Erna Paris is the author of The Sun Climbs Slow: The International Criminal Court and the Struggle for Justice
"The crime of crimes" just entered the frenzy of U.S. politics. Last Thursday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry announced that the actions of the Islamic State against Christians and other minority groups in Syria and Iraq constitute an act of genocide. This highest-level designation was long resisted by the Obama administration, largely because the genocide label carries with it a customary obligation to take further action against the perpetrators. Since President Barack Obama will not be placing U.S. boots on the ground in Syria or Iraq (lessons learned from the failed Iraq war that spawned IS in the first place), this reality placed his administration in an ambiguous place before Mr. Kerry had even finished his historic speech. Genocide, the most serious offence within the category of crimes against humanity, concerns acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group; and under international law impeccable evidence is required to sustain the charge. While there is evidence that IS attacks on the Yazidis of Iraq might meet the criteria, Mr. Kerry's assertion on behalf of the Christian population seemed more tenuous.
Why then did Mr. Kerry make this claim for genocide? Why did he bother when everyone agrees that what IS is doing constitutes war crimes and related crimes against humanity?
The answer is politics – and the fact that the United States is in an election year. U.S. evangelicals, increasingly concerned about the fate of Christians in the Middle East, have mounted a formidable campaign to have the attacks on their co-religionists labelled a genocide, hoping that new government action would ensue. Christian media further politicized the issue by broadcasting the message to an estimated audience of 60 million. Presidential candidates Ted Cruz and Hillary Clinton quickly adopted the "genocide" nomenclature. Most important, evangelicals let their congressional representatives know they were planning to vote in the fall election.
So last December, Congress tucked an inauspicious resolution into its 2015 omnibus spending bill requiring the Obama administration to declare whether IS was committing genocide. Deadline for response: March 17, 2016. In the run-up, the House of Representatives voted unanimously that the crimes of IS against Christians and other minority groups were indisputably genocide.
In his formal remarks, Mr. Kerry seemed notably vague on the subject. He spoke about threats to Christians, about crimes against humanity and war crimes – all indisputable facts, but unlikely to meet the threshold of genocide. He spoke of his belief that if IS were ever to create its hoped-for caliphate, "it would seek to destroy what remains of the ethnic and religious mosaic once thriving in the territory." Tellingly, he distanced himself by saying he was "neither judge nor prosecutor nor jury," and that potential charges against the extremists must result from an independent international investigation.
That, as Mr. Kerry certainly knew, was the crux of the matter. Genocide is the worst crime ever to be codified into law; as human beings we had to invent the category to contain the terrifying contents of the Nazi assault on the Jews of Europe during the Second World War. Mr. Kerry's charge of genocide against Christians, made under heavy political pressure, with sparse evidence, degraded the crucial concept we must rely upon to punish the most vicious crimes.
In Britain, Prime Minister David Cameron bluntly labelled attempts to classify IS crimes as genocide, "politicization." "These decisions must be based on credible judicial processes," he said, lending credence to Mr. Kerry's own words about the need for independent investigation. The government of Canada (typically more polite) also declined to join the United States, stating that it would stick with the designation of war crimes.
It's hard to predict where the Kerry declaration will lead. What the Secretary of State did offer was refuge for Christian and other minority victims of IS brutality; however, many of those other victims are Muslims – and in the harsh world of Donald Trump, Muslims are less than welcome in America.
What matters most is the cynicism with which the singular term "genocide," with its real and symbolic import, has been abused. If it is to continue to have purpose and meaning, the charge of genocide must be protected from political exploitation.