10 December 2020

Innovative Partnership between Iraqi Authorities, Team Investigating ISIL/Da’esh Atrocity Crimes, ‘Is Working’, Special Adviser Tells Security Council

The head of the United Nations team investigating atrocity crimes committed by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Da’esh) called on the Security Council today to maintain its unanimous support as the team makes strides in pursuit of justice for victims through its innovative model, in close collaboration with Iraqis.

“The unique partnership underpinning this mandate, that of independent investigations and close collaboration with national authorities and of international standards adapted to domestic contexts, is working,” Karim Asad Ahmad Khan, Special Adviser and Head of United Nations Investigative Team to Promote Accountability for Crimes Committed by Da’esh/Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (UNITAD), told the 15-nation council.

Mr. Khan, introducing the fifth report of the Team (document S/2020/1107), paid tribute to the resilience of all communities of Iraq, marking the three-year anniversary of liberation of the country’s entire territory from the shadow of Da’esh.  Recounting the reactions of Yazidi victims’ families as excavations supported by his Team resumed at a mass grave site of teenage children and women in Sinjar, he said:  “It is my personal commitment that, as we continue our excavations in Zagaroutia, Anbar and Mosul early next year, our Team will ensure that this work, and indeed all of our investigative activities, are guided by a trauma-informed approach.”

The recommencement of mass grave excavations a month ago is just one example of the way in which the Team has developed innovative solutions and drawn on its partnership with survivors, Iraqi national counterparts and other actors in order to confront the unprecedented challenges posed by COVID-19 over the last six months, he continued.  The Team has developed user-friendly online platforms that have allowed impacted communities to come forward with their accounts, for example.  Through a collaboration with Microsoft, it has also strengthened its capabilities in facial recognition and machine translation, along with and automatic detection and labelling of videos with graphic content.

Such innovations, he noted, has allowed the Team to envisage finalization in the first half of next year of the first thematic case briefs related to crimes committed against the Yazidi community in Sinjar and the massacre of unarmed air cadets and other personnel in Tikrit.  In parallel, the Team has continued to expand its lines of investigation, with new units having been established in large part thanks to contributions made by the United States and the United Kingdom.  As a result, investigations in relation to crimes committed against the Christian, Kaka’i, Shabak, Sunni and Turkmen Shia communities are also now progressing rapidly and making good the commitment to address crimes against all communities.

As well, UNITAD has also strengthened its cooperation with Iraqi authorities and those of the Kurdistan Region through establishing a coherent framework for all mass grave excavation in line with international standards for identification of victims and gathering criminal evidence, he said.  The utmost priority is being given to the prompt return of remains, which should soon commence.  In addition, over 18 Iraqi authorities are now engaged in digitalizing archives for criminal proceedings and other Iraqi actors have undertaken initiatives that uncovered tens of thousands of pieces of Da’esh internal records.

However, he stressed:  “It is not sufficient for us to simply gather evidence of ISIL crimes.  Our commitment will only be satisfied when this evidence is presented in court and survivors of ISIL atrocities are able to see their abusers held accountable in accordance with the rule of law.”   To that end, he underlined the importance of Iraqi efforts to create a legal framework that would allow for the prosecution of ISIL crimes as war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide under Iraqi domestic law.  He welcomed Iraqi considerations on how UNITAD may support such prosecutions in a manner consistent with its Terms of Reference. 

Meanwhile, agreement has been reached on the Team’s provision of training and support to Iraqi investigative judges in building case files, starting with those related to the widespread sexual slavery committed by ISIL and a high-level member of ISIL presently in detention, he said. 

The report also describes progress in evidence-sharing and other support to ongoing domestic proceedings, he noted.  Engagement with all parts of Iraqi society, through the UNITAD-NGO Dialogue Forum, and meetings with leaders of the Shia, Sunni, Yazidi, Christian and Kaka’i faiths have reinforced the effectiveness and impartiality of the investigations and repudiation of any claim by Da’esh of legitimacy.  Through all such activity, the coming year should see the development of a strong basis on which the Iraqi authorities and those of other States can take forward domestic proceedings against those members of Da’esh most responsible for horrific crimes, he said.

The representative of the United Kingdom, welcoming contributions from the international community, stressed that accountability should be a truly global effort, just as the coalition to defeat Da’esh was.  UNITAD has an enormous task ahead to find a solution that enables evidence gathered to be used to bring those responsible to account.  Justice also means assisting the victims of Da’esh to rebuild their lives, she said, highlighting the Team’s capacities for assisting with witness protection and support.  As well, regular updates to the Security Council are important so that UNITAD’s progress can be seen.  Reaffirming the United Kingdom’s continued support for the work of the Team, she noted that her Government has contributed 2 million pounds to UNITAD’s efforts.

