On December 22, 2017, the Dutch government published a letter regarding the Daesh (the Islamic State or ISIS) atrocities perpetrated against religious groups in Syria and Iraq. The letter states that Daesh in all likelihood commits genocide and crimes against humanity. It further states that the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide applies.
This is a big step forward and a significant change from the Dutch government’s former stance on the issues. Indeed, over the last years, the Netherlands had argued that it was not for politicians to decide whether the Daesh atrocities amounted to genocide but for the international judicial system.
The issue had been previously considered by the Dutch government or parliament. For example, on December 14, 2016, Dutch MP Pieter Omtzigt organized an event at the Parliament where a delegation representing persecuted Middle Eastern Christians discussed Daesh atrocities. The delegation included the Archbishop of the Syrian-Catholic Church in Mosul, Petrus Mouche, the Syriac-Orthodox Archbishop of the Netherlands, Mor Polycarpus, journalist and founder of A Demand for Action, Nuri Kino, and filmmaker Jordan Allot, who presented a fragment from his recent movie Our Last Stand. Speakers explained the situation Christians in Syria and Iraq face and the nature of Daesh atrocities. With one voice they declared this is genocide, and the international community must act.
These messages did not differ from the several other recognitions of Daesh’s genocide in Syria and Iraq by the Council of Europe, European Parliament, United Kingdom House of Commons, the United States Department of State and Congress, the Canadian government and Parliament, and parliaments of Austria, Hungary, France, and Lithuania. In fact, Pieter Omtzigt’s comprehensive report in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe shows in detail how and why Daesh actions amount to genocide. He also points to the fact that thousands of European Union citizens have joined Daesh and taken part in this genocide.
During the December 2016 event at the Dutch Parliament, Ten Broeke, Member of the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy, asked whether the Netherlands was the only country unwilling to recognize this genocide.
True, the Netherlands was not the only country that has not recognized Daesh atrocities for what they are—genocide. Shamefully, most recognitions come from states’ parliaments and not their governments, except for the US and Canada. Nonetheless, it is worth scrutinizing how positions started to change in Canada and the UK.
On June 14, 2016, the Canadian Parliament rejected recognizing Daesh atrocities as genocide and argued that it was not for politicians but for international judicial bodies to decide. However, this stance changed in less than 48 hours. The Canadian government made the recognition on June 16, 2016, a few hours after the United Nations Independent International Commission of Inquiry into the Syrian Arab Republic released the report “They came to destroy,” which confirmed that the Daesh atrocities against the Yazidis amounted to genocide. Canada had sent a fact-finding mission to Iraq to scrutinize the situation and establish best practices for helping survivors. Weeks later on October 25, 2016, the Canadian Parliament voted for the recognition and called upon the Parliament to act and resettle persecuted groups to Canada within the next four months.
The UK government has a long-standing policy to leave the question of genocide for the “international judicial system.” Nonetheless, the issue of Daesh genocide has resurfaced regularly over the past years. On April 20, 2016, the House of Commons unanimously recognized the Daesh atrocities against religious minorities as genocide, in response to a motion tabled by MP Fiona Bruce. Despite the fact that the House of Commons stood united on the issue, the UK government refused to change its stance. Without changing its position on the recognition of the genocide, on September 19, 2016, the government announced its cooperation with the Belgian and Iraqi governments to bring Daesh perpetrators to justice. This collaboration resulted in a UN Security Council resolution establishing an investigative team to collect, preserve, and prepare evidence of Daesh atrocities for any future prosecutions.
Still, a failure to recognize mass atrocities is a flagrant breach of states’ obligations under the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. Without recognizing mass atrocities as genocide (or attempted genocide), states would likely fail to take adequate steps to stop the crimes, prevent them from continuing, and prosecute perpetrators.
This is why, in the UK at least, Lord David Alton of Liverpool introduced the Genocide Determination Bill, a private members’ bill with the aim to “provide for the High Court of England and Wales to make a preliminary finding on cases of alleged genocide; and for the subsequent referral of such findings to the International Criminal Court or a special tribunal.” If successful, the UK would not need to wait for the recognition by the international judicial system.
Allowing international judicial bodies to decide whether an atrocity is genocide is not a novel proposal. However, countries should first consider what they are doing to assist the international judicial system to make such a recognition. The word genocide, the crime of crimes, should not be used lightly. But we cannot justify shifting the burden onto the international judicial system without undertaking necessary steps to ensure the system would consider the question and has the ability.
The development in the Netherlands is welcomed as a breath of fresh air and a great hope for 2018. Indeed, this year the Netherlands took a seat at the UN Security Council. Let the new statement from the Dutch government be only the beginning of the country’s legal and political fight against the Daesh genocidal campaign.
Ewelina U. Ochab is a human rights advocate and author of the book Never Again: Legal Responses to a Broken Promise in the Middle East. She works on the persecution of minorities around the world, with main projects including Daesh genocide in Syria and Iraq, Boko Haram atrocities in West Africa, and the situation of religious minorities in South Asia. She has written over 30 UN topical reports (including Universal Periodic Review reports) and has made oral and written submissions at the Human Rights Council sessions and the UN Forum on Minority Issues. Ochab is currently working on her Ph.D. in international law, human rights, and medical ethics. Follow her work on Twitter: @EwelinaUA.
Pieter Omtzigt (Ph.D., Econometrics, European University Institute in Florence) has been a Member of the Dutch Parliament since 2003 and a replacement Member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe since 2004. In the Dutch Parliament, he is a spokesman on pensions, taxes, and Europe. In the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe and at home, he has strived to uphold human rights and freedom of religion. On many occasions, he has raised the situation of persecuted Christians both in the Dutch Parliament and in Europe. He was a driving force for including the aim of bringing ISIS fighters to justice in the Dutch government agreement in the year that the Netherlands holds a temporary seat in the UN Security Council. In the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, in which MPs from 47 member states take part, his proposal to recognize the atrocities of ISIS as acts of genocide passed in January 2016. He is now proposing further research into the way European weapons ended up in the hands of ISIS. He is the co-author of The Slow disappearance of the Syriacs from Turkey and of the grounds of the Mor Gabriel Monastery.
Photo Credit: Meeting place of the Netherlands’ parliament in the Binnenhof in The Hague. By risastla, via Flickr.