Even before the terrorist organization known as Islamic State grabbed international headlines this fall by blowing a Russian passenger plane out of the sky over Egypt and killing at least 130 people in the middle of Paris, the group had achieved something unprecedented in the modern history of evil.
Islamic State is the first non-nation to be guilty of attempting genocide, according to Cameron Hudson, the director of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide, which investigates and reports on incidents of genocide, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.
The charge of genocide carried out against Yezidis and other minorities in northern Iraq’s Ninewa region from June to August 2014 is the center’s first genocide finding since the government of Sudan attacked the population of its western Darfur region in 2004.
“It’s incredibly significant,” Hudson said of the declaration, never before aimed at a terrorist group. “We live in a period now where I see the genocide word being used really loosely, but it’s a decade or more since we used it. That indicates that this is the crime of crimes.”
It’s a crime punishable by an international court, and the possibility of a trial should alter the way nations respond to Islamic State, Hudson said. “We don’t talk a lot about accountability in counterterrorism. … We need to approach this problem in a more comprehensive fashion.”
A genocide case against members of Islamic State would set a precedent in international law, whose treatment of the crime of genocide has been based on the idea that only states sponsor genocide. But regardless of the legal ramifications, Hudson said, the ability of a terrorist group to carry out a crime on that scale is a dangerous example.
Hudson visited Atlanta the week before Thanksgiving to meet with donors and possible partners for the museum. That put him here just days after the Islamic State attack on Paris, which itself occurred the day after the Simon-Skjodt Center released its report on the genocide. The full report is available at www.ushmm.org/confront-genocide/cases/iraq/introduction/the-horror-in-northern-iraq.
During an investigation in September this year, the center found that Islamic State drove 800,000 people from their homes in an area roughly the size of Georgia. Most were in communities where their families had lived for millennia.
Islamic State killed hundreds or thousands, based on the evidence of recently uncovered mass graves.
“There are essentially no religious minorities in that area any longer,” Hudson said. “They’re just gone.”
Because individual villages had little ethnic diversity, it was easy for Islamic State to pick out targets, he said.
Thousands of women and children were abducted, either to be sold for bounties or to be forced into slave labor and sex slavery. Hudson wouldn’t be surprised to see them used as human shields amid the airstrikes launched in response to the Paris attacks.
“They don’t care if they live or die,” Hudson said about Islamic State’s attitude toward the hostages.
Those who were driven out remain in desperate conditions more than a year later in makeshift camps that are frustratingly and frighteningly close to the Christian and Yezidi villages emptied by Islamic State. One driver for members of the Simon-Skjodt investigative team took them within six miles of his village but could get no closer for fear of Islamic State.
Meanwhile, Hudson said, people living in refugee camps are terrified that Islamic State will kill or capture them, just as the group has shown an ability to strike far from its home region. He added that the refugees from Ninewa are not among the millions of Syrians seeking refuge in Europe or the United States.
He said his center had been monitoring the conflict in Syria and neighboring nations, and when Islamic State seized large parts of northern Iraq, it was clear from the group’s language that it was targeting people based on religion and ethnicity. The center responded with its investigation.
“Our mandate is to give voice to the voiceless. Just as Jews didn’t have a voice, we’re trying to provide that voice,” Hudson said. “There are thousands of women and children who remain sex slaves and kidnapped. If we aren’t concerned for their safety and rescue, they could become victims for further genocide.”
The first step to help those victims, Hudson said, is to recognize that the entire Ninewa region is one huge crime scene, and the international community must document and understand what happened there. The refugees in camps, largely administered by local charities and Christian church groups, need aid and protection. And those terrorists who don’t die on the battlefield need to be brought to justice.