By Yonas Dembele

A senior United Nations
human-rights official who recently visited Baghdad and Kurdistan has said the actions taken by the self-proclaimed “Islamic State” against minority Yazidis in Iraq may amount to attempts of genocide.

“Why?  Because [Yazidis] are defined by their religion and the only option they have is either to convert or to be killed,” said Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights Ivan Simonovic.

Simonovic said the Yazidi experience differs from those of some other groups, such as Christians, who’ve been given the choices to convert, leave the area, or stay and pay taxes.

Is this distinction between religions a fair one? What tips “ethnic cleansing” into genocide, a term the international community has so far been reluctant to use to describe the Islamic State’s actions?

Robert George, vice-chairman of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, has been calling for “the international community to act immediately and decisively to stop the ISIS/ISIL genocide and prevent the further victimization of religious minorities.”

He’s been joined by John Pontifex, the compiler of the Catholic Church’s most comprehensive report on the state of freedom to believe amongst all world religions which was published recently. He says all faith communities need to work together for the right to worship in peace.

“We do not want to be alarmist, but we do want to tell the truth in this report about the degree to which minority groups — Yazidis, and indeed of course Christians — are being pushed out of their homelands,” the BBC quoted Pontifex as saying.

“It is, in effect, a genocide. What more evidence does one need to point to it being a genocide?”

A duty to act

Amnesty International and the UN Human Rights Commissioner have accused Islamic State of committing “ethnic cleansing.” An Amnesty International report called it “ethnic cleansing on a historic scale” by “systematic targeting of ethnic minorities” in northern Iraq. The former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, said the Islamic State  “is systematically targeting men, women and children based on their ethnic, religious or sectarian affiliation and is ruthlessly carrying out widespread ethnic and religious cleansing in the areas under its control.”  The voice from the UN as well as the report by Amnesty International is commendable. Now, many are asking if the debate should be: “Is it ethnic cleansing or genocide?”

Genocide, sometimes obliquely called the “G-word,” is the worst crime of crimes. When it adopted its 1948 UN Convention, the world committed itself to prevent it. The international law principle that prohibits genocide is not only a simple convention or customary international law; it has attained the status of jus cogens — a “compelling law” or peremptory norm. Consequently, the international community is under an obligation to act if genocide is committed.

However, the international community has until very recently not shown enough concern over what is happening in Syria and Iraq. The UN Security Council, the Council that voted under Chapter VII of the UN Charter “to use all necessary means to protect civilians” during the 2011 uprising in Libya, has not seriously considered and debated what IS forces are achieving. The international community that vowed not to tolerate genocide has failed to fulfill its promise. The unwillingness starts with not recognizing genocide for what it is. What is going on in Iraq and Syria is a typical example. Of course, there have been discussions going on to form a coalition against the Islamic State on the premise that “IS is a threat to the national interests” of some countries. It would have been easier to form the intended coalition had the atrocity being committed been characterized as genocide, as most of the nations of the world would have felt morally and legally compelled to act.


According to the 1948 UN Convention, genocide is killing, harming, imposing harsh conditions, restricting birth, and forcing adoption when the intent is to “destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” William Schabas, a renowned international criminal law scholar at the Universities of Leiden, Middlesex and Ireland, underlined that genocide is confined to “the intentional physical destruction of the group, rather than attacks on its existence involving persecution of its culture, or the phenomenon of “ethnic cleansing.” In its 2007 decision in the case of Bosnia and Herzegovina vs. Serbia and Montenegro, the International Court of Justice affirmed “[i]t is not enough that the members of the group are targeted because they belong to that group. Something more is required. The acts listed in Article II (of the 1948 Genocide Convention) must be done with intent to destroy the group as such in whole or in part. The words ‘as such’ emphasize that intent to destroy the protected group.”

