In The Media

Religious minorities targeted

by Geoffrey Johnston (feat. Kyle Matthews)

The Whig
March 31, 2016

It is time for the Trudeau government to take off the rose-coloured glasses and recognize that organized religiously motivated violence is the top international security threat facing the world in 2016.

Assyrians and other ancient Christian communities in Iraq and Syria are being deliberately targeted and systematically wiped out by Islamic State forces. And the Yezidi people are also being destroyed by the jihadist movement, also known as ISIS or ISIL.

For whatever reason, the Canadian government is reluctant to formally declare that the Islamic State is committing genocide. During question period in the House of Commons, the government has repeatedly refused to use the term genocide to describe the plight of Christians and Yezidis.

Similarly, Global Affairs Canada eschews straight talk about genocide in the Middle East. "Canada strongly condemns the crimes perpetrated by the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant [ISIL], including those committed against religious and ethnic minorities," a Global Affairs Canada official stated in an email. While Global Affairs Canada expressed concern over the violence perpetrated by ISIS, the department did not officially acknowledge the genocide.

Genocide convention

As a signatory to the international genocide prevention convention, Canada has a moral obligation to do more to save vulnerable minority communities in the Middle East from annihilation at the hands of religious extremists.

The United Nations General Assembly adopted in December 1948 The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, which came into force in January 1951. Under Article 1 of the convention, genocide, "whether committed in time of peace or in time of war, is a crime under international law which they undertake to prevent and to punish."

The convention defines genocide as "acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group." Genocidal acts include: killing members of the targeted group; "deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part"; and "forcibly transferring children of the group to another group."

The Islamic State's torture and mass murder of religious minorities, ethnic cleansing, sexual enslavement and human trafficking of Christian and Yezidi girls, and the destruction of cultural artifacts and historical monuments are irrefutable evidence of genocide.

Under Article VIII of the genocide convention, signatories to the convention, including Canada, can call upon the United Nations "to take such action under the Charter of the United Nations as they consider appropriate for the prevention and suppression of acts of genocide."

Persecution at 'all-time high'

The United States does not liberally apply the label of genocide. It has only done so in a handful of cases: Cambodia in 1989; Bosnia in 1993; Rwanda in 1994; and Darfur in 2004. Despite ample evidence that Islamic State forces had launched a campaign in 2014 to wipe out Christians and Yezidis, the United States was reluctant to unequivocally declare that genocide was taking place.

However, the pressure on the Obama administration to take a stand increased last month with the release of a bracing report by the Knights of Columbus detailing the Christian genocide in the Middle East. And unequivocal statements condemning the genocide issued by faith groups, Pope Francis, former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, and the European Parliament also sent a clear message to the Obama administration.

"They want recognition [of genocide] in order to highlight that the fight against ISIS is not just one about international security, or helping a national government under enormous pressure, but that there is an international and legal and moral responsibility to do more," said Kyle Matthews, a Montreal-based expert on mass atrocities prevention, religious extremism, social media and international issues.

"The original inhabitants of these countries that have been there for thousands of years are being wiped out," said Matthews, who is the senior deputy director of the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies at Concordia University, and a Fellow at the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute.

"Persecution is at an all-time high right now," agreed Emily Fuentes, director of communications of Open Doors USA, a non-governmental organization that advocates on behalf of persecuted Christians. And she stated that "Open Doors USA is calling the actions of ISIS genocide."

On March 17, 2016, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry declared that the Islamic State, also referred to as Daesh, "is responsible for genocide against groups in areas under its control, including Yezidis, Christians and Shia Muslims." Driving home the point, Kerry stated that "Daesh is genocidal by self-proclamation, by ideology, and by actions -- in what it says, what it believes, and what it does."

Kerry stated that the Islamic State is "also responsible for crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing directed at these same groups and in some cases also against Sunni Muslims, Kurds and other minorities."

"We hope that the recent declaration by the United States that it is genocide will be a call to action for the United States and other western governments to increase their aid," said Fuentes. However, the Open Doors representative pointed out that the attacks on Christians extend far beyond Iraq and Syria. "More than 43 terrorist groups have sworn allegiance to ISIS and are targeting Christians and other minority religious groups in many parts of the world," she said.

Questions for Canada

What impact will Kerry's historic declaration have on the Trudeau government? "It's going to perhaps raise a serious question for the Canadian government," Matthews replied. Last month, Parliament approved the government's plan to combat ISIS, which includes boosting the number of Canadian troops on the ground in northern Iraq to train Kurdish fighters. In addition, Canada will provide increased humanitarian assistance to refugees who have already escaped the Islamic State.

However, Canada is no longer participating in the U.S.-led air campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. "The fact that the U.S. recognizes genocide might raise a problematic question for Canada, whether our mission is doing anything to stop that genocide," Matthews said.

Kerry's declaration on genocide has already spurred some soul-searching in this country. And Matthews recommends that Parliament conduct a hearing into Canada's response to the ongoing atrocities in the Middle East.

Responsibility to Protect

Back in 2005, in the shadow of the Rwandan genocide and ethnic cleansing during the Balkan wars, the world came together at the United Nations to endorse the Canadian-inspired Responsibility to Protect Doctrine, commonly known as R2P. Then Prime Minister Paul Martin and other prominent Liberals played key roles in the adoption of the doctrine, which obliges the community of nations to use any means necessary to prevent mass atrocities and mass civilian death.

Although former Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper took a strong stand against the Islamic State and genocide, he never invoked the R2P doctrine to buttress the case for intervention in Iraq and Syria.

"I am aware that they never mentioned the Responsibility to Protect," Matthews said of the Harper Conservatives. The genocide prevention expert believes that the Tories viewed R2P as a Liberal initiative and "didn't want to give any credence or support to an initiative that their Liberal rivals helped bring about."

Nevertheless, Matthews praised the Conservatives for taking a stand against ISIS. "At least they did state accurately -- and history will reveal that the Conservatives were right on this -- that ISIS was committing genocide and was genocidal," he said.

Admittedly, Canada's military contribution to the U.S.-led air campaign targeting ISIS was modest during Harper's tenure. "But at least having aircraft there," said Matthews, "they were able to target ISIS deep in territory where these minorities are being persecuted." And he asserted that Canadian airstrikes did actually "protect civilians by reducing the ability of ISIS to attack."

Political correctness

Political correctness, for the most part, rules the day in Canada when it comes to acknowledging religiously motivated violence. Indeed, Canadians have yet to engage in a mature, frank national discussion about the rise of Islamist ideology.

"If you look at our debate here in Canada, where every time there is a terrorist attack, usually by a jihadist, we're told that the biggest problem that we're facing is Islamophobia," Matthews said. "But if you turn around and look at what's really happening on the ground in the Middle East, minorities are facing total destruction.

"It highlights this kind of bizarre, strange discussion we have here nationally, in which we self-flagellate ourselves for a small discussion of division in society. But in reality, the real pressing issue is that the diversity is being eradicated in the Middle East and Muslim world."

When it comes to genocide prevention, Matthews reminds Prime Minister Justin Trudeau that "we have to do some hard thinking, and see the world not as we would like it to be, but as it really is."

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