The dramatic evidence pointing to the extermination of Christians and Christian culture in Iraq by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham’s (ISIS) is impossible to ignore. This past week, upset Iraqis rallied outside the White House. A few days ago, an administration official finally met with Iraqi Christians. But the leader of the free world has yet to forcefully condemn one of the clearest cases of genocide since World War II.
President Obama has previously addressed humanitarian issues by appealing to the Responsibility to Protect – a relatively recent doctrine not clearly established or grounded in international law. While its validity can be debated, clearer grounds exist on which to address the plight of Iraq’s Christians – the obligation to prevent genocide contained in the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide of 1948.
After the horror of the Nazi ideology and ensuing Holocaust was fully realized, the nations of the world gathered together, formed the United Nations, and affirmed they would never let such horrors happen again.
The Genocide Convention laid down into international law a binding treaty arrangement in which contracting nations agreed to “undertake to prevent and to punish” genocide. While some argue that this “obligation to prevent” genocide is not an independent requirement of the treaty, the clear language and purpose of the treaty suggest otherwise.
Indeed, the whole point of the treaty was to prevent horrors like the Holocaust from happening again. This understanding is solidified by a decision of the International Court of Justice holding that the treaty contains a clear, independent obligation to prevent genocide
According to the Convention, genocide consists of “any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group” –
(a) Killing members of the group;
(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.
ISIS has clearly engaged in multiple of these acts with the “intent to destroy” a “religious group” (Iraqi Christians) “in whole.” If the elements of the crime of genocide are not met in this case, I’m not sure if they ever could be.
The responsibility to prevent contained in the Genocide Convention requires that the United States and other parties to the treaty act to prevent genocide when they recognize it is occurring. It is difficult to deny that genocide of Iraq’s Christians is currently underway. Sometimes nations have refrained from calling genocide what it is (such as in the Darfur region of Sudan several years ago, or in Rwanda in the early 1990s) out of fear of triggering their legal obligation to act to prevent genocide under the Genocide Convention. Is this the effect the treaty was intended to have? It is inconceivable that a mechanism designed to prevent future atrocities would be used as a reason to avoid denouncing such massacres as they occur. Yet there is reason to believe nations have and will continue to operate this way.
While governments may try to craft arguments against their obligation if they do not want to address the issue, that will become more difficult as more facts come to light. The evidence from Iraq is clear – ISIS’ stated intent is to target Christians, which is a classification based on religion, one of the requirements for genocide. No nation which is a party to the Genocide Convention should be able to escape its requirement to act to prevent what ISIS is now doing to Iraq’s Christians.
Over twenty years ago, President Clinton hesitated to take decisive action to stop genocide in Rwanda. He avoided calling it genocide precisely because of the concerns expressed here – the United States would be obligated to do something if genocide was recognized. As a result, over a million lives were lost. Several years later, President Clinton went to Rwanda and admitted his error.
Yet this is precisely the point of the binding legal “obligation to prevent” contained in the Genocide Convention – it should not be manipulated according to the shifting winds of foreign policy. It was always understood that binding obligations were necessary to prevent nations from wavering in the future when memories of the Holocaust started to fade.
The Genocide Convention was designed to prevent future horrors. Yet the nations of the world now stand by as genocide of Christians occurs before their very eyes in Iraq. All the elements of this crime are met, and we have an obligation to prevent it. What are we waiting for? That same question, which was asked of Nazi appeasers in the 1930s and President Clinton in the 1990s, will someday be asked of us about Iraq.