The civil war in Syria, which began in early 2011 and since spread into Northern Iraq has devastated both countries. Estimates of the number of people who have died during Syria’s civil war since March 2011 range from 250,000 to 470,000. In Iraq, the estimated range is between 19,000 and 41,650 deaths since January 2014. The people living in these regions have been subjected to an extensive list of atrocities including genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes. Thosands of refugees have fled Iraq and Syria to seek refuge in the OSCE region. The desperate situation in these areas has resulted in the worst refugee crisis since World War II. With the war in Iraq and Syria showing little signs of abating the danger for vulnerable groups in these countries continues to worsen.
This hearing examined the current situation in Iraq and Syria regarding the persecution of religious and ethnic minorities, and looked at how the United States and the international community can best help protect persecuted people in this region and ensure that perpetrators of genocide and related crimes in Iraq and Syria are punished. It featured witnesses from CIJA, the former Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues, and leaders from the Catholic community.
“The atrocities in Iraq and Syria have been so horrible, for so long, with so little action from the Administration, that it has been difficult to hope. Nevertheless, when [Secretary Kerry] declared genocide, we dared to hope that finally the Administration would hear the voices of the victims and act. Instead, the Administration has said the right words and done the wrong things,” said Helsinki Commission Chairman Chris Smith (NJ), “When the Executive Branch fails to acts, then Congress must require it to act. That is why I recently authored and introduced the bipartisan Iraq and Syria Genocide Relief and Accountability Act of 2016, with Representative Anna Eshoo as my lead cosponsor.”
Witnesses discussed ways to support religious and ethnic communities that have survived such atrocities. In addition, they encouraged the U.S. to fund the criminal investigation, prosecution, and conviction of the perpetrators, and identified gaps in U.S. criminal statutes that make it difficult to prosecute Americans or foreigners in the U.S. who have committed such crimes.
Former U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues David Scheffer said, “H.R. 5961 demonstrates an undeniable logic: the survivors of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes in Iraq and Syria merit the fullest possible assistance of our government, including consideration of admission of victim refugees to the United States.” “The perpetrators of atrocity crimes not only in Iraq and Syria but elsewhere in the world should be subject to investigation and prosecution,” Scheffer continued. “Federal jurisdiction over crimes against humanity and war crimes remains non-existent or very limited…it is a raw fact that the United States is currently a sanctuary for alien perpetrators of crimes against humanity or war crimes.”
“The Iraq and Syria Genocide Relief Act [is] a much needed, not to mention overdue, piece of legislation,” said Chris Engels, deputy director of the Commission for International Justice and Accountability. “Criminal investigations done contemporaneously with the criminal acts are essential to ensuring later accountability. Otherwise, as we have seen in the past, evidence is lost and those responsible for these mass human rights violations go unpunished.”
Witnesses also highlighted the humanitarian vulnerabilities and lack of assistance that force the survivors to flee their homes and recommended ways to support entities effectively serving genocide survivors in-country, including faith-based organizations.
Steve Rasche, legal counsel and director of resettlement programs for the Chaldean Catholic Archdiocese of Erbil, noted, “Since August 2014, other than initial supplies of tents and tarps, the Christian community in Iraq has received nothing in aid from any U.S. aid agencies or the UN. When we have approached any of these entities regarding the provision of aid assistance …we have been told that we have done too well in our private efforts…every morning we wake up and rob six Peters to pay 12 Pauls.”
“The current policy prioritizes individual needs but does not consider the needs of vulnerable communities,” said Carl Anderson, Supreme Knight, Knights of Columbus. “On one hand, we have the unanimous policy of the elected branches of the United States Government stating that a genocide is occurring. On the other hand we have an aid bureaucracy that is allowing the intended consequence of the genocide to continue, even though it is in our power to stop it.”
Bill Canny, executive director for migration and refugee services at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), said, “We are gravely concerned by the small number of religious minorities who have been resettled in the United States during the current fiscal year.” “It is unclear at the time of this writing precisely why the percentage of Syrian Christians, who have been registered as refugees or resettled in the United States as refugees, is so low,” Canny continued. USCCB resettles more refugees annually in the U.S. than any other agency.
Chairman Smith was joined at the hearing by a bipartisan group of lawmakers, including Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Senator Roger Wicker (MS), Ranking Commissioner Senator Ben Cardin (MD), and Commissioners Rep. Joe Pitts (PA-16) and Rep. Alan Grayson (FL-09).