Opinion

Merely denouncing genocide rings hollow; U.S. must make its case in court

The Obama administration is under fire over the Islamic State’s violence against minority religious groups in the Middle East.

The administration, say critics, should be doing more to stop atrocities by the Islamic State against Christians and other groups in Iraq and Syria. The administration has labeled that violence as genocide but only did so after pressure from advocacy groups and after a resolution on the subject was adopted by the House of Representatives earlier this month.

The administration has also been soft, the criticism runs, on Palestine regarding a spate of isolated violent attacks on Jews in Israel. The administration has reacted by putting that violence in the context of violence and land grabs by Israel and Israelis in the Palestinian West Bank territory.

The House resolution declares, using another name for the Islamic State, that “the atrocities perpetrated by ISIL against Christians, Yezidis, and other religious and ethnic minorities in Iraq and Syria constitute war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.”

The White House had been reluctant to slap the label of genocide on the Islamic State. The Obama administration is already under pressure to take a more aggressive approach against the group, so it is not looking for issues that ramp up the pressure even more.

Some administration critics are painting the two issues — Islamic State violence against Christians, and Palestinian violence against Israeli Jews — with a single brush. They see both as a product of religious intolerance.

That approach is misguided, even counterproductive. The Obama administration sees the Palestinian violence against Israeli Jews as a reaction to longstanding Israeli pressure against Palestinians, and especially to the effort to take over the Palestinian West Bank territory by building Israeli settlements there. The Islamic State violence, to the contrary, is seen as religion-based.

If the administration analysis is correct — and it probably is — the solutions in the two situations have little to do with each other.

The Palestinian violence against Israeli Jews needs to be addressed by resolving the underlying conflict.

Many of the young people on the Palestinian side see Israel taking over their territory and fear that their elders — the Palestinians in leadership — have no solution. The elders have gone down the path of negotiations now for two decades.

Many younger Palestinians see Israel as negotiating the Palestinians to death. Israel pretends to negotiate, all the while taking more of the territory that is supposed to become Palestine’s.

Unfortunately, the Islamic State violence does not lend itself to a political-type solution.

The House resolution suggested setting up a tribunal to try Islamic State figures.

The possibility of arranging for that is slim to none, because there already is a tribunal — the International Criminal Court — that was set up to do just that. The House did not mention that court in the resolution, probably because we have not joined it. The U.N. Security Council could still trigger prosecution of Islamic State figures by the International Criminal Court.

Labeling the Islamic State atrocities as genocide does little in itself to provide protection for Christians and other religious minorities.

There is another international court — the International Court of Justice — that might be brought into the picture.

States that help the Islamic State commit genocide could be sued, if they have joined the Genocide Convention. But the Genocide Convention lets states opt out of the provision that allows for these suits.

The United States has opted out, which means it cannot sue other states for genocide. We could easily opt in by sending a letter to the United Nations.

Denouncing the Islamic State for genocide is fine as far as it goes. But it rings hollow when we have avoided international processes set up precisely to deal with genocide.

John B. Quigley is a distinguished professor of law at Ohio State. Readers may write to him at Moritz College of Law, 55 W. 12th St., Columbus, OH 43210.

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