Kerry Says ISIS “Responsible for Genocide”: What Does That Mean?

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Earlier this week, the House voted unanimously to declare ISIS’s actions genocide, and set a March 17 deadline for the State Department’s determination. Today, Secretary of State John Kerry did acknowledge that ISIS is “responsible for genocide.”

While it may sound like he’s just stating the obvious, it’s a pretty strong political statement when you consider its implications. The official definition of “genocide,” according to the United Nations, is the following:

…genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

(a) Killing members of the group;

(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;

(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;

(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;

(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

The same U.N. Convention that created this definition also states that genocide is a “crime under international law” that the international community would “undertake to prevent and to punish.”

While this doesn’t necessarily imply that there’s any sort of legal obligation of involvement when the word “genocide” is used, it makes a more compelling argument for the U.S. to take stronger action against ISIS. And even though the international law can be very ambiguous, Secretary Kerry said in today’s statement that “we must hold the perpetrators accountable. And we must find the resources to help those harmed by these atrocities be able to survive on their ancestral land.” To add to that even further, it’s also pretty rare for the U.S. to make such a declaration: the last time the U.S. officially declared genocide was over a decade ago, in 2004, when then-Secretary of State Colin Powell used it to refer to the atrocities in Darfur.

So while it’s still not completely clear to what extent this affects our current foreign policy toward ISIS, it could mean a significant international effort to take action against the group, and shows that we definitely aren’t walking away from this conflict any time soon.

Mariam Jaffery
Mariam was an Executive Assistant at Law Street Media and a native of Northern Virginia. She has a B.A. in International Affairs with a minor in Business Administration from George Washington University. Contact Mariam at



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