Outside the gates of the Dachau concentration camp, scripted on a memorial commemorating the millions of lives lost in the Holocaust, are the words "Never Again". Yet, modern history is haunted by acts of brutal violence from the mass killings in Kosovo, Cambodia, and Burundi to the genocides in Rwanda and Darfur. American leaders continue to vow repeatedly "Never Again"; yet repeatedly fail to stop genocide.
As recent as April 2012, President Obama announced the establishment of the Atrocities Prevention Board proclaiming, "Preventing mass atrocities and genocide is a core national security interest and a core moral responsibility of the United States of America." Yet today, the Obama Administration remains reluctant to designate the Islamic State's (ISIS) atrocities against Christians and other religious minorities in Iraq and Syria as genocide, reserving a possible "genocide" designation solely for the Yazidi community. While it is unequivocal that the Islamic State has unleashed atrocities rising to the level of genocide against Yazidis, it is no less true for Christians and other religious minorities.
Presidents of the past have made proclamations similar to that of President Obama, yet they too failed to act in the face of genocide. In 1979, President Carter, having ignored the mass killings in Cambodia, swore, "Never again will the world stand silent...fail to act in time to prevent this terrible act of genocide." Five years later, President Reagan similarly swore, "I say in a forthright voice, Never Again!" In 1991, President George H.W. Bush, after a visit to Auschwitz, was moved, as he described, "with the determination not just to remember but also to act." Running against President H.W. Bush in 1992, Bill Clinton campaigned, "If the horrors of the Holocaust taught us anything, it is the high cost of remaining silent and paralyzed in the face of genocide." Yet during his Presidency, President Clinton apologetically admitted, "We did not act quickly enough after the killing began [in Rwanda]. . . . We did not immediately call these crimes by their rightful name: genocide." After the Clinton Administration failed to intervene in Rwanda, Susan Rice, the current U.S. National Security Advisor, said: "I swore to myself that if I ever faced such a crisis again, I would come down on the side of dramatic action, going down in flames if that was required." And yet history continues to prove that American leaders repeatedly fail to count the cost of inaction and apathy in the face of genocide.
Samantha Power, the current U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, wrote in her book, "A Problem from Hell": America and the Age of Genocide, that "The United States had never in its history intervened to stop genocide and had in fact rarely even made a point of condemning it as it occurred." Through careful study, she debunked the argument that U.S. leaders were unaware of the horrors as they were occurring against Armenians, Jews, Cambodians, Iraqi Kurds, Rwandan Tutsis, and Bosnians during the past century.
Yet in the face of an ongoing genocide at the hands of Islamic jihadists in Syria and Iraq, U.S. leaders are faced with whether "never again" will carry any meaning. To date, the United State's response seems similar to genocides of the past century: shamefully inadequate.
The word "genocide" was coined by Raphael Lemkin, a Polish Jew who made it his life's work to see that the United Nations make genocide the subject of an international treaty. Through his work, the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide became international law on December 9, 1948. It took the United States nearly 40 years , under President Reagan in November 1988, to ratify the treaty. This is despite Senator William Proxmire taking to the Senate floor every day it was in session for 19 years to urge ratification of the U.N. convention. During the 19-year-delay, Senator Proxmire spoke about the deaths of a million Nigerians in the Biafran War, the murder of more than a million Bengalis in Pakistan, the Tutsis murdering more than 100,000 Hutu in Burundi, and the killing of nearly two million Cambodians at the hands of the Khmer Rouge.
But despite implementing the Genocide Convention, since 1988 over 800,000 people were slaughtered in the Rwanda genocide and hundreds of thousands more perished in Bosnia. During these tragedies, the U.S. Government seemed more preoccupied with avoiding labeling the violence as "genocide" -- and thus triggering its obligation to respond -- than actually preventing deaths.
So why is the U.S. Government so hesitant to label the Islamic State's atrocities against religious minorities in Iraq and Syria genocide? Because doing so would require it to act.
A declassified Department of Defense paper dated May 1, 1994 reveals that during the Rwandan genocide--after an estimated 300,000 Rwandans had already been killed--government officials warned against designating the atrocities in Rwanda as genocide because doing so would force the U.S. Government to act. More specifically, the discussion advised "Be Careful. Legal at State was worried about this yesterday--Genocide finding could commit USG to 'do something.'"
What will the annuals of government documents reveal when future Americans look back on the United State's response, or lack there of, to the mounds of evidence that the Islamic State conducted genocide against the Christians, Yazidis, and other religious minorities in Iraq and Syria? Will history reveal a similar stain on the U.S. Government's inability to act on behalf of those who are mercilessly slaughtered?
