BU Experts: Labeling Attacks as Genocide May Not Spur Change

Secretary of State John Kerry. Photo By: Ralph Alswang
Written by Clairissa Baker

By Clairissa Baker
BU News Service

On March 17, the United States officially deemed acts of the Islamic State (ISIS) genocide, but the declaration itself may not signify any impact on U.S. policy.

The announcement came after Congress pushed a hesitant administration to come to a decision. The declaration addresses the Christian and Yazidi minorities targeted by ISIS in Iraq and Syria.

Amanda Rothschild, Research Fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, said the declaration comes as no surprise.

The 1948 Convention on genocide makes it a crime under international law, one that the signing parties agree to prevent and punish. According to Rothschild, the term has a very specific legal definition, but deciding to use the term has to do with concern over the impact it has on the public.

The administration does not want to use the term genocide and then not do something, Rothschild indicated. And historically, the U.S. is not good at acting quickly.

Rothschild said she would be surprised if the declaration of genocide led to a change in U.S. policy in the region. Calling it genocide will not change much unless it spurs the public.

Boston University Pardee School of Global Studies Professor Michael Woldemariam characterizes the current U.S. policy towards ISIS as “the strategy of coalition building.” The U.S. wants to partner with allies in the region and have those allies be at the forefront of the fight.

Labeling acts genocide “can have real consequences on our policy,” Woldemariam stated. Once you deem it genocide, he said, it almost propels the government to take action that they would not otherwise do.

Boston College Theology Professor Natana Delong-Bas — whose research includes terrorism, extremism and Islamic law — said the U.S. has tried various methods to combat the militant group, including economic sanctions, with little success.

Delong-Bas said the U.S. does not have the luxury of employing only a long-term strategy “for the sake of preserving human life.” Despite being born and raised a pacifist, she believes in order to effectively halt the spread of ISIS, there needs to be troops — not necessarily from the U.S. — on the ground.

Delong-Bas stated that the situation regarding ISIS has “reached a point where we are going to be pushed into taking a more active stance.”

Woldemariam proposed a number of strategies to combat ISIS, such as striking at its resource bases and resolving the underlying political issues. The U.S. is already trying to do these things, he said, but when so many different actors are involved, it gets complicated.

Talk of ISIS has been prevalent in the presidential rhetoric, and attacks on foreign lands have raised the level of importance in the view of the public.

However, Delong-Bas says she isn’t sure if the people are ready to devote the time and money necessary for combatting the group. There is, she said, a “collective anger” and an “idea that we need to something.”

How the U.S. proceeds then depends largely on the will of the citizens.

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