Wednesday, March 16, 2016

The G Word

Don't say it out loud!!

In 1948, in the wake of World War II and the Holocaust, the United Nations drafted the Treaty on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide. It defines genocide as “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group.” Such acts include killing, causing serious mental or physical harm, causing conditions of life that will destroy the group, preventing childbirth, and kidnapping children.

 According to the treaty, United Nations member states, including the United States, must take action against such conditions. The goal was to ensure that nothing like the Holocaust would happen again.

A noble idea, but it hasn’t worked. Since 1948, genocide has clearly been committed multiple times, with no response until it was too late. American presidents in particular have made deliberate policy decisions to not call genocide “genocide,” even in the face of plenty of evidence, because they didn’t want to be responsible for acting. For example, during the Rwandan genocide in 1994, radical members of the Hutu tribe set out to exterminate their rival tribe, the Tutsis, as well as any Hutus who got in the way. 42's administration chose not to apply the word “genocide” openly until long after the evidence merited it. Only after 800,000 Rwandans had been slaughtered in 100 days and the bloodbath had run its course did officials finally start to call it genocide.

It’s not clear exactly what is being done to Christians in the Middle East right now (an excuse similar to that made by world leaders in the late 1930s when Jews were being rounded up and killed in Nazi Germany), but what we do know is grim. In 2003, over 1.4 million Christians lived in Iraq. By the summer of 2015, there were fewer than 275,000. Most were eking out a nightmarish existence in camps in Kurdistan.
 The numbers are similar among Syrian Christians: approximately 1.25 million in 2011, fewer than 500,000 today. Of the missing millions, some have been kidnapped, tortured, and held at absurd bails. Some have been sold into slavery or forced into “marriage” with ISIS fighters. We know many are dead, but we can’t determine how many.   

No American president has ever applied the word “genocide” to a current event or situation. The way is now paved for 44 to become the first. On January 27 the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe passed (117 votes to 1) a resolution to hold ISIS responsible for genocide against Christians, Yazidis, and other religious minorities. The European Parliament adopted the resolution on February 4. The U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee declared genocide on March 2. The British Parliament appears to be leaning toward a similar declaration. All President Obama has to do is jump on the bandwagon.

But he hasn’t.

Of course, we know why. For more than seven years, 44's foreign policy has been a toxic blend of strong language and weak action. (Remember the “red line” in Syria? Neither does Assad.) The foreign policy of the administration tends toward talking a big game and then conveniently forgetting to show up. That would be a lot harder to pull off if he called the genocide of Christians by ISIS what it is. So naturally he’s avoiding it, like 42's administration before him.

If his secretary of state, John Kerry, agrees to designate ISIS’s atrocities genocide, that could force the administration to act with the European Union to take military action against ISIS soon. 44 may want to avoid that policy, but his failure to confront the genocide and name it would be the nail in the coffin of his foreign-policy legacy.

If the 20th century taught us anything, it’s that ignoring genocide doesn’t make it go away. If we won’t call it what it is, our children will do it for us, and we’ll have to answer the difficult question of why we wouldn’t do it ourselves.