by Jessica Zaccagnino
On March 17th, Secretary of State John Kerry declared that ISIS is committing acts of genocide against Yazidis and other minority groups in Iraq and Syria, launching the United States into a complex discussion of how to feasibly prosecute ISIS. Although there is not universal ascension to the Genocide Convention, customary international law has enshrined obligations of the international community to prevent, suppress, and punish perpetrators of genocide. Akila Radhakrishnan, the Legal Director of the GJC, emphasized in an interview that “the prohibition on genocide is actually considered to be so widely important that it has attained an even higher status of customary international law called jus cogens, which means it is absolutely non-derogable in every context.” The United States, party to the Genocide Convention, is required by both international conventions and customary international law to take action against genocide. Declaring that ISIS is relatively easy, but actually prosecuting ISIS poses a unique set of challenges in part due to their non-state actor status: logistical, legal, and otherwise.
The prosecution of ISIS for genocide raises numerous, difficult questions: first, what body should carry out trials? In a resolution released days prior to Kerry’s announcement, Congress indicated support for trial in an internationally-run court, such as the International Criminal Court, or an entirely new tribunal, would be the best course of action. The White House has yet to indicate a plan of prosecution. Similar questions of logistics, such as who to hold responsible and where to hold large numbers of detainees, have also been raised. The existence of a defined administrative hierarchy within ISIS raises questions as to what extent subordinates should be held accountable for acts planned by their superiors; however, this is a question that plagues most tribunals.
In terms of prosecuting foreign fighters, it will likely be easier for the United States to turn over detainees to Iraq, an ally, than to Syria, as the US has been supporting rebel groups wishing to oust President Bashar Assad. Since ISIS utilizes many foreign fighters, estimated at 27,000, the use of national jurisdiction over these fighters may open up opportunities for a case in the ICC, even though Iraq and Syria are not party to the Rome Statute, or domestic trials in the US if extradited. The final problem is one of evidence: genocide is a very difficult crime to prove. Due to the “specific intent” portion of the definition, more extensive evidence is required than general charges of crimes against humanity or war crimes. This means, in order to prosecute ISIS, there must be a careful collection of evidence, all while in an active war zone.
To successfully prosecute ISIS for crimes of genocide, the US and international community will have to parse through numerous complex challenges in the near future and focus their energy not on only combatting ISIS militarily, but also constructing a clear prosecutorial strategy.
Although prosecuting ISIS for crimes of genocide poses a unique set of challenges, they are not impossible to overcome. The United States and the global community have a duty to prosecute crimes of genocide under international humanitarian law. ISIS’ prosecution, with the US playing an active role, is of utmost importance, especially now that both the US and UN’s Commission of Inquiry on Syria have come to the consensus that ISIS is perpetuating genocide. Countries must engage with these challenges proactively and address them head on in order to make substantial progress towards prosecution.
Click here to read the full interview with Akila Radhakrishnan and Grant Shubin, lawyers at Global Justice Center, about the US’ declaration of ISIS’ genocide.