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  • Writer's pictureKnox Thames

Identifying the Yazidi Genocide

On Tuesday, the British House of Commons will debate whether the U.K. government should label ISIS atrocities against Yazidis as genocide. Yazidis are an ancient religious community located in norther Iraq that ISIS brutally targeted in 2014 because of their unique faith. ISIS classified Yazidis as "infidels," which justified their genocidal campaign, the sexual enslavement of women and girls and the murder of their men. Mass graves in Iraq continue to be discovered.

Looking at the facts and the law, genocide is the only way to describe what the Yazidis experienced. In the face of genocide, nations valuing human rights must not turn away.

The term genocide is a 20th century creation, developed by professor Rafael Lemkin, a Pole by birth who escaped to the United States. Lemkin lost dozens of family members to the Holocaust. A renowned legal scholar, Lemkin created the word by fusing geno-, from the Greek word for race, with -cide, stemming from the Latin word for killing. He defined genocide as "a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves."

The term found international standing when the United Nations approved the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide in 1948. The Convention defined genocide as "any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group," such as killing, serious bodily or mental harm, forcibly transferring children and other acts.

ISIS' brutal atrocities that began in 2014 against the Yazidis meet this definition. The United States has twice reached that conclusion after intensive deliberations and applying the Genocide Convention framework. In a time when Washington can agree on little, both the Obama and Trump administrations concluded ISIS committed genocide against Yezidis, Christians, Shiite Muslims and other minorities.

In March 2016, Secretary of John Kerry stated that ISIS "is responsible for genocide against groups in areas under its control, including Yazidis, Christians, and Shia Muslims." Kerry put it plainly when he stated, "[ISIS] is genocidal by self-proclamation, by ideology, and by actions—in what it says, what it believes, and what it does. ... The fact is that [ISIS] kills Christians because they are Christians; Yazidis because they are Yazidis; Shia because they are Shia."

When the Trump administration took office, they quickly reinforced the genocide determination. In August 2017, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson announced, "ISIS is clearly responsible for genocide against Yazidis, Christians and Shia Muslims." He said there was no ambiguity on the question.

These were serious decisions that were hotly debated. I know because I participated in both discussions when serving in a special envoy role on religious minorities. Two very different administrations determined genocide was the only appropriate way to describe the heinous acts by ISIS. Other nations followed, including Canada, Belgium and the Netherlands. The United Nations made the same finding. And in November, a German court found an ISIS fighter guilty of genocide, which should meet the U.K. government's threshold of a decision by a competent tribunal.

Genocide is the correct term for the U.K. government to use. But if it reaches the same conclusion as the United States and others, it cannot stop there. Concrete action must follow any determination.

The step first is accountability. Altering the calculation of would-be genociders will only occur through arrests and prosecutions for the crime of genocide. The death of an ISIS leader who persecuted Yazidis by U.S. special forces brought some closure to the community. However, something more than military action is needed. The U.K., along with the U.S. and others, should lead an international effort for ISIS accountability for the crime of genocide, much like German courts have.

Secondly, the international community must assist survivors and help search for the missing. Yazidis still live in tent camps, unable to return home to Sinjar. It's outrageous. And decisive action is needed to locate the missing 2,763 Yazidi women and children.

Almost eight years after the genocide, many Yazidis are believed to be held with their captors in the Al-Hol camp in western Syria. Yet, despite findings of genocide and repeated pronouncements expressing concern for Yazidis, the international community has failed to organize any effort to locate them. In addition, at least one Assyrian Christian girl—Carolyn—is also known to be held captive by ISIS fighters in Al-Hol.

The United Kingdom, along with the United States, France and others, should lead an effort to look for ISIS survivors in Al-Hol. A simple census of the women's camp to collect names, date and places of birth and cell phone photographs could be the key to locating the whereabouts of hundreds.

The United States and the United Kingdom, due to our wealth and global reach, have the potential to discourage persecution and motivate change. When combined with likeminded allies in Europe, Asia and the Western Hemisphere, the potential for global good is unparalleled.

However, competing priorities, the unwillingness to make hard choices, the ease of delay and the distractions of daily governance at home dilute and undermine these opportunities. When a former Facebook executive said in January that "nobody cares" about the genocide against Uyghurs in China, he spoke an ugly truth out loud held by many. Yet, it is in our interest and a reflection of our values to leverage all the tools of statecraft to force persecutors to reverse course. And with that, accountability and recovery can begin for impacted groups.

Tragically, the 21st century has experienced multiple genocides based on religion or belief. A durable response starts with calling abuses by their proper name. Telling the truth is the best place for sound policies. For the Yazidis, genocide is the only appropriate word to describe what happened to them by ISIS. And using that term must be paired with new efforts at perpetrator accountability and assistance for the survivors and missing.

Knox Thames is the former special envoy for religious minorities at the U.S. Department of State, serving during the Obama and Trump administrations. He is writing a book on ending 21st century persecution. Follow him on Twitter @KnoxThames.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.

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