Washington D.C., Sep 23, 2016 / 03:46 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- With ISIS continuing to threaten vulnerable populations in Iraq and Syria, more action is needed to protect victims and offer justice before it’s too late, said human rights leaders this week.

“The survivors of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes in Iraq and Syria merit the fullest possible assistance of our government, including consideration for admission of victim refugees to the United States,” said David Scheffer, former U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues.

Without adequate aid and support, these communities face total eradication, warned other speakers. Policies focused on individual aid instead of helping whole communities increase “the likelihood that the complete eradication of these groups from the region — which was the intent of the genocide — will succeed,” warned Carl Anderson, Supreme Knight of the Knights of Columbus.

Anderson and Scheffer spoke at a Sept. 22 hearing before the U.S. Helsinki Commission on Capitol Hill entitled “Atrocities in Iraq and Syria: Relief for Survivors and Accountability for Perpetrators.” The hearing focused on the Iraq and Syria Genocide Relief and Accountability Act of 2016 (H.R. 5961), introduced by commission chairman Rep. Chris Smith (R- N.J.), which includes steps to protect religious and ethnic communities targeted by ISIS — both in their homelands and as refugees — and how to guarantee that perpetrators of human rights abuses will be prosecuted and punished.

Rep. Smith praised recent declarations by the United States and other organizations that acknowledge continued ISIS persecution of Christian, Yazidi and other religious and ethnic communities as “genocide.” However, he criticized the lack of action, saying that “displaced genocide survivors cannot pay for food, medicine, or shelter with words from Washington.”

Christians, Yazidis, and other ethnic and religious minorities in areas of Iraq and Syria have been facing intense persecution, human trafficking and death since their territories fell under ISIS control. In late 2015, the U.S. State Department formally labeled ISIS’ persecution as a “genocide.”

While documentation of the human rights abuses is necessary and can help spread awareness of the horrors these populations face, Smith continued, “first and foremost, they are crimes committed by perpetrators who need to be investigated and prosecuted.” “This requires collecting, preserving, and preparing evidence that is usable in criminal trials.”

Scheffer explained in his testimony that it is already possible to prosecute perpetrators of war crimes, under some circumstances, but added that Smith’s proposed legislation could help ensure that “perpetrators of crimes against humanity do not find sanctuary from prosecution in the United States,” by including their atrocities under the criminal code.

Chris Engels, deputy director of the Commission for International Justice and Accountability, a non-profit that carries out investigations of human rights atrocities, also spoke. He too stressed the need for increased accountability and prosecution of perpetrators of human rights abuses, and to prevent these events from happening in the future: two goals which he described as connected.   

Noting again that some avenues for accountability and punishment of human rights abuses exist currently and do not depend on the creation of special tribunals and courts, Engels encouraged government leaders to start planning for accountability measures, pointing to their importance for rebuilding efforts after conflict.

Prosecution of ISIS members and the Assad regime can also help the region “evolve into stable, peaceful, and just societies,” in a way that a lack of fighting or political settlements alone cannot, Engles continued. “These trials have the power to serve as tangible examples to all in the region that the rule of law is here, and here to stay,” he said, warning that without avenues for justice, “the seeds of future conflict, cataclysmic destabilization, unprecedented human displacement, and militant terrorism lay undisturbed and ready to grow.”

Prosecuting militant leaders for human rights abuses, as opposed to charges of terrorism, could also help to diffuse the “‘clash of cultures’ narrative” between the West and the Islamic world, by providing fact-based evidence of the horrific crimes they have committed against whole classes of people.

Anderson urged the commission that the communities facing the most horrific violence at the hands of ISIS are not receiving adequate public aid — an oversight which all but seals their extermination. “On the one hand we have the unanimous policy of the elected branches of the United States government stating that a genocide is occurring. On the other hand we have an aid bureaucracy that is allowing the intended consequence of the genocide to continue, even though it is in our power to stop it,” he criticized.

The bureaucratic roadblocks threaten the survival of Christians and Yazidi communities, he said, asking the United States to expand aid to these populations more directly. Anderson also urged the commission to focus on building structures that end the “system of religious apartheid” in the region and ensure that Christians and other religious minorities receive “equal rights and the equal protection of the laws as enumerated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”

Stephen Rasche, legal counsel and director of resettlement programs for the Archdiocese of Erbil provided an on-the-ground perspective of working with more than 10,000 displaced families fleeing violence in Northern Iraq, echoing Anderson’s critique of the lack of public funding for the diocese’s work. The care for the tens of thousands of Christian and non-Christian internally displaced persons has been accomplished mainly through private donors, Rasche testified.

“It is no exaggeration to say that without these private donors, the situation for Christians in Northern Iraq would have collapsed, and the vast majority of these families would without question have already joined the refugee diaspora now destabilizing the Middle East and Europe.” He noted that the “individual needs” policy assessment imposed by the United States and other international organizations excluded these displaced persons, because the care they receive from the Church is better than that received in many refugee camps. Such an assessment fails to acknowledge that they are “threatened with extinction as a people, the victims of genocide and a cycle of historical violence which seeks to remove them permanently from their ancestral homes.”

Bill Canny, executive director of the U.S. bishops’ Migration and Refugee Services, spoke of the need both to rebuild the societies in Iraq and Syria, and to address “the root causes of the forced migration,” as well as the need for the United States and other countries to “continue to protect and support internally displaced people and refugees from Syrian and Iraq.”

He pointed out that “return is the first choice and option most viable for most refugees,” but that in some cases, return is not possible. He suggested that in those cases, resettlement of refugees in new homes should be considered, particularly those who are most vulnerable if they return. “We have urged the United States and other concerned countries, as well as countries in the region, to do more to protect them and others who are facing persecution at the hands of both state actors and non-state actors.”

However, he continued, the United States has resettled a concerningly low number of religious minorities in the past year, particularly Christians. Whatever the causes for the low numbers of Christian resettlement, Canny said, it is clear “that Christians and other religious minorities have become a target for brutality at the hands of the non-state actor ISIS, and that they are fleeing for their lives, and that far too few of them have been attaining U.S. resettlement.”