Significant Progress Being Made in Evidence Collection of ISIL/Da’esh’s Crimes in Iraq, Investigating Team Head Tells Security Council
Criminal Accountability Long Overdue, Country Representative Says, Calling for All Evidence to Be Submitted, National Justice Efforts Supported
Significant investigative progress in the collection of evidence has been made into the financing, use of chemical weapons and crimes committed by Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), also known as Da’esh, the head of the United Nations team investigating that group’s crimes told the Security Council today, as speakers welcomed the Team’s use of technology to facilitate prosecution and stressed the need to address the group’s continuing proliferation across other regions.
Christian Ritscher, Special Advisor and Head of the United Nations Investigative Team to Promote Accountability for Crimes Committed by Da’esh/Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (UNITAD), briefed the Council on that body’s eighth report (document S/2022/434) and the progress made over the past six months. Its evidence collection has surged as working modalities have returned to normal, including the Team’s preservation and conversion of over 4.5 million hard-copy pages of documentary evidence from courts across Iraq into digital format. That undertaking – done in close cooperation with the Iraqi judiciary and Government – will enable efficient legal proceedings and preserve the historical record of the crimes committed by ISIL/Da’esh.
Investigation into Bayt al Mal – ISIL/Da’esh’s so-called “House of Money” – has progressed significantly, along with investigations into the group’s development and use of chemical and biological weapons, he reported. Further, UNITAD’s investigations have helped produce dedicated case files and identify those responsible for crimes, including those targeting the Yazidi community and the personnel of Tikrit Air Academy. He noted that the Team also ensures that sexual and gender-based crimes committed by ISIL/Da’esh form part of each investigation, and that UNITAD’s victim- and survivor-centric approach means that each and every affected person matters.
While UNITAD’s pursuit of justice and accountability is slow and painstaking — akin to the restoration of cultural heritage sites — the Team is committed to its work, he stressed. Extrabudgetary contributions from Member States to the UNITAD Trust Fund have proven vital to its operations, such as the Team’s support for ongoing domestic proceedings within several Member States in consultation with the Government of Iraq. The most notable case was the 2021 conviction of the ISIL/Da’esh member Taha Al-J in Germany for the crime of genocide. In addition, UNITAD also supported the Swedish Prosecutorial Authority during its trial of a woman convicted of war crimes for having enlisted her child as an ISIL/Da’esh soldier.
In the ensuing debate, many Council members welcomed the close cooperation between UNITAD and the Iraqi authorities. Some speakers also highlighted Iraq’s primary responsibility for ensuring accountability for crimes committed within its territory and called on UNITAD to ensure that the Team’s support is complementary in nature.
The representative of China pointed out that UNITAD is an interim, transitional arrangement to support Iraq’s efforts towards ensuring accountability in accordance with domestic law. Therefore, it should not become a permanent body. He urged UNITAD to assist the Government with digitization measures, noting that the application of new technologies in counter-terrorism efforts can provide an important point of reference for the use of technology in other fields.
The representative of the United Arab Emirates, also underlining UNITAD’s provision of expertise and technical support, highlighted technology’s important role in maintaining international peace and security. Because supporting victims includes rebuilding of Iraq’s deeply rooted cultural heritage destroyed by ISIL/Da’esh in an attempt to erase the identity and history of Iraqi communities, his country, along with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), was involved with restoring several religious sites.
Similarly, Albania’s representative, Council President for June, spoke in his national capacity, commending authorities for their work in rebuilding the cultural heritage damaged or destroyed by ISIL/Da’esh. However, he stressed that — while “the caliphate no longer exists” — dormant cells and affiliate groups still pose an imminent, global threat in different regions, with the spread of ISIL/Da’esh in Africa of utmost concern.
Kenya’s representative detailed that threat, spotlighting affiliates in Somalia, Mozambique, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, West Africa and the Sahel. Further, in East Africa, Al-Shabaab — an Al-Qaeda-linked terrorist group — is the premier peace and security threat, drawing much influence from foreign terrorist fighters joining the group from ISIL/Da’esh and its affiliates. Against that backdrop, he called for the full application of counter-terrorism sanctions regimes on all terrorist groups in equal measure.
The representative of Iraq, commending UNITAD’s progress, stressed that criminal accountability “is long overdue in Iraq”. The major challenge facing the Team now is to submit all its evidence to the Iraqi Government and support national efforts to deliver justice, he said, stressing that the Team’s mission is not complete if it stops at merely gathering and storing evidence. Noting that the Team’s sixth report contemplated holding trials by the end of 2021 or 2022, he urged the international community to adopt swift measures to submit evidence to the Iraqi Government, particularly in light of “mounting pressure from the Iraqi people”.
