Human Rights Activists Applaud Tillerson for Calling ISIS Slaughter of Iraqi Religious Minorities 'Genocide'

State Department says August release of Religious Freedom Report will further define State's position

A church east of Mosul / Getty Images
July 28, 2017

Human rights activists are applauding Secretary of State Tillerson for using the term genocide for the first time to describe the Islamic State's mass slaughter of Christians, Yazidis and other religious minorities in Iraq.

The activists and attorneys who have lobbied hard on the issue say Tillerson is now using the term after months of equivocation and after Obama-appointed State Department lawyers had removed or prevented the use of the word genocide in official speeches and other documents.

State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert on Thursday told reporters that Tillerson "firmly believes" that ISIS is responsible for genocide against Christians, Yazidis and other ethnic minorities in Iraq.

"When we look at Iraq and when we look at what happened to some of the Yazidis, some of the Christians, the secretary believes, and he firmly believes, that that was genocide."

A separate spokesman told the Washington Free Beacon "that it is the Secretary of State's judgment that ISIS is responsible for genocide against groups in areas it controlled, including Yazidis, Christians and Shia Muslims."

Both spokesmen also said reports that State Department officials are removing references to genocide are inaccurate but declined to respond when asked whether those attorneys prevented the word from being used in speeches or other documents and reports.

An annual Religious Freedom Report that the State Department will release next month will provide a better explanation, the spokesman said.

"I can only reiterate that as a general matter we don't comment on internal processes. However, I can let you know that the International Religious Freedom Report will be released next month and will more definitely answer your questions," he said. "We cannot preview that report."

Multiple sources said that report is likely to come out next week on the third anniversary of the ISIS massacre of Yezidis on Mount Sinjar.

Activists and attorneys deeply involved in the issue dispute the State Department's contention that it isn’t removing the word "genocide," saying the explanation is overly legalistic and demands an explanation of their definition of "removal."

A group of six GOP senators, led by Sen. March Rubio, (R., Fla.), sent a letter to Tillerson Thursday seeking answers on reports that the State Department’s Office of Legal Adviser was removing the word "genocide" from speeches and documents.

The same activists and attorneys were encouraged by the State Department spokesmen's statements that Tillerson is now willing to use the word genocide to describe the mass slaughter of minority communities in Iraq.

"It sounds like to me this is an enormous breakthrough … it is something I applaud, and I think this will make an enormous difference to the victims and survivors and those who are still in refugee camps," said Nina Shea, an international human rights lawyer who directs the Hudson Institute's Center for Religious Freedom.

Shea served as a commissioner on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) from 1999 to 2012. USCIRF is an independent, bipartisan U.S. federal government organization created by Congress to make policy recommendations to the president, the secretary of State and Congress on religious freedom violations around the world.

Another attorney involved in the issue who requested anonymity to continue working behind the scenes said, "it's great that we won" but questioned whether Tillerson's use of the word genocide will impact any policies or the ability to get U.S. aid to the persecuted communities in Iraq who are on the verge of extinction.

"Does [Nauert] mean it's the agency's judgment or Tillerson's personal opinion [that ISIS committed genocide]?" the attorney asked.

The attorney said he is concerned because Kerry had used similar language to indicate that his much-heralded genocide designation in March of 2016 was his personal opinion.

Kerry's designation was one of the few times in history that the United States designated ongoing mass murders against ethnic or religious minorities as meeting the legal definition of genocide laid out in a 1948 treaty. The agreement requires signatories, including the United States, to take steps to "prevent and punish" genocide.

However, Kerry's designation dashed many activists’ hopes by not carrying any real weight in terms of changing the U.S. policy to step in and more effectively direct millions of dollars in relief funds to Christian, Yazidi and other persecuted religious minorities in Iraq.

ISIS murders and kidnappings have radically reduced the Christian population in Iraq, which numbered between 800,000 and 1.4 million in 2002 and is below 250,000 now. Without action, activists and charities say, Christians could disappear completely from Iraq in the near future.

After meeting with Pope Francis in May, President Trump vowed to do everything in his power to defend and protect the "historic Christian communities of the Middle East."

Activists and Catholic leaders are now calling on Trump to turn the rhetoric into action on the ground and help get U.S. aid to these persecuted communities trying to rebuild their homes and their lives in Iraq.

They activists and groups are encouraged by Trump's selection of former Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, who also served in the House and Senate, for the post of the U.S. ambassador at large for international religious freedom. The ambassador heads the State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom, which is charged with promoting religious freedom as a key objective to U.S. foreign policy, according to its website.

"I've worked closely with Sen. Brownback when he was a senator on Sudan issues—on Darfur—and he’s a very dedicated, committed, smart and a leader on human rights issues," Shea said. "So I hope that he can be quickly confirmed. We need him—and the minorities that survived ISIS need his voice right now."

Rubio said Brownback brings "years of experience and stature at a critical time when religious freedom is under assault" with "ancient religious communities such as Christians and Yazidis on the verge of extinction in Iraq and Syria after the Islamic State's campaign of genocide."

Maureen Ferguson, a senior policy adviser with the Catholic Association, said Trump could not have nominated a better person for the job than Brownback at such a critical time.

"As a U.S. Senator, Brownback was a passionate defender of the rights of all people to worship freely, and courageously confronted offenses against human dignity in trouble spots such as North Korea, Iraq, China, Sudan, Vietnam, and Egypt," she said. "At a time when there is an ongoing genocide of Christians and other religious minorities in the Middle East, we hope and pray the Senate will act with urgency in a bipartisan fashion and immediately confirm Gov. Brownback."

Jordan Sekulow, of the conservative American Center for Law and Justice, also said he is encouraged by Brownback's selection, saying he would be very effective in that role as a former senator and governor who has demonstrated a deep commitment to human rights issues around the globe. Sekulow is the son of Jay Sekulow, an attorney for Trump.

Sekulow's group is preparing new Freedom of Information Act requests aimed at finding out who was responsible for the removal or prevention of the State Department's use of the word "genocide" during the first months of the Trump administration.