Ethnic cleansing, on the other hand, does not involve the specific intent to destroy. Yet it has its own complexities: “Ethnic cleansing at one end is virtually indistinguishable from forced emigration and population exchange, while at the other it merges with deportation and genocide. At the most general level, however, ethnic cleansing can be understood as the expulsion of an ‘undesirable’ population from a given territory due to religious or ethnic discrimination, political, strategic or ideological considerations, or a combination of these.” In its 1992 Resolution, the UN General Assembly recognized “[e]thnic cleansing as a form of genocide.”

The evidence

The atrocities committed by Islamic State have been reported by the UN and human rights groups, and even filmed and displayed on the IS’ own social-media platforms. The facts are clear: There are killings, and killings en masse.

Many recorded videos by the militant Islamists categorically call for complete elimination of non-Sunni Muslims and other religious minorities in Iraq and Syria. Thousands have been stranded on mountains and deserts in their attempts to escape death threats by Islamic State forces.

Horrific videos showing mass killings have been released. More importantly, the targets have not been  combatants; rather, they have been civilian minorities, targeted because of their religion. The perpetrators vow to eliminate them. Christians are one of those targeted groups.


Genocide is concerned with “crimes committed with intent to annihilate a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” The Economist magazine has noted the challenges presented by this definition:

“How big a proportion of the ‘group’ does the perpetrator have to intend destroying to merit the G-word? Is it [not as] bad to massacre 100,000 members of a numerous group (even though the group’s survival is not in question) as to take an equal toll from a small group? Is the mass murder of an economic class, like the ‘wealthy’ peasants annihilated by Stalin, marginally more tolerable, because the group’s definition is not religious or ‘ethnical’ ”?

(Leaving this as we must), some facts speak for themselves. What the world is witnessing in Syria and Iraq is a clear genocide.

The report of Amnesty International includes interviews that clearly show the gravity of the atrocities and the intention of the perpetrators. Donatella Rovera, Amnesty International’s Senior Crisis Response Adviser, says the purpose is “to obliterate all trace of non-Arabs and non-Sunni Muslims.”  The vocabulary used shows that Amnesty International itself appears to know the intent of the attack is genocide. Had it been “ethnic cleansing,” the Islamic State could have used different methods so minorities would leave the area.

The most difficult element in identifying genocide is proving the intent. Under international law it is commonly referred to as dolus specialis — a special or specific intent. Yet the limitation that this strict interpretation poses has to be acknowledged. After all, intention should be inferred from the acts, as it is virtually impossible to prove genocide unless we do have official documents signed by the perpetrators, or unless the perpetrators publically call for genocide. At the same time, we do not need a resolution like the Nazi “final solution” or media broadcasts like “Radio-Télévision Libre des Mille Collines” in Rwanda. After all, videos by the IS leaders categorically show that the intention of the militant Islamist group can only be committing genocide. The Islamic State’s intent is clear enough to an expert such as Robert P. George, McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University and Chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom: “The so-called Islamic State of Iraq is conducting a campaign of genocide against Christians, Yazidis, and others in Iraq,” he wrote in support of a petition he launched earlier this year to urge a vigorous military counteroffensive against the Islamic State.

The distinction made by Ivan Simonovic on the grounds that the lives of Christians could be spared if they can convert, pay tax or leave the area — unlike Yazidis who are told either to convert or die — is not only unfair, it is a position we would come to regret. In terms of effect, the IS has dealt with both groups in the same way. Horrific evidence has shown the militants pursuing those who tried to escape, as well as indiscriminately killing those who happened to be under their control, without giving them any chances. The interviews conducted by the Amnesty International clearly suggest that the acts are genocide.

Listen to the account of a survivor in the Amnesty International report:

 “At 11-11.30am [Friday, Aug. 15] IS militants called all the residents to the secondary school, which has been their headquarters since they came to the village two weeks ago. There they asked that we hand over our money and our mobile phones, and that the women hand over their jewellery. After about 15 minutes they brought vehicles and started to fill them up with men and boys. They pushed about 20 of us onto the back of a Kia pick-up vehicle and drove us about one kilometer east of the village. They got us off the vehicle by the pool and made us crouch on the ground in a tight cluster and one of them photographed us. I thought then they’d let us go after that, but they opened fire at us from behind. I was hit in the left knee, but the bullet only grazed my knee. I let myself fall forward, as if I were dead, and I stayed there face down without moving. When the shooting stopped I kept still and after they left, I ran away.”

