Home / Publications / We’ve Been Here Before: Keeping Our Promise of “Never Again” to Victims of Daesh’s Genocide

We’ve Been Here Before: Keeping Our Promise of “Never Again” to Victims of Daesh’s Genocide

Last month, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry officially recognized the genocide being committed by Daesh, also known as ISIL, against religious and ethnic minorities in Iraq and Syria. Recognition is the first step. Today, on the twenty-second anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, the world must demonstrate that we have learned from the past and will take all possible actions to stop Daesh’s genocide. 

Starting on April 7, 1994, upwards of around 800,000 Rwandans, predominantly Tutsis were massacred over the course of 100 days. Of those killed, an estimated 250,000–300,000 Tutsi women and girls were raped; many were even raped to death. The suffering of the women and girls who survived rape, enslavement, and sexual mutilation continues even today. The response of the international community, to this genocide was muted and politicized. In a deliberate attempt to avoid their international legal obligations, states refused to acknowledge the genocide until it was too late. This inaction failed the Tutsi people on an unimaginable scale.

After Rwanda, the world adopted frameworks to prevent future genocides, but these frameworks are ineffective. Daesh continues to commit genocide against the Yazidi people by mass killing the men and raping, enslaving, and forcibly converting the women and girls with the intent to destroy their people. The sexual violence against women and girls are non-killing crimes of genocide that cause serious bodily and mental harm to the Yazidis, prevent future Yazidi births, and forcibly transfer Yazidis.

In sharp contrast to the silence around Rwanda, as early as August 2014, President Obama invoked the need to “prevent a potential act of genocide” as justification for airstrikes to rescue the Yazidis under siege on Mount Sinjar in Iraq. Laudably, there have been other high-level recognitions of Daesh’s genocide in addition to Kerry’s formal announcement. The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, the European Parliament, and Iraq, among others, have also pronounced that Daesh’s crimes include genocide.

These acknowledgements show how far we’ve come and that we’ve learned from the past. It shows that we’re beginning to move past the days of calculated avoidance of the very word “genocide” for fear of incurring obligations. But this is the just the first step — recognition alone will not deter Daesh’s genocide. While the United States, among others, must be applauded for taking a strong stance, this rhetoric must be accompanied by equally strong action in accordance with international law.

Under the Genocide Convention of 1948 and customary international law, decisive action is required to end genocide and the impunity with which it is carried out. The legal obligations to prevent, suppress, and punish genocide first arise when there is serious risk and continue during and even after the genocide. States must take all measures within their power to fulfill these obligations to stop perpetrators, such as the government-backed actors of mass killings and rapes in Rwanda and non-state actors like Daesh today. The United States and a global coalition are already engaged in a counter-terrorist military intervention against Daesh, but it’s important to note that states cannot fulfill their legal obligations vis-à-vis genocide as long as efforts only address Daesh’s atrocities under the counter-terrorism framework. These crimes must be treated as crimes of genocide, and genocide prevention should be integrated into counter-terrorist military operations, as well.

In Rwanda, the legal obligations regarding genocide were ignored. The imperative to prevent and suppress genocide didn’t factor into even the most basic of interventions, as exemplified by the United States refusing to even neutralize radio stations despite knowing about the airwaves inciting genocidal killings and genocidal rapes of Tutsi women and girls. After the genocide, jurisprudence from the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) fleshed out what acts can constitute genocide. The ICTR’s landmark judgment in Akayesu in 1998 held, for the first time ever, that rape could be a crime of genocide. A few years later, the ICTR convicted three media executives for inciting genocide via radio waves and newspaper publications in the Media Case in 2003.

Given these developments, the actions needed to defend at-risk people should be obvious. Especially since Daesh uses similar tactics and gendered propaganda to incite atrocities as the genocidaires did in 1994 Rwanda. Except today, Daesh has the frightening global reach of social media at its disposal to recruit members and incite genocidal crimes, including the enslavement and rape of Yazidi women and girls. The promise of receiving sex slaves has already undoubtedly influenced 30,000 foreign recruits to travel to Iraq and Syria and join Daesh. Addressing Daesh’s actions only as counter-terrorism illustrates the continued blindness to the legal requirement to respond to genocide with “counter-genocide” measures, including actions to suppress the ongoing genocide and to hold perpetrators accountable.

Punishment for crimes of genocide as genocide can delegitimize and stigmatize Daesh and deter potential perpetrators from joining, thus aiding in the takedown of its recruitment machinery. International prosecutions, in particular, demonstrate that the world will not condone genocide and other atrocity crimes. The International Criminal Court (ICC) can begin by prosecuting the 5,000–7,000 foreign fighters from states over which the court already has jurisdiction. Criminal trials for gender-based acts of genocide will help end impunity for violence against women and begin to satisfy victims’ right to justice while simultaneously affirming the rule of law. Furthermore, the United States, as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, should push for the Security Council to mandate international, independent investigations and to refer the situation of Daesh’s genocide to the ICC. The Security Council’s referral of the situation in Darfur, Sudan to the ICC in 2005 is precedence for such a measure. The United States has already said that it would cooperate in independent investigations, including by the ICC, to gather evidence of genocide.

Since Rwanda, the United States has learned the importance of affirming the goals of the Genocide Convention to safeguard the existence of all peoples. Other states must also remember the lessons from Rwanda and courts must explicitly acknowledge and address as “genocide” all of Daesh’s crimes — including sexual violence and incitement — just as the ICTR did in holding Rwandan perpetrators accountable. The United States must continue to set an example to the rest of the world and act so Daesh doesn’t get away with its crimes. The United States can do this by taking further steps to stop the genocide, including by rescuing enslaved Yazidi women and girls, and facilitate the prosecution of genocidal terrorists.

After the Holocaust, the international community shook its head at the evil in the world and vowed to “never forget” and “never again” allow genocide to occur. The near-million Rwandans slaughtered in 1994 bore witness to the emptiness of this rhetoric. Fortunately, we’re no longer repeating our mistaken inaction, but the international community still can and must do more in responding to genocide as such. If the United States and its allies act to stop the genocide of Yazidis today, in addition to saving lives, the world will indicate that we remember the genocides of the past and that we will act to protect against the destruction of threatened peoples anywhere.


Anjali (Anji) Manivannan is a Legal Fellow at the Global Justice Center and holds a J.D. from NYU School of Law. Previously, Anji interned for Human Rights Watch, People’s Watch in India, Badil in the West Bank, and People for Equality and Relief in Lanka. She has published on gender inequalities in access to information about Ebola, sexual violence against men in armed conflict, and press freedom as a vehicle for reconciliation in post-war Sri Lanka.

Photo courtesy of Yazda: A Global Yazidi Organization