Sudden End to Team Investigating Da’esh Crimes in Iraq Could Impact Ongoing Inquiries, Justice for Victims, Special Adviser Warns Security Council
Iraq and Security Council members must consider the final status, more than the end date, of a mandate governing the UN Team investigating atrocity crimes by Da’esh/Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, urged a Special Adviser during his briefing today, warning that the Team’s abrupt ending, scheduled for September 2024, could negatively impact survivors and victims of those crimes.
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), briefed the Council on the Team’s eleventh UNITAD report. He said that one of the Team’s adjusted priorities against the backdrop of Security Council resolution 2379 (2017), which established UNITAD, and resolution 2697 (2023), which extended the Team’s mandate until 17 September 2024, is to ensure its investigations conclude in a deliberate and orderly manner.
He highlighted the completion of a comprehensive case assessment report on the development and use of chemical weapons by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), also known as Da’esh, as well as yesterday’s publication of a comprehensive assessment detailing heinous crimes of sexual violence perpetrated by ISIL during its brutal reign.
He further detailed the Team’s work, including developing with the Iraqi judiciary joint case files of alleged ISIL perpetrators in third States, establishing a legal basis domestically to investigate and prosecute international crimes and the management of a substantial amount of evidence collected over the last five years.
Commending Iraq’s commitment to support UNITAD cooperation with third States, he noted that an agreed modality which better outlines the Team’s evidence-sharing with third States has been concluded, per Council resolution 2697 (2023). “However [...] despite a shift of resources and intensifying our efforts, it will likely be the case that — by September 2024 — the Team will not be able to deliver final outputs on all lines of inquiry it has initiated,” he pointed out.
“It remains up to Iraq to exercise its sovereign right to decide on the future of this mission,” he emphasized, while warning that “a premature and abrupt ending of UNITAD can only mean a loss for all those concerned.” He urged the Government of Iraq and Council members to “give due consideration to the end state of our mandate more than the end date”, adding that over the next weeks and months, he will continue to work closely with all Iraqi counterparts to furnish possibilities and present different scenarios.
In the debate that followed, Council members commended UNITAD support to Iraq in its pursuit of justice for victims and survivors of crimes committed by Da’esh and commended cooperation to that end between the Team and the Government of Iraq. In underscoring the importance of UNITAD gathering and sharing evidence, some speakers pointed to shortcomings in the process for the latter, with others noting that the Secretary-General’s report should provide clarity on those matters.
The representative of the United Kingdom highlighted UNITAD progress on documenting sexual violence against women and girls and the development and use of chemical weapons by Da’esh, as well as progress in capacity-building, including training on witness protection and victim-centred approaches to evidence collection and supporting mass grave excavations. “All this is vital to bringing justice and accountability for victims and survivors, while supporting the Iraqi Government in its modernization of judicial processes and of investigatory work,” he said.
The representative of the United States said the work of UNITAD is a good example of how the UN can help post-conflict countries’ efforts towards peace and security, adding that the Council should be ready to support it beyond the upcoming year if necessary. He also underlined the importance of the UNITAD role in providing information and evidence to third-party nations, such as the United States, for example, on the Team’s recent investigation of the manufacture and use of chemical weapons by Da’esh.
The delegate of the Russian Federation, however, pointed out that, while UNITAD has finally shared with Iraq some materials collected on terrorists’ manufacturing and use of chemical weapons, and on sexual violence, Iraq has only received a paltry amount of what the Team has accumulated. The evidence appears to instead be used periodically to bring individuals to justice in third, mainly Western, countries. All materials accumulated by the Investigative Team must be immediately transferred to Iraqi authorities, she stressed.
The representative of Ecuador, Council President for December, speaking in his national capacity, said UNITAD collaboration with communities affected by Da’esh crimes and with non-governmental organizations is a cornerstone of evidence collection efforts. Past reports and the forthcoming Secretary-General’s report with recommendations for the delivery of evidence to the Government of Iraq as well as the road map for completion of the Team’s mandate will be essential to clear up doubts about UNITAD activities, he added.
Joining other speakers, Malta’s representative underscored the need for a domestic legal framework to enable the prosecution of international crimes — genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. Such legislation should be enacted as a matter of priority and preclude application of the death penalty, she said, echoing a point made by other delegations.
