Confronting genocide in our time

The Canadian government can and should do more to address the human rights catastrophe in Iraq and Syria, writes Sheryl Saperia FLICKR PHOTO

In my last column, I wrote about my grandmother, a Holocaust survivor who built a life in Canada full of love and optimism despite having experienced the depravity of the Nazi genocidal apparatus.

That genocide continues to be derided and denied by Iran, which just wrapped up its annual state-sponsored Holocaust cartoon contest. While mocking the victims and survivors, the mullahs have unabashedly and publicly called for the destruction of the Jewish state.

As noted by former justice minister Irwin Cotler, these Iranian declarations amount to incitement to genocide, a crime under international law for which Iran should be held to account.


But between the Nazi genocide of the past and Iran’s aspirational genocide of the future lies the genocide of the present, perpetrated by Islamic State (also known as ISIS and ISIL) against the Yazidis, Christians, Shia Muslims and other minorities living in ISIS-controlled territory.

On March 17, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry definitively pronounced: “Daesh [ISIS] is responsible for genocide against groups in areas under its control… Daesh is genocidal by self-proclamation, by ideology and by actions – in what it says, what it believes and what it does.”

This statement followed the passage of a non-binding resolution by a 393-0 vote in the U.S. House of Representatives, which condemned Islamic State atrocities as genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. Similar declarations have been made by the European Parliament, the Council of Europe, the British Parliament, and the International Association of Genocide Scholars.

Sadly, the evidence is all too clear. ISIS executes Christians solely because of their faith, while demolishing ancient churches, desecrating Christian cemeteries and ordering the burning of all books written by Christians.

Islamic State began a campaign almost two years ago against the Yazidi religious minority in northern Iraq, involving mass executions, forced conversions, destruction of temples, and the abduction, enslavement and rape of Yazidi women and girls. ISIS has been open about its objective to convert or eliminate all Yazidis.

As an extremist Sunni group, ISIS refers to Shia Muslims as “disbelievers and apostates” and holds that “it is a duty imposed upon us to kill them, to fight them, to displace them and to cleanse the land of their filth.”

The Canadian government can and should do more to address this human rights catastrophe.

Several credible and independent organizations have been collecting evidence to establish that genocide is taking place. Yet Foreign Minister Stéphane Dion maintains that his government will not declare a genocide without “a credible judicial process, following a proper international investigation, an investigation that we will do everything to support.”

Given this position, perhaps the first task of Canada’s newly opened Office of Human Rights, Freedoms and Inclusion should be a meaningful contribution to the carrying out of this investigation in concert with international allies.


Dion has at least acknowledged that Islamic State’s acts have the “hallmarks” of genocide. Canada’s Syrian refugee policy should be restructured accordingly. Geoffrey Clarfield, the executive director of the non-profit Mozuud, advocates for immigration equality: Ottawa should match the 25,000 Syrian refugees already accepted by sponsoring an additional 25,000 Yazidis, Christians and others who are unwelcome in their home countries and in neighbouring Muslim states. An active effort to locate these groups will be required, as they have largely avoided UN refugee camps for fear of physical harm at the hands of ISIS agents and other Sunni extremists.

Former U.S. president Bill Clinton has confessed that one of his biggest regrets was not intervening in the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Administration officials knew of the potential magnitude of the genocide but did little. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who has made human rights a major plank of his governmental policies, may wish to avoid similar remorse by taking a leadership role in protecting minority groups from extermination at the hands of Islamic State. 

Sheryl Saperia is director of policy for Canada at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.