By Marie Wilken
After the Holocaust, the world said “never again.” The United Nations adopted the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide in 1948, and 142 countries have ratified it since. But we have not fulfilled that promise to prevent and punish. Through genocides in Rwanda, Cambodia, the former Yugoslavia, Darfur and more, millions have died because the international community failed to act sooner. History views this inaction with regret and shame. We hope that we would’ve done better, cared more, acted faster. But we are not.
Right now, ISIS is committing genocide against the Yazidi, a religious and ethnic minority in Syria and Iraq. This genocide began with ISIS’s 2014 attack on Sinjar. They killed men and boys and kidnapped, trafficked and raped women and girls. Over 3,000 women and girls remain in captivity. ISIS’s enslavement and rape of these women is prosecutable as genocide under international humanitarian law. In fact, there is evidence that ISIS has committed all five genocidal crimes. The UN recognized it as genocide and urged stronger international action. Last year, the Obama administration also acknowledged that ISIS was committing genocide.
Yet little has been done about it. Today is the World Day for International Justice, which celebrates the creation of the International Criminal Court (ICC) and the international criminal justice system. However, this system has been underutilized. To prove that the international criminal justice system can be a force for justice, not merely a hollow ideal, the ICC needs to investigate atrocities like the Yazidi genocide.
While showing good intentions is easy, it’s difficult to take action. Political interests often interfere, and the method of prosecution raises numerous questions and challenges. Counter-terrorism concerns are often conflated with or prioritized over action on ISIS’s genocide—but it is important to combat ISIS’s genocide as well as, or along with, terrorism. We do not have to choose between pursuing justice for the Yazidi and security for the rest of the world. Experts discussed this in GJC’s Brain Trust, Reconciling International Laws on Genocide and Counter-Terrorism, last month. Participants agreed that the counterterrorism framework fits today’s model of international cooperation better than the framework of the Genocide Conventions, and it is easier for prosecutors to use a terrorism lens. However, this can ignore the gendered impact of the genocide. In addition to providing justice for the Yazidi community, genocide prosecution would help delegitimize ISIS and combat its terrorism.
The World Day for International Justice should be a reminder that we need to not only recognize ISIS’s treatment of the Yazidi as genocide but also treat it as such. Inaction not only hurts the Yazidi today, but it could also worsen situations in the future. Brain Trust participants discussed how impunity could encourage future discrimination against communities like the Yazidi. It widens the gap between law and action on genocide, and sending a message that the international community can or will not act on genocide could spur similar tragedies in the future.
We are all bystanders to this genocide, and we determine whether this will go down in history as another failure to meet the legal and moral obligation to prevent genocide. Genocide is not a problem of the past; it is our problem and our opportunity to do better.
To celebrate the World Day for International Justice, GJC released a podcast on prosecuting genocide. We interviewed Stephen Rapp, a lawyer who has helped prosecute genocide, including in the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, and served as the U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues in the Office of Global Criminal Justice. Listen to this episode of That’s Illegal! on iTunes or Soundcloud, and read outcomes document from our Brain Trust here.
Photo credit: OSeveno (CC BY-SA 4.0)