Iraq’s representative, reiterating that the UNITAD mandate must end in September 2024, said that, to date, the Iraqi Government has only received reports and summaries that have no legal value before national courts and has received no evidence from UNITAD that could be used in criminal proceedings. “During this final year, all evidence must be provided,” he stressed. The formation of UNITAD is a unique experience in international cooperation to achieve criminal accountability for the most serious crimes, he said, emphasizing that delivery of evidence to the Iraqi Government will be proof of that cooperation’s success.
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), briefing the Council on that body’s eleventh report, said that, over the past weeks, he has been working closely with counterparts in the Government of Iraq to implement Security Council resolutions 2379 (2017) and 2697 (2023). He recalled his various constructive engagements to that end, including with the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Foreign Affairs, the National Security Adviser and the Chair of the National Coordinating Committee, as well as with counterparts in the Kurdistan Regional Government. One of the adjusted priorities of UNITAD against the backdrop of those two resolutions is to ensure that its investigations conclude in a deliberate and orderly manner. The Team thus finalized and shared with the Iraqi judiciary a comprehensive case assessment report on the development and use of chemical weapons by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), also known as Da’esh, which includes extensive investigative findings based on three years of dedicated fieldwork.
“This report is a milestone in our pioneering line of investigations that examines how ISIL developed and deployed chemical weapons in Iraq, including against the Shia Turkmen minority in the town of Taza Khurmatu,” he said. Yesterday, the Team published a comprehensive assessment detailing the heinous crimes of sexual violence perpetrated by ISIL during their brutal reign. “However ... despite a shift of resources and intensifying our efforts, it will likely be the case that — by September 2024 — the Team will not be able to deliver final outputs on all lines of inquiry it has initiated, but will only be able to deliver preliminary findings for those lines of investigations rather than comprehensive reports,” he pointed out. Noting the Team’s cooperation with the Iraqi judiciary to develop joint case files of alleged ISIL perpetrators in third States, he said that during the reporting period, the first such joint case file was developed and shared with the concerned third State, and ultimately helped lead to the arrest of this suspect.
Turning to UNITAD support to Iraq to establish a legal basis domestically to investigate and prosecute international crimes, he said the Team worked hand in hand with Iraqi counterparts and provided a series of technical comments on proposed draft legislation and its alignment with international and customary law. The establishment of such a legal basis for international crimes will pave the way for trials against ISIL perpetrators on such charges, with the participation of Iraqi victims and witnesses. Turning to the Team’s work on evidence management, he said a large majority of UNITAD holdings, which currently contain 39 terabytes of information that has been collected over the last five years from a diverse range of sources, has been processed onto the Team’s “electronic discovery platform”. What will happen with these holdings and how they can be shared with Iraq remains at the heart of resolution 2697 (2023), he noted, adding that the Team looks forward to further guidance to this end in the Secretary-General’s report next month.
“It remains up to Iraq to exercise its sovereign right to decide on the future of this mission,” he said, adding: “However, let me stress that a premature and abrupt ending of UNITAD can only mean a loss for all those concerned.” He urged the Government of Iraq and Council members to “give due consideration to the end state of our mandate more than the end date”, noting that over the next weeks and months, he will continue to work closely with all Iraqi counterparts to furnish possibilities and present different scenarios. Turning to UNITAD support to third State investigations and prosecutions, he said the Team has supported 209 requests from 20 third States to date, highlighting that this function of cross-checking against its evidence holdings, identifying witnesses and taking testimony to support third States is “a concrete measure of global accountability ... and a monumental step in combating impunity”. He commended the commitment of Iraq to support UNITAD cooperation with third States and noted that an agreed modality which better outlines the Team’s evidence-sharing with third States has been concluded, per resolution 2697 (2023).
FERGUS JOHN ECKERSLEY (United Kingdom) highlighted UNITAD progress on documenting sexual violence against women and girls and the development and use of chemical weapons by Da’esh. He also noted progress in capacity-building, including training on witness protection and victim-centred approaches to evidence collection and supporting mass grave excavations. “All this is vital to bringing justice and accountability for victims and survivors, while supporting the Iraqi Government in its modernization of judicial processes and of investigatory work.” He encouraged UNITAD to improve third-party evidence-sharing with the Iraqi Government, as the Council requested in resolution 2697 (2023), ensure Da’esh members cannot escape with impunity by fleeing abroad and continue working to improve evidence-sharing with Iraqi authorities. He hoped the upcoming Secretary-General’s report will provide clarity on these matters so the Council and Iraq can properly understand what evidence has been and can be shared and how, with UNITAD, to make further progress on this. It is critical that UNITAD-collected evidence continues to be available for prosecutions of international crimes.
