The Obama administration on Thursday formally concluded the Islamic State group is committing genocide against Christians and other minorities in Iraq and Syria, a declaration long sought by Congress and human rights organizations but likely to change little in the conflict against the extremists.
The determination, for which Congress had set a Thursday deadline, does not obligate the United States to take additional action against IS militants and does not prejudge any potential prosecution against its members.
Officials said the U.S. has already intensified its fight against IS and had effectively recognized the situation as a genocide more than a year ago when it agreed to increase the number of refugees, notably from Syria, that America accepts.
A day after the State Department said the administration would miss the deadline because it needed more evidence, Kerry said Thursday that he had completed his review after all and determined that Christians, Yazidis and Shiite groups are victims of genocide and crimes against humanity by the Islamic State. The House earlier this week unanimously passed a nonbinding resolution condemning IS atrocities as genocide.
Kerry outlined a litany of atrocities that he said the militants had committed against people and religious sites, as well as threats to eradicate what it terms apostates and infidels. Using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State group, he said, "Daesh is genocidal by self-proclamation, by ideology, and by actions — in what it says, what it believes and what it does."
However, he added that he was "neither judge nor prosecutor nor jury with respect to the allegations" and said any potential criminal charges must result from an independent international investigation. Kerry said the U.S. would continue to support efforts to collect evidence and document atrocities.
While his determination does not carry such legal weight, Kerry said he hoped that groups he cited as being victimized would take some comfort in the fact that the "the United States recognizes and confirms the despicable nature of the crimes committed against them."
Lawmakers and others who have advocated for the finding had sharply criticized the State Department's initial disclosure Wednesday that the deadline would be missed. U.S. officials said Kerry concluded his review just hours after that announcement and the criticism had not affected his decision.
On Thursday, Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, the author of the House bill, commended Kerry's decision.
"The United States has now spoken with clarity and moral authority," Fortenberry, R-Neb., said in a statement. "I sincerely hope that the genocide designation will raise international consciousness, end the scandal of silence and create the preconditions for the protection and reintegration of these ancient faith communities into their ancestral homelands."
Republican congressional leaders said President Barack Obama should use the declaration to strengthen what they consider an inadequate plan to defeat the Islamic State.
Kerry's determination marks only the second time a U.S. administration has declared that a genocide was being committed during an ongoing conflict.
The first was in 2004, when then-Secretary of State Colin Powell determined that atrocities in Sudan's Darfur region constituted genocide. Powell reached that determination amid much lobbying from human rights groups, but only after State Department lawyers advised him that it would not — contrary to legal advice offered to previous administrations — obligate the United States to act to stop it.
In that case, the lawyers decided that the 1948 U.N. Convention against genocide did not require countries to prevent genocide from taking place outside their territory. Powell instead called for the U.N. Security Council to appoint a commission to investigate and take appropriate legal action if it agreed with the determination.
Kerry's decision followed a similar finding.
Although the United States is involved in military strikes against IS and has helped prevent some incidents of ethnic cleansing, notably of Yazidis, some advocates have argued that a genocide determination would require additional U.S. action.
In making his decision, Kerry weighed whether the militants' targeting of Christians and other minorities meets the definition of genocide, according to the U.N. Convention: "acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group."
A recent report from the Knights of Columbus and In Defence of Christians identified by name more than 1,100 Christians who they said the Islamic State had killed. The report detailed numerous instances of people kidnapped, raped, sold into slavery and driven from their homes, along with the destruction of churches.
The Knights of Columbus said Kerry's decision was "correct and truly historic," and In Defence of Christians, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, the Greek Orthodox Church and numerous other organizations, including the Center for the Prevention of Genocide at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum also welcomed the move.