Victims’ Testimony Steering United Nations Team Investigating ISIL/Da’esh Atrocity Crimes in Iraq, Special Adviser Tells Security Council

SC/14035
26 November 2019
8675th Meeting (AM)

Victims’ Testimony Steering United Nations Team Investigating ISIL/Da’esh Atrocity Crimes in Iraq, Special Adviser Tells Security Council

Perpetrators Must Face Iraqi Justice, Baghdad Representative Stresses; ‘I Survived to Be a Witness,’ Says Yazid Survivor

Testimony from victims of terrorist crimes in Iraq — including mass murder, abductions and sexual slavery — is now steering the work of a newly operational United Nations investigative team, its chief told the Security Council today, while also outlining a range of forensics and other tools being used to build cases against perpetrators.

Karim Asad Ahmad Khan, 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 (ISIL/Da’esh), known as UNITAD, told the 15-nation Council that communities across Iraq are courageously relaying stories of unspeakable treatment to the Team’s investigators.  Spotlighting UNITAD’s mandate to identify criminal perpetrators for prosecution under Iraqi law, he said victims are willing to “re-live hell on earth” in order to preserve evidence and achieve justice.  “It is our responsibility to honour their strength by delivering on the promise […] that those who inflicted their suffering will be held accountable,” he stressed.

A renewed sense of common purpose followed the unanimous renewal of UNITAD’s mandate at the request of the Government of Iraq in September, he continued, adding that the Team is now fully operational and actively collecting documentary, digital, testimonial and forensic evidence.  Methods include forensic scanning of crimes scenes, the documentation and digitization of evidence and ballistics analysis, as well as efforts to retrieve DNA profiles from the remains of victims in mass grave sites.  Noting that several individual ISIL/Da’esh members have been identified as primary investigative targets, he said work is underway to build case-files for presentation to Iraqi courts.  “Our capacity to demonstrate continued value to Iraqi counterparts, and the people of Iraq more broadly, will be essential,” he said.

Mr. Kachi, a member of Iraqi civil society, speaking by video-teleconference from Iraq, recounted his personal experience as a survivor of mass executions which had been carried out in his Yazidi village located in Sinjar District.  It was there, in August 2014, that ISIL/Da’esh overwhelmed the town and separated the men and women.  The men were then killed in a mass shooting.  He escaped from a pile of dead bodies that included three of his brothers.  His elderly step-mother was also executed, along with other older women, and his wife and daughters taken to a slave market and sold.  His three-month-old daughter died of thirst and hunger.

“I can still hear my wife and daughters screaming,” he said, describing the lingering psychological effects on survivors.  Thanking the Council for creating UNITAD to establish accountability for such crimes, he nevertheless said that prosecuting those responsible is not enough.  The international community must also acknowledge that the crimes committed against the Yazidi community amount to genocide.  The Council must support the Team and work to prevent similar crimes in the future, he stressed, adding:  “I survived by God’s will to be a witness.”

As Council members took the floor, many expressed their strong support for UNITAD’s work and praised efforts to translate the international community’s many condemnations of war crimes into concrete action.  Several also hailed the exemplary cooperation of the Government of Iraq — under whose jurisdiction the investigations fall — as well as that of the Kurdistan Regional Government and local communities.  However, some delegates cautioned that all of UNITAD’s work, and any other efforts carried out by international partners in Iraq, must fully respect the principles of national sovereignty and criminal jurisdiction.

France’s representative was among those speakers who welcomed strides made by UNITAD while calling for the full recognition of victims and the application of the highest standards of protection for them.  She emphasized the need to ensure that the Team abides strictly by United Nations principles and not transmit any cases to jurisdictions where there is a chance that the death penalty will be applied.  Meanwhile, the Council must remain mobilized to prevent any resurgence of ISIL/Da’esh, she said.

The representative of the Dominican Republic, echoing many of those points, also joined speakers who praised a number of legal strides made by Iraq at the national level.  Those include the introduction of new legislation that will allow for the prosecution of crimes committed by terrorist groups, including war crimes and genocide.

Kuwait’s representative added his full support for UNITAD, whose mandate is critical in the fight against terrorism.  Among other things, the Team deters future crimes by setting out lessons to potential perpetrators.  Emphasizing that eradicating terrorism is an international responsibility, he described Kuwait’s own counter-terrorism activities and expressed hope that all countries will intensify cooperation in that endeavour — including the repatriation of foreign terrorist fighters. 

