Secretary of State John Kerry said Thursday that ISIS has been committing genocide against Yazidis, Christians and Shiite Muslims.
The designation marked just the second time a U.S. executive branch has used the term “genocide” during an ongoing conflict.
“Daesh is genocidal by self proclamation, by ideology and by actions,” Kerry said in a televised address, using another name for the Sunni militant group. “We must recognize what Daesh is doing to its victims.”
“Naming these crimes is important but what is essential is to stop them,” he added.
Congress had put mounting pressure on the State Department to label ISIS atrocities a genocide and set a March 17 deadline for Kerry to determine his findings.
Fireworks erupted at a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing last month when lawmakers grilled Kerry over why the State Department had not yet branded ISIS massacres of Christians a genocide.
“The whole world knows Christians are being slaughtered in the Middle East,” Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, a California Republican and frequent critic of the Obama Administration, said at the hearing.
The State Department had said Wednesday it would not meet the March 17 deadline set by Congress to determine its findings on a genocide designation. However, Kerry on Thursday said he had judged that a genocide was in fact taking place.
“The determination to act against genocide, against ethnic cleansing, against the other crimes against humanity, must be pronounced among decent people all across the globe,” he said.
The decision applying to the group’s treatment of ethnic and religious minorities in areas it controls in Syria and Iraq is laden with ethical and legal questions. A key issue facing the administration is whether it will be obligated to take action to stop the genocide.
State Department spokesman Mark Toner previously had said a genocide determination in ISIS’ case “would not necessarily result in any particular legal obligation for the United States.”
Although the U.S. is already involved in military strikes against ISIS and has helped halt episodes of ethnic cleansing, some experts argue that the determination would require more actions by the U.S.
At least, a determination would probably be accompanied by a referral to the Security Council for possible prosecution by either the International Criminal Court or some other tribunal that might be set up specifically for Syria and Iraq.
The first genocide designation during a time of war was in 2004, when Secretary of State Colin Powell determined that atrocities being committed in Sudan’s Darfur region constituted genocide.
In 1994, President Bill Clinton rejected requests to categorize the mass murder, rape and displacement of Rwandan Tutsis at the hands of Hutus in a genocide. It wasn’t until Dec. 23, 2003 that the violence was designated as such by the United Nations.