'ISIS is clearly responsible for genocide,' Tillerson says

PHOTO: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson delivers remarks at the release of the 2016 International Religious Freedom Annual report, at the State Department in Washington, Aug. 15, 2017.PlayMichael Reynolds/EPA
WATCH ISIS 'clearly responsible for genocide,' Tillerson says

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said today that ISIS has committed genocide.

"ISIS is clearly responsible for genocide against Yazidis, Christians and Shia Muslims," Tillerson told reporters gathered in the State Department's Treaty Room, adding that his statement should "remove any ambiguity from previous statements or reports by the State Department."

Just last month, after rumors that the term had been removed from official documents, a group of six senators sent a letter to Tillerson seeking clarification on the department's position on genocide perpetrated by ISIS. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert later clarified that the word "has not been removed" and said Tillerson "firmly believes" ISIS' actions constitute genocide.

Previous administrations have been cautious about labeling conflicts genocide, in some cases because the United Nations' Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide calls genocide “a crime under international law” which signatories, including the United States, should “prevent and to punish.” It does not, however, explicitly commit those countries to any specific actions.

The Obama administration first designated ISIS genocidal in March 2016, when then–Secretary of State John Kerry declared that the terrorist group "is responsible for genocide ... Its entire worldview is based on eliminating those who do not subscribe to its perverse ideology."

The term hadn't been used by the U.S. to describe an ongoing conflict until 2004, when then–Secretary of State Colin Powell asserted genocide was committed in Darfur in western Sudan. In 2009, after an intense internal debate, the Obama administration decided to continue describing the situation in Darfur as “genocide.”

Protecting groups persecuted by ISIS and other violent extremists "is a human rights priority for the Trump administration," Tillerson said today.

Asked in a follow-up call how that priority squares with the president's decision to bar certain refugees from coming to the U.S., Mike Kozak of the State Department's bureau of democracy, human rights and labor said, "Unfortunately, there are way, way, way more refugees than any one country can possibly take in ... There have always been different protocols for vetting refugees, for security and other reasons."

The "preferred option" for dealing with persecuted groups in areas liberated from ISIS is to "allow people to return to their traditional villages," he added.

The United States has a "pretty good record" of combating genocide perpetrated by ISIS, "defeating the perpetrators of the genocide pretty soundly in Iraq and elsewhere," Kozak said.