In the aftermath of the Kosovo war in 1998-1999, the UN court ruled that Slobodan Milosevic's campaign of violence against ethnic Albanians was a war crime, but not purposeful genocide. The crimes, the court said, did not meet all of the legal requirements for the designation.