Rubio, Activists: Tillerson Must Publicly Clarify Position on Genocide

Third anniversary of ISIS attack on Yazidis, Christians spurs renewed call for aid

Ruins in predominantly Christian Qaraqosh / Getty Images
August 7, 2017

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson needs to clarify whether he believes the Islamic State's mass slaughter and persecution of Yazidis, Christians, and other minorities in Iraq will spur more U.S. action or further limit it, Sen. Marco Rubio (R., Fla.) and human rights activists say.

Rubio on Monday marked the third anniversary of ISIS's assault on Yazidis and Christians in Iraq by pressing Tillerson to publicly declare whether he believes the massacre and kidnapping of these religious minorities in Iraq amounts to genocide.

He also called on President Trump to issue a presidential directive to provide "much-needed guidance to State Department and [U.S. Agency for International Development] personnel" and to stop ceding the work to the United Nations Development Fund. In addition, he called on Trump to appoint a special coordinator based in northern Iraq who can directly oversee U.S. assistance and collaborate closely with local partners and civil society groups.

"The bloodthirsty campaign targeting ethnic and religious minorities was clearly genocide—a term I do not use lightly," he wrote in an op-ed published Monday.

Then-Secretary of State john Kerry announced in March 2016 after months of work by Rubio and others his belief that ISIS was "responsible for genocide" against Christians, Yazidis, and other religious minorities, Rubio wrote.

"Unfortunately, it is unclear whether the current administration maintains this determination," he wrote. "It is important for Secretary Tillerson to publicly address this issue and clarify the administration’s stance, which my colleagues and I have asked him to do. Even then, words without action will not change the reality on the ground. The Trump administration must take decisive steps to counter the gravity of the situation: ISIS is seeking to erase thousands of years of history and the people who represent it."

If the United States fails to take meaningful steps to support these communities, including ensuring their access to humanitarian assistance and the resources needed to rebuild their communities, Rubio wrote, even more of them will be forced to abandon their ancient homeland.

The most recent statement on the issue from Tillerson's spokeswoman late last week on the third anniversary of the ISIS slaughter of Yazidis on Mount Sinjar raised more questions than it answered, according to human rights activists who have followed the issue closely.

Tillerson, through his spokeswoman Heather Nauert, for the first time said the secretary "firmly believes" that the ISIS massacre of ethnic minorities In Iraq constitutes genocide more than a week ago.

The statement came after months of State Department equivocation on the issue, according to critics, who noted the removal or prevention of references to the word "genocide" from documents, speeches, and events.

Rubio, five other GOP senators, and a bipartisan group of 50 members of Congress have written Tillerson asking him to clarify his position on the genocide issue and what policy implications it would carry.

Human rights activists and several lawmakers applauded Nauert's first genocide statement as a major breakthrough, but her subsequent use of the phrase "in his judgment" a week later when talking about the genocide raised red flags for some who have followed the issue closely.

One prominent activist, Nina Shea, who directs the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom, said she welcomed Tillerson's use of the term "judgment" to describe his decision.

That language directly contrasts Kerry's contention that "he is neither judge, nor prosecutor, nor jury with respect to allegations of genocide," a phrase he used in his own much-heralded announcement designating the ISIS persecution of Iraqi minorities a genocide in March 2016.

Others said the term "in his judgment" is too similar to Kerry's contention that the genocide designation was only his personal opinion and did not carry the full weight of a "formal legal determination" by "a competent court or tribunal."

"Does [Nauert] mean it's the agency's judgment or Tillerson's personal opinion [that ISIS committed genocide]?" asked one activist who requested anonymity.

The State Department has declined to answer follow-up questions about what Tillerson's genocide recognition really means in terms of policies impacting the way aid is distributed in Iraq, but a spokesman has said that an annual International Freedom Report, set to be released in August, will provide more answers.

"We cannot preview that report," the spokesman told the Free Beacon.

Kerry's genocide designation and Tillerson's subsequent recognition of the determination is historic and should carry the full weight of a post-WWII genocide treaty that requires the U.S. to take steps to prevent further genocide and protect the victims of it, Shea and other activists argue.

It is only the second time in post-WWII U.S. history such a genocide determination was made. The first was Secretary of State Colin Powell’s determination that genocide had been committed in Darfur in 2004, a move he acknowledged would place "obligations" on the United States as a state party to the genocide convention of 1948.

Powell also used very clear language at the time showing the determination was not his own, but the U.S. government's. He said in congressional testimony the evidence gathered "leads us to the conclusion, the United States to the conclusion, that genocide occurred and may still be occurring in Darfur."

The human rights activists also took issue with Nauert's backward-looking recitation of financial commitments the Obama administration and the United Nations made to religious minorities in Iraq that did not acknowledge evidence that only a small fraction of that money if any ever reached Christian and Yazidi communities.

They said she also failed to outline any new commitments for humanitarian and reconstruction aid to stabilize areas in Northern Iraq newly liberated from ISIS, a critical step for encouraging more displaced minorities to return and for ensuring that Iranian militias do not continue to colonize the area.

At the State Department briefing with Nauert Thursday, an Iraqi journalist noted that it was the third anniversary of the beginning of the Yazidi genocide in the Sinjar district and asked what the United States plans to do to protect "Yazidis and other minorities in Iraq through the stabilization phase of Iraq."

"So what are your plans to protect them from further genocide or aggression?" the reporter asked.

After thanking the Iraqi journalist for his presence at the briefing and expressing her regret for "everything you've been through," Nauert appeared to hesitate in using the word genocide.

"Today is the third anniversary of the—what happened to the Yazidis, Christians, and some Shia Muslims in Iraq," she said. "We honor and our those who lost their lives, who died at the hands of ISIS—it was brutal."

"So many of us remember the coverage of that, the video of that, the pictures, and the absolutely horrific stories of what those people were put through," she said. "Many people, as we've read about in the stories, still struggle with the scars of what happened to Yazidis. So I just want to say on behalf of the U.S. Government how deeply sorry we are about that and how we have not forgotten what happened to those individuals there."

Nauert then pivoted to talk about Tillerson's genocide statement, noting, "His judgment is that ISIS is responsible for taking place against those groups in Iraq."

"That includes Yazidis, that includes Christians, that includes Shia Muslims," she said. "There were 550,000 who lived in the region pre-ISIS and 360,000 have been displaced."

She went on to say that the U.S. government has provided $1.4 billion in assistance for "vulnerable, displaced and conflict-affected Iraqis in Iraq and the region" and has provided funding to the Iraqis to help "document those atrocities for future prosecution."

Nauert also referred to $100 million that State and the U.S. Agency for International Development has provided in assistance to "Iraq's religious and ethnic minority communities" and that the U.S. has led an "international initiative to highlight the plight of these minority communities."

Shea called Nauert's statement on humanitarian aid "severely misleading."

"Of the $1.4 billion in humanitarian aid, the largest group of [displaced] Christian survivors form Nineveh received virtually nothing of that," she said.

Shea said State Department officials also have refused to commit any funds to reconstruction efforts.

Stephen Rasche, the lawyer for the Chaldean Catholic Archdiocese of Erbil, testified before the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the U.S. Helsinki Commission, last September that none of the U.S. and United Nations aid was getting to displaced Christians because those refugees didn’t go to U.N. camps where it was distributed fearing persecution from other refugees.

The Archdiocese of Erbil is responsible with the care, feeding and housing of 70,000 Christian and Yazidi survivors.

As for the additional $100 million Nauert mentioned, Shea said much greater transparency is needed as to what it was spent on and where because "there's been a long history of diversion of aide" from small minorities in Iraq and "substantially false claims."