One year ago today, the U.S. officially declared that the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) committed genocide against Yazidis, Christians, and Shia Muslims in Iraq and Syria. Despite this declaration, very little has been done to defend those threatened with genocide.
The Trump administration and the current Congress must prioritize assistance to those most vulnerable, including victims of genocide, in the midst of conflict in the Middle East.
U.S. law defines genocide as “the specific intent to destroy, in whole or in substantial part, a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group as such.” In addition to killing, genocidal acts include causing serious bodily or mental harm to a targeted group and transferring children from one group to another.
As a signatory of the United Nation’s Genocide Convention, the U.S. has a duty to prevent genocide and protect victims of these crimes. The convention is vague with respect to the legal or obligatory next steps that follow the invocation of the term genocide.
This vagueness, however, should not be used as an excuse for inaction. Rather the U.S. must recognize that the genocide declaration was a critical, albeit symbolic, first step that should spur on U.S. leadership to defend the vulnerable and oppressed.
Congressional leadership was critical in getting the declaration in the first place. Determined to force the issue, lawmakers had set a one-year deadline for the Obama State Department to make a determination as to whether genocide was occurring. Two days prior to the deadline, the U.S. House of Representatives unanimously passed a sense of Congress resolution stating its belief that ISIS was guilty of committing genocide against religious minorities.
The Atrocities Prevention Report released by the Department of State’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor at the time of the genocide declaration outlined key aspects of U.S. policy to prevent atrocities. It highlighted the need to gather evidence against perpetrators of genocide, address challenges of sex-based violence, and provide assistance to frontline states.
In his accompanying statement, Secretary of State John Kerry also referenced potential military action against ISIS, noting that the U.S. intended to use military force to liberate Mosul, Iraq, and would evaluate available legal solutions to addressing genocide. While some of these suggestions were followed up on, little has been done specifically to assist victims of genocide.
Once again, Congressional leadership is essential. Lawmakers should urge the Trump administration to act on the genocide designation.
In January 2017, Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) introduced the Iraq and Syria Genocide Relief and Accountability Act. It urges the U.S. to provide additional, and much-needed, humanitarian relief to those threatened with genocide and to collect evidence with the eventual goal of bringing those participating in genocidal acts to court, among other initiatives.
Congress and the President should also strongly consider granting victims of genocide Priority 2 (P-2) refugee status. P-2 status is reserved for “groups of special humanitarian concern identified by the U.S. refugee program.” Refugees do not need to prove “individualized” persecution or be referred by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) to gain P-2 status. They would still have to go through the same, stringent U.S. vetting process applied to all refugees, but UNHCR could expedite their applications. This is a tenable way that the U.S. can alleviate suffering in the midst of crisis in the Middle East.
Congress should also consider whether it can apply sanctions to specific individuals engaged in genocide. For example, President Trump should exercise his executive power under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act to freeze the assets of known perpetrators of genocide in ISIS. The president should also place ISIS members on the Specially Designated Nationals list to identify perpetrators and stem the tide of funding that facilitates genocide. By threatening ISIS members’ profits, the U.S. could create effective incentives to halt genocide.
One year after issuing the ISIS genocide designation, the U.S. has little to boast about. It has not prevented ongoing genocide, nor has it adequately protected victims.
The U.S. can and must develop a comprehensive response to ISIS genocide now. Victims are in urgent need of care and assistance. As a global defender of human rights, America must lead the fight to end genocide.
This piece originally appeared in Forbes