While praising UNITAD’s work, Côte d’Ivoire’s representative also noted that the Team continues to face many challenges on the ground.  Spotlighting the transnational character of the activities of ISIL/Da’esh as one example, he urged partners to strengthen cooperation in order to allow relevant crimes to be covered by the Iraqi legal arsenal.  Efforts to translate the condemnation of war crimes into concrete action are crucial and they go beyond the case of Iraq.  There must be a renewed focus on socioeconomic development, which will help to prevent radicalization, he stressed. 

Iraq’s representative welcomed the renewal of UNITAD’s mandate by the Council at his Government’s request and praised the Team for its work to date.  Following the military defeat of terrorist groups in Iraq, strong international support is needed to rebuild what was destroyed, prosecute war crimes and thwart any future attacks.  Calling on countries around the globe to monitor airports, dry up sources of terrorist funding and end the flow of foreign terrorist fighters, he added he agreed with other speakers that UNITAD’s work must be built on the principle of respect for Iraq’s sovereignty and its jurisdiction over crimes committed on its territory.  “Perpetrators must be brought to Iraqi justice,” he stated, emphasizing:  “We must turn this page as quickly as possible.”

Throughout the meeting, delegates also conveyed their condolences to the Government and people of France, following the death of 13 soldiers in a 25 November helicopter crash in Mali.

Also speaking were the representatives of the United States, Germany, Peru, South Africa, China, Indonesia, Equatorial Guinea, Belgium, Poland, Russian Federation and the United Kingdom.

The meeting began at 10:03 a.m. and ended at 11:38 a.m.

Briefings

KARIM ASAD AHMAD KHAN, 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 (ISIL/Da’esh), known as UNITAD, presented the body’s third report (document S/2019/878).  Over the past six months, he met with tribal leaders, family members and survivors across Iraq, listening to personal accounts and understanding the scale and severity of the crimes committed.  “The effects of Da’esh are not finished,” he said, noting that communities continue to live courageously with the impacts of violence, abductions, sexual slavery and other unspeakable treatment.  Despite those terrible memories, victims and their families are willing to “re-live hell on earth” in recounting their experiences, which should remind the entire international community of what is at stake.  The Council, for its part, must have the collective stamina and focus to ensure that justice is done.  “It is our responsibility to honour their strength by delivering on the promise […] that those who inflicted their suffering will be held accountable,” he said.

Outlining hands-on work over the reporting period, he said the UNITAD team is now fully operational with a total of 107 staff.  In addition, key technological equipment is in place.  The Team is collecting documentary, digital, testimonial and forensic evidence and, because of extra-budgetary funds provided by Member States, has expand its investigative strategy.  Such initiatives include three-dimensional laser scanning of crime sites in Sinjar and the collection of testimonial accounts from survivors in Dohuk Governorate.  It is also retrieving DNA profiles from the remains of victims in mass grave sites.  As well, several individual ISIL/Da’esh members have been identified as primary investigative targets, including in the context of attacks committed against the Yazidi community in Sinjar.  Work is now underway to build case-files that will be presented to courts, he said, also describing crucial meetings with partners in the Iraqi judiciary.

A renewed sense of common purpose followed the unanimous renewal of UNITAD’s mandate at the request of the Government of Iraq in September, he continued.  Cooperation on logistics and support has been mirrored in the Team’s engagement with the Kurdistan Regional Government, leading to the establishment of an intergovernmental task force comprising all relevant regional Government entities.  He underlined his personal commitment to ensuring that work of national authorities and those of the Kurdistan Regional Government remains one of mutual cooperation.  “Our capacity to demonstrate continued value to Iraqi counterparts, and the people of Iraq more broadly, will be essential,” he stressed, pointing to the provision of technical forensic assistance, crime scene investigation help and evidence-digitization support to national authorities.  Such close cooperation has also formed the basis of support to ongoing national proceedings before a Finnish appeals court relating to two alleged members of ISIL/Da’esh facing charges of aggravated war crimes in connection with killings committed in and around Tikrit in June 2014.  Meanwhile, in another significant step, the Government of Iraq facilitated the transfer of an ISIL/Da’esh detainee to UNITAD premises to provide testimony. 