China’s representative said that, since May, when the new Government was sworn in, Iraq has made positive progress to tackle economic and social challenges.  At the same time, terrorism remains a threat to peace and security. The international community should continue to support Iraq in combating terrorism and in bringing terrorists to justice.  The international community should also respect Iraq’s sovereignty and jurisdiction over crimes committed on Iraqi soil, he said, welcoming Iraq’s efforts to promote accountability of former Da’esh terrorists.  The United Nations should monitor developments and Member States concerned should shoulder their respective responsibilities.  Combating terrorism knows no borders and all countries should crack down on all terrorist groups designated by the Council, with no double standards.

The representative of Niger said accountability for crimes committed by Da’esh was an important pillar in the fight against terrorism.  Regarding the strategy for collecting and storing evidence, he welcomed the progress made by the Team, as well as its innovative approach during the COVID-19 pandemic, including the practice of remote interviews.  He also highlighted the collaboration between the Team and the Iraqi executive and judicial authorities which enabled significant progress in the investigations, particularly in Sinjar, Tikrit, and Mosul.  Drawing attention to the draft legislation of the Iraqi Parliament which establishes a legal basis for prosecution - on Iraqi soil - of Da’esh members for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide, he reaffirmed Niger’s support for UNITAD and the mandate of the Special Adviser.

Viet Nam’s representative, stressing that ISIL continues to be a significant threat in Iraq, reiterated the components required to bring justice to its victims and prevent it from committing further crimes.  Noting significant progress in collecting evidence and supporting Iraq’s handling outstanding issues related to ISIL’s crimes, she welcomed the Iraqi Government’s strengthened cooperation with UNITAD.  The agreement between the Team and the Supreme Judicial Council of Iraq to assist Iraqi investigative judges in the development of casefiles for the prosecution of ISIL members for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide was a significant development.  To make further advancements and fulfil its mandate, UNITAD should focus on its strategic priorities, including the strengthening of cooperation with the Iraqi authorities, religious leaders, local communities, survivors, witnesses and families of victims.

France’s representative said that the Team has proved fully competent to accomplish its mission despite the obstacles posed by COVID-19.  Continued digitalization is crucial as is analytical work on the results of the mass grave exhumations.  Encouraging continued dialogue with Iraqi authorities so that all databases are integrated, she underlined the United Nations policy to not transmit material during judicial proceedings in which the death penalty is involved.  She also emphasized the importance of UNITAD’s work in the context of the efforts of the international coalition combatting Da’esh, commenting that the fight against terrorism is critical to stabilizing Iraq and must remain a priority of the Council.

The representative of the Dominican Republic spotlighted the resourceful way that the Team has adapted its work in the face of COVID-19, as well as its collaboration with a range of Iraqi stakeholders.  Welcoming progress in draft legislation against international crimes in Iraq, she said she hoped that the needs and concerns of victims will be thoroughly addressed in such legislation, through continued consultations with communities.  The Team, in addition, should continue its support for exhumations of mass graves.  Regarding the expansion of work related to investigation of crimes committed against Christian communities, she called for full support to the new investigative units.

The representative of the United States urged the Iraqi Government to recommit to fair, evidence-based trials to allow the victims of ISIL/Da’esh to have their day in court.  “These proceedings will showcase Baghdad’s commitment to the rule of law,” he said, also voicing confidence that the partnership between Iraq and UNITAD will advance the cause of victims.  Despite obstacles imposed by the pandemic, efforts are under way to resume exhumations of mass graves, including the “Grave of Mothers”, which, along with increased support for victims and survivors, is a crucial element of reconciliation.  His Government has provided $2 million for exhumations of mass graves, bringing the total financial support by the United States to the Team to $8.8 million.

Belgium’s representative stressed the need to deliver justice to victims within the framework of Iraq’s reconciliation initiatives.  Fighting impunity was an essential component.  In that regard, increased cooperation between the Government and UNITAD was a promising development.  Iraqi authorities must remain the first beneficiaries of evidence collected by it.  To that end, she welcomed efforts to enable the prosecution of war crimes and to develop the capacities of investigative judges to make such prosecutions possible.  Perpetrators of all serious crimes, regardless of their affiliation, must be prosecuted, she stressed.

The representative of Germany, highlighting the consensus among Council members on the benefits of UNITAD’s work, said that Iraqis have suffered crimes against humanity.  His Government remained committed to providing UNITAD the resources it needs to effectively implements its mandate.  “Perpetrators of these horrendous crimes must be brought to account,” he stated, stressing that lasting stability and reconciliation must be grounded on successful judicial proceedings.  He urged further training for members of the Iraqi judiciary with the aim of holding fair court proceedings in line with human rights obligations.

