WashU Expert: ISIS genocide declaration key step on road to prosecution

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry this week said that the United States has determined ISIS’ actions against Yazidis and other minority groups in Iraq and Syria constitute genocide.

The allegations of genocide by the United States government reinforce similar findings made last year by United Nations bodies and provide a clear path for ISIS leaders to be tried in international and domestic courts for their crimes, said Leila Sadat, an expert on crimes against humanity in the School of Law at Washington University in St. Louis.

Leila Sadat
Leila Sadat

“Allegations of genocide mean three things,” said Sadat, the Henry H. Oberschelp Professor of Law, director of the Whitney R. Harris World Law Institute and special adviser on crimes against humanity to the International Criminal Court prosecutor.

Sadat’s comments here are her own. She is not speaking on behalf of the court.

“First, states able to do so may have an international legal obligation to prevent the genocide from occurring,” she said. “In addition, a formal finding that genocide is taking place means that the Responsibility to Protect is engaged and the United Nations Security Council has an obligation to act if the territorial state cannot.”

Another key outcome of a declaration of genocide, Sadat said, is that states have a duty to prosecute the perpetrators of genocide, and those complicit with them. These individuals may be tried in international or domestic courts for their crimes. These specific obligations are found in the genocide convention itself as well as U.N. resolutions.

Sadat has published widely on crimes against humanity and genocide, including her 2015 paper, “Genocide in Syria: International Legal Options, International Legal Limits, and the Serious Problem of Political Will.”

“No amnesty for crimes of the magnitude alleged to have been committed in Syria can, or should be accepted, nor is it clear that any amnesty would be lawful, at least outside of Syria,” Sadat wrote. “Moreover, amnesty would be unlikely to either resolve the current impasse or prevent the commission of future atrocities.”

“History has shown that impunity typically emboldens individuals perpetrating
atrocity crimes; it does not stop them,” she wrote.

“The United States was criticized for its failure in 1994 to condemn the atrocities in Rwanda as genocide,” Sadat said. “Secretary Kerry’s decision to call the crimes committed in Iraq and Syria by their true name is commendable. U.S. leadership on this issue is critical to stopping the atrocities, and bringing some measure of justice to the situation.”