He went on to report that his Team was formally approached by an additional three States regarding the potential provision of support to ongoing domestic proceedings concerning ISIL/Da’esh crimes.  UNITAD has received support from Australia, Germany, Finland, France, United States, United Kingdom, United Arab Emirates, Philippines, Sweden and Uganda, he said, inviting all Member States to engage with or contribute to the Team’s work.  “The renewal of our mandate represents a reaffirmation from this Council that it is not enough for us to condemn the barbarity and depravity of ISIL,” he emphasized.  Those responsible must be personally held to account, whether through the forensic scanning of crimes scenes, the documentation and digitization of evidence, DNA collection or ballistics analysis.  Welcoming the Council’s invitation to a survivor of ISIL/Da’esh crimes to brief them via video-teleconference today, he also suggested that such participation serve as precedent for future briefings on the issue. 

Mr. KACHI, a member of Iraqi civil society and a Yazidi from Sinjar District who survived the mass executions in the village of Kocho, spoke by video-teleconference from Iraq, recounting the horrific events of August 2014 when his village of 1250 people was besieged and overwhelmed by Da’esh elements, their possessions confiscated and men separated from the women.  The men were then killed in a mass shooting.  “I survived by God’s will to be a witness,” he said, describing how he escaped from a pile of dead bodies that included three of his brothers, as well as nephews and cousins.  His elderly step-mother had also been executed, along with some 77 elderly women who were shot or buried alive, and his wife and daughters taken to a slave market and sold.  His three-month-old daughter died of thirst and hunger.  He was one of 19 survivors from the mass graves in the village.  “I can still hear my wife and daughters screaming when the members of the terrorist organization of Da’esh took them,” he said, describing the lingering psychological effects. 

Thanking the Security Council for creating UNITAD to establish accountability for the crimes of Da’esh, he said, however, that prosecuting those responsible for their crimes is not enough.  The international community must also acknowledge that the crimes committed against the Yazidi community amount to genocide.  “I also hope that the Security Council continues its support to the investigative team to establish a fair mechanism for accountability to prevent similar crimes and genocides in the future,” he stated. 

He thanked the Team and Mr. Khan for overseeing the exhumation of mass graves in Kocho Village, inaugurated at an event that included survivors, victims’ families, Yazidi clerics, the Spiritual Yazidi Council and Iraqi national authorities, among others.  He also requested the Team to keep listening to the personal accounts of survivors and victims’ families.  The international recognition of fair trials, based on evidence, is crucial for helping to move forward, he said, adding:  “The significance of this is not limited to the Yazidi community, but also to several communities that have been affected by the crimes of ISIL throughout Iraq.”

Statements

KELLY CRAFT (United States), paying tribute to the French soldiers who died yesterday in Mali, expressed deep appreciation for the work of UNITAD.  Describing Da’esh’s attacks on communities, she said, “These are acts of pure evil.”  The Council has a solemn responsibility to speak the truth and work for justice in the face of such crimes.  She also noted her solidarity with Mr. Kachi in the context of the American celebration of Thanksgiving, adding that the work of UNITAD is critical for justice for survivors.  The United States has contributed to $3 million for UNITAD’s work, including excavation of mass graves, she noted, thanking other voluntary contributors.  She also welcomed expansion of the investigations to include crimes committed against Christians, Shi’a and Sunni Muslims and other groups, as well as expanding its territorial scope.  Highlighting cooperation between Iraq and UNITAD as well, she pledged her country’s commitment to work with all to ensure that the mandate is fully implemented.

JUERGEN SCHULZ (Germany), also expressing condolences to the families of French soldiers lost in Mali, affirmed the critical importance of post-conflict justice for national reconciliation in all situations.  Highlighting the mandate of UNITAD, he applauded the expansion of investigations to include other minorities and other national territories.  His country’s financial support and provision of experts was supporting UNITAD as a part of a global drive to end impunity, he said, adding he welcomed the cooperation between the Iraqi Government and UNITAD.

MANSOUR AYYAD SH. A. ALOTAIBI (Kuwait), adding his full support for the mandate of UNITAD, welcomed its progress in implementation as well as its cooperation with the Iraqi Government.  He affirmed the importance of a clear strategy to collect evidence and protect witnesses.  UNITAD is of great importance in the fight against terrorism by setting out a lesson to others; in that way it helps to prevent such crimes from happening elsewhere.  He underscored the importance of the Team’s respect for the sovereignty of Iraq and coordination with other investigative mechanisms to prevent overlap.  Eradicating terrorism is an international responsibility, he stressed.   Describing his country’s counter-terrorism activities, he expressed hope that all countries intensify cooperation in that endeavour, including in the repatriation of foreign terrorist fighters.  Flexibility must be used to counter Da’esh’s plans, he added.  He also commended the Government and people of Iraq for their will and unity in the face of the crimes committed.

