House panel decries Islamic State genocide

The Foreign Affairs Committee also voted to label Syrian President Bashar al-Assad a war criminal.

al-monitor Committee chairman Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif., speaks during a hearing of the Foreign Affairs Committee on Capitol Hill, Washington, June 2, 2015. Photo by BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images.
Julian Pecquet

Julian Pecquet


Topics covered

yazidis, turkmen, syrian conflict, syrian christians, iraqi christians, is, congress, bashar al-assad

Mar 2, 2016

Congress has taken its first step toward labeling Islamic State (IS) atrocities against Christians and other religious minorities a genocide in an effort to convince President Barack Obama to follow suit.

The House Foreign Affairs Committee voted on the measure March 2, two weeks before the administration is supposed to render its ruling on the issue under the terms of December's omnibus spending bill. Obama appears ready to apply the label for Yazidis, Yahoo News reported in November, but not Christians and other groups who also face persecution but may not meet the legal threshold.

"We have recognized genocide in numerous other situations, including in Rwanda, including in the former Yugoslavia," Chairman Ed Royce, R-Calif., said in his opening remarks. "It is time that we do so again, to speak the truth about the atrocities of [IS] and hope that the administration and the world will do the same before it is too late."

Concurrently, the panel adopted a resolution from Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., that calls for the creation of a Syrian war crimes tribunal to prosecute Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and other alleged criminals.

"We cannot condemn [IS'] atrocities without also denouncing the horrendous war crimes being perpetrated on a massive scale by Syria's Bashar al-Assad," Royce said.

Both measures easily passed by voice vote and are expected to hit the House floor shortly. But the committee debate did bring to light several fault lines among lawmakers.

"I'm afraid that the wording of this resolution, by including everyone that has been under attack in the Middle East, we have diluted the fact that the Christians and Yazidis are specifically targeted for genocide," said Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif.

The resolution was crafted and introduced by Reps. Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb., whose district is home to the largest number of Yazidis in the United States, and by Rep. Anna Eshoo, a California Democrat who is Assyrian-American. It has been championed by an international coalition of religious freedom organizations that hope to spark a global movement to create a safe zone for Middle East Christians in their historic homeland of the Ninevah Plains of Iraq (the European Parliament declared IS guilty of genocide last month).

Rohrabacher argued that including Turkmens and other minorities in the resolution would require the United States to open its doors to those fleeing the violence. Congress has revolted against Obama's plans to allow 10,000 mostly Muslim Syrians into the country.

"By declaring people targets of genocide," he said, "what we mean is that we will accept whoever is part of that [list] into our country and give them refuge."

Others argued for being as inclusive as possible.

"A word of caution on the other side," said Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va. "There could be other groups that end up being targeted. … I think it's just prudence, the way this was drafted, so that we're not precluding the situation on the ground changing."

Rohrabacher also objected to the second resolution calling for the establishment of a UN tribunal to prosecute possible war crimes by the Syrian government and the rebel groups fighting it. He said targeting Assad made as much sense as confronting Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin during the war against Nazi Germany.

"We are at war with radical Islam," he said. "And, yes, we have imperfect partners in this war."

Others countered that Assad's crimes are fueling the rise of IS and other radical groups.

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