ANDRIS STASTOLI (Albania) said his country acknowledges progress achieved by UNITAD amidst numerous challenges and applauds the completion of case assessment reports on gender and sexual crimes against the Yazidi community as well as the acquisition of new evidence regarding the development and use of biological and chemical weapons by Da’esh. “It marks a precedent, illustrating the alarming extent to which non-State actors can pose real and unprecedented threats,” he stressed, appreciating the advancement of investigations, particularly in identifying high-ranking Da’esh officials and gathering evidence related to mass murder, enslavement of women and girls, rapes and other heinous crimes. He said that investigations and case assessment reports cannot be concluded by September 2024, as additional resources and the full engagement of Iraqi authorities are indispensable for the pursuit of justice through fair and due process. He reiterated Albania’s unwavering commitment to justice and accountability as the bedrock for lasting peace and prosperity for the Iraqi people.
CAROLYN ABENA ANIMA OPPONG-NTIRI (Ghana) commended UNITAD efforts to advance investigations in its lines of inquiry. Noting UNITAD commitment to share analytical and structural findings regarding various investigations with the Iraqi judiciary in the upcoming reporting period, she said the enrichment of evidentiary material will support domestic investigations and prosecutions, ensuring that there is no impunity for heinous international crimes committed by Da’esh. She also commended continued cooperation between UNITAD and the Government of Iraq, including Iraqi judicial authorities, noting that the continued efforts of UNITAD, including provision of training on digital forensic methods and support for mass grave excavations, are enhancing domestic capacity for the investigation and prosecution of crimes committed by Da’esh. Despite challenges that UNITAD foresees in the non-completion of its work, the Team must endeavour to work with the Government of Iraq to ensure its expectations as host Government, related to the Team’s future, are fully met by September 2024.
MARIA ZABOLOTSKAYA (Russian Federation) said it is heartening that UNITAD has finally shared with Iraq some materials it has collected on the manufacturing and use of chemical weapons by terrorists, and on sexual violence. But she expressed surprise that Iraq has only received a paltry amount of what the Team has accumulated. She said the evidence appears to instead be used periodically to bring individuals to justice in third, mainly Western, countries. She highlighted that thousands of terrorists have not been held accountable. She said the blame for UNITAD not fulfilling its main mandate lies with the predecessor of the current Special Adviser, who continues to work for Western patrons in his new position. She demanded that all materials accumulated by the Investigative Team be immediately transferred to Iraqi authorities and hoped UNITAD will increase cooperation with Baghdad. She called for detailed information on progress to complete activities in the Secretary-General’s report in January and the Special Adviser’s “road map” in March.
SÉRGIO FRANÇA DANESE (Brazil) said the Council’s decision to extend the UNITAD mandate for one year responded to several of Iraq’s concerns. In this regard, he underscored the importance of holding criminal proceedings in that country — while developing a road map for the completion of the Team’s mandate — and the need for collecting and sharing evidence of Da’esh crimes with Iraq’s authorities. The timely determination of modalities for sharing such evidence with third States bodes well for the goal of holding Da’esh members — including those who fled the country — accountable, he added. He also commended Iraq’s Government for engaging with UNITAD and third States to enable the prosecution of suspected criminals abroad. While acknowledging the Team’s contribution to strengthening that country’s judicial institutions, he said that following UNITAD mandate completion, capacity-building initiatives tailored to local needs could continue to be provided bilaterally.
ANNETTE ANDRÉE ONANGA (Gabon) said her country supports the strategy put in place by the Security Council to prevent the proliferation and use of chemical weapons by State and non-State actors, as well as terrorist organizations. The accountability mechanism established in Iraq, which is based on criminal justice and the rule of law, is essential to the maintenance of international peace and security, she said. “Gabon welcomes the fact that the mechanism makes it possible to promote the fight against impunity and to guarantee access to justice for the local communities impacted by war crimes, crimes against humanity and crimes of genocide committed by Da’esh against the Yazidi people in Iraq,” she stressed. She called for follow-up measures aimed at facilitating the use and admissibility of evidence collected and processed on the ground to facilitate the prosecution of perpetrators of crimes.