Also speaking were representatives of the United Kingdom, Gabon, Mexico, Russian Federation, United States, Norway, Ghana, Ireland, Brazil, India and France.
The meeting began at 3:02 p.m. and ended at 4:36 p.m.
CHRISTIAN RITSCHER, Special Adviser and Head of the United Nations Investigative Team to Promote Accountability for Crimes Committed by Da’esh/Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (UNITAD), outlined that body’s eighth report (document S/2022/434) noting that over the past six months, the Team continued to make great progress in its investigative work. “After more than two years of restrictions and preventive measures, UNITAD is back to its full capacity and, with its growing presence in [Iraq], stronger than ever,” he said. Its evidence collection has surged as working modalities returned to normal, for example in the excavation of mass graves and other field-based activities.
During the reporting period, the Team preserved and converted over 4.5 million hard copy pages of documentary evidence from courts across Iraq to digital formats, in close cooperation with the Iraqi judiciary and the Government of Iraq, including the Kurdistan Regional Government, he said. That undertaking, which reduced database searches from days to minutes, is vital to enable efficient and fair legal proceedings, and critical to preserving the historical record of the crimes by Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), also known as Da’esh. Noting that UNITAD’s work is in full compliance with international legal standards and applicable policies of the United Nations, he went on to describe its witness interviews, evidence analysis, case file drafting and other efforts.
Citing several particular cases, he said investigations into Bayt al Mal — or ISIL/Da’esh’s so-called “House of Money”, which was crucial to the organization’s daily functioning — have progressed significantly. Investigations into the development and use of chemical and biological weapons by ISIL/Da’esh are also ongoing and have revealed new information since his briefing. The Team collected and preserved testimonials and evidence pertaining to the manufacture and use of chemical and biological weapons and now plans to examine the procurement system for those weapons and related financial flows.
Meanwhile, UNITAD’s investigations have helped to produce dedicated case files and identify those responsible for crimes, including those committed against the Yazidi community and the personnel of Tikrit Air Academy, which revealed the systematic targeting of people not aligned with ISIL/Da’esh’s ideology, he said. Together with the Permanent Missions of Iraq and Finland in New York, UNITAD will organize a special public event on the massacre of the personnel of Tikrit Air Academy on 10 June. Investigations into the mass execution of approximately 600 Badush Prison detainees on 10 June 2014 also continues to advance, thanks in large part to the excavation of the Badush Valley mass grave conducted by the Iraqi Mass Grave Directorate, with technical and operational support provided by UNITAD.
The Team ensures that sexual and gender-based crimes committed by ISIL/Da’esh form part of each investigation, he continued, citing ongoing interviews of Yazidi women and girls, survivors of sexual enslavement and others able to provide information. UNITAD’s victim- and survivor-centric approach means that each and every affected person matters and all international crimes committed by ISIL members will be thoroughly investigated. Expressing his gratitude to the Government of Iraq, the Iraqi judiciary and the authorities of the Kurdistan Regional Government for their support, he said they all stand together in working towards accountability for crimes committed by ISIL/Da’esh and in support of evidence-based trials and in accordance with due process and international fair trial standards. There are also ongoing discussions in Iraq to adopt the necessary legal framework to deal with such crimes before Iraqi national courts, he added.
Describing UNITAD’s pursuit of accountability and justice as slow and painstaking — akin to the restoration of cultural heritage sites — he nevertheless underlined the Team’s staunch commitment to its work. Extrabudgetary contributions from Member States to the UNITAD Trust Fund have proven vital to its operations, he said, noting that 15 States have provided such contributions and calling on more countries to add their support.
As part of the work funded by those donations, he said, UNITAD supports ongoing domestic proceedings within several Member States, in consultation with the Government of Iraq. The most notable such case was the 2021 landmark conviction of the ISIL/Da’esh member Taha Al-J in Germany for the crime of genocide, and another was support provided to the Swedish Prosecutorial Authority during its trial of a woman who was ultimately convicted of war crimes for having enlisted her child as an ISIL/Da’esh soldier. UNITAD also supports the Joint Investigation Team launched by Sweden and France to adjudicate core international crimes committed by ISIL/Da’esh against the Yazidi community in 2015, he said.
