U.S. President Donald Trump is joined by legislators and Archbishop Bashar Warda (left) of Erbil-Kurdistan, Iraq as he signs H.R. 390 on Dec. 11, 2018 in the Oval Office of the White House. Photo by: Shealah Craighead / The White House

WASHINGTON — On Dec. 11, 2018 U.S. President Donald Trump sat at his desk in the Oval Office flanked by U.S. lawmakers and diplomats, the head of the Knights of Columbus, and faith leaders from communities affected by the genocide carried out by ISIS.

Bashar Warda, the powerful Chaldean archbishop of Erbil, Iraq, stood to Trump’s right, and Murad Ismael, executive director of the Yazidi advocacy organization Yazda, to his left. Behind them were Ambassador at Large for Religious Freedom Sam Brownback, New Jersey Rep. Chris Smith, U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator Mark Green, and then-House majority leader, now minority leader, Rep. Kevin McCarthy.

“I think where we are right now is simply recognizing that one’s ethnic or religious identity is a variable when determining someone’s vulnerability to needing assistance of some sort or another.”

— Hallam Ferguson, Middle East bureau senior deputy assistant administrator, USAID

“In recent years, ISIS has committed horrifying atrocities against religious and ethnic minorities in Syria and Iraq, including Christians, Yazidis, Shia, and other groups. And beyond the — beyond the various groups, they’ve just been devastating to a lot of people,” Trump said.

The purpose of the gathering was a signing ceremony for the Iraq and Syria Genocide Relief and Accountability Act of 2018, which Smith — a conservative Catholic on the House Foreign Affairs Committee — had introduced in the House of Representatives. Smith had repeatedly sought more U.S. funding and support for Christian and other minorities in Iraq and Syria, chairing 10 different hearings on the subject, and introducing bills to that effect beginning in 2016.

“It was clear then, as it is now, that local overstretched underfunded groups on the ground were being forced to fill a huge gap — like the Chaldean Catholic Archdiocese of Erbil in the Kurdistan region of Iraq, supported by the Knights of Columbus,” Smith told his colleagues, who passed the bill, known as House Resolution 390, on Nov. 27, 2018.

For Smith and other faith advocates who believed U.S. support for religious minorities in Iraq and Syria — particularly Christians and Yezidis — was falling short, the bill represented a form of corrective action. In a carefully parsed statement of policy, the bill sought to send a message to the U.S. government’s humanitarian and development agencies that the plight of religious and ethnic minorities in the Middle East ought to be firmly on their radar.

In July, at the State Department’s second Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, USAID’s senior deputy assistant administrator in the Middle East bureau, Hallam Ferguson, described the bill as, “a landmark piece of legislation that has served to guide our efforts,” and “a lodestar.”

“For the first time we’re really talking about and acknowledging that a person’s ethnic or religious identity contributes to their vulnerability … That is something of an evolution in the conversation around humanitarian principles and the way we at USAID and others in the US government try to do our work around development assistance,” Ferguson said at a ministerial side event at the Family Research Council, a Christian activist group known for opposing homosexuality.

The humanitarian principle of impartiality requires that assistance be distributed solely on the basis of need, with no discrimination based on nationality, race, gender, religious belief, class or political opinions. Devex spoke to Ferguson about how this conversation is evolving inside USAID.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length:

Before HR 390 became law, what were the criteria USAID could consider in deciding how to allocate assistance funding in Iraq and Syria?

The traditional methodology or paradigm for allocating humanitarian assistance is need-based. It’s based strictly on the need of the beneficiary, and that is how you identify people who need humanitarian assistance and allocate appropriately. Obviously development assistance we interpret differently, and that is meant to be of a more long term and systematic approach — which has meant rebuilding schools, power infrastructure, health clinics, that sort of thing in the context of Northern Iraq and Syria as well. That’s the traditional approach.

HR 390 was a very important bipartisan piece of legislation that passed, because what it did was, first of all, and very importantly, it reiterated, and in a bipartisan manner, that the United States government recognizes what happened in Syria and Iraq as genocide, perpetrated by ISIS, and that it is policy of the United States government to try to do what we can to mitigate the effects of that genocide. And it calls upon us to do what we can to help the victims of that genocide, both at the individual and at the community level through humanitarian assistance and development assistance.

