How Meaningful Is the ISIS ‘Genocide’ Designation?

A look at the implications of the State Department’s declaration about the Islamic State’s brutal campaign in Iraq and Syria.

Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

After months of reviews and investigations, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry declared on Thursday that the atrocities committed by ISIS in Iraq and Syria amounted to “genocide.” It was just the second time in history the executive branch has ever attached that designation to an ongoing crisis.

Kerry’s statement, delivered just hours before a deadline put forth by Congress, inspires a new set of questions. Chief among them: Now what?

Following the speech, a senior State Department official clarified that Thursday’s declaration placed “no new obligations” on the United States in its ongoing campaign against the terrorist group. So what specifically is the purpose of the designation? It depends on whom you ask.

Cameron Hudson is the director of the Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide at the U.S. National Holocaust Museum, which was among the many institutions and organizations to lobby for the designation. Hudson called it a “good first step.”

“The designation is significant because we’re acknowledging not just the suffering of people on the ground, but we’re acknowledging that ISIS is more than just a terrorist group,” he said on Thursday. “It’s now a genocidal group that poses a national security threat to the United States, of course, but poses an existential threat the people who are trapped in their crosshairs and who are in the areas that they control.”

In other words, he added, the declaration represents a potential shift in U.S. thinking whereby ISIS transcends its definition as a traditional counterterrorism target and those entrapped by the group transcend their definition as traditional victims of a proximate war. Hudson added this historical note:

This harkens back to the Holocaust where the idea of saving Jews was not part of our war strategy in World War II. To the extent that we were going to save European Jewry, it was by winning the war and in the time that we made those statements, the Holocaust happened.

The idea that we can eliminate a genocidal threat simply by defeating ISIS, I’m concerned that this threat is going to continue and that more and more people are going to be eliminated in the time it takes to wipe out ISIS. I think the argument we would make is that we need to be doing both at the same time.

Eric Morris, who formerly worked for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and now teaches at Stanford University, was a little less sanguine about the designation.

He suggests that in the past, the debate over whether a crisis does or does not constitute genocide “was actually a way of delaying action” in the eyes of critics. Once declared, either by advocates or administrations, the designation does not always translate into action.

“When people use the word ‘genocide,’ at least implicitly, there is some kind of assumption that some form of obligation is involved, certainly for states that have signed onto the Geneva Convention,” Morris told me. “But the reality is that they have very, very imperfect obligations and that’s where the problem lies.”

Writing in The Atlantic back in 2011, Rebecca Hamilton noted the response of Warren Christopher, who served as secretary of state under President Clinton, to a question in 1994 about whether the ongoing massacres in Rwanda merited the designation. “If there is any particular magic in calling it genocide,” Christopher said, “I have no hesitancy in saying that.” (Hamilton notes that Christopher and the Clinton administration, scarred by the Black Hawk Down disaster in Somalia, avoided a formal declaration at all costs.)

Say the United States does use the genocide designation to seek to involve the UN Security Council, establish war-crimes tribunals, or push to have cases referred to the International Criminal Court, “the second problem,” Morris notes, “is that you have imperfect institutions.” (Hudson remarked that the two bills that overwhelmingly passed through the House earlier this week calling for the genocide designation and war-crimes tribunals were noteworthy because of Congress’s general skepticism about international justice.)

While Morris did concede the declaration is useful because it allows for these options, looking back at the only other time the executive branch of the United States government has ever formally declared a genocide in real time does not make for a heartening precedent. After facing months of pressure to declare the crisis in Darfur to be a “genocide,” then-Secretary of State Colin Powell said this to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in September of 2004:

Mr. Chairman, some seem to have been waiting for this determination of genocide to take action. In fact, however, no new action is dictated by this determination. We have been doing everything we can to get the Sudanese Government to act responsibly. So let us not be too preoccupied with this designation. These people are in desperate need and we must help them. Call it civil war; call it ethnic cleansing; call it genocide; call it "none of the above." The reality is the same. There are people in Darfur who desperately need the help of the international community.

“So the question is,” Morris posits, “Is the Kerry statement more or less like the Powell statement?”