FERGUS JOHN ECKERSLEY (United Kingdom), stressing that States must not be distracted as other global threats emerge, called for collective determination to ensure accountability for the activities of ISIL/Da'esh. Noting his country’s strong support for UNITAD’s efforts to support the domestic prosecution of ISIL/Da’esh members in 15 Member States, including prosecutions in Sweden and Germany, he welcomed the Team’s thorough efforts to investigate the financing of ISIL/Da’esh’s crimes and called for efforts to strengthen the Iraqi judiciary’s capacity. Applauding UNITAD’s focus on the welfare and experiences of survivors, he stressed that ensuring those experiences to be documented safely and effectively — particularly in regard to women and girls from the Yazidi community — is the first step towards achieving justice and accountability for these crimes. Highlighting UNITAD’s contribution to the development of the Murad Code, a global code of conduct for gathering information from survivors, he noted that the Team deserves full support from the Security Council.
MOHAMED ISSA ABUSHAHAB (United Arab Emirates) underscored the need for UNITAD to continue its investigations, including those against the Yazidi community. He also expressed his support for the Team to complete its search for mass graves in Sinjar and Tal Afar, among others. All evidence must be made available to the relevant Iraqi authorities and used in courts to hold ISIL/Da'esh members accountable and ensure justice. UNITAD’s provision of expertise and technical support, including the use of advanced technology and applications to facilitate investigations, highlights the important role that technology plays in maintaining international peace and security. His country also has provided financial support for the specialized unit investigating crimes committed against women and children, including crimes of sexual and gender-based violence. Supporting victims includes the restoration and rebuilding of Iraq’s deeply rooted cultural heritage, which ISIL/Da’esh attempted to destroy in order to completely erase the identity and history of Iraqi communities. To that end, his country is currently contributing to rebuilding the Al-Tahera and Al-Saa’a churches as well as the Al-Nuri Mosque in Mosul in cooperation with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
ANNETTE ANDRÉE ONANGA (Gabon) welcomed ongoing cooperation between UNITAD and Iraqi authorities and called for the same to be strengthened so that all perpetrators can be held to account. She also spotlighted UNITAD’s support to Iraqi judges and investigators in putting together cases for prosecution, particularly for crimes committed against Christians such as sexual enslavement and forced religious conversion. Further, UNITAD’s practical approach — centred on survivors with an integrated gender perspective — allows for reaching survivors of sexual and gender-based violence despite difficult social conditions. Pointing out that efforts to ensure accountability for crimes committed by ISIL/Da’esh concerns the international community due to the transborder nature of the group’s activities, she stressed that all measures towards this end must respect Iraq’s sovereignty and jurisdiction over crimes committed on its territory. She also underscored the need to create conditions for reparatory justice for damage done to the Iraqi people using an inclusive approach to the collection of information.
PABLO ADRIÁN ARROCHA OLABUENAGA (Mexico) voiced his support of UNITAD’s decision to prioritize the investigation of crimes committed by ISIL/Da’esh involving the use of chemical weapons. The international community cannot allow these crimes to go unpunished, he stressed, adding that: “If we do so, we run the risk of State and non-State actors in other latitudes testing our collective determination to ensure accountability.” Noting the volume of evidence gathered by UNITAD, he also emphasized the need to move from the investigative to the prosecutorial stage, urging the international community not to lose sight of the ultimate goal of national and international prosecution of those responsible for the war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide committed by ISIL/Da’esh in Iraq. The success of UNITAD’s work is based mainly on cooperation with Iraqi authorities, and this year’s excavation of three mass graves in Sinjar demonstrates progress on this front, he said.
GENNADY V. KUZMIN (Russian Federation), noting that the latest UNITAD report shows that the use of chemical weapons was encouraged by the ISIL/Da’esh high command, suggested that such weapons could have easily been used by terrorist groups next door in Syria. In such a case, Western pretexts that the Syrian Government was responsible for chemical attacks against its own people would be wrong and those Governments’ numerous attacks against Damascus would have been wholly unjustified. Welcoming UNITAD’s investigation of crimes committed against religious minorities in Iraq — as well as such ethnic minority communities as the Yazidis — he emphasized that the Team’s mission is to provide support to the Iraqi authorities, as explicitly indicated in resolution 2379 (2017). The sooner that support is provided, the better, he added.