GBOLIÉ DÉSIRÉ WULFRAN IPO (Côte d’Ivoire) welcomed the adoption of resolution 2490 (2019) extending UNITAD’s mandate for 12 months and hailed the Team’s ongoing work.  Describing some of the many challenges it faces, he spotlighted the transnational character of the activities of ISIL/Da’esh and urged partners to strengthen cooperation in order to allow relevant crimes to be covered by the Iraqi legal arsenal.  Efforts to translate the condemnation of war crimes into concrete action are crucial and go beyond the case of Iraq.  Indeed, such work should underpin the broader efforts of both national Governments and the international community.  He also called for a renewed focus on socioeconomic development — including through foreign investment, the generation of employment and provision of basic services — which, among other things, will help to prevent radicalization.  Partners should also provide much-needed reconstruction support to Iraq and other countries torn apart by conflict, he said.

PAUL DUCLOS (Peru) reaffirmed his delegation’s support to the valuable work being carried out by UNITAD and applauded the Team’s entering into its operational phase.  Underlining the critical importance of UNITAD’s special units for gender-based violence and abuse, he thanked all parties on the ground for their cooperative efforts and hailed investigative work and the preservation of evidence.  That has resulted in evidentiary material that can be made available to any State that requires it.  UNITAD must be provided with all the resources needed to carry out its work, he stressed, welcoming the support of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) in that regard.

KGAUGELO THERMINA MOGASHOA (South Africa) said it is evident that UNITAD’s impressive investigative capacity is yielding results, as demonstrated by the large amounts of evidence gathered.  She also highlighted the close cooperation between the Team and Iraqi authorities with the shared aim of prosecuting the perpetrators of ISIL/Da’esh’s crimes in the country.  However, she also noted her concern regarding the finding of the report by the Secretary-General which pointed out that, despite setbacks, ISIL/Da’esh remains a pervasive threat in Iraq and, thus, a destabilizing threat to that country as well as the region.  UNITAD plays a vital role as an impartial, independent body, operating within the Charter of the United Nations.  It is employing United Nations best practices in line with relevant international human rights law in its support of Iraqi authorities in the “challenging, harrowing endeavour of seeking justice for barbaric crimes”.  Turning to the sensitive and challenging legal questions faced by the Team and the Iraqi authorities on the eventual sentencing of convicted persons, she said she hoped that these would be resolved in a mutually satisfactory and cooperative manner.

WU HAITAO (China), hailing Iraq’s return to development, reconstruction and other positive endeavours, expressed hope that such work will continue so that peace can be consolidated in the country.  Fighting in Iraq wreaked much devastation and terrorist organizations further decimated the country’s population.  He expressed his appreciation for UNITAD’s work and its cooperation with other organizations, adding that he hoped the team will abide strictly by its mandate, work closely with the national authorities and help in the struggle against terrorism.  Whether UNITAD will be able to take on further challenges depends on its work now and whether it helps build capacity in Iraq.  He also called on the international community to improve cooperation to ending terrorism and pay close attention to the issue of foreign terrorist fighters.

MUHSIN SYIHAB (Indonesia) said that despite many challenges, the Team has made significant progress in its evidence-collection activities in Sinjai, Mosul and Tikrit.  In this regard, it is crucially important for it to continue to abide by the Charter and to implement its mandate, as well as to perform its activities in accordance with Security Council resolutions and its terms of reference.  He also noted the importance of evidence-based and witness-based investigation.  Protecting and supporting the survivors should be at the centre of UNITAD’s work.  From the third report, it is encouraging to learn that the Team has been able to ensure a victim-centred approach during its interviews with survivors and engagement with impacted communities.