This was a reformulation, a reiteration, if you will, of the genocide that was originally declared by Secretary Kerry under the previous administration, and it really set U.S. policy to do something about what had happened there.

That’s what we’re attempting to implement now. It aligns perfectly with this administration’s goals and objectives, and that’s what we’re trying to pursue now.

What is the process for how U.S. assistance can now be targeted to communities based on their religion or ethnicity? How are those communities identified? How are they prioritized for assistance?

HR 390 falls into a larger conversation about how to include in our vulnerability criteria for assistance religious or ethnic identity. If you recognize that Yazidis in Iraq were targeted for genocide based upon their religious or ethnic identity, you ought to include that in trying to determine where they are on the scale of vulnerability and need — or where they are on that spectrum. HR 390 is part of this ongoing conversation in the assistance world, in which we’re trying to better grapple with that specific dynamic.

What we are attempting to do is indeed include the identity or the degree to which one’s identity, religious or ethnic, contributes to your vulnerability and the assistance that you require to get back on your feet.

“Freedom of religion ... is something that we are going to want to promote everywhere we go.”

It sounds like you’re saying there’s a connection between need and identity. It’s not that the U.S. government isn’t considering need, it’s that you’re recognizing identity as a component of need in some cases. Is that right?

One analogy is the decades of work that have gone into the degree to which women, based simply on gender, are subject to additional stresses or vulnerabilities simply based upon their gender. Or the disabled is another example, where around the world you see folks with disabilities who are more vulnerable, simply because of that disability.

You need to include that. You need to include that when you’re looking at a population of people who you want to help in some way, whether it’s humanitarian or longer-term development assistance, you need to recognize that certain communities or identities are inherently going to be subject to different stresses. That needs to be part of your assessment criteria.

You can say the same thing, for example, with the Rohingya in Burma. They were targeted for, essentially, ethnic cleansing ... based upon their religion, their identity, their ethnicity. You need to recognize that when you’re looking at helping all the people within Burma, or as it just so happens, 750,000 of them or so are now in Bangladesh. If you want to help the people that are displaced in Bangladesh, you’ve got to recognize that the Rohingya face certain needs based upon that identity.

This bill specifically only applies to Iraq and Syria, correct?

That is correct.

So the policy is not a global policy at this point — it’s only the policy to take into account ethnic and religious identity in Iraq and Syria?

I wouldn’t call it a policy as much as it is a conversation within the assistance world in how to incorporate ethnic and religious identity into vulnerability criteria when you’re looking at people to help.

HR 390 is a statement of policy by Congress that calls upon us to help those victims of genocide in Iraq and Syria specifically, and indeed does call upon us to help those victims both as individuals and as communities. So yes, what you’re referring to there is a statement of U.S. policy as it relates to Iraq and Syria specifically, but it’s part of a larger conversation that is indeed global.

Are you seeing a broader shift then, globally, to consider ethnic and religious identity when making determinations of need and vulnerability?

I think so, to some extent. I don’t want to overstate it, so please don’t misinterpret what I’m saying here.

To be honest, I think it was what happened in Syria and Iraq, what was perpetrated by ISIS, that really put a focus on this, that really kind of forced us to recognize that our traditional methodologies for helping people were not always suited to responding to the massive trauma of a genocide. I think whereas it may have started in Iraq and Syria, I think what you’re seeing is a broader ripple effect as we reassess and reconsider how best we can help people around the world targeted based on their religion and/or ethnicity.

Why not just give aid on the basis of need? What’s the difference between the vulnerability of a religious or ethnic group and the vulnerability of someone experiencing another form of persecution — or just food insecurity, for example?

It’s a good question, it’s a fair question, and it’s one that the assistance community is grappling with as part of this conversation, which is why I don’t want to be too definitive in stating that this a completed new paradigm that we’re looking at. It’s still something we’re all trying to work through because we recognize that we want to be equitable and fair in helping the people that need it most.

I think where we are right now is simply recognizing that one’s ethnic or religious identity is a variable when determining someone’s vulnerability to needing assistance of some sort or another.

