Kenneth W. Starr, a former U.S. solicitor general and federal judge, served as independent counsel in the Whitewater and Monica Lewinsky investigations during the Clinton administration.
In the wake of the Islamic State's genocidal practices in Iraq, the plight of religious minorities on the plain of Nineveh continues unabated. But instead of sitting on its hands or issuing well-meaning but toothless resolutions, Congress is now only one step away from providing relief to hundreds of thousands of displaced people — including Christians, Yazidis and Muslims — in war-torn Iraq. All that remains is for the Senate to act on H.R. 390, the Iraq and Syria Genocide Emergency Relief and Accountability Act, which was sponsored by Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-N.J.) and Anna G. Eshoo (D-Calif.) and passed the House of Representatives unanimously on June 6. Unanimity in the People's House shows that our government can work effectively in support of worthy and humane causes. The time has now come for the world's greatest deliberative body to act.
The tragic facts of unspeakable cruelty in northern Iraq are well known. A little over a decade ago, as many as 1.4 million Christians made their homes there, like generations before them. Through the Islamic State's murderous assaults that the European Parliament and more than 200 members of Congress have rightly condemned as genocide, the would-be rulers of the caliphate have left only a small remnant of religious and ethnic minorities — approximately 140,000 in Irbil and 50,000 more dispersed throughout the country. As many as 6,000 Christian refugees live precariously in repurposed shipping containers in Ankawa. An estimated 3,000 Yazidi women and girls are still enslaved by the Islamic State. In addition, in its path of destruction, the Islamic State demolished historical sites and monuments, including the 1,400-year-old St. Elijah monastery outside Mosul.
For many months, the U.S. government has been idle in the face of this historic crisis. Except for limited emergency funding from the government of Hungary, of all places, humanitarian relief has come almost entirely from private charities in the United States and around the world. Indeed, the Chaldean Catholic Archdiocese of Irbil has provided virtually all of the shelter, food, medical care and education to more than 80,000 Christians who escaped the Islamic State's clutches. The archdiocese has also provided humanitarian assistance to displaced Muslims and Yazidis.
As passed unanimously by the House in June, H.R. 390 directs the State Department to use already appropriated funds to provide assistance to minority ethnic and faith communities targeted by the Islamic State for atrocities. To be clear, this is allocation of existing funds that Congress has already set aside for exactly this kind of humanitarian need, not the appropriation of new funds.
The measure also seeks to bring justice to the plain of Nineveh in the wake of the Islamic State's reign of terror, by directing the State Department to support criminal investigations and judicial actions against individuals suspected of committing genocide, crimes against humanity or war crimes. H.R. 390 further directs the secretary of state to encourage other countries to add identifying information about suspected perpetrators of these categories of crimes to their databases and security screening. In a similar vein, the measure directs the Justice Department to review existing federal statutes concerning these unspeakable crimes to determine the extent to which U.S. courts have jurisdiction over such crimes.
To date, none of the Senate's 100 members has expressed the slightest reservation or concern about this entirely salutary measure. To pass the House without a single "nay" vote provides eloquent testimony to the indisputable merits of this worthy measure. But for whatever reason, since the House's unanimous action in early June, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has allowed three months to pass without acting on or seeking to move H.R. 390 forward. That's wasted time, when precious lives could have been spared.
As we have seen recently in my home state of Texas, the American people respond generously to natural disasters that force our fellow citizens and residents out of their homes. They open their own homes, their wallets and their hearts to help their displaced and suffering brothers and sisters, regardless of race or ethnicity. As a country, we have a special responsibility to care about the untold suffering in the Middle East. For better or worse, the United States has had boots on the ground, and in force, in that troubled part of the world for well over a decade. The reasons for the Islamic State's takeover of large swaths of Iraq — as well as Syria — will be debated endlessly in the months and years to come. But that debate can and should proceed without in any way standing in the way of embracing a common-sense response to the profound human suffering that continues to plague tens of thousands of innocent civilians. All that is needed is for the Foreign Relations Committee to approve a universally supported measure that admirably reflects the fundamental decency and humanity of the American people.