Remarks at the Launch of the Senate Human Rights Caucus

Tom Malinowski
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
Washington, DC
September 10, 2014

Thank you for the opportunity to address you here today. We are meeting at a time when our values are being challenged and our country is being tested, not for the first or last time, in many parts of the world, but perhaps most starkly in the rise of the ISIL terrorist movement in Syria and Iraq. This has been a summer of horrific reminders that our capacity to imagine evil rarely measures up to the reality—a summer of mass executions, ethnic cleansing, the persecution of religious minorities, and the murder of two innocent Americans who came to Syria to help us understand the people suffering there, by foreigners who came to kill those people.

In my bureau in the State Department, especially the part dedicated to religious freedom, we have been watching this nightmare unfold, including growing sectarianism in Iraq and attacks on members of religious minorities, for some time. We know that when violence undermines the fragile order that keeps diverse societies together, when people seeking power or land start exploiting religious difference to get what they want, that is usually a warning sign of worse to come. So when ISIL attacked Mosul earlier this year; when it started forcing people to convert to its warped vision or be killed, we were horrified -- but saw it as the logical extension of the cancer that groups like this represent.

In early August ISIL fighters advanced into the Sinjar district of Iraq, near the Syrian border, where members of the Yezidi religious minority live. We don’t know for certain how many members of this ancient community were killed. Tens of thousands sought refuge on Mount Sinjar, the one piece of high ground not occupied by ISIL. Representatives of the Yezidi community in the United States contacted my staff, sharing this story of the forced exodus of an entire population, whose survivors were trapped, surrounded by ISIL, with probably days left before they would succumb to thirst or exposure.

Messages relayed from that mountain by cell phones with dying batteries, messages that told us precisely where the survivors were hiding and where the ISIL forces were massing, made their way to my office and were then relayed throughout the State Department, to the White House, to the Pentagon, and to CENTCOM. To help the Yezidis, President Obama authorized a humanitarian effort to save people trapped without food or water on Mount Sinjar; from August 8 to 13, the U.S. military conducted seven nightly airdrops, which provided more than 114,000 meals and even more importantly - 35,000 gallons of drinking water. The President also authorized targeted airstrikes to assist forces in Iraq as they fought to break ISIL’s siege of Mount Sinjar and evacuate these people before it was too late.

But this is obviously still the beginning. ISIL has not yet been defeated. As we look ahead to that challenge, I want to make just four simple points.

First, ISIL is unique. Not because it uses bombings, assassinations, and kidnappings to terrorize people, or because it seeks to control territory, but because it targets entire groups of minorities for particularly horrific and persistent violence, simply for who they are. It murders men who don’t agree to accept its warped version of Islam. It has kidnapped thousands of women belonging to other religious sects, taking them not simply as hostages, but as commodities, spoils of war to be raped or sold as slaves. When tyrants like Assad commit their crimes, they try to hide their tracks; they know on some level that what they do is shameful; ISIL puts its crimes on YouTube. This is a casting aside of all limits, something that makes ISIL arguably distinct even from al Qaeda. As Secretary Kerry has said, ISIL’s crimes “bear all the warning signs and hallmarks of genocide.” It is of the utmost importance that those who commit such acts not be allowed to project a narrative of invincibility and success, as ISIL has attempted to do these last few months.

Second, ISIL is not self-limiting. It won’t exhaust itself; it won’t draw-up at a certain point and decide that it has gone far enough or been sufficiently barbaric; it will always want more towns and regions to conquer, more lives to ravage and destroy. On the rare occasions in history when such evil has arisen, people with the power to stop it have had to stand up and stop it. It will not stop itself.

Third, ISIL will be defeated. As President Obama has said and will explain further tonight, these murderers have already failed. “Their horrific acts,” the president has emphasized, “only unite us as a country and stiffen our resolve.” They have repulsed and united the world as well. And that creates an opportunity we are seizing: to build a coalition that includes the countries in the Middle East most immediately threatened, and to confront these killers with allies from all the communities ISIL has attacked, Christian, Shia, Yezidi, Sunni and others.

It bears repeating that ISIL’s campaign is not fundamentally a religious phenomenon, or manifestation of mainstream Islam. Here is a great example: Last year, two wannabe jihadists, Yusuf Sarwar and Mohammed Ahmed, set off from England to join ISIL in Syria. Before they left, they ordered two books from Amazon: Islam for Dummies and The Koran for Dummies. This is a movement for people whose only religion is nihilism. The fellowship they seek is not from people seeking God, but from those who get their kicks from killing. And they will be destroyed first and foremost by those whose traditions of faith they have hijacked.

Finally, ISIL did not emerge from nothing. There’s a reason why such a destructive force ascended in this part of the world at this moment in history. It ascended because a dictator in Syria has spent three years trying to crush what began as a peaceful democratic movement, destroying towns and cities, driving half the people of his country from their homes, until some of them became so desperate that they turned to the false deliverance and destructive fanaticism ISIL offered. It ascended because many in Iraq’s Sunni population felt legitimate grievances were ignored by the government in Baghdad. ISIL not only abuses human rights; it is the product of the abuse of human rights.

We should remember that at bottom, human rights provide a way of arranging human society so that all people have a chance to pursue their ambitions within rules that require fair play and prohibit coercion. When such rules break down, the people who rise tend to be those most willing and able to impose their will violently. Most of those people will be run of the mill thugs. But some will be true sociopaths, the sort responsible for history’s greatest calamities. Calamities like this one.

So if anyone ever asks you, why do we try to spread respect for human rights in the world? Why do we press this cause even with friends and allies, in countries that appear to be stable and friendly to us? Why do we take the risk of coming to the aid of people who are persecuted for their beliefs or faith, or subject to mass atrocities? What is the worst that can happen if these things are just allowed to go on?

Here is your answer.