In an unprecedented foreign policy move, Secretary of State John KerryJohn KerryChina emitted more greenhouse gasses than US, developed world combined in 2019: analysis Overnight Energy: Republicans request documents on Kerry's security clearance process| EPA official directs agency to ramp up enforcement in overburdened communities | Meet Flint prosecutor Kym Worthy Republicans request documents on Kerry's security clearance process MORE announced on Thursday, March 17th that the Islamic State (ISIS) has committed genocide against the Yazidi population and other minority groups in Iraq and Syria.

"In my judgement, (ISIS) is responsible for genocide against groups in areas under its control including Yazidis, Christians and Shiite Muslims," Kerry said during a State Department news conference.


The announcement follows a rare resolution that unanimously passed through the House on Monday night, uniting Republicans and Democrats in the midst of a highly polarized election year to condemn the atrocities that have been committed in the region as genocide. It also falls on a deadline set by Congress last year to formally to decide whether atrocities would be designated as genocide following widespread criticism of the administration’s hesitancy to act.

While it does not legally obligate the U.S. to take additional action, the decision marks the first time in over a decade that the U.S. administration has formally used the term “genocide”  in an ongoing conflict—the most recent being Secretary Colin Powell’s declaration of the Darfur conflict as genocide in 2004—and marks a critical inflection point in the long-stagnated conflict that could possibly result in escalated military intervention.  

What constitutes “genocide?”

The debate over terminology is more than a linguistic exercise. As the Nazi regime took grasp of the Soviet Union in 1941, Winston Churchill declared, “We are in the presence of a crime without a name.” Three years later, Polish lawyer and human rights crusader Raphael Lemkin coined the term “genocide” in his book Axis Rule in Occupied Europe to describe the gravest crime against humanity that exists, a word that today still carries significant legal implications for the the international community designed to propel it into action.

According to the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide, genocide is a punishable crime that must be both prevented and suppressed by “competent organs of the United Nations” as well as by its signatories states.  Referring to the situation in Syria and Iraq “genocide” as opposed to a “mass atrocity” or other terms, therefore, allows humanitarian groups to more boldly call for diplomatic and military intervention and could spur the United Nations to follow suit.

The end of ISIS?

While a critical declaration, U.S. administration has not specified any changes to its current policy towards ISIS—focused on military strikes and support for peace talks—and has called for an independent international investigation.

In the immediate future, the declaration will likely add fire to the election cycle as candidates butt heads on refugee policy and strategic goals. Hilary Clinton, the current Democratic frontrunner, already referred to ISIS’ actions as genocide on the campaign trail in New Hampshire last December.  Conversely, the announcement is also likely to embolden the GOP’s evangelical Christian voters, who have previously placed pressure on lawmakers to use the term “genocide” in reference to the persecution of Christians and other religious minorities.  

With on-again, off-again peace talks under way this week in Geneva in an effort to end the civil war, the genocide designation will also embolden humanitarian groups and lawmakers who have previously advocated for a more forceful intervention by calling to invoke the “responsibility to protect” (R2P) doctrine, which provides a customary legal and ethical basis for humanitarian intervention. The doctrine was established by the United Nations in 2005 as a response to the Rwandan genocide and argues that the international community has the responsibility to protect civilians in States that are unwilling or unable to protect their own citizens. It applies in conflicts in which cases of genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing are present.

Finally, on the international stage, it is possible that we may see a referral to the Security Council for an International Criminal Court tribunal. The push for legal recourse has been at the forefront of policies employed in the aftermath of mass atrocities, including the 2011 ICC investigation in Libya or the United Nations investigation in Rwanda in 1994 that resulted in the formation of an ad hoc trial.

Otherwise, the conflict may remain in peril, as there are few other enforcement mechanisms to punish genocidal regimes and therefore deter future genocide campaigns. Although 80 member states of the United Nations have passed legislation that incorporates the provisions of the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide into their municipal law, fifty nations have yet to ratify the Convention (including Iraq and Syria).

Hope ahead

While  it has the potential to recalibrate the international community’s response to the seemingly intractable conflict—one of of the worst humanitarian crises in history—Thursday’s genocide announcement has been met with optimism, although the true test of its impact  will come in the form of rejuvenated political will to act within the United Nations or a U.S.-backed coalition. The kind of protection that affected minorities need has been far more than what local and international actors are willing to commit resources to, and even then a step towards an ICC hearing will need to be met with parallel actions to prevent and end ISIS killings and attacks.   Still, the announcement is a step in the right direction.

In an official statement, Rep. Jeff FortenberryJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FortenberryMarjorie Taylor Greene's delay tactics frustrate GOP Biden can build on Pope Francis's visit to Iraq McMorris Rodgers floats vacating Speaker's chair over Democrat's in-person vote after COVID diagnosis MORE (R-Neb.) applauded the State Department for its decision:  "I commend Secretary Kerry and the State Department for making this important designation. The genocide against Christians, Yazidis and others is not only a grave injustice to theses ancient faith communities—it is an assault on human dignity and an attack on civilization itself," he said.

He added, "I sincerely hope that the genocide designation will raise international consciousness, end the scandal of silence, and create the preconditions for the protection and reintegration of these ancient faith communities into their ancestral homelands."

Calfas is an program assistant with the Center for South and Central Asia at the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP). All views expressed are her own.