Helsinki Commission hears how U.S. can better help victimized Iraqis, Syrians

Women displaced by Islamic State militant violence arrive at a military base in Ramadi, Iraq, in late June. (CNS photo, Osamah Waheeb, Reuters)

Representatives of five agencies offered their support to efforts to hold accountable the people carrying out killings, torture and other violence toward Christians and minority ethnic and religious communities in Syria and Iraq during a Capitol Hill hearing.

Addressing the Helsinki Commission, which monitors human rights and international cooperation in 57 countries, the speakers on Sept. 22 also called upon the United States to step up efforts to provide financial support to nongovernmental organizations serving thousands of displaced people in northern Iraq.

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The hearing focused largely on the status of Christians, Yezidis, some Muslims and other minorities in the face of atrocities carried out by the Islamic State group.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry determined in March that the atrocities carried by the militants in the two countries were genocide. It was the first U.S. declaration of genocide since Sudanese actions in Darfur in 2004.

William Canny, executive director of Migration and Refugee Services of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, called on the U.S. government and the international community to "take a comprehensive approach, including robust aid" to private organizations and the host governments.

Such action would hopefully result in the safe return of the displaced communities, including Christians, to their traditional homelands when the conflict ends, he said.

Canny also welcomed the resettlement of 10,000 Syrian refugees to the U.S. in the current fiscal year, which was to end Sept. 30. He expressed concern, however, that an extremely small percentage of those resettled—about 0.53 percent—were Christians. In the previous fiscal year, about 1.7 percent of Syrians resettled were Christian, he said.

"More needs to be done to assess why this is so and then to address it," Canny told the commission.

He also urged the U.S. government to create a new "Priority 2" classification in the U.S. refugee admissions program's priority system for religious and ethnic minority victims of genocide so they can be relocated more quickly.

Stephen M. Rasche, legal counsel and director of resettlement programs in the Chaldean Archdiocese of Irbil, Iraq, pleaded for U.S. financial support for humanitarian aid for 70,000 internally displaced people in the country's northern regions. 

He said that since August 2014 the archdiocese has received $26 million from private sources including Aid to the Church in Need, Knights of Columbus, U.S. Chaldean Catholic churches, the Italian bishops' conference, Caritas Italy and the U.S.-based Nazarene Fund as well as smaller donors.

"It is no exaggeration to say that without these private donors the situation of Christians in northern Iraq would have already collapsed," he said.

However, Rasche expressed concern that "donor fatigue" may soon set in.

He said the archdiocese's effort requires at least $9 million to continue providing shelter, food and health care for the next six months.

Carl Anderson, Knights of Columbus CEO, backed Rasche's request during the hearing. Anderson then upped the call, urging the U.S. to provide $20 million to $25 million for the internally displaced minority groups.

The Knights have been a major supporter of aid to the Chaldean Catholic Church in Iraq in recent years. In March, the organizations was joined by Washington-based In Defense of Christians in releasing a report that detailed hundreds of cases of death and violence against Christians and others by the Islamic State group and calling for a genocide declaration.

Anderson questioned why communities that were victims of genocide were not receiving federal aid. He suggested that the "mindset" of state department officials must be changed to recognize and prioritize the needs of persecuted Iraqi and Syrian minorities, particularly Christians.

The commission also heard from David Scheffer, former U.S. ambassador-at-large for war crimes issues, and Chris Engels, deputy director of the Commission for International Justice and Accountability. Both supported efforts to hold accountable anyone found to committing atrocities.

Scheffer expressed concern that some of the perpetrators have landed safely in the United States and are avoiding prosecution for their crimes. He called on the federal government to begin investigating the alleged atrocities and bring the perpetrators to justice.

"It's no contradiction between this massive requirement to the victims and the massive requirement for accountability [of the perpetrators]. The victims are victims because those [perpetrators] who moved need to be brought to justice. We should be able to walk and chew gum at the same time in our own government and be able to deal with the victims, provide them assistance and recognize they are victims," Scheffer said.

"Investigation of these crimes is an incredibly difficult challenge," he added. "It's a very, very difficult evidential challenge. It's not like investigating a single murder. It's investigating 20 000 murders."

Each presenter also endorsed Iraq and Syria Genocide Relief and Accountability Act of 2016. Introduced by Rep. Chris Smith, R-New Jersey, commission chairman, the bill would clear the way for the U.S. to provide relief for victims of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes in Iraq and Syria. The bill also would open the door for the wide-scale investigation and prosecution of individuals carrying out the atrocities.

Smith said he is working with House members to gain supporters of his measure in the hope of it being passed before the current session of Congress adjourns at the end of the year.

The Helsinki Commission consists of 21 commissioners. Eighteen are members of Congress including nine senators and nine representatives with five from the majority party and four from the minority in each chamber. The remaining three members are appointed by the U.S. president from the departments of Commerce, Defense and State. Those seats have been vacant for several years.

In addition to Smith, four commissioners attended the meeting on Sept. 22. They were Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Mississippi, co-chairman; Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Maryland; Rep. Alan Grayson, D-Florida; and Rep. Joe Pitts, R-Pennsylvania.

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