To put a fine point on it, there were communities in northern Iraq targeted for extermination by ISIS based on their religious identity. We kind of have to recognize that when we try to move into northern Iraq and help the sea of people there who were in need. if you simply try to work through that sea of people in need with limited resources — you’re always going to have limited resources — you could wind up kind of missing a lot of those small niche communities that are comparatively small but just so happen to be the ones that were targeted for extermination.

I think what you’re going to wind up seeing is kind of a dual-track approach, again, not dissimilar to how the aid community has looked at helping issues of gender or around disability. You’ve got mainstreamed approaches — we’re going to put in $1 billion and we’re going to help as many people as we can, based on need. In dual track, as we’ve done in some of our gender programming or disabilities programming, we’re going to have more targeted interventions, looking at specific communities, specific towns, specific areas that we believe may require additional assistance just to keep that community, as a whole, there.

Because what’s happening in northern Iraq right now is the religious minorities are leaving. They are an endangered species. They’re on their way out. The population of Christians in Iraq has declined precipitously over the last 15, 20 years, and the Yazidis, of course, are in the process of doing so as well.

So I think there needs to be some recognition that some amount of targeted assistance toward those specific communities who are in danger of disappearing entirely from the fabric of Iraq, some kind of targeted intervention there is warranted, if we believe, and we recognize — and this is the position of the United States government as expressed both by HR 390 and the administration — that we believe that Iraq is stronger for having all of its ethnic and religious minorities there.

A skeptical observer might wonder if this is an example of the United States trying to influence the ethnic and religious composition of other countries. Would they be wrong to see it that way?

I would say yes, I think they would be wrong to see if that way. Because what we’re trying to do is preserve Iraq’s ethnic and religious mosaic, which has been in existence for millennia, basically, and the traumas of the last decade have pushed a lot of those minorities out of the country.

As a government we can just sort of stand by and watch that happen and accept that mass displacement is just something we’ve got to live with, or we can try and do something about that and preserve those communities where they have lived for millennia. I think it is a good thing, and it is the policy of Congress and the administration to try to preserve that diversity where it exists, especially if those minorities happen to be ones that were targeted for genocide, for extermination, by ISIS.

I think it is an unfortunate mischaracterization to suggest what we’re trying to do is manipulate the ethnic and religious minority of a place that has been diverse for hundreds of thousands of years, and is only now, just in the last few years, because of the genocidal impulses of the Islamic State, is looking at a completely different makeup. We can’t just accept it.

The counter argument might be — shouldn’t that be the role of the government of Iraq to foster an environment for a diverse population?

Darn straight it’s the Iraqi government’s job. Absolutely it is ... The Iraqi government kinda needs to take ownership and responsibility for taking care of its own people, and we, the U.S. government, are not satisfied that they’re doing so. Frankly, we’re pretty disappointed in their efforts. One could argue that they’re kind of standing by amidst the continued ethnic cleansing of northern Iraq, especially the Nineveh plains, where there are certain Iranian-backed militias that continue to hold sway over certain parts of that country, completely outside of the control of the Iraqi government, and who are preventing the return of displaced people from those towns.

We believe, absolutely, that the government of Iraq needs to step up on this. We are disappointed in their efforts to do so so far, and we are trying to make efforts to help them do so going forward.

This is a fundamental human right that is worked into the very DNA of how the United States was founded — I mean the freedom of religion. This is something that we are going to want to promote everywhere we go. It’s something that we believe in profoundly, and our policy reflects that. In a place like northern Iraq what that looks like is us attempting to preserve the religious diversity that historically had been there, and it looks like us trying to encourage the Iraqi government to do the right thing for its own citizens there.

Update, Sept. 16, 2019: This article has been updated to clarify Rep. Chris Smith’s religion.

About the author

  • Michael Igoe

    Michael Igoe is a Senior Reporter with Devex, based in Washington, D.C. He covers U.S. foreign aid, global health, climate change, and development finance. Prior to joining Devex, Michael researched water management and climate change adaptation in post-Soviet Central Asia, where he also wrote for EurasiaNet. Michael earned his bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College, where he majored in Russian, and his master’s degree from the University of Montana, where he studied international conservation and development.