Here's Why Bernie Sanders Declined to Label ISIS Atrocities Against Christians 'Genocide'

Democratic U.S. presidential candidate Bernie Sanders talks with moderator Bret Baier during a Democratic Town Hall event in Detroit, Michigan, March 7, 2016. | (Photo: Reuters/Rebecca Cook)

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders declined to label the Islamic State's persecution of Christians and other religious minorities a "genocide" during Monday night's Fox News Democratic town hall.

As IS continues to kill, enslave and abuse Christians and other religious minorities in Iraq and Syria, the Vermont senator was asked by moderator Brett Baier whether he believed that the crimes against humanity being committed by IS against religious minorities in the Middle East should be classified as a "genocide."

Although prominent human rights groups and over 200 members of Congress have argued that a United States "genocide" designation would help foster swift international action to stop the war crimes, Sanders answered by saying that he doesn't believe "a word" needs to put in place to describe what is happening to those minority communities.

Democratic U.S. presidential candidate Bernie Sanders answers a question from a member of the audience during a Democratic Town Hall event in Detroit, Michigan, March 7, 2016. | (Photo: REUTERS/Rebecca Cook)

"Look, what's happening to Christians in the Middle East in that area is horrific. What is happening to Muslims is horrific. It is disgusting," Sanders stated. "I don't know that we have to put a word on it, but when you have a group, I mean, what can we say about these people."

"They are killing children because they are going to school. Girls who are going to school, they're putting girls in sexual slavery," Sanders continued. "This is barbarism and we have to destroy ISIS."

Sanders' rival, the Democratic frontrunner and former Sec. of State Hillary Clinton, had no trouble calling IS' treatment of Christians and other religious minorities a "genocide" last December.

Clinton, who participated in a town hall event in New Hampshire in late December, explained that although she was initially hesitant to use the word "genocide" a few months before, there is now "enough evidence" for her to classify the human rights abuses as "genocide."

"What is happening is genocide, deliberately aimed at destroying not only the lives but wiping out the existence of Christians and other religious minorities in the Middle East in territory controlled by ISIS," the former First Lady said.

As the U.S. Congress is requiring the State Department to give an decision one way or the other as to whether it will label IS atrocities as a "genocide" by March 17, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest again refused to call the situation in Iraq and Syria a "genocide" during a press briefing on Monday.

"Obviously, this is something that lawyers at the State Department are taking a close look at," Earnest said. "This designation is something that requires a rather precise interpretation of the law. That certainly does not undermine how seriously we take the atrocities that have been committed by ISIL in Iraq and in Syria."

During a press briefing last week, Earnest explained that the legal determination to call IS' treatment of religious minorities a "genocide" "has not been reached."

"My understanding is that the use of that word involves a very specific legal determination that has, at this point, not been reached," Earnest said. "But, we have been quite candid and direct about how ISIL's tactics are worthy of the kind of international, robust response that the international community is leading. Those tactics, include a willingness to target religious minorities including Christians."

A supporter listens to U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders at a campaign rally in Ann Arbor, Michigan, March 7, 2016. | (Photo: Reuters/Jim Young)

Although Sanders downplayed the importance of the "genocide" label, a number of prominent human rights activists detailed why the designation of genocide is so vital during a congressional briefing hosted by In Defense of Christians on Capitol Hill last December.

"Why does the G-word matter? Why not simply call ISIS' crimes against Christians and others 'crimes against humanity?'" Dr. Gregory Stanton, the founder of Genocide Watch and a research professor of genocide studies and prevention at George Mason University in Virginia, asked.

"'Genocide' is much more powerful than 'crimes against humanity,' 'war crimes,' 'ethnic cleansing' or these ill-defined terms like 'global atrocity crimes.' Those don't even have a definition in the international law," he added. "'Ethnic cleansing' doesn't even exist in international law, nor does 'atrocity crimes,' whereas 'genocide' is actually in a convention … The reason why the word 'genocide' matters is because words matter. People act according to words."

Stanton gave a historical account of the times that "genocide" designations have helped speed up international response to dire humanitarian crises like the ones in Bosnia, Rwanda and Kosovo.

Stanton added that a genocide designation for Christians would make it easier for them to receive preferential treatment as refugees.

"Members of such groups are much more likely to receive preferential treatment as bona fide refugees, under the UN convention and protocols on the status of refugees, to which the U.S. is a party, and under the refugee laws of the United States," Stanton explained. "It gives Christians and others being targeted for genocide the presumption that they have a well-founded fear of persecution based on their religious or ethnic identity."

Nina Shea, an international human rights lawyer and senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, argued at the same event that the "genocide" designation will have an impact for families that one day want to return to their homelands.

"Yes, calling it genocide does matter. It matters for resettlement purposes," Shea stated. "It matters for restitution of property losses, for land and territory, for reparations for property and losses."

Follow Samuel Smith on Twitter: @IamSamSmith

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