Next Steps for Addressing ISIS Genocide

Report Middle East

Next Steps for Addressing ISIS Genocide

April 7, 2016 7 min read Download Report

Authors: Olivia Enos and James Phillips

On March 17, 2016, Secretary of State John Kerry declared that the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) had committed genocide against Yazidis, Christians, and Shiite Muslims in Iraq and Syria.[1] The State Department’s decision to label ISIS acts as genocide came on the heels of a “sense of Congress” resolution, passed by the U.S. House of Representatives March 14, which stipulated that the State Department had until March 17 to acknowledge ISIS acts as genocide.[2]

While the designation is a commendable first step, it must be followed by action. In his statement, Secretary Kerry 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.[3]

The United Nations Genocide Convention, to which the U.S. is a signatory, details that signatories have a duty to prevent and punish genocide. However, the convention is vague with respect to the legal or obligatory next steps that follow the invocation of genocide. The U.S. should therefore prioritize the safety and protection of the victims of genocide by evaluating and considering the use of the military, legal, and refugee-related capabilities that it possesses to prevent and punish genocide.

Definition of Genocide

The Genocide Convention defines genocide as “any of the following acts committed with the intent to destroy in whole or in part a national, ethnic, racial or religious group.”[4] Among these “acts” are killing, causing serious bodily or mental harm, attempting to destroy an entire group, and transferring children from one group to another.

The convention requires that signatories define genocide for themselves, so the U.S. defines genocide as taking actions “whether in time of peace or in time of war and with the specific intent to destroy, in whole or in substantial part, a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group as such.”[5] Acts include killing; causing bodily harm, including permanent mental impairment from torture, drugs, etc.; subjecting the group to conditions that would result in elimination of that group; preventing births; or transferring by force children of the persecuted group to another group. All of these acts have been carried out by ISIS against religious minority groups, especially women and girls in those groups.

ISIS’ decision to blockade Yazidis on Mount Sinjar in August 2014 drew significant media attention and led the U.S. to carry out airstrikes against ISIS,[6] but Christians had been persecuted in Iraq long before ISIS (then known as the Islamic State of Iraq) emerged from a fusion of al-Qaeda in Iraq and other Sunni Islamist extremist groups in 2006. Prior to ISIS and afterwards, as documented in one report, an estimated 1,131 Christians were killed between 2003 and 2014.[7] ISIS also has killed, abducted, and raped Shia Muslims, including Turkmen Shia and Shabak families.

That genocide has occurred is unquestionable, but what to do next is another question altogether.

Responses to Genocide

Legal Solutions. The State Department’s determination does not technically place any legal obligations on the United States. The convention is purposefully vague on next steps because different countries have varying capacities to carry out the spirit of its intentions. In the past, genocide cases have been referred to the International Court of Justice, or International Criminal Tribunals (ICTs) were established, as in the case of Yugoslavia and Rwanda, to mete out justice. Both of these court systems have a relatively poor track record, however, of holding perpetrators to account—in some cases taking decades to convict perpetrators.[8]

Financial Tools. While the U.S. Department of the Treasury is already using anti–money laundering and counter-terrorist financing tools to combat ISIS’ illicit activities, such tools also could be used to punish perpetrators of genocide.[9] For example, if individuals who carried out genocide were identified, they could be placed on Treasury’s Specially Designated Nationals (SDN) list, and traffickers known to enslave Yazidi, Christian, or Shiite women and girls could be designated as primary money laundering concerns under Section 311 of the USA Patriot Act. Such designations would enable Treasury to freeze traffickers’ and human rights abusers’ assets and prohibit others from transacting business with these known entities.

Additionally, under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA), President Barack Obama has the authority to issue an executive order to sanction ISIS for its human rights abuses, as President George W. Bush did during the genocide in Darfur.[10] While the Treasury Department has never invoked the term genocide in the past, this is largely because the legal bar for determining acts of genocide is so high. Since the Obama Administration has already declared ISIS acts to be genocide, Treasury has the precedent to designate ISIS members for these acts.

Refugee Assistance. The U.S. also has a unique opportunity to review current refugee policy to ensure that U.S. programming is reaching those who are most in need. According to the Refugee Processing Center, between April 2013 and April 2016, the U.S. resettled 529 Yazidis from Iraq, 8,470 Christians from Iraq and Syria, and 15,338 Shiite Muslims from Iraq and Syria.[11] During the same time period, the U.S. resettled 22,324 Sunni Muslims from those countries, despite the fact that they are not threatened with genocide and arguably pose a greater potential security threat due to the relatively higher risk that they may support ISIS. The number of Iraqi Yazidis, Christians, and Shiite Muslims resettled from Iraq is far higher than the number from Syria. No Yazidis, around 50 Christians, and only 19 individuals that identify as Shiite Muslims were resettled from Syria during this same period.

While there were extenuating security circumstances between August 2014 and February 2016 that inhibited the State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM) from gaining access to areas to which Christians fled in Lebanon, these circumstances do not fully explain discrepancies in the low resettlement rates of Syrian Yazidis, Christians, and Shiite Muslims.[12]

Any U.S. refugee resettlement program should ensure proper security screening for Syrian and Iraqi refugees coming to the U.S. The U.S. already subjects Syrian refugees to the Syrian Enhanced Review during the refugee resettlement screening process, but the utmost care should be taken to ensure proper vetting and adherence to current refugee law.[13]

Next Steps

Failure to act after declaring ISIS atrocities to be genocide would invalidate the designation in some ways. Future and past perpetrators alike should understand the severity of the designation and recognize that a declaration of genocide will be followed by actions that punish perpetrators and protect victims. As the preeminent global promoter of freedom, the U.S. has an interest in doing so.

