Bertrand M. Patenaude is a lecturer in History and International Relations at Stanford University and a research fellow at the Hoover Institution. His courses include “U.S., U.N. Peacekeeping, and Humanitarian War,” “Genocide and Humanitarian Intervention,” and “United Nations Peacekeeping.” I sat down with him for an interview last week to discuss ISIS’s violence against Yazidi people in the Middle East and the possibility of an international response. Below is an edited and condensed transcript.


SS: The Islamic State has threatened to “exterminate minority Yazidis in Iraq for refusing to convert to Islam. The Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights at the United Nations, Ivan Šimonović, stated on October 21, 2014, “that evidence strongly indicates an attempt to commit genocide.” What is the significance of the U.N. recognition of this threat as possible genocide?

BP: I am always somewhat wary — and I think we should all be wary — when someone says that an ongoing crisis is genocide. The reason is that people tend to misuse the word, or the audience hearing it tends to misunderstand what it means. The major misunderstanding is that when someone says genocide is ongoing, people think that it is exterminationist and it either has to be a catastrophe on the order of the Holocaust or the Rwandan genocide of 1994. Genocide, according to the 1948 Genocide Convention, can be much less than that. It doesn’t have to be an attempt to exterminate a group. (There are four groups that we are talking about: religious, ethnic, racial, or national — but not political.) Genocide is an attempt to undermine the integrity of the group, and that is a little subtler. The death toll does not have to be high. It does not have to go into the hundreds of thousands or even the tens of thousands. This is where people misunderstand.

Now, to look at the specific example from this case, with ISIS and its attempt to eliminate or to commit genocide against the Yazidis, it is very clear that this is indeed genocide according to the standards of the Genocide Convention, even by the loosest definition of the Convention. It does not mean, however, that an attempt to eliminate every last member of the group is taking place. If you look at the U.N. statement, what in fact is underway is an attempt to forcibly convert people away from their religion. This is a threat to the integrity of this group. Also, as the U.N. statement says, this is an attempt to use rape in order to undermine the viability of the group. You are essentially, to put it very clinically, destroying a gene pool and undermining the separate identity of the group. So, several methods are being used here: forcible conversion, rape, and then outright killing of people. I have no trouble with the use of the word genocide here.

SS: Why has it taken so long for the United Nations to act? Given the massacres of Yazidi men and women in Northern Iraq, this ethnic group’s deadly experience on Mount Sinjar, and the repeated rape and enslavement of Yazidi women, it seems to me that this is most certainly genocide. At what point will the U.N. define what “may amount to attempted genocide” as “genocide”?

BP: We have to be careful about this, because the word “genocide” too often gets tossed around too easily in order to inspire an intervention. I would ask: Isn’t the charge of “crimes against humanity” enough? Haven’t we seen what ISIS is doing, for example with these beheadings? Isn’t it bad enough to know that these are crimes against humanity — which was, by the way, what the major Nazis were convicted of at the Nuremberg Trials? Isn’t that enough to get people motivated? Do we need to call it genocide?

Samantha Power, who wrote the very good book “A Problem from Hell”, believes that we do need that separate category of genocide — that this is a crime like no other, and that it should be held out there separately. My problem with that is that too often we spend too much time arguing “Is it or isn’t it genocide?” instead of taking action against what are obviously crimes against humanity or war crimes, meanwhile losing valuable time to act. To me, all you need to know is that something measures up to crimes against humanity or war crimes, and with ISIS, that is definitely the case. Everyone knows evil when they see it, and this is it. So, my reaction when I saw the U.N. announcement was “yes, it is genocide, but we shouldn’t really need that in order to realize that this is something that should be stopped.” And, down the road, when there is the punishment phase, this will also be something that is debated.

SS: What will the punishment phase look like?

BP: When these things come to trial, genocide is harder to prove. It is harder to prove in court because — unlike crimes against humanity or war crimes, where you look at the results and convict on evidence — with genocide, you have to prove an intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a racial, ethnic, religious, or national group.

SS: You said that when people see genocide, they want to act, but in the case of Mount Sinjar there are still up to 7,000 Yazidi civilians on the mountain and around 3,000 Yazidi fighters. Within a couple of weeks, the situation will become very dire. The U.S. has stopped bringing supplies to them, and the Iraqi government is only able to deliver supplies twice a week at most, yet the Yazidi are not receiving significant media attention anymore. What happens when the press leaves?

BP: What may have motivated the U.N. statement is a perceived need to press the genocide button. By calling it genocide, you tend to raise the alarm in the media and this tends to get attention to a crisis by pointing to a special kind of crime that will inspire people to support intervention. The problem right now is that there is intervention fatigue in the U.S…. The problem we have, especially the United States, is that once we have “acted” and the story is out of the news, it becomes very hard for the President to keep making the case…I don’t think that the initiative to act is going to come from the United States, but the statement made on October 21st may have been designed to say a) this is not over, and b) yes it is this bad, so bad it is genocide, and it needs our attention.

SS: What would a U.N. intervention to protect the Yazidi look like?

BP: Typically, the way these things are done is that interventions are subcontracted by the Security Council to a regional power. There are two problems now: one is that we have a very contrarian government in Moscow. The Putin government holds one of the five permanent seats on the Security Council and therefore has a veto. I would also say that China now is also, together with Russia, very much in a mood to act contrary to the wishes of West, to the other three permanent members of the Security Council. So, getting a Security Council resolution on this would be difficult.

Number two, you can’t do it unless you have the U.S. involved, and the U.S. right now has a divided government, and it is very difficult to persuade American citizens that we need to do more bombing or more rescuing. We are kind of in retreat from the world. Americans have had enough with Afghanistan and Iraq, even to go back to rescue a people like this, a smaller people. There are too many items in the news, too much crowding out the story of the Yazidis. We have become very reluctant interventionists, and we prefer not to hear bad news.

Sarah Sadlier, a junior studying history, American studies, Iberian and Latin American cultures, and political science, is the interviews editor of Stanford Political Journal.