U.S. weighs ‘genocide’ label for IS in Iraq — and more than a word may be at stake

Michael Isikoff
Chief Investigative Correspondent

A Yazidi girl, fleeing the violence in the Iraqi town of Sinjar, rests at the Iraqi-Syrian border crossing last year. (Photo: Youssef Boudlal/Reuters)

The Obama administration is moving to designate the Islamic State’s murderous attacks on the Yazidi in Iraq an act of “genocide,” an extremely rare move intended to ratchet up international pressure against the terror organization, administration officials tell Yahoo News.

The action, which sources say could be announced by Secretary of State John Kerry in the next few weeks, has been pushed by top officials at the human rights and religious freedom offices at the State Department.

It has also been prodded by a report to be released today by the U.S. Holocaust Museum. The report documents horrific mass killings and sexual slavery targeting the small Yazidi community, as well as crimes against other ethnic minorities, by IS forces who swept through Northern Iraq last year.

“What we found is there was a deliberate attempt by the forces of the Islamic State to not only ethnically cleanse the Yazidi population [forcibly remove them from their lands] but to exterminate them,” said Cameron Hudson, the director of the museum’s Center for the Prevention of Genocide, which commissioned the report.

“And as they are continuing to hold, kidnap and enslave the [Yazidi ] women and children, this a crime that is still being committed,” he said.

The move to invoke the powerfully evocative “genocide” label comes amid continuing internal discussions among senior officials at the White House, the State Department and other agencies about the legal implications of such a statement. A loosely worded 1948 treaty calls on signatory nations, including the United States, to take unspecified actions to “prevent and to punish” the “odious scourge” of genocide.

But officials cautioned that there were still issues to iron out before committing the U.S. to a legal designation that some may argue requires an adjustment to U.S. military strategy. That strategy is currently designed, in President Obama’s formulation, to “ultimately destroy” the Islamic State (also known as ISIS and ISIL) — a goal that one administration supporter, Rep. Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, acknowledged this week could take between 15 and 20 years absent intervention by ground troops from neighboring countries.

Displaced Yazidi walk toward the Syrian border near the town of Elierbeh of Al-Hasakah Governorate. (Photo: Rodi Said/Reuters)

The Yazidi — an ancient population of about 500,000 who practice a religion that incorporates elements of Christianity and Islam — first attracted international attention over a year ago as Islamic State forces besieged thousands of refugees who had fled to Mount Sinjar in Northern Iraq, trapping them without food or water.

Their plight prompted President Obama to launch initial airstrikes in what he described then as a “humanitarian” effort to save the lives of innocent civilians.

What especially alarmed officials — and set IS’ conduct apart from other atrocities by IS against Christians and other minorities — is that the terror group openly declared its intention to wipe out the Yazidi.

In its English language magazine Dabiq, IS denounced the Yazidi as devil worshipers and exhorted followers to kill male Yazidi (“sit in wait for them at every place of ambush”) and enslave the women.

What followed was a ruthless sorting out of Yazidi in towns that were overrun by IS. Young boys were inspected by the hair on their armpits; those deemed young enough were sent off to be converted and trained as fighters; older boys and men were separated out to be executed and buried in mass graves.

Related Slideshow: IS likely committing genocide against Yazidi minority in Iraq

Based on recent interviews with escapees and survivors, the Holocaust Museum report — entitled “Our Generation Is Gone: The Islamic State’s Targeting of Iraq Minorities” — describes in detail how the process played out in one Yazidi village, Kocho.

All the Yazidi in the village were ordered to assemble in the local school, the report states. “Men immediately were separated from the women and children. … More than 500 men were placed in the gym on the first floor. The men had no idea what was happening. … They were then divided into car loads and taken a short distance away. Once they arrived at their destination, they were lined up, videotaped, and then shot.”

Young women and children were taken to another Iraqi town, Tal Afar, “where they were forced to convert and were enslaved. Many have been subjected to sexual violence and given to IS fighters as sex slaves.”

“The attack on Kocho … reveals a methodical effort to destroy the [Yazidi] population there, as nearly every man over the age of 12 was executed, and all the women and children were kidnapped and enslaved,” the report concludes. It compares the IS action in Kocho to what happened in Srebrenica, Bosnia — where 8,000 Muslims were massacred by the Bosnian Serb army in 1995, an act that was later labeled genocide by an international tribunal.

Kurdish activists rally outside the White House in defense of Yazidi living in Sinjar. (Yuri Gripas/Reuters)

The U.S. has historically been reluctant to invoke the genocide treaty because of concerns it might create a moral, if not a legal, obligation to act in ways that previous administrations were not prepared to do.

As documented in an influential book, “A Problem From Hell,” by Samantha Power (now President Obama’s ambassador to the United Nations), Warren Christopher, President Clinton’s first secretary of state, repeatedly resisted describing the mass murder of the Tutsi tribe in Rwanda as genocide for fear, as one State Department memo put it at the time, “it could commit [the U.S. government] to actually do something.”

Ten years later, then Secretary of State Colin Powell did declare the killings of non-Arab people in Darfur to be genocide — the first time the U.S. government made such a declaration during an ongoing conflict. But his public statement to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was accompanied by a then secret department legal memo concluding the designation “has no immediate legal — as opposed to moral, political or policy — consequences for the United States.”

Hudson acknowledged that the scale of the IS crimes against the Yazidi is far smaller than the genocidal massacres in Rwanda or Darfur. He estimates that about 1,500 Yazidi have been murdered, more than 3,500 women and children have been kidnapped and disbursed to camps in Iraq and Syria, and hundreds of thousands of others have been displaced.

Still, he said, the designation of genocide is fully justified and should prod a discussion about adjusting U.S. military strategy, to identify and rescue the Yazidi prisoners, as well as treating some areas as “crime scenes” that should be documented for future international prosecutions.

Some administration officials who have advocated invoking the genocide designation, however, downplayed the idea it would require any change in U.S. efforts. “We’re already at war with ISIL,” said one official, adding that the significance of the move would be “for historical memory” and the possibility of “accountability down the road.”

An Iraqi Yazidi family that fled Sinjar shelters at a school in the Kurdish city of Dohuk. (Photo: Safin Hamed/AFP)

 Another complicating factor in the administration deliberations is what the government says, if anything, about IS atrocities aimed at Christians and other small minorities. More than 100 members of Congress have co-sponsored a resolution, introduced by Reps. Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb., and Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., calling on the administration to label those acts as genocide as well. But officials counter that IS attacks on those groups, while likely “crimes against humanity,” do not appear to meet the high bar set out in the genocide treaty — that the perpetrators have the “intent to destroy, in whole or in part,” an entire “national, ethnical, racial or religious group.”

White House National Security Council spokeswoman Emily J. Horne declined to discuss “internal deliberations” within the administration. But she added in an email: “We have made abundantly clear our condemnation of ISIL’s horrific atrocities against religious and ethnic minorities in Iraq and Syria. Working with our partners at the UN, we are committed to addressing atrocities, in Iraq and elsewhere, that involve wide-scale killings and injuries, forced displacement, forced conversions, and sexual violence toward members of religious and ethnic minorities, including Yezidis. To that end, we will continue to … work with responsible governments and other international partners to hold those responsible for these crimes fully accountable, and strive to prevent the commission of such atrocities in the future.”