Genocide in the Middle East: Calling it what it is

Robert Clarke

Posted: 5 May 2016

The following is an opinion piece written by Robert Clarke, a Barrister working in-house for the alliance-building legal organisation ADF International.

"Speak out on behalf of the voiceless, and for the rights of all who are vulnerable."

- Proverbs 31:8 (CEB)

"…learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow's cause."

- Isaiah 1:17 (ESV)

God's heart for his people permeates all scripture.

John Donne (1572-1631) was a poet, priest and lawyer who coined the well-known phrase that "no man is an island." This picture of shared responsibility and interconnectedness captures God's heart for justice which permeates all of scripture. From the surprising intervention of the Samaritan, to the prophets calling a wayward people back, God calls us to care for the sick, give to the poor and lift up the downtrodden. The Bible does not allow us to live unconnected from the world around us and the suffering of our brothers and sisters.

In 2016, there is probably nowhere that the church is experiencing such existential persecution as in the Middle East. At the hands of Daesh - the Islamic State – the Christian population of Syria has dropped from 2 million to 1 million in the last four years. And in Iraq, the number of Christians, estimated to be 1.4 million in 2003, now stands at around 260,000.

If the numbers aren't shocking enough, the accounts of people killed or forced to flee for their faith humanise something which continues on a scale that is difficult to comprehend. Last month, I heard firsthand from a Yazidi girl who shared her harrowing story with members of the House of Commons. She saw her father and brother shot in front of her eyes, she herself was kidnapped. She was raped by the "fighters" of "Daesh" and held captive until she was freed by the Kurdish Pershmerga army. She now has asylum in Germany, and when we asked her what she wanted to do with her life, she told us that she wanted to be a lawyer. She recognized the particular calling of lawyers as advocates – those who speak on behalf of others as Jesus does for us.

The international response

Almost inexplicably in the face of irrefutable evidence, governments around the world get tongue-tied when it comes to the word genocide. Genocide is defined in the 1948 UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. Article II defines it as murder, rape, and causing other serious bodily or mental harm where such acts are done "with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group." It is hard to imagine a group so committed to the total annihilation of groups simply because of their religion or ethnicity as Daesh. As US Secretary of State John Kerry accepted in his statement of 17 March 2016, "Daesh is genocidal by self-proclamation, by ideology, and by actions – in what it says, what it believes, and what it does." It is a reality which ADF International has been working to highlight at agenda-setting international institutions. First, at the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, a resolution was passed on 27 January 2016 condemning ISIS as committing genocide. Shortly after, on 4 February 2016, the European Parliament passed a similar resolution.

Given the group's own propaganda, and this growing international momentum, it is difficult to see how any government could be reluctant to call what is happening in the Middle East genocide. But that is precisely the position taken by the UK Government.

The motion in the House of Commons on 20 April 2016 was an attempt to express the view of Parliamentarians that this is genocide; and to call on the Government to use its influence at the UN Security Council to make a referral to the International Criminal Court. During the course of the debate, I watched more than a dozen MPs express passionately why the motion mattered. The only speaker against was the Government Minister Tobias Ellwood who peddled the government line that such a determination can only be made by the "international judicial system."

The Government ordered a "payroll vote" – MPs who hold Government positions were told to abstain. This is an old Parliamentary tactic to undermine the legitimacy of a vote. It was therefore a tremendous show of support for the motion tabled by Fiona Bruce MP when the vote was announced: 270 for, none against. And despite speaking against the motion in the Commons and abstaining from the vote, later that same day, Tobias Ellwood MP tweeted, "Excellent debate on Daesh crimes. I believe acts of genocide have occurred…"

Challenging the circularity

The difficulty with the government line is that the "international judicial system" relies on its constituent member states to call it into action. Last year, the Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court said "I have come to the conclusion that the jurisdictional basis for opening a preliminary examination into [the alleged crimes by ISIS] is too narrow at this stage. A renewed commitment and a sense of urgency on the part of the concerned states may help identify viable avenues. The decision of non-Party States and the United Nations Security Council to confer jurisdiction on the ICC is, however, wholly independent of the Court." She points to the need for action on the part of States – particularly at the UN Security Council level where the UK holds a privileged position as one of just five permanent members.

Some people will say, why does this word "genocide" matter? As lawyers, we know that words matter. And as Christians we know that it is right to call something for what it is. As Proverbs 31:8 reminds us, we are called to be a voice for the voiceless; to speak up for those who cannot speak up for themselves. Calling this genocide tells the victims that we stand with them; it tells the perpetrators that they will be held to account; and it enables the international mechanisms set up to respond to just such events to do what they were designed to do.

Our response

  1. Pray. Hebrews 13:3 challenges us to "Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them, and those who are mistreated, since you also are in the body." Pray for the victims. Pray for the perpetrators. Pray for those in authority both at home and abroad.
  2. Learn more. In learning more about the reality for Christians living under the threat of Daesh, we can better pray for them, better explain their situation to friends and colleagues and be a voice. We have a number of resources available here:
  3. Ask your MP to challenge the Government on its position. A number of MPs spoke up in the debate. The challenge is now to secure the follow through. This must include ending the circular reasoning that refuses to push the atrocities through to the International Criminal Court.