Secretary Kerry has already hinted at potential military action and promised to evaluate legal responses to ISIS genocide. U.S. counter-terrorism, intelligence, and military officials have made it one of their top national security priorities to “degrade and ultimately defeat” ISIS.[14] The U.S. therefore should:

  • Sanction ISIS for its acts of genocide. President Obama should use his executive authorities under the IEEPA to freeze the assets of known perpetrators of genocide in ISIS, as well as any non-ISIS accomplices. While the term genocide has never before been used by Treasury, similar sanctions have been used after the U.S. determination of genocide in Darfur. The executive order and use of the SDN list to identify perpetrators to stem the tide of funding that facilitates genocide would create effective incentives to halt genocide. While such means of addressing genocide are by no means comprehensive, they do offer one way to increase the risks to persons committing genocide and other human rights abuses.
  • Consider whether victims of Iraqi and Syrian genocide qualify for Priority 2 (P-2) status under the United States Refugee Admissions Programs. In 2014, Syrians received Priority 3 status, which enables qualified refugees already resettled in the U.S. to sponsor extended family members including spouses, children, siblings, and parents for refugee status in the U.S. Iraqi and Syrian refugees also qualify for an I-130 petition, a limited P-2 designation that allows family members that are currently residents of the United States to petition for Iraqi and Syrian refugee family members to gain P-2 status.[15] This applies only to a limited subset of refugees, however. Iraqi and Syrian persecuted religious minorities do not currently hold a unique, full P-2 status. P-2 refugees are “groups of special humanitarian concern identified by the U.S. refugee program.”[16]

    P-2 status holders do not need to prove “individualized” persecution or be referred by the United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights. They are processed on the basis that they belong to a group with known, established grounds of persecution, like genocide.[17] Current P-2s include Iraqis that have worked for the U.S., Burmese refugees in Thailand and Malaysia, and politically persecuted Cubans, among others.[18] P-2 status has been granted to individuals previously subject to genocide, including Congolese in Rwanda.[19]

The world can no longer deny that genocide is being carried out by ISIS. Now the U.S. should use its global leadership to combat this atrocity. Next steps should go beyond what Secretary Kerry has suggested and evaluate and employ the many tools available to punish ISIS for its violence and ensure justice for victims of genocide in Iraq and Syria.

—Olivia Enos is a Research Associate in the Asian Studies Center, of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, at The Heritage Foundation. James Phillips is Senior Research Fellow for Middle Eastern Affairs in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy, of the Davis Institute.

[1] John Kerry, “Remarks on Daesh and Genocide,” U.S. Department of State, March 17, 2016, (accessed April 4, 2016).

[2] S. Res. 340, 114th Cong., 1st Sess., 2015–2016, introduced December 18, 2015, (accessed April 4, 2016).

[3] Kerry, “Remarks on Daesh and Genocide.”

[4] United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, “The Genocide Convention in International Law,” (accessed April 4, 2016).

[5] 18 U.S. Code § 1091.

[6] Emma Green, “The Yazidis, a People Who Fled,” The Atlantic, August 13, 2014, (accessed April 4, 2016).

[7] Knights of Columbus and In Defense of Christians, Genocide Against Christians in the Middle East: A Report Submitted to Secretary of State John Kerry, March 9, 2016, (accessed April 4, 2016).

[8] France 24 Europe, “Karadzic Found Guilty of Bosnian Genocide, Sentenced to 40 Years in Jail,” March 24, 2016, (accessed April 4, 2016).

[9] David S. Cohen, Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, U.S. Department of the Treasury, “Attacking ISIL’s Financial Foundation,” remarks at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Washington, DC, October 23, 2014, (accessed April 4, 2016).

[10] George W. Bush, “Blocking Property of Persons in Connection With the Conflict in Sudan’s Darfur Region,” Executive Order 13400, April 26, 2006, (accessed April 4, 2016).

[11] Refugee Processing Center, “Admissions and Arrivals: Arrival Reports Data Series,” April 2013–April 2016, (accessed April 4, 2016).

[12] United States Department of State, United States Department of Homeland Security, and United States Department of Health and Human Services, Proposed Refugee Admissions for Fiscal Year 2016: Report to the Congress, submitted to the Committees on the Judiciary, U.S. Senate and U.S. House of Representatives, (accessed April 6, 2016).

[13] Steven P. Bucci and David Inserra, “The Rising Tide of Migrants and Refugees: Due Diligence and Adherence to Law Required,” Heritage Foundation Issue Brief No. 4472, October 20, 2015, (accessed April 4, 2016), and Amy Pope, “Infographic: The Screening Process for Refugee Entry into the United States,” The White House, November 20, 2015, (accessed April 4, 2016).

[14] President Barack Obama, National Security Strategy, The White House, February 2015, (accessed April 4, 2016).

[15] Refugee Processing Center, “U.S. Refugee Resettlement Processing for Iraqi and Syrian Beneficiaries of an Approved I-130 Petition: Frequently Asked Questions,” updated February 2016, (accessed April 4, 2016).

[16] U.S. Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, “The United States Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) Consultation & Worldwide Processing Priorities,” July 17, 2015, (accessed April 4, 2016).

[17] “Fact Sheet: Religious Persecution Relief Act of 2016,” Office of U.S. Senator Tom Cotton, March 17, 2016, (accessed April 4, 2016).

[18] Jie Zong and Jeanne Batalova, “Refugees and Asylees in the United States,” Migration Policy Institute, October 28, 2015, (accessed April 4, 2016); Refugee Council USA, “Priority Categories,” (accessed April 4, 2016).

[19] Refugee Council USA, “Priority Categories.”


Olivia Enos
Olivia Enos

Former Senior Policy Analyst, Asian Studies Center

James Phillips

Former Visiting Fellow, Allison Center