(CNSNews.com) – The administration “certainly respect[s]” deadlines laid down by Congress in legislation, but Secretary of State John Kerry needs more time to make a determination on whether atrocities by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS/ISIL) against Christians and other religious minorities amount to genocide, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Wednesday.
Announcing that Kerry will miss Thursday’s deadline to make the determination, Toner said he needed “a bit more time in order to make the best decision with the best evidence available.”
“Given the scope and the breadth of the analysis he’s contemplating, he will not have a final decision completed by the congressionally mandated deadline tomorrow,” he said. “However, this issue is clearly of the utmost importance to him as well as Congress, and we expect him to reach a decision very soon.”
Kerry has had 90 days since President Obama on December 18 signed into law the omnibus spending bill, to meet its requirement to state whether “the persecution of, including attacks against, Christians and people of other religions in the Middle East by violent Islamic extremists … constitutes mass atrocities or genocide.”
Associated Press reporter Matt Lee asked Toner why Kerry would not meet the deadline: “It’s not as if this duty was given to him yesterday or – I mean, it’s been months.”
Toner said the process behind the decision was “by its nature, a very rigorous one.”
“And the secretary has urged his team here at the department as well as the broader intelligence community, and even the NGO community, to provide as much information and evidence as possible so that he can make the best decision possible,” he said. “And if this has delayed the process, we believe it’s worth it.”
Reuters reporter Arshad Mohammed pointed out that the State Department has missed previous deadlines, noting the delay in the publication of last year’s annual human rights report. (It was eventually released 120 days late.)
“Doesn’t the secretary, as a former member of Congress and as the former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, feel like he ought to do his utmost to meet deadlines for reports that he wants received?” he asked.
“Of course,” replied Toner. “I mean, we all – we certainly respect the deadlines that Congress lays down on specific reports, or in this case, decisions about genocide. We take those very seriously. However, we take the process very seriously as well. And so if we need some additional time, a matter of a few days or a week or so, in order to reach what we believe is a more fact-based, evidence-based decision, then we’re going to, working in consultation with Congress, ask for that extra time.”
Asked whether the administration has asked Congress for extra time in this instance, Toner said, “are informing Congress today that we’re not going to make that deadline.”
“You clearly don’t respect the deadline if you’re just going to tell them you’re not going to meet it,” Lee said. “And it’s hard to see how you take it seriously if you’re not going to respect it.”
“We have engaged in a very rigorous process, review of the existing evidence up until this point,” Toner said. “But we believe we need a bit more time in order to make the best decision with the best evidence available.”
“So that’s not to disrespect in any way, shape, or form the congressionally mandated deadline, but it’s simply to say that we feel – the secretary feels he needs more time,” he added.
On Monday, the House of Representatives in a 393-0 vote passed a resolution declaring the atrocities to be genocide, and calling on “all governments, including the United States” to “call ISIL atrocities by their rightful names: war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide.”
House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.) said Wednesday he hoped the holdup would only be “a matter of days.”
“For four months now, the House has been pressing the administration to acknowledge that ISIS is committing acts of genocide,” he said. “And for four months, we’ve been told an announcement is coming shortly.”
“Last week’s report from the Knights of Columbus – which provides more than 200 pages of detailed, eyewitness documentation of ISIS atrocities – should erase any doubt this administration still has about what’s going on in the Middle East,” Royce said.
“Numerous groups, including the Holocaust museum, have now produced overwhelming evidence: Entire communities are being exterminated,” he said. “There’s absolutely no reason for further delay.”
The U.N. Convention on Genocide defines genocide as actions including killing and seriously harming people “with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.”