There are many interviewees quoted by the AI report who report similar patterns of activity. The accounts of the survivors clearly show that the aim of the IS militants is not ethnic cleansing, rather a complete or partial elimination of the minorities in the region.

Reluctant to use the G-Word

The UN has a history of refraining from using the G Word, even when others are less reluctant. Its 2005 International Commission of Inquiry on Darfur did not categorically call the atrocities “crimes of genocide.” Yet in 2010, the International Criminal Court added the crime of genocide to the list of charges against Sudanese President Omar al- Bashir. Western countries also try to avoid the word for fear of failure to then act, as genocide demands a responsibility to act. Retrospectively, the UN admitted that it was ashamed of the way it handled the situation in Rwanda.

Some even tried to argue that as Tutsis and Hutus speak the same language, share the same culture, religion, as well as the fact that moderate Hutus were also victims, the atrocities were not “genocide,” but a “civil war.” This was categorically rejected by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, an ad hoc criminal tribunal formed under Chapter VII of the UN Charter to try those who were responsible for the atrocities committed during the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Subsequently, the Rwandan government adopted a law punishing “denial of the genocide.” While addressing thousands of Rwandans at an official mourning in the capital, Kigali, to mark the 20th anniversary of the genocide this year, the UN Secretary General confessed: “We could have done so much more. We should have done so much more. In Rwanda, troops were withdrawn when they were most needed,” and he describing the massacre as “one of the darkest chapters in human history.”

Superpowers that have the means to step in and stop the crimes do not want to characterize clear genocide crimes as such. In the U.S., the Clinton Administration was accused by international human rights groups and experts of letting the massacre in Rwanda happen by refusing to label the crimes as genocide.

The fact that the reports by Amnesty International do not categorically call the Islamic State atrocities genocide, and the way the UN has labeled events, is an indication that the world is on its way to another mistake.


The preamble of the UN convention calls genocide “a crime under international law, contrary to the spirit and aims of the United Nations and condemned by the civilized world.” It also underlines that crimes of genocide have caused great losses to humanity, and that international cooperation is required in order “to liberate mankind from such an odious scourge.” Yet, the world seems to be silent on naming what is happening in Syria and Iraq. While watching the ordeal and the atrocities unfold, neither the international community nor human rights groups have the courage to label the atrocity as genocide, while the facts are clearly suggesting that genocide is taking place.

With massive, sophisticated firepower compared to previous radical militants in the region, the Islamic State is exploiting this failure of nerve to commit further atrocities that might retrospectively be seen as genocide by those who are afraid to acknowledge it today. Thus, lest we forget what happened in Rwanda, it is better to act soon. That action should start with calling the atrocities what they are. Calling genocide by its rightful name has become a challenge to individual countries as well as to the UN.

The fact is clear and simple. What has been happening in Syria and Iraq squarely falls under Article II of the 1948 Genocide Convention: a specific group is targeted as minorities, especially Christians in Iraq and Syria, are facing complete elimination. There is a clear and specific intention to eliminate in whole or in part these minorities, as the IS has made it clear that its forces would make sure that the non-Sunni Muslims and other religious minorities are to be eliminated. Finally, there are acts — killings and serious bodily harm. In a nutshell, minorities in Iraq, especially Christians, are on the brink of complete elimination and they have found themselves in a position where they cannot defend themselves. The onus is on the international community to act as swiftly as possible, so that remaining lives could be spared. That starts with calling the crimes genocide. After all, we should do more than “regretting” retrospectively and erecting genocide memorials.

Yonas Dembele is an international law analyst for the World Watch Research Unit of Open Doors International, a charity that provides support to Christians around the world who live under pressure because of their faith.