When Will the World Act Against Genocide?

COMMENTARY: Influential European institutions recognize the ongoing genocide in the Middle East. Now it is time to save lives.

The European Parliament holds a plenary meeting in Strasbourg.
The European Parliament holds a plenary meeting in Strasbourg. (photo: 2014 Wikipedia photo by DAVID ILIFF. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0)

Will World Act Against Genocide?

When the European Parliament, the main legislative body of the European Union, set out to vote on a resolution on the plight of Christians and other religious minorities in the Middle East in the first week of February, most observers expected a rather weak political statement.

There was little hope that members of the European Parliament would use the internationally recognized legal term “genocide” to describe the killings in the region. Previously, the European Union had avoided using the term. If the situation was officially recognized as genocide, the European Union could use its considerable influence to press political leaders to act, but it didn’t seem likely.

The context of the vote was the deliberate targeting of minority groups in the Middle East. The number of Christians has dropped from 1.25 million to 500,000 in Syria, and from 1.4 million to under 275,000 in Iraq in just a few years. The monotheistic Yazidis in the region of Kurdistan have been almost entirely wiped out.

And yet, the world just watches. It is not that we don’t know what is happening — infographics, news reports and social-media commentary abound. We are well informed, and yet little to nothing has been done to end the plight of these Christians and other minorities in the Middle East.

Syria and Iraq are failing to protect their citizens from the wrath of the Islamic State group (ISIS). Despite the photographs, videos and eyewitness accounts, there is an almost incomprehensible reluctance on the part of influential international institutions to call this crime what it is and to use that influence to make a difference.

The first step was made by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), headquartered in Strasbourg, France, and representing 47 countries, which adopted a bold resolution on Jan. 27, condemning the ISIS killings as genocide. Then, on Feb. 4, surprisingly, the European Parliament followed suit. Standing in contrast to previous vague and unhelpful statements, an official institution of the European Union, representing 500 million citizens, used clear wording on the situation in the Middle East, finding that the “so-called ‘ISIS/Da’esh’ commits genocide against Christians and Yazidis and other religious and ethnic minorities.”

International law sets out strict criteria for when it is accurate to use this term. The U.N. Genocide Convention of 1948 states that particular criminal acts must have been committed with “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group.”

There can be no doubt that the Islamic State is killing, raping and kidnapping Christians and other religious minorities. The only real question, then, is whether this is done with the intention to destroy particular national, ethnic, racial or religious groups. To answer that, one only has to look to the group’s own propaganda.

The European Parliament and the Council of Europe, both international institutions of considerable influence, have taken a good first step. To label the crimes of this Islamic terrorist group as genocide is costly — countries have a legal obligation to prevent it. In its resolution, the European Parliament urges the U.N. Security Council to support a referral to the International Criminal Court to ensure that those who commit these crimes will face justice. And the prosecutor of the court has said that she will not act without such a referral.

Determined action at the U.N. on this genocide is now, therefore, long overdue. The Security Council is the key institution to stop the killing altogether. It must fully engage in the real work of preventing more deaths. The United States, as one of its five permanent members, has considerable influence over whether or not the International Criminal Court will start to prosecute the perpetrators. The U.S. can and should play a vital role in stopping the atrocities. As a first step, the U.S. government must call the atrocities committed by ISIS what they really are — genocide. Only then further steps may follow. But the U.S., like the U.N., must act now, if they are to save Christianity in the Middle East from perishing altogether after 2,000 years of existence.


Robert Clarke is the director of European advocacy at ADF International.