AMPARO MELE COLIFA (Equatorial Guinea) welcomed UNITAD’s work as well as the efforts to build up Iraq’s national capacity.  If all stakeholders continue to provide support, there is no doubt that those responsible for crimes committed by ISIL/Da’esh in Iraq will be successfully held to account.  Hailing the strong gender dimension of the Team’s work, she said the ISIL continues to pose a grave threat.  The work of UNITAD is critical to combat the group’s activities and rebuild Iraqi society.  Encouraging Member States to continue bolstering and supporting UNITAD’s work, she also underlined the need to fully respect the sovereignty of Iraq and its people.

JOSÉ SINGER WEISINGER (Dominican Republic) highlighted the active participation of the Governments of Iraq and the Kurdistan Region, as well as local communities, in UNITAD’s work.  Hailing strides made, he praised Iraq for introducing legislation that will allow for the prosecution of crimes committed by terrorist groups — including war crimes and genocide — and called on UNITAD to continue to attach special importance to victims of gender-based crimes and sexual violence.  The Team must also ensure the rights and privacy of victims and the sovereignty of Iraq in line with Security Council resolution 2379 (2017), which first mandated UNITAD.

MARC PECSTEEN DE BUYTSWERVE (Belgium) echoed expressions of support for the Team’s efforts as well as for the exemplary cooperation between Iraqi national authorities.  He also joined others in welcoming the new draft law allowing for the prosecution of war crimes, crimes against humanity and related offences, and pledged Belgium’s strong support to UNITAD’s work.

JOANNA WRONECKA (Poland) said the establishment of trust and strengthening of cooperation with the Government of Iraq, as well as with regional authorities and local communities, is both critical and commendable.  Equally important were efforts to ensure a high degree of diversity, including gender, among the Iraqi members of the Team.  Against that backdrop, she expressed Poland’s strong support for UNITAD’s impartiality and professionalism and praised the Special Adviser’s own contribution to rebuilding trust in Iraq.

GENNADY V. KUZMIN (Russian Federation), noting his country’s support for stability in Iraq and eradicating terrorism there, stressed that all those involved in such efforts must respect the country’s sovereignty.  His country will continue to support the Government efforts to end terrorism, he pledged, affirming the importance of the collection of evidence of crimes committed in Iraq.

ANNE GUEGUEN (France), thanking Council members for their expression of condolences on the loss of soldiers in Mali, expressed her condolences to Mr. Kachi for his losses as well.  Acknowledging the accomplishments of UNITAD in carrying out its mandate, she said full recognition of victims is critical and the highest standards of protection must be applied.  Also welcoming the close cooperation of Iraqi authorities with the Team, she emphasized the importance of UNITAD’s abiding by United Nations principles and not transmitting any judicial cases to jurisdictions where there is a chance that the death penalty will be applied.  She expressed hope that justice will help bring about unity in Iraq.  Noting her country’s financial contributions to Iraqi progress and its assistance to women victims of Da’esh, as well as training to Iraqi magistrates, she added that the Council must remain mobilized to prevent any resurgence of Da’esh.

KAREN PIERCE (United Kingdom), Council President for November, spoke in her national capacity, also expressing condolences over the loss of French soldiers in Mali.  She added her agreement on the importance of the Council closely following any resurgence of Da’esh in Iraq and thanked the Government in Iraq for its cooperation with UNITAD and its work to ensure a legal framework for the prosecution of serious crimes.  Applauding the accomplishments of the Team in carrying out its mandate, she pledged her country’s continued support.

MOHAMMED HUSSEIN BAHR ALULOOM (Iraq) welcomed the renewal of UNITAD’s mandate by the Council at his Government’s request and praised ongoing efforts to identify perpetrators and hold them accountable.  Following the military defeat of terrorist groups in Iraq, strong international support is needed to rebuild what was destroyed, prosecute war crimes and thwart any future plans to disrupt international peace and security.  Among other things, countries should monitor airports, dry up sources of terrorist funding, control their borders, end the flow of foreign terrorist fighters and dismantle networks used by terror groups.  He pledged his Government’s support to the implementation of UNITAD’s mandate, which must be built on the principle of full respect for Iraq’s sovereignty and its jurisdiction over crimes committed on its territory.  Any use of evidence gathered by UNITAD outside of Iraq must be approved by the Government on a case-by-case basis and on the discretion of national authorities.  In addition, justice must be swift, he said, warning that prolonged investigations could lead to the disappearance of evidence or undermine the process.  “Perpetrators must be brought to Iraqi justice,” he added, emphasizing:  “We must turn this page as quickly as possible.”

For information media. Not an official record.