The U.N. Genocide Convention defines genocide as acts committed "with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group." These acts can include killing, causing serious bodily harm or mental harm to members of the group, deliberately inflicting conditions of life calculated to bring about the physical destruction (e.g., denying the group basic necessitates, destroying properties, etc.), imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group (e.g., killing of the male population while forcibly converting and/or raping the female population), or forcibly transferring children of the group to another group (e.g., selling the children of the religious minorities in sex and labor markets).
Modern technology no longer allows world leaders to claim ignorance of the Islamic State's genocidal acts. The intent element of genocide is easily satisfied by the Islamic State's stated ideology to eliminate all individuals who do not conform to its interpretation of Islam--to eradicate those whom it considers infidels. Some claim that the option to pay the "jizya" or tax places the atrocities against Christians outside the definition of genocide. However, as Nina Shea, an expert on religious persecution, correctly asserts "the payment of jizya, is a ruse, for the tax is raised until it becomes unpayable and property and lives are taken after all. Hence, last summer, Mosul's bishops chose exile for their communities, rather than attend an ISIS meeting to learn of its jizya terms." Furthermore, the Islamic State made its intent very clear when it warned Christians in a video, "You will not have safety, even in your dreams, until you embrace Islam."
Significant video and first-hand evidence also exposes the Islamic State's actions sufficient for a finding of genocide against Christians and Yazidis, and other religious minorities in Iraq and Syria who refuse to conform to its radical definition of Islam. The Islamic State has intentionally destroyed large Christian communities, churches, monasteries, and homes. The Islamic State marked the properties of Christians with the Arabic letter "N" calling for complete eradication of the Christian community in Iraq and Syria either through death or threat of death. According to Canon Andrew White, the Vicar of Baghdad, the Islamic State has mercilessly beheaded and crucified Christian and Yazidi children. Researchers have found mass graves of Yazidis systematically targeted and slaughtered by the Islamic State. The Islamic State released a pamphlet in 2014 describing how its affiliates could take women and girls as young as nine years old into sex slavery. Once in captivity, these women and girls are often forcibly converted and expected to raise any children born from their rapists under the Islamic State's strict ideology.
These acts of rape and other sexual crimes against women and children, accompanying mass executions targeting males of these religious minorities, are nothing less than intentional acts of genocide. We can no longer as a nation hide our head in the sand and claim we are unaware of the evidence--we are reminded of it daily as a panoply of evidence floods our e-mail inboxes, social media pages, and TVs.
Designating the atrocities as genocide is an important step to unlocking a robust tool kit of options for both preventing further genocide and punishing the perpetrators of genocide. Under law, the designation would legally obligate the United States to "prevent and punish." We should not fear this legal obligation; instead we should be a nation that leads by example.
Designating the atrocities in Syria and Iraq as genocide does not equate to a legal obligation for military intervention, though often prevention does require some sort of military force. Potential actions include but are not limited to the United States taking steps to have the U.N. Security Council designate the atrocities as genocide, rallying support for troops in the United Nations and other countries to protect the innocent, threatening prosecution of perpetrators through international tribunals, using intelligence assets to block recruitment tools and calls to violence over the Internet and radio waves, freezing foreign assets of perpetrators, and imposing travel bans for the perpetrator and supporters of the Islamic State.
The designation also allows the United States to bring an action for intervention before the U.N. Security Council, which in return can authorize use of military force and other diplomatic, humanitarian, and strategic measure to address the crisis.
It is critical that the United States lead by example designating the Islamic State atrocities as genocide for the Christians, Yazidis, and other religious minorities in Syria and Iraq. The cost of inaction and apathy in the face of genocide is too high. We must ensure that we no longer promise "Never Again" while simultaneously turning a blind eye to genocide. The lives and ancient cultural heritage of Middle East Christians, Yazidis, and other religious minorities depend on our doing so. As Samantha Power, the current U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, once said: if genocide is "not the U.S.'s problem, it's nobody's problem."
To the hundreds of thousands of Christians suffering the Islamic State's genocide, we can make the difference. It is our sacred responsibility to act. At the ACLJ, we are aggressively advocating on Capitol Hill and across the globe. We just filed a critical amicus brief at the European Court of Human Rights to protect Christians fleeing this genocide.
Now, we are working in Congress, demanding President Obama and the U.S. State Department recognize the atrocities the Islamic State is committing against Christians as genocide and provide them critical legal protections. Add your name to our petition today.