It's Official: ISIS Is Committing Genocide. Here's What That Means

Activists demonstrating near the White House to call attention to ISIS' genocidal acts against Christians. (RLBolton/Flickr)

As long as we've been aware of ISIS, or Islamic State, we've called what they're doing terrorism. Now we have a new name for it: genocide.

It's official: ISIS is committing genocide.

First, what is genocide?

Genocide is the killing, systematically and deliberately, of a large group of people, often a specific ethnic, racial, or religious group--or even an entire nation.

The definition of genocide in international law is a bit more complicated. In 1948, a code was adopted called the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide. It laid out two aspects of genocide: mental--the intent--and physical, including:

(a) Killing members of the group; (b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; (c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; (d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; (e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

This international treaty also says an individual or group can be punished for 5 different forms of genocide: not just genocide itself, but also conspiracy (planning), incitement (efforts to get others to commit genocide or join in), attempt (trying to commit genocide is itself a crime), and complicity (being involved in an act of genocide in any way).

Basically, if you have any role in trying to destroy a specific group of people, you are committing genocide.

Notice the date of that international code on genocide? 1948? That was just after the Holocaust, which ended in 1945. (The word genocide was coined in 1944.)

You'd think it would be completely obvious when genocide is being committed, but surprisingly, sometimes the facts are so murky that it isn't always clear. So it's very major when a genocide is officially declared to be taking place.

Who is ISIS killing in a genocide, and where?

An Iraqi Yazidi girl in a refugee camp with her family. (DFID/Flickr)

We all know ISIS as terrorists who have done a lot of seriously horrible and horrifying things, like kidnapping innocent people and beheading them, and carrying out major deadly attacks like the one in Paris last November.

But here's what they are doing that is genocidal: ISIS is targeting Christians, Yazidis, and Shiite Muslims in Iraq and Syria.

The Yazidi are a ethno-religious group (you can't convert to become Yazidi--you have to be born into it) are followers of a faith that combines parts of Christianity, Zoroastrianism, and Islam. (The faith itself is also called Yazidi.) There are as many as half a million Yazidi.

There are two main branches of Islam: Shiite (Shia) and Sunni. They fight a great deal, but both groups overall hate ISIS. Still, ISIS specifically targets Shiites in an effort to, in their own twisted logic, purify the religion.

They've also targeted Sunnis, just not quite as much as Shiites. And they've killed a lot of Kurds too. Kurds are a huge ethnic group in the Middle East--there are around 25-35 million of them--and most of them are Sunni. They've been fighting ISIS with their own armies, sometimes very successfully.

How is ISIS carrying out this genocide?

Some of the evidence of what ISIS has done to the Yazidi. (sethfrantzman/Flickr)

Here are just some of their sickening, genocidal acts:

- They've bombed several areas in Iraq that are heavily populated by Shiite Muslims.

- When they capture areas, they let Sunni Muslims go, and keep the Shiites (or Shia) and execute them.

- They have captured Yazidi women and girls and turned them into sex slaves.

- They decapitated a group of Coptic Christians. (The Coptics, or Copts, are another ethno-religious group.)

Who decided that what ISIS is doing is genocide?

Secretary of State John Kerry. (Notice that in his announcement, he referred to ISIS as Daesh, a name the terrorists are known to hate.)

It's mind-boggling what ISIS has been carrying out:

Kerry also accuses ISIS of crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing, and destroying priceless artifacts.

It's a big deal for a US president's administration to declare that a genocide is taking place while it's going on, not afterwards. In fact, this is only the second time in history that it has happened. (The first was in 2004, by Secretary of State Colin Powell, about the genocide in Darfur, Sudan.)

And it's not just the US State Department--the House of Representatives just passed a resolution identifying ISIS's acts as genocidal. Not one congressperson voted against it.

What does declaring genocide accomplish?

The biggest thing is that it shines a brighter spotlight on ISIS' horrifyingly brutal acts, making it clear to the world that they're not only carrying out terrorist attacks, but also systematically targeting, torturing, kidnapping, raping, and killing specific ethnic groups.

Kerry wants the leaders to be brought to justice in an international war crimes court, though how that would happen isn't clear. It's somewhat easier to arrest and hold a trial when a country's leaders commit war crimes and crimes against humanity than it is to hold lawless, stateless terrorists accountable.

In the meantime, the US and some allies have already been targeting ISIS in Iraq and Syria with airstrikes--in part because of these atrocities, as well as trying to help victims of their genocide.

Of course, many survivors are among the refugees who fled Syria and Iraq because of these horrors. And there's a huge controversy over helping these refugees and letting many of them come to America.

This article was written by Holly Epstein Ojalvo and originally appeared on Kicker. Kicker explains the most important, compelling things going on in the world and empowers you to get in the know, make up your own mind, and take action. For more, check out the Kicker site, like their Facebook page, or subscribe to their email newsletter.