When announcing the release of the 2016 International Religious Freedom Report, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made a major statement that went mostly unnoticed. Tillerson declared that the United States officially believes the Islamic State of Syria and Iraq (ISIS) terrorist group has committed genocide against religious minorities. This was gratifying for many religious freedom watchers (like me), as it was part of a years’ long campaign to help Middle Eastern religious minorities.
Yet, this statement — while encouraging — is only a half-step. In order to truly combat the effects of the Islamic State on Christians, Yazidis, Shia Muslims and others, the United States must move beyond simply declaring a genocide. A series of multilateral initiatives related to this declaration could counter IS’s brutality. Religious freedom advocates shouldn’t start cheering until this occurs.
There is a good reason to be concerned about religious minorities in the Middle East. When ISIS swept through Iraq and Syria it not only conquered territory, but committed horrific crimes against the population it controlled. ISIS gave Christians a choice between exile or forced conversion, destroying many ancient Christian communities. ISIS enslaved and killed the Yazidi population, devastating this small but equally ancient group. It also persecuted Shia Muslims in areas it controlled. Sunni Muslims were treated horribly too, and endured brutal punishments for breaking ISIS’ strict laws. That being said, ISIS’ violence against religious minorities seemed an attempt to destroy these groups’ presence in the Middle East, thus constituting genocide. This is in no way meant to minimize the suffering of Sunni Muslims, but it is useful to emphasize the specific nature of religious minorities’ plight.
Why did the Trump administration — which has so far downplayed human rights issues — even discuss ISIS’ genocide? This was actually the result of a years-long campaign by religious freedom advocates.
Before the 2016 elections, several organizations called on Congress and the Obama Administration to declare ISIS’ acts a genocide. The International Religious Freedom roundtable — an informal gathering of organizations and individuals — sent an open letter to President Obama in February 2016 encouraging him to declare a genocide. Signatories ranged from the Hudson Institute to American Christians groups to representatives of Iraqi Yazidis and Christians (I was part of the roundtable , although as an observer while I worked with the Pew Research Center). Hillary Clinton also weighed in, calling ISIS’ actions a genocide in December 2015. Other groups gathered reporting on ISIS’ actions to document its genocidal violence against religious minorities.
These efforts seemed successful. On March 16, 2016, Secretary of State John Kerry claimed that ISIS was committing genocide against religious minorities. This followed a similar resolution by the U.S. House of Representatives that passed 393 to 0. Additionally, the Obama administration was reportedly discussing how to prosecute ISIS for war crimes.
It was uncertain whether this progress would continue under President Trump, who has not emphasized the protection of human rights. For example, in a May 2017 speech in Saudi Arabia, Trump stated “America will not seek to impose our way of life on others,” hinting that he would pursue little human rights advocacy. Alongside these concerns, a July 2017 report claimed State Department lawyers were trying to “roll back” Kerry’s genocide declaration. The State Department has since announced these reports were false but they indicate continuing anxiety over this issue.
Relief at the Trump administration’s continuation of Obama’s policies should be limited, however. Simply declaring ISIS’s violence genocide will not return Christians, Yazidis and others to their former communities. And it will most likely not be enough to prevent future violence against Middle Eastern religious communities.
There are two clear initiatives the Trump administration could undertake that would be effective against ISIS’s genocide, however.
The first is prosecuting ISIS for war crimes. The Trump administration could easily pick up and continue Obama’s efforts. Moreover, the State Department could readily find international partners. Nadia Murad, an anti-ISIS activist, has been pushing for international action on IS’s war crimes. And the United Nations has launched an inquiry into IS’s crimes with the cooperation of the Iraqi government. War crimes prosecutions are complicated, and not a perfect solution. But they could set a precedent against future such atrocities.
The second is helping to resettle and restore Christian and Yazidi communities in Iraq and Syria. Even if ISIS is militarily defeated, its impact on the pluralism of the Middle East will persist. The communities of religious minorities have been devastated and will struggle to return to their former homes. Given the United States’ military presence and close ties to regional states, it would be possible to coordinate international aid efforts to assist in this resettlement. This could involve food and medical supplies, technical assistance to rebuild homes, and interfaith dialogue to restore relations across sectarian lines.
These all would require intensive multilateral diplomacy, however. Given the Trump administration’s apparent hostility to multilateralism and hesitation to fully staff the State Department, religious freedom advocates should be worried. It is hard to imagine the Trump administration working closely with the United Nations to investigate war crimes, or negotiating a massive aid program with Middle Eastern states to help returning religious minorities. Indeed, it is very likely the Trump administration will pursue a campaign against ISIS composed only of military force. This has a high possibility of defeating ISIS. But it would do little to help restore the religious pluralism of the Middle East.
Those who have been calling for the United States to treat ISIS’ actions as a genocide should be heartened by Tillerson’s statement. But they should not let this be the end of their efforts. Religious freedom advocates should continue to pressure the Trump Administration to act on its declaration of ISIS’ genocide. Until the United States calls on the international community to prosecute ISIS for war crimes and help to restore religious minority communities, ISIS’ genocide will never truly end.
This post originally appeared on Medium.