WASHINGTON -- U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has formally declared that the Islamic State (IS) extremist group has committed genocide against Christians, Yazidis, and other religious and ethnic groups in Iraq and elsewhere.
The March 17 announcement marked the first time the United States has made such a determination since 2004, when crimes committed by the government in Sudan were labeled genocide.
Still, the declaration was not expected to have any immediate practical effect on U.S. policy in its fight against IS, whose seizure of vast territories across Syria and Iraq and targeting of certain groups has prompted a monthslong multinational air campaign.
Kerry said Islamic State, which some officials refer to as ISIS or Daesh, has itself admitted that its campaigns have been aimed at wiping out entire ethnic groups.
"For those communities, the stakes in this campaign are utterly existential,” he said. “This is the fight that Daesh has defined. Daesh has created this. Daesh has targeted their victims. Daesh has self-defined itself as genocidal."
Though IS fighters have targeted Christians and also Shi’ite Muslims, they have singled out Iraq’s Yazidi population with particular vengeance. Numbering between 500,000 and 700,000 in Iraq, Yazidis practice a monotheistic religion that Islamic State regards as devil worshipping.
In August 2014, Islamic State fighters swept through the Yazidi town of Sinjar, in northern Iraq, sending tens of thousands fleeing to nearby mountains. Amid calls that a humanitarian catastrophe, or possibly genocide, was looming, President Barack Obama authorized air strikes against the fighters, and air drops of food and aid to the besieged Yazidis.
In November, Iraqi Kurdish militants, along with Yazidi fighters and U.S. military advisers, drove out the remaining Islamic State fighters from Sinjar.
In the meantime, UN and independent researchers have compiled evidence that thousands of Yazidi women -- and women from other religious and ethnic groups -- have been forced to become sex slaves for IS fighters.
Members of the Yazidi minority sect who had been held by Islamic State after their release, near the Iraqi city of Kirkuk, on April 8, 2015
Kerry said any potential criminal charges against the extremist group should come from an independent international investigation, and he said the United States would continue to support efforts to collect evidence of atrocities.
The International Criminal Court (ICC) "is typically the organization that would take a look at this, and given the judgment that Secretary Kerry has made, the United States would be supportive of that effort, both rhetorically, but also in a tangible way as well," White House spokesman Josh Earnest said.
The United States is not party to the ICC, but Obama's administration has introduced a policy of working with the court.
Jens David Ohlin, an expert on international law at Cornell University Law School, said Kerry’s announcement was unlikely to have any practical effect regarding the military campaign.
"I think it has some legal and rhetorical power to it. It has some political and diplomatic consequences. It makes it much easier to build an international coalition to fight ISIS," Ohlin said. "But I don’t think it changes the essential calculation with regards to military force against ISIS" or involvement by the ICC.
If the determination of genocide were to have tangible legal consequence, the likeliest venue would be the ICC, The Hague-based tribunal set up in the early 2000s specifically to prosecute genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and related atrocities.
But the court would only be able to undertake an investigation or prosecution if the UN Security Council were to pass a resolution giving it jurisdiction over Islamic State.
If that happened, the court could end up investigating not only Islamic State crimes, but also those of the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad, Ohlin said. And Russia, as a member of the Security Council and staunch ally of Assad, would likely not allow that to happen.
Ohlin said Kerry’s announcement also reflects a shift in thinking among U.S. policymakers dating back to the 1994 Rwandan genocide, when President Bill Clinton’s administration feared that calling the killings of Tutsis by Hutus genocide would obligate the United States to intervene militarily in the African country.
“I think that time has passed," Ohlin said. "That sort of era when people thought there was an actual legal responsibility to intervene to stop a genocide is an artifact of the 1990s and doesn’t exist now.”