U.S. right to call ISIS actions genocide

United States: ISIS is responsible for genocide
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Story highlights

  • Frida Ghitis: March 17 was Congress' deadline for State Department to label ISIS actions genocide
  • Letting deadline pass would likely have fueled criticism of administration by Donald Trump and others, she writes

Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist for The Miami Herald and World Politics Review, and a former CNN producer and correspondent. Follow her @FridaGhitis. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.

(CNN)This is an updated version of an article published Tuesday, reflecting Secretary of State John Kerry's announcement that the U.S. has determined that ISIS's action against the Yazidis and other minority groups in Iraq and Syria constitutes genocide.

Finally, the United States is standing on principle instead of politics. On Thursday, the Obama administration agreed to use the word "genocide" to describe what ISIS is doing. In doing so, it is giving in to pressure and the moral demands of our time, despite an earlier reluctance that delayed this action far too long.
    Even more surprising, we have the Congress, Democrats and Republicans, to thank for pushing the administration onto the correct path. It's not often these days that Americans can feel proud of what Congress has done. It's even less common to see Republicans and Democrats working together for a meaningful and important purpose.
    Frida Ghitis
    But rub your eyes and look again, because on Monday afternoon the United States House of Representatives did something that all Americans, and the entire world, should support: It unanimously approved a resolution pinning the label of "genocide" on the atrocities being committed by the Islamic State or ISIS and other groups targeting Christians, Yazidis, and other minorities.
    The vote on Capitol Hill registered complete unanimity -- a stunning 393 to 0. Every single member of Congress supported it. You might say Congress gave voice to the American people, who have been horrified by massacres, decapitations, crucifixions and enslavement in the region.
    ISIS hates this religious group the most
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    And yet, the non-binding "sense of Congress" resolution was not cause for celebration at the White House or the State Department.
    That's because President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry plainly did not want to utilize the morally and legally charged term of "genocide." The resolution called on the U.S. and all the world's governments to start using the precise terms to describe the events unfolding in parts of the Middle East, including "war crimes," "crimes against humanity," and "genocide."
    This was one more maneuver in a long-running battle between Congress and the administration. Months ago, Congress set a deadline of March 17 for the State Department to designate ISIS actions as genocide. But according to news reports, Obama administration officials said it appeared likely the administration would let the deadline pass while it pondered the legal consequences of the designation.
    Doing so would undoubtedly have fueled criticism of the administration by the likes of Donald Trump. It's worth noting that major candidates, including Hillary Clinton, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz have all demanded that the administration label ISIS atrocities as genocide.
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    And they are not alone. The International Association of Genocide Scholars, the expert on the subject, asked the U.S. to declare that ISIS acts -- thoroughly documented by the group itself, human rights groups, and more recently in a detailed report by the Knights of Columbus -- constitute a violation of the International Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. Other prominent voices declaring that the devastation of Christian communities, the enslavement and massacres of Yazidis, and the repeated slaughters, crucifixions and beheadings constitute genocide include Pope Francis and the European Parliament.
    The truth is everyone knows that ISIS is targeting ethnic, religious, and national minorities (Turkmen, Yazidis, Kurds and others) with the "intent to destroy" these groups. Their actions meet the definition established by the U.N. genocide convention of 1948 and subsequent legal rulings.
    And yet, the Obama administration continued to resist the pressure. Why?
    The main reason is that having used the genocide label, Obama will come under growing pressure to act more forcefully against ISIS. It will raise the profile of the group and raise its position on the list of foreign policy priorities.
    It will add up to more pressure on Obama to focus on the Middle East, something he has seemed to resist (mostly unsuccessfully) since he took office. Another reason for his reluctance may be that, from his perspective, the label would make a terrorist group seem more prominent and menacing in the mind of Americans, when, as Obama explained in a recent article in the Atlantic, he's frustrated with what he considers Americans' excessive focus on terrorism.
    Terrorism on American soil, however, is another matter entirely from the genocide that has destroyed thriving Christian communities in the Middle East and the horrors that have befallen the small Yazidi sect. This is a moral issue of the highest order, and one with which Obama has wrestled with less than impressive results.
    America's current U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power, wrote the book on modern-day genocide, and American leaders' failure to prevent it. In the Atlantic article, we learned that Obama once responded to Power's entreaties with a dismissive and condescending, "Samantha, enough, I've already read your book."
    Presidents don't like it when Congress meddles in their foreign policy. And Obama is hardly the first president to hold back on a designation of genocide.
    He has started bombing ISIS and making battlefield gains. But he does not want the historical record to register that he was the president on whose watch genocide occurred in the Middle East. Officially or not, that is already happening.
    Congress wanted the U.S. to lead the world in taking the case of ISIS and the rest of Syria to the U.N. A separate resolution approved on Monday condemned Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for "gross violations of international law amounting to war crimes and crimes against humanity," and called on the president to work for the creation of an international war crimes tribunal for Syria.
    History shows that this is an important moment. In at least two previous cases, American presidents downplayed the disasters unfolding in distant lands, only to take action after pressure from Congress forced their hand.
    During World War II, President Roosevelt knew about the Holocaust but didn't even mention the mass extermination of Jews until 1944, when millions had already been murdered, after Congress raised the pressure.
    Similarly, during the Bosnian war of 1995, President Bill Clinton stood back as long as he could, even as concentration camps filled with emaciated prisoners were visible to all on the evening news. With former Sen. Bob Dole, running for president at the time and pushing for the U.S. to help, Clinton finally relented and intervened.
    Clinton launched a successful military intervention that ended the war and halted the killing. Remember that the next time someone says military interventions are always disastrous.
    In Syria, as occurs much too often, the world allowed far too many to die before doing something to stop the killing. What is occurring there and in neighboring Iraq is, without a doubt, genocide. In the middle of the tragedy that continues in that region, a rare moment of bipartisan, nonpartisan, moral clarity has come to pass. Let's hope we see more of those ahead.