Genocide: The power of words and the obligation to “do something”

March 23, 2016

Last week, the Obama administration ended its long silence on the question of whether the so-called Islamic State has been perpetrating a genocide against Yezidis, Christians, Shi’a Muslims and others. To its credit, the administration forcefully declared that the Islamic State is guilty of genocide, the strongest word we have to describe the desecration of human dignity.

What is especially significant about the administration’s declaration last week is that Christians were included in the declaration. There had been rumors for months that the administration was planning to declare that the Islamic State had committed genocide, but only against Yezidis. Secretary of State John Kerry’s inclusion of Christians in the declaration is important and legitimizes the indescribable suffering that our brothers and sisters have faced in Iraq and Syria.

Defining genocide

Genocide is a term coined in the 1940s by Raphael Lemkin, and the term combines the Greek root genos with the Latin cide to mean the killing of a tribe, family or race. In short, the term genocide is used to describe a program to completely exterminate a people, to wipe them out of existence.

There are a number of different legal definitions of genocide, but the most authoritative definition comes from the 1948 Geneva Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. Under the 1948 Geneva Convention, genocide is the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group through any of the following acts:

(a) Killing members of the group;

(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;

(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;

(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;

(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

It is often difficult to prove that a genocide has been perpetrated, in part because the intent to exterminate a people is a tricky thing to prove. The Islamic State, however, has made its intentions very clear, such as when the organization lined up 21 Coptic Orthodox Christians on a beach in Libya, killing them only for being Christians.

The shame of failing to condemn

This marks only the second time since the passage of the 1948 Geneva Convention on genocide that the U.S. executive branch has invoked the word in the midst of the conflict. In 2004, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell declared that a genocide was being committed against non-Arabs in the Darfur region of Sudan. The war in Darfur continues today, and the International Criminal Court has so far been unable to secure a conviction of genocide.

The U.S. did not, to our great shame, invoke the term “genocide” during the Rwandan genocide, which left between 500,000 and 1,000,000 dead. Indeed, in a now-infamous discussion paper, the legal team at the Department State specifically warned against making a declaration of genocide, because this might “commit the [U.S. government] to actually ‘do something’” to stop the genocide.

Burned by the disastrous operation at the Battle of Mogadishu, the Clinton administration decided to stay out of the situation, letting the body count rack up rather than get involved.

That situation is not unlike the one the Obama administration faces today, and we applaud the Obama administration, despite the fact that the country is weary of and burned by lengthy engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan, was willing to do the right thing here.

Recognition comes with obligation

As President Obama says frequently, there are no good options in Syria and Iraq. This much is self-evident.

What is easy to miss in this discussion is that simply saying something really does matter to the international community. As the world’s lone superpower, what the United States says—or doesn’t say say—creates, defines and clarifies international norms on what kind of state behavior is acceptable.

But of course, if there are no consequences when norms are violated, there never was a norm in the first place. And thus comes the Obama administration’s obligation to actually “do something” to help those who are being systematically exterminated from the territory controlled by the Islamic State. Whether the solution is a safe zone in the Nineveh Plain, or forming and supporting militias to protect endangered minorities, or some other solution is for others to say.

But what we can say is that President Obama should now do two things. First, he should articulate and advance a clear strategy to bring the genocide to an end that goes beyond the platitudes of “utterly destroying” the Islamic State. Second, he should set the United States on a course to hold those within the Islamic State accountable before an international tribunal when the dust has settled on this conflict.

Moving toward word and deed

Those of us who have advocated for months for this genocide declaration must give the Obama administration credit: they had the opportunity to remain silent. There was certainly enough precedent to convince themselves that silence was the wisest option. But the Obama administration did not remain silent, and we give them credit for that. And now we urge them to intensify U.S. efforts to do something about the genocide taking place even today.

In the meantime, let us continue to pray for our brothers and sisters in Syria and Iraq who face choices that are unimaginable to us. Let us pray that God would give them wisdom to know where to go and when. In their time of need, let us pray that God would feed them more abundantly than the birds of the sky and clothe them more radiantly than the flowers of the field. But most of all, let us pray that the power and presence of God would be manifest among them.

Travis Wussow

Travis Wussow serves as the Vice President for Public Policy and General Counsel. Travis led the ERLC’s first international office located in the Middle East prior to joining the Washington DC office. He received a B.B.A. in Finance from The University of Texas at Austin and a J.D. from The … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24