By Travis Wussow, The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.
Last week, the Obama administration ended its long silence on the question of whether the so-called Islamic State has been perpetrating a genocide against Yezidis, Christians, Shi’a Muslims and others. To its credit, the administration forcefully declared that the Islamic State is guilty of genocide, the strongest word we have to describe the desecration of human dignity.
What is especially significant about the administration’s declaration last week is that Christians were included in the declaration. There had been rumors for months that the administration was planning to declare that the Islamic State had committed genocide, but only against Yezidis. Secretary of State John Kerry’s inclusion of Christians in the declaration is important and legitimizes the indescribable suffering that our brothers and sisters have faced in Iraq and Syria.
Genocide is a term coined in the 1940s by Raphael Lemkin, and the term combines the Greek root genos with the Latin cide to mean the killing of a tribe, family or race. In short, the term genocide is used to describe a program to completely exterminate a people, to wipe them out of existence.
There are a number of different legal definitions of genocide, but the most authoritative definition comes from the 1948 Geneva Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. Under the 1948 Geneva Convention, genocide is the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group through any of the following acts:
- Killing members of the group;
- Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
- Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
- Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
- Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.
It is often difficult to prove that a genocide has been perpetrated, in part because the intent to exterminate a people is a tricky thing to prove. The Islamic State, however, has made its intentions very clear, such as when the organization lined up 21 Coptic Orthodox Christians on a beach in Libya, killing them only for being Christians.