MICHAEL KIBOINO (Kenya), recognizing the Team’s support of domestic efforts to hold ISIL/Da'esh accountable for its crimes in Iraq, also voiced support for its investigative initiatives to unearth key terrorist financial facilitators. He commended the ongoing information-sharing efforts among security agencies and the justice system to ensure the prosecution of ISIL/Da'esh operatives. ISIL/Da'esh’s development and deployment of chemical weapons, exploitation of financial systems, as well as the use of foreign terrorist fighters, has enabled it to expand. In that regard, he spotlighted affiliates in Africa, including in Somalia, Mozambique, the Democratic Republic of Congo, West Africa and the Sahel. In East Africa, Al-Shabaab, an Al-Qaeda-linked terrorist group, is the premier peace and security threat. This group draws much influence from foreign terrorist fighters joining the group from ISIL/Da’esh and its affiliates. He further called for the full application of the counter-terrorism sanction regimes including 1267 on all terrorist groups in equal measure and without favouritism.
RICHARD M. MILLS (United States) welcomed progress made recently by UNITAD, including in uncovering how ISIL/Da’esh used funds to carry out its crimes and on the methods it used to deploy and optimize dangerous chemical weapons. He also welcomed the innovative data harvesting and storage solutions developed by the Team to organize the vast troves of digital content being collected, as well as UNITAD’s growing collaboration with the Governments of Iraq and third countries. In light of the Team’s increasing capabilities, he urged all relevant countries to repatriate, rehabilitate and reintegrate their nationals who are still detained in Iraq. Meanwhile, the identification and return of human remains to family members can provide closure and community healing, he said, adding that ISIL/Da’esh — though diminished — remains intent on restoring its power. Ensuring accountability for crimes committed will help prevent it from achieving that goal, he said.
TRINE SKARBOEVIK HEIMERBACK (Norway) stressed that accountability for ISIL/Da'esh’s crimes in Iraq is a prerequisite for the rule of law and sustainable peace in the country. Welcoming reported progress in the investigations on crimes committed against Christians, Yazidis, and other minorities, she applauded UNITAD’s focus on a survivor-centred and age- and gender-sensitive approach across its work. With regards to the investigation of the use of chemical and biological weapons, she said she would have welcomed additional information on the gendered dimension in the present report, as the previous report described “under-reported gender-related harms” suffered by those targeted by such weapons. Acknowledging the partnership with the Iraqi authorities, including on a wide range of capacity-building and technical assistance, she said she looked forward to learning more about UNITAD’s efforts to support Iraq in the adoption of national legislation allowing for the prosecution of international crimes, which is a prerequisite for the fulfilment of the Investigation Team’s mandate.
CAROLYN ABENA ANIMA OPPONG-NTIRI (Ghana) said that maintaining momentum is necessary “to hold accountable all those who believe that they can maintain impunity for parochial ideological and religious gain”. While acknowledging UNITAD’s progress, she emphasized that more can be done to enhance cooperation and information-sharing between the Team and competent Iraqi authorities. To this end, the Team must not seek to replace — or act as an alternative to — the Iraqi judicial system. Rather, it must provide complementary institutional support and resources to assist Iraqi judges and investigators with evidence gathering and preservation. She also encouraged Iraqi authorities to scale-up efforts to cut through bureaucracy in order to create the necessary conditions and environment to support UNITAD. Underlining that international cooperation and multilateralism are vital components of any meaningful effort to degrade the capabilities of terrorist groups, she stressed that joint action among all stakeholders is the only way to dismantle such groups’ opaque, clandestine operations.
SUN ZHIQIANG (China) welcomed UNITAD’s progress in investigating terrorist financing and the use of chemical and biological weapons. Stressing that Iraq bears the primary responsibility for ensuring justice in its territory, he called on the international community to respect this and support the Government’s pursuit of accountability in accordance with domestic law. Further, UNITAD should continue to maintain good relations with the Government and assist with the gathering of evidence, capacity-building and digitization measures. On that point, he said that the application of new technologies in counter-terrorism efforts can provide an important point of reference for the use of technology in other fields. He went on to emphasize that UNITAD is an interim, transitional arrangement to support Iraq’s efforts and, therefore, should not become a permanent body. He also urged the international community to support Iraq’s efforts to fight terrorism, to expedite repatriation of foreign terrorist fighters in that country and avoid politicizing counter-terrorism efforts.
ANNE-MARIE O’SULLIVAN (Ireland), welcoming the progress achieved by UNITAD across all investigative lines of inquiry, recognized the cooperation afforded by the Iraqi Government. Regarding investigation into sexual and gender-based violence, she pointed to interviews with older Yazidi women, which demonstrate the value and importance of both gender and age-sensitive investigative approaches. Also acknowledging progress in the investigation of crimes against the LGBTQI community, she stressed the importance of ensuring accountability and compensation as well as psychosocial supports for victims and survivors. Observing that the investigative priorities have pivoted towards the identification of perpetrators most responsible for atrocity crimes, she called for continued efforts to develop legislation enabling the domestic prosecution of war crimes and crimes against humanity and genocide. She also called for the relevant parties to form a Government in order to progress such legislation as a matter of priority.
