The following article was published in The Catholic Universe, Friday 15 April, in it Bishop Declan Lang says that UK recognition of genocide by Daesh is an important step but practical action is needed to liberate areas under Daesh control, support refugees, and rebuild communities.
On 17 March US Secretary of State John Kerry stood before the world’s media and declared that Daesh is committing genocide against Christians, Yazidis and Shia Muslims.
His statement, the strongest yet by an American official, came in the same week that the House of Representatives unanimously passed a motion recognising Daesh’s crimes as genocidal on the basis that minorities “have been murdered, subjugated, forced to emigrate and suffered grievous bodily and psychological harm, including sexual enslavement and abuse, inflicted in a deliberate and calculated manner.”
Since Pope Francis publicly referred to these atrocities as a form of genocide, the US Catholic Church has tirelessly called on the government and legislature to take this step. Urging Catholics throughout the country to lobby their elected representatives, Bishops’ Conference President Archbishop Joseph Kurtz warned that “with each passing day the roll of modern martyrs grows” and “the very future of the ancient Christian presence in the Middle East is at stake.”
Almost two years on from Daesh’s brutal advance across the Nineveh Plains, it is impossible to overstate the horrors that have been committed against minority communities. Thousands of people have been systematically captured, tortured and killed; in just one horrendous episode last spring more than three hundred Yazidi men, women and children were slaughtered in a single day.
Harrowingly at least five thousand Christian and Yazidi women have been forced into sexual slavery. Girls as young as nine years old are bought and sold in market places reminiscent of the most shameful instances in human history. Meanwhile young boys continue to be conscripted as child soldiers and suicide bombers, forced to kill other members of their own communities.
Not content with such abhorrent human rights violations Daesh has targeted any visible manifestations of belief systems that do not fit its grossly distorted version of Islam. Jihadists have dynamited Shia mosques and Yazidi temples, desecrated churches, smashed statues, burned ancient religious manuscripts and razed the 1,400 year old St Elijah’s monastery to the ground.
Here in the UK, debate continues about whether our government should follow the US lead and recognise these atrocities as genocide. Last year Rob Flello MP and Lord Alton convened a group of more than sixty parliamentarians, who stressed to the Prime Minister how this designation would send a clear signal that Daesh will be held accountable for its crimes, and could help spur the international community into firmer action. In response the government has argued that recognition of genocide is a legal matter for the International Criminal Court, rather than a political decision for national governments, but agrees that however Daesh’s evil treatment of minorities is designated the world has an imperative to actively confront it.
But what does this mean in practice? Primarily it must involve supporting the liberation of areas under Daesh’s control. Events of recent years have shown how difficult decisions in this area can be. Following his own visit to the region Cardinal Nichols reflected “while indiscriminate violence is never justifiable, specific use of force to protect the vulnerable is defensible if it is combined with sustained diplomatic and humanitarian efforts.”
The operation by Kurdish Peshmerga and western air forces to save 50,000 Yazidi trapped on Mount Sinjar in 2014 was not only legitimate, it was an essential intervention to prevent a certain massacre. Likewise support for the local forces protecting millions of refugees is an undeniable responsibility for all concerned with preventing further atrocities. The international community now faces the even more daunting challenge of helping to free people from the tyranny of Daesh in areas such as Mosul and Nineveh. This will undoubtedly present many further moral and strategic questions, but faced with such horrors the world cannot stand by.
At the same time assistance must be increased for the vast numbers of people from minority communities who have fled their homes to seek sanctuary in the Kurdish Region of Northern Iraq and further afield. The UK is one of the largest international donors to the relief effort, working with partners on the ground including the local Catholic Church to provide food, shelter, and medical facilities. Yet there is still a huge shortfall particularly in areas like mental health, with only a handful of qualified psychologists to support the growing number of refugees who suffer debilitating trauma after experiencing unspeakable atrocities.
Refugees with disabilities and survivors of sexual violence are faring particularly badly in the camps. Under the Vulnerable Persons Relocation Scheme some are being brought to the UK and receiving support that would not otherwise be available. However at the moment only refugees from Syria are eligible, excluding victims of Daesh who come from Northern Iraq even though our government has explicitly acknowledged that the border no longer exists in reality. Taking the simple step of extending this programme to Iraqis and injecting extra resources into local specialist care would be a significant improvement to the invaluable support that the UK is already providing.
In the longer term a global effort is required to help build a new future in the region for all those communities that have been torn apart by Daesh. As Archbishop Warda of Erbil so poignantly explained “our beloved Christian community has so many reasons to leave Iraq today…we all have a great responsibility to give them reasons to stay.” His Diocese has already opened a new university where hundreds of displaced young people have been able to resume their studies, and projects like this need to be supported if minority communities are to survive.
Formally recognising the horrific extent of Daesh’s crimes is unarguably an important step. Yet whether or not states have acknowledged genocide they cannot neglect their duty to act.
By Bishop Declan Lang, Chair of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference Department for International Affairs.