It is time for the United States to label ISIS’s intentional targeting and destroying of the Yazidi ethnic group as genocide. There is overwhelming evidence to support the determination that ISIS is committing genocide against the Yazidi people. The United Nations Human Rights Council and the European Union have already done so and it is time for the U.S. to publicly acknowledge the reality of ISIS’s targeted violence. The genocide of the Yazidi people is not only a human right and a moral issue, but it is also important to document and formally acknowledge war crimes and atrocities committed by ISIS in order to effectively address violent extremism and conflict.   

The 1948 United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide defines genocide as the “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group” through murder, bodily or mental harm, infliction of conditions intended to destroy, or the prevention of births.

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ISIS is currently engaging in virtually all of these forms of discriminatory violence against the Yazidi people.  According to a report by the United Nations Human Rights Office, these include but are not limited to targeted killings of hundreds of Yazidi men and boys in the Ninewa plains.  The discovery of a mass grave in northwest Iraq revealed the bodies of 120 Yazidis, mostly older women, all executed by ISIS.  When the Yazidi town of Sinjar fell, 40,000 to 50,000 Yazidi people were trapped on Mount Sinjar, besieged by ISIS fighters.  Hundreds died from starvation, dehydration, and exposure as a result.

“The kidnapping and sexual slavery of Yazidi women and children by the Islamic State was not only an attempt to terrorize the community, but also a bid to prevent new Yazidi births and to deprive children of the opportunity to grow up in their own culture,” the report says.

Regarding intent, the UN Human Rights Council determined that there is a “manifest pattern of attacks” by ISIS against Yazidis.  Further, UNHRC reporters compiled, "independent, credible and reliable sources" to conclude the "intent of ISIL to destroy the Yazidi as a group."  ISIS itself has advertised its war crimes against Yazidis.

While we recognize the genocide label carries with it significant legal ramifications and the international community must be careful not to overuse this word, there is no ambiguity in this case.  In order to retain a credible claim to a commitment to the preservation of international human rights, the United States must recognize the Yazidi genocide.  Additionally, in order to change the perception of ISIS globally, it is important to document and formally acknowledge war crimes and atrocities to break the illusion of the great caliphate and show what really happens

Some (both inside and outside the Obama administration) have argued that since violence is being committed against people of all faiths, this case cannot be considered genocide against the Yazidi people specifically. However, the case that ISIS has singled out the Yazidis for destruction is clear.  Jessica Stern and JM Berge argue it is important to document ISIS crimes against groups—not only the Yazidis, but also Shi’a Muslims and some Sunni Muslim tribes that have resisted ISIS—saying it could “make a significant impact on how ISIS is perceived by those most susceptible to its ideology.”     

ISIS’s history of violence toward the Yazidi people has been ongoing, but it is not too late—swift action by the U.S. to publically acknowledge these crimes as genocide is not only morally right, but will establish accountability and allow for transitional justice. 

Hume is senior director of the Alliance for Peacebuilding.