DIARRA DIME LABILLE (France) commended UNITAD progress in gathering evidence on crimes committed by Da’esh and its drafting of a thematic report on sexual and gender-based violence. She also welcomed the collection of digital data relating to the online activity of Da’esh, and ongoing efforts to digitize evidence needed for investigations. Highlighting UNITAD commitment to Iraqi civil society, she said dialogue with civil society is crucial, helping to gather valuable evidence to further investigations. She encouraged Iraqi authorities and UNITAD to continue their dialogue, including on the sharing of evidence with third States. All States must support UNITAD, she added, noting her country’s support of the Team through voluntary contributions and technical cooperation to help in its evidence-gathering work. However, it is important to recall the UN steadfast position on non-transfer of elements for judicial proceedings likely to result in capital punishment sentences, she stressed, adding that a victim-centred approach and the “gender perspective” adopted by UNITAD in all its work are crucial.
ADRIAN DOMINIK HAURI (Switzerland) welcomed the cooperation of UNITAD and Iraq’s Government to determine modalities of future evidence-sharing with third countries. Recalling Switzerland’s opposition to the death penalty, he said he opposes evidence-sharing in judicial proceedings that could lead to capital punishment. He commended the Team’s investigation and documentation of Da’esh crimes, noting that evaluation of sexual crimes, particularly against women and girls from minority communities, is essential to ensure accountability. In this context, he highlighted the report by the Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate, published in partnership with Switzerland, which states that sexual and gender-based violence, human trafficking, sexual slavery and forced marriage are used as weapons of terror by Da’esh. Underscoring the need for criminalizing, in national legislation, international crimes related to sexual and gender-based violence, he highlighted the importance of independent courts.
ROBERT A. WOOD (United States) said the work of UNITAD is critical to holding Da’esh members accountable for crimes against humanity. After nearly 10 years, victims continue to yearn for justice. He acknowledged the Iraqi Government’s desire for more evidence-sharing from UNITAD for use by its judicial system and UNITAD efforts to make this possible. He said he looks forward to the Secretary-General’s report on actions UNITAD and Iraq can agree on to ensure evidence-sharing. He stressed the importance of the UNITAD role in providing information and evidence to third-party nations, such as the United States, for example, on the Team’s recent investigation of the manufacture and use of chemical weapons by Da’esh. UNITAD evidence-sharing in support of prosecutions of Da’esh members abroad is an essential element of its work. The work of UNITAD is a good example of how the UN can help post-conflict countries’ efforts towards peace and security, he said, adding that the Council should be ready to support it beyond the upcoming year if necessary.
Mr. ZAYED AL NAHYAN (United Arab Emirates) said his country values progress achieved by UNITAD during the past six months in collecting evidence on crimes committed by the terrorist organization Da’esh in Iraq. “Some of these crimes may constitute crimes against humanity and crimes of genocide,” he stressed, commending UNITAD for its efforts and calling on it to hand over collected and processed evidence to the Iraqi Government, which is the primary recipient of this evidence. “This approach serves our collective efforts to prevent the resurgence of this group or the emergence of other, more extremist entities,” he said. Many families of victims are still waiting for justice, he emphasized, welcoming the completion of the first joint case file between the Iraqi investigative judges and UNITAD to support the trial of a Da’esh member in a third country. He also urged UNITAD to transfer knowledge to Iraqi judges and experts.
SHINO MITSUKO (Japan) said her delegation commends the work UNITAD has accomplished, closely cooperating with relevant Iraqi authorities, on sexual and gender-based crimes and crimes against children. This work is significant for punishing immediate perpetrators, ending the culture of impunity and helping eliminate gender-based violence, including sexual violence in conflict. She encouraged UNITAD to continue its preliminary investigative work, such as that concerning crimes committed against Shia Turkmen women. Building the capacities of Iraq’s judicial authorities is also critical to ensure their work continues after UNITAD completes its mandate. Welcoming the identification of modalities for sharing evidence with third countries, in response to the Iraqi Government’s request and Council resolution 2697 (2023), she said the shared goal in this dossier for the Iraqi Government, UNITAD and the Council is to ensure accountability for crimes committed by Da'esh.
GENG SHUANG (China), noting that UNITAD is a temporary and transitional arrangement, voiced hope that the Team will consult with Iraq, formulate a practical and actionable exit strategy without delay and complete its withdrawal in a timely and orderly manner. UNITAD should also ensure the timely and systematic handover of all evidence to the Iraqi Government so that it can hold terrorists accountable, thus completing the historic task of supporting Iraq's accountability efforts. Noting the agreement reached between UNITAD and the Iraqi Government on the modalities of evidence-sharing with third countries, he expressed hope that the Team, as requested, will inform the Iraqi Government of previously shared evidence files as soon as possible. The international community must continue to steadfastly support Iraq in beefing up its counter-terrorism capacity-building, eliminating terrorism and consolidating hard-won counter-terrorism achievements, he added.
