The House of Representatives on Monday overwhelmingly approved a resolution declaring as "genocide" atrocities committed by the Islamic State against Christians and other religious and ethnic minorities in the Middle East.
HR 75 passed without a single dissenting vote, 393-0, sending a strong signal to Secretary of State John F. Kerry, who has been deliberating for months whether to declare genocide. The House speaker said he wasn't optimistic about it.
"It is my sincere hope that this trans-partisan resolution will further compel the State Department to join the building international consensus in calling the horrific ISIS violence against Christians, Yazidis and others by its proper name: genocide," said Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, the Nebraska Republican who sponsored the resolution.
The State Department has until Thursday under a congressional deadline to decide whether to classify the mass killings, kidnappings, rapes and destruction of religious property by the terrorist group as genocide. The deadline was imposed by a little-noted provision in the omnibus spending bill passed late last year.
In a statement Monday, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, Wisconsin Republican, noted reports that the Obama administration says legal reviews are ongoing and the Thursday deadline likely won't be met.
"As the administration waffles on this issue and doubles down on its failed strategy to defeat [the Islamic State], the American people are speaking loudly and clearly on this issue," Mr. Ryan said.
Doug Napier, senior counsel and executive director of the Alliance Defending Freedom International, said official recognition of genocide would trigger laws in United Nations to investigate and prosecute offenders, as well as oblige the U.S. to take measures to end the violence.
He said it is irresponsible that the genocide has not already been declared in the face of overwhelming evidence that Christians and other minorities are being specifically persecuted.
"Religious and ethnic minority groups in the Middle East are deliberately targeted by ISIS for destruction," Mr. Napier said. "The number of Christians has dropped from 2 million to under 1 million in Syria, and from 1.4 million to under 260,000 in Iraq in just a few years. The atrocities include assassinations of church leaders, torture, mass murders, kidnapping, sexual enslavement and systematic rape of Christian and Yazidi girls and women, destruction of churches, monasteries and cemeteries."
A wide range of prominent international figures, including Pope Francis and former secretary of state and Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton, have argued that the situation amounts to genocide.
But Mr. Kerry -- who holds the final say on the matter -- has been reluctant to take such a step, even though he acknowledged in August 2014 that the violence has all the "hallmarks of genocide."
The words came in the wake of two summer events that year -- the Islamic State's surprise capture of the Iraqi city of Mosul, which resulted in the rapid expulsion of some 60,000 Christians, and the surrounding of tens of thousands of Yazidis on nearby Mount Sinjar.
U.S. administrations have long been reluctant to adopt the genocide tag, which brings with it formal obligations under international law including, among other things, imposing a right and even sometimes a duty for foreign states to engage in military intervention to stop genocides.
In addition, the "genocide" label can make a negotiated settlement to an international crisis harder to achieve because of the threat of war crimes trials. Genocide is a crime that prosecutors in any country in the world can charge, regardless of where it occurs. But the political parties who would have to negotiate any such settlements include at least potentially the very leaders who would be tried.
"My understanding is that the use of that specific term has legal ramifications," White House spokesman Josh Earnest said last month.
There are diplomatic issues too. U.S. officials often don't want to "go there" with the word "genocide," even historically -- witness the continuing debate over the Armenian massacres.
Armenians, historians, Congress and most U.S. presidential candidates declare those events as a "genocide," but U.S. administrations (including presidents once in office) are reluctant to use that word for fear of angering Turkey, whose forces killed about 1 million Armenians in 1915 but which today is a key U.S. ally in NATO and the Middle East.
State Department press secretary John Kirby declined to comment on whether Mr. Kerry would meet the Thursday deadline. He promised only that the decision would be announced "soon."
"I can tell you what he's mostly focused on is making his determination based on evidence and analysis that he's getting from the State Department," Mr. Kirby said at a press briefing Monday. "I'll also say that he is taking it very, very seriously and wants to make sure that whatever determination he makes is fact-based and adequately reflected in what we're seeing on the ground."
In the wake of the Holocaust and the Nuremberg war-crimes trials of Nazi German officials, the United Nations defined genocide as "acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group."
A 276-page report issued by the Knights of Columbus last week, at the request of the State Department, said the current situation meets such a standard.
But Andrew Walther, who is vice president of media, research and development for the Knights of Columbus, said inquiries regarding the State Department's assessment of the report have been met with "the lawyers are looking at it -- in so many words, that the lawyers are looking at it."
Mr. Walther said in order to make the declaration, the State Department must believe there is "probable cause" that the Islamic State has engaged in genocide "and, as one attorney put it to me, there's enough evidence on their social media pages to warrant a finding of probable clause."
But Mr. Walther said history will judge Mr. Kerry severely if he continues to mull over the evidence.
"When the history books are written, it will go down in history as the genocide committed by ISIS," Mr. Walther said. "The question is whether the U.S. will be part of that consensus in terms of our State Department."