The representative of Estonia voiced concern over the recent eruption of violence in Sulaymaniyah, which endangers stability in northern Iraq.  UNITAD’s continued efforts contributed to the ongoing accountability processes in Iraq with full respect for the principles and best practices of the United Nations.  Also commendable was the Team’s strategic priority in strengthening the capacity of Iraqi authorities, as well as UNITAD’s significant progress in collaboration with the Iraqi authorities regarding the identification and collection of new sources of evidence.  Of great importance was UNITAD’s continued work on the issues of sexual and gender-based violence and in the field of witness protection, as well as psychological support for witnesses and survivors to avoid secondary trauma.

Tunisia’s representative expressed his appreciation for the gender-based and survivor-centred approach undertaken by the Team which gives due consideration to mental health of survivors.  At the same time, he underlined the importance of ensuring full respect of national ownership and priorities.  As well, the prosecutions and the punishment needed to reflect the gravity of the crimes committed, in accordance with Iraq’s national framework and legislative philosophy.  He also expressed deep appreciation to the Iraqi Government for its invaluable and constructive cooperation with the Team and highlighted the contributions of Iraqi authorities in the collection of evidence related to crimes committed by high-level ISIL terrorists, through the provision of witness statements, audio and video recordings and other documentary evidence.

The representative of the Russian Federation welcomed UNITAD’s cooperation with the Iraqi authorities, emphasizing that the Team was created to support Iraq in evidence collection for domestic prosecution.  However, he expressed concern that collected evidence had not been turned over to Iraqi authorities but, instead, had been given to others.  The Team is apparently awaiting the proper Iraqi legislative framework to turn over evidence, but the mandate does not require an ideal legal system to develop before such cooperation occurs, he said, pointing out that there is no such thing as an ideal legal system.  He also stressed the importance of corroboration of evidence gathered through non-governmental organizations, as they can often be biased.  He would like to see a complete list of the organizations involved, he said.  It was important that the Team complete its work in the mandated way so that it will help uncover the full scope and nature of the crimes committed by ISIL in Iraq.

The representative of the Saint Vincent and the Grenadines welcomed the enhanced cooperation between the new Government of Iraq and UNITAD, which has resulted in important agreements, including action on excavating mass grave sites, supporting Iraqi authorities in witness protection and implementing UNITAD’s evidence digitization project.  “We cannot overstate how critical these confidence-building and capacity-building measures are to sustaining peace and enhancing stability and security in Iraq and by extension, the wider region,” she said, emphasizing that a stronger Iraq can only be built from within.  Noting that the Council of Representatives has formally commenced consideration of legislation to establish a legal basis for the prosecution of ISIL crimes as war crimes, she urged the authorities to build on this momentum and continue working towards finalizing this work.

Indonesia’s representative, praising the Special Adviser’s continued cooperation with the Iraqi national authorities, stressed the importance of protecting the survivors.  Therefore, it was important to continue to closely engage with relevant community groups in the process of evidence collection.  The Team also made significant development in strengthening the capacity of Iraqi judicial and executive organs, as well as continuing its efforts to provide technical assistance and training to the Iraqi authorities.  The ability of the Team to fulfil its mandate will depend on its ability to maintain the trust and support of the Iraqi Government and, most importantly, the Iraqi people.  The international community was a step closer to holding to account those responsible for the atrocities, he said, also applauding Iraq’s commitment to prosecuting the perpetrators and rebuilding the country.

The representative of South Africa, Council President for December, spoke in his national capacity, commending UNITAD’s ability to continue building the capacities of Iraqi investigative judges despite the myriad challenges presented by the pandemic.  The Team’s renewed strategic vision ensured that the evidence it collects can ultimately be used effectively by national legislative mechanisms.  Of critical importance to UNITAD’s success was its collaborative relationship with the Iraqi Government, he noted, adding that this partnership was modernizing aspects of the country’s criminal justice system.  “It is critical that we collectively marshal our full support for Iraq and its people at this delicate juncture in the country’s history,” he declared, urging that UNITAD, in collaboration with the United Nations Assistance Mission in Iraq (UNAMI), continue to act as a pillar of Iraqi peace and stability.

Due to technical failure regarding the video-teleconference connection, the representative of Iraq was unable to directly address the Council.  However, he circulated a written statement.  According to the text, he applauded resolution 2544 (2020), which approved the Government’s request to extend the mandate of UNITAD by one year.  Expediting the detection of criminals will bring justice to the Iraqi victims of the terrorist organization and ensure that the group does not ever return.  Calling for implementing United Nations resolutions on combating terrorism, he stressed the need for more coordination between States and international organizations.

He pledged his country’s commitment to cooperate with and assisted UNITAD, through its competent National Coordination Committee, urging full respect for Iraqi sovereignty and its jurisdiction over crimes committed in its territory.  Any use of forensic evidence outside the scope of Iraqi jurisdiction should be coordinated with and approved by the Government and the Iraqi judicial authority, in accordance with resolution 2379 (2017).  His delegation looks forward to completing the appointment of Iraqi experts to UNITAD, he said.

For information media. Not an official record.