DOMINGOS ESTÊVÃO FERNANDES (Mozambique) said international crimes need a substantial amount of time, specialized knowledge and sufficient funds and resources for investigation, prosecution and settlement. UNITAD’s support to Iraq is fundamental in pursuing justice for victims and survivors as well as accountability for the perpetrators of war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide and other heinous crimes. “Breaking the circle of impunity is an important step towards stabilization, reconstruction and reconciliation in Iraq,” he added. To effectively use evidence UNITAD has gathered in independent criminal proceedings before Iraqi courts, it is crucial that Iraq establish a sufficient domestic legal framework for the investigation, prosecution and adjudication of international crimes. His delegation believes the domestication of international criminal law and prompt adoption of legislation pertaining to international crimes are crucial. An essential step forward is the involvement of legal professionals from abroad and for Iraq to provide training in the relationship between domestic and international criminal law.
FRANCESCA GATT (Malta) commended UNITAD’s partnership with civil society, victims, survivors, communities and religious leaders in its investigative work. Underscoring the need for a domestic legal framework to enable the prosecution of international crimes — genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity — she said such legislation should be enacted as a matter of priority and preclude application of the death penalty. She further welcomed the agreement between the Team and Iraq’s Government to determine information sharing modalities with third States, stating that she looks forwards to the roadmap for the completion of UNITAD’s work. “Although the wheels of justice can turn slowly, we must acknowledge the concrete results achieved by UNITAD over the past five years,” she stressed. She added that the drawdown of the Team’s functions must be gradual and orderly, recognizing the need to appropriately deal with confidential and sensitive evidence in its possession.
JOSÉ JAVIER DE LA GASCA LOPEZDOMINGUEZ (Ecuador), Council President for December, speaking in his national capacity, underscored reports delivered on the use of chemical weapons by Da'esh and on sexual violence against women and girls, and one, in preparation, on the destruction of Iraq's cultural heritage, as “fundamental to sustain judicial and police efforts in Iraq”. He said he supports cooperation between UNITAD and the Iraqi Government in the preparation of joint reports on alleged perpetrators residing in third States. UNITAD's collaboration with communities affected by Da'esh crimes and with non-governmental organizations is a cornerstone of evidence collection efforts. He is pleased that UNITAD has informed the Iraqi authorities about evidence that has been shared with third countries, and with the agreement reached in October 2023 on modalities for such procedures. He considered that past reports and the forthcoming Secretary-General's report with recommendations for the delivery of evidence to the Government of Iraq as well as the roadmap for the completion of UNITAD's mandate will be essential to clear up doubts about UNITAD's activities.
ABBAS KADHOM OBAID AL-FATLAWI (Iraq) said his country’s authorities did not receive the UNITAD report at the appropriate time and therefore had no time to carefully examine it and review the report with national authorities mentioned in it. He reiterated his country’s firm position on the extension of UNITAD’s mandate for one year only, which has to end in September 2024. “During this final year, all evidence must be provided,” he stressed, adding that the mandate of UNITAD is centred on the collection, preservation and storage of evidence on Da’esh crimes in Iraq. “The Team’s mandate cannot be reduced to the evidence without using the evidence in national courts’ context,” he stated, underscoring that the formation of UNITAD is a unique experience in international cooperation to achieve criminal accountability for the most serious crimes. Iraq continues to support the success of this experience, he said.
Delivering evidence to the Iraqi Government will be proof of the success of this experience but, if this is not achieved, it may weaken States’ trust in such mechanisms in the future, he stressed. “We reiterate that until this moment, the Iraqi Government has not received any evidence from UNITAD that could be used in criminal proceedings,” he said. “We only received reports and summaries that have no legal value before national courts,” he underscored, spotlighting a contradiction with the Security Council’s resolutions on the topic. As the Iraqi Government feels great responsibility to achieve justice for victims and accountability, issuing and delivering reports on Da’esh crimes may not amount to the level of ambitions to achieve justice, he said, adding that this will lead to further impunity and lack of accountability. Delayed proceedings have allowed members of Da’esh to escape from Iraq and seek safe havens, he noted.