PAULA AGUIAR BARBOZA, (Brazil) stressed that promoting accountability for ISIL/Da'esh crimes in Iraq is key to long-term stability in the country. To that end, she welcomed the new stage of developing case files to hold ISIL/Da'esh perpetrators accountable for their crimes. UNITAD must be impartial and independent and act consistently with the Charter of the United Nations and other relevant norms of international law. She also stressed the importance of respecting Iraqi sovereignty in the pursuit of accountability for crimes committed in their territory, including in the sharing of information by the Team with third countries. The mandate to support domestic prosecutions has Iraqi authorities as its primary intended recipient, she said, commending the collaboration between UNITAD and the Iraqi Government, in terms of evidence collecting, storage and analysis. She also acknowledged the Team’s efforts to build capacity in Iraq’s judicial system.
RAVINDRA RAGUTTAHALLI (India) said the implementation of UNITAD’s mandate will contribute to ensuring accountability for serious crimes and fighting impunity. The ongoing investigations on attacks against the Christian, Sunni, Kakai, Shabak and Shia Turkmen communities — and the strengthening of the initial case-briefs in the attacks against the Yazidi community — will also support the Government of Iraq’s efforts aimed at national reconciliation and delivering justice. Noting India’s financial support to UNITAD, he said that a terrorist group which deployed deadly weapons by misusing the State’s educational, financial and commercial infrastructure was “deeply concerning”. The international community needs to pay closer attention to this issue, as such a template could be replicated by other terrorists. Commending the Team’s joint work with the Iraqi judiciary and its various assistance projects, he said justice must be delivered to the victims of ISIL’s crimes and their families, adding: “[This] cannot happen until those responsible for the atrocities are held accountable.”
DIARRA DIME LABILLE (France) said UNITAD’s work has yielded significant progress, including the conclusion of a first report on the development and use of chemical weapons and efforts to uncover ISIL/Da’esh’s sources of funding. Because evidence-gathering is at the heart of UNITAD’s mandate, she encouraged the Team to press forward with the critical digitalization of its work and collect previous witness statements. In addition, as cooperation is essential for combating impunity, continued efforts in awareness-raising and training for Iraqi judicial authorities is also crucial. More broadly, she called on interested States to cooperate with UNITAD by providing financial contributions, adding that the fate of victims must remain the global community’s main concern. The support provided to victims is therefore a central pillar to Iraq’s reconciliation and recovery. Noting that the threat posed by ISIL/Da’esh has not disappeared, she said France stands in solidarity with Iraq in countering terrorism and supports all efforts to prevent the group’s resurgence.
FERIT HOXHA (Albania), Council President for June, spoke in his national capacity to welcome the cooperation between UNITAD and Iraqi authorities, pointing out that sharing information with relevant Member States would enable the prosecution of those responsible for financing, supporting and executing terrorist actions worldwide. He also commended authorities for their work to rebuild cultural heritage damaged or destroyed by ISIL/Da’esh. However, while “the caliphate no longer exists”, dormant cells and affiliate groups still represent an imminent, global threat in different regions, with the spread of ISIL/Da’esh in Africa of utmost concern. Stressing the need to move from evidence collection to extradition and national judicial proceedings, he urged Member States to repatriate and prosecute all individuals involved in terrorist activities and facilitate their reintegration into society. He added that, for its part, Albania has successfully repatriated dozens of women and children from detention camps in Syria and Iraq and has provided them the necessary means to start a new life.
MOHAMMED HUSSEIN BAHR ALULOOM (Iraq), recalling Security Council resolution 2597 (2021), said his country looks forward to prosecuting all those who have financed or supported the crimes of ISIL/Da’esh. Commending UNITAD’s progress, he said criminal accountability “is long overdue in Iraq”; victims and their families are still waiting for justice. The major challenge facing the Team now is to submit all its evidence to the Iraqi Government and support national efforts to deliver justice, he said, stressing that the Team’s mission is not complete if it stops at merely gathering and storing evidence.
Indeed, the Team’s sixth report explicitly mentioned the possibility of holding such trials by the end of 2021 or 2022, he continued. Urging efforts to adhere to that time commitment, he said the international community should therefore adopt swift measures aimed at submitting evidence to the Iraqi Government and organizing national trials, particularly against the backdrop of “mounting pressure from the Iraqi people”.