By Laurence Wilkinson
I was sitting in the hemisphere of the Council of Europe in Strasbourg Jan. 27 when something extraordinary happened. The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe – a body composed of parliamentarians from its 47 member states representing over 800 million citizens –declared that genocide was occurring in Syria and Iraq in an unprecedented move in the world of international institutions. Rather than looking to pass the responsibility on to another institution, the Parliamentary Assembly responded decisively to the evidence before it and proceeded to make a bold declaration, urging its member states to fulfill their positive obligations under the 1948 United Nations Genocide Convention to prevent and punish the genocide occurring in the region. This was the sort of strong reactive statement that one hopes for, but rarely sees, in the world of international politics.
The very next week I was in the hemisphere of the European Parliament as it considered a resolution on the mass-murders committed by ISIS. The Parliament had been expected to make a well-meaning (but ultimately toothless) statement on the situation in the region, but as the resolution was voted through, the adoption of last-minute amendments resulted in yet another strong statement condemning the ongoing atrocities in the Middle East as genocide. Crucially, the resolution also urged members of the UN Security Council to support a referral of the situation to the International Criminal Court (ICC) to investigate the atrocities committed in Iraq and Syria. This was important, as the ICC – who would take the lead on investigating and prosecuting the crimes committed in the region - had indicated that it was only willing to accept jurisdiction of the case where it received a referral from the UN Security Council.
As momentum was building, I discovered that a member of the House of Lords in the United Kingdom was due to ask what action the UK Government was going to take in light of the recent resolutions being passed at the Council of Europe and the European Parliament (the significance being that the UK is a permanent member of the UN Security Council). Tuning in to watch the debate take place, I was hugely disappointed to see Her Majesty’s Government take the non-contentious but weak option, stating that such declarations were the domain of the “international judicial system” – whatever that might be.
As a permanent member of the UN Security Council, the United Kingdom is uniquely placed to be able to significantly advance the great work started in the Council of Europe, and can use its weighty influence to lead the debate on what action should be taken to safeguard lives at ground level and encourage the engagement of the ICC. The member of the House of Lords who had raised the initial question, Lord David Alton, has recently invited the Prime Minister to revisit the Government’s position, which I trust will lead to a change of stance.
In respect of the United States – another permanent member of the UN Security Council along with France, Russia and China – the US Congress is considering, but is yet to pass, a response to the acts of genocide being committed in the region, as outlined in a recent bill sponsored by Senator Benjamin L. Cardin. There was also a letter recently sent to President Barack Obama by over 100 NGOs and Christian leaders, urging him to recognize the atrocities committed in the region against Christians and other religious minorities as genocide; a move his administration has so far refused to make.
Whether these influential governments lack the political willpower to take decisive action, or whether they have not yet thoroughly examined the chilling evidence of mass executions, sexual slavery, rape, torture, mutilation, enlistment and forced recruitment of children and the persecution of ethnic and religious minorities that is emanating from the region; I do not know. What I do know is that in the wake of the brutal genocide that occurred in Rwanda in 1994, the international community said “never again.” I hope for the sake of all those on the ground in Syria and Iraq whose lives are hanging in the balance that the United Kingdom, the United States, and the international community at large, will deliver on their word.
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