WASHINGTON – The Obama administration is nearing a decision on whether to formally declare that Islamic State group atrocities against religious minorities, including Christians, constitute "genocide."
As impatient lawmakers and religious groups step up calls for action, Secretary of State John Kerry is leaning toward making the determination and could do so as early as this week, when a congressional deadline for action has been set, according to several administration officials.
However, the officials cautioned that a legal review is still under way and said it is likely Kerry will not meet the March 17 deadline. The House will vote on Monday on a bill that would identify the Islamic State's actions against Christians, Yezidis and other groups, including the Kurds, as "genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity."
An executive branch determination of genocide, however, would be different and be fraught with moral and potential legal consequences. It would also mark only the second time a U.S. administration has reached that conclusion while a conflict is ongoing. The first was in 2004 when Secretary of State Colin Powell determined that atrocities being committed in Sudan's Darfur region constituted genocide.
Powell reached that determination amid much lobbying from human rights groups but only after State Department lawyers advised him that it would not, contrary to legal advice offered to previous administrations, obligate the United States to take action to stop it. In that case, the lawyers decided that the 1948 U.N. Convention against genocide did not impose a legal obligation on states to prevent genocide from taking place outside of their territory. Powell instead called for the U.N. Security Council to appoint a commission to investigate and take appropriate legal action if it agreed with the genocide determination.
Kerry faces similar issues. Although the United States is already involved in military strikes against the Islamic State and has helped prevent some incidents of ethnic cleansing, notably of Yezidis, some argue that a genocide determination could require additional U.S. action. At the least, a determination would probably be accompanied by a referral to the Security Council for possible prosecution by either the International Criminal Court or some other tribunal that might be set up specifically for Syria and Iraq.
Kerry must also weigh whether the Islamic State group's targeting of Christians and other minorities meets the legal definition of "genocide," which is "acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group," according to the U.N. Convention.
"This has to be done on the basis of the legal standard with respect to genocide and the legal standard with respect to crimes against humanity," Kerry said in congressional testimony late last month. "I have asked for further evaluation based on what I've heard in order to test against the law some of my own perceptions and evaluations and see where we come out."
Kerry denied reports that his legal advisers were reluctant to support a determination of genocide but suggested he was not satisfied with their initial opinions.
"I have asked our legal department to evaluate, to re-evaluate actually, several observations that were circulating as part of the vetting process of this issue," he said, adding that he would act "very, very soon."
In a bid to push the process, several groups including the Catholic organization Knights of Columbus released reports documenting what they said is clear evidence that the legal standard has been met.
"There is only one word that adequately, and legally, describes what is happening to Christians and other religious minorities in the Middle East. That word is genocide," Knights of Columbus chief Carl Anderson said Thursday while presenting a 280-page report. The report identifies by name more than 1,100 Christians that have been killed by Islamic State militants. It also details numerous instances of people kidnapped, raped, sold into slavery and driven from their homes, along with the destruction of churches.