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10 May 2021

ISIL/Da’esh Committed Genocide of Yazidi, War Crimes against Unarmed Cadets, Military Personnel in Iraq, Investigative Team Head Tells Security Council

Yazidi Survivor of ISIL Atrocities Nadia Murad Urges World Leaders to Act on Team’s Evidence, Prosecute Perpetrators, Stressing ‘Justice Is within Reach’

Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Da’esh) committed genocide against the Yazidi and war crimes against unarmed cadets and military personnel at Tikrit Air Academy, the head of the United Nations team investigating these atrocity crimes told the Security Council today.

“A landmark moment has been reached in our work, with initial case briefs completed in relation to two key investigative priorities,” said 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 (UNITAD), in a briefing on the sixth report of the Team (document S/2021/419).

“I can confirm to the Council that based on our independent criminal investigations, UNITAD has established clear and convincing evidence that genocide was committed by ISIL against the Yazidi as a religious group,” he said, noting that the intent of ISIL to destroy the Yazidi, physically and biologically, is manifest in its ultimatum — applied remorselessly to all members of their community — to convert or die.

Thousands were killed pursuant to this ultimatum, either executed en masse, shot as they fled, or dying from exposure on Mount Sinjar as they tried to escape, he said, adding that thousands more were enslaved, with women and children abducted from their families and subjected to the most brutal abuses, including serial rape and other forms of unendurable sexual violence.  For many, this abuse lasted years, often leading to death.  The intent of these acts was to permanently destroy the capacity of these women and children to have children and build families within the Yazidi community.

Furthermore, the Team has established that numerous other international crimes were also committed against the Yazidi community, including extermination, enslavement, sexual violence, forcible transfer, persecution on religious and gender grounds, and conscription of children into an armed group, he added.  “But let us not forget, these crimes are ongoing,” he warned, expressing the Team’s determination to ensure justice for all those impacted by these crimes.

Turning to the June 2014 attacks by ISIL on predominantly Shia unarmed air cadets and personnel from Tikrit Air Academy, he said the Team has compiled and analysed extensive evidence detailing their capture, torture and mass execution.  Based on its independent investigative work, he said, “the Team has concluded that these acts constitute the war crimes of murder, torture, cruel treatment and outrages upon personal dignity.”  It has also concluded, based on clear and convincing evidence, that a Da’esh video — released in July 2015 showing these killings — constitutes a direct and public incitement to commit genocide against Shia Muslims.  The narration glorifying the horrifying images of these mass executions contains a repeated and clear exhortation to ISIL followers:  “Kill them wherever you find them.”

Information obtained from ISIL electronic devices has also led to the opening of a new investigation into the development and successful deployment of chemical and biological weapons by ISIL in Iraq, he said.  Evidence collected to date details how ISIL used laboratories at Mosul University as the epicentre of its chemical weapons programme, drawing on the expertise of scientists and medical professionals from Iraq and abroad.  Initially weaponizing chlorine from water treatment plants overtaken in 2014, ISIL subsequently developed toxic lethal compounds including thallium and nicotine that were tested on live prisoners, leading to death.  As its capacity strengthened, it developed a sulfur mustard production system that was deployed in March 2016 through the firing of 40 rockets at the Turkmen Shia town of Taza Khurmatu.

This investigation is developing rapidly, with an initial case brief anticipated to be completed and available to national authorities within five months, he said.  By the end of 2021, the Team also anticipates the completion of case briefs addressing crimes committed against Christian, Kaka’i, Shabak, Shia Turkmen and Sunni communities in Iraq, as well as the massacre of predominantly Shia inmates at Badush prison.

However, to fulfil the Team’s mandate and to meet the expectations of survivors, its work must be put before national courts to prosecute those responsible for the horrific crimes, he stressed.  Arrangements have now been put in place with the Iraqi judiciary to transfer evidence collected by the Team concerning financial crimes committed in support of ISIL activities in Iraq.  This represents an important initial step in ensuring that the Team’s work contributes tangibly to accountability efforts in Iraq, he noted.

Expressing support for efforts by the Iraqi Council of Representatives to adopt legislation establishing a legal basis for the prosecution of ISIL members in Iraq for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide, Mr. Khan said this will be a further crucial step towards the delivery of comprehensive accountability for ISIL crimes in Iraq.  In addition, legislation was presented before the Parliament of the Kurdistan Region to establish a court with jurisdiction over international crimes committed by ISIL, he added, describing the adoption of this law as potentially representing an important moment in efforts to achieve the full implementation of the Team’s mandate.

Drawing attention to a series of steps he outlined in his report that would allow for the conduct of trials in Iraq, he believes it is possible that such trials could begin next year.

Today’s biannual briefing was Mr. Khan’s last appearance before the Council in his current capacity, as he is transitioning to his new role as Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court.  Recalling that the Team, established in September 2017, began its work with only five staff members, he said that UNITAD, with more than 200 personnel deployed, “is now a fully functioning investigation team capable of addressing some of the key challenges faced by national authorities in prosecuting ISIL members for their crimes in Iraq”.

Innovation and partnership played key roles in advancing the Team’s work, he said, explaining how the application of artificial intelligence and machine learning tools in the analysis of internal ISIL databases now allow the Team to establish clear timelines of activities of key ISIL members, and how the Team has strengthened partnership with Iraqi authorities, survivor groups, non-governmental organizations and religious leaders.

After the Special Adviser’s briefing, Nadia Murad, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, a Yazidi and survivor of ISIL/Da’esh atrocities, recalled her address to the Council in 2017, requesting its support to ensure that ISIL/Da’esh did not succeed in its goal of eradicating the Yazidi people from Iraq.  “Passing resolution 2379 (2017) was a vital step,” she acknowledged.  UNITAD is contributing evidence to a number of ongoing proceedings and a handful of survivors have faced their abusers in court.  Recently, she was able to bury two of her brothers along with more than 100 victims of the Kocho massacre, thanks to the exhumation of mass graves and identification of remains.

But “much work remains”, she said, urging the Council to prioritize and accelerate action to address the findings.  Evidence collected by UNITAD affirms the conclusion reached by the United Nations in 2016 that ISIL/Da’esh crimes against Yazidis constitute genocide.  Formal evidence collection is critical for courts and history books.  She called the Council to examine the human lives impacted by the UNITAD mandate.  In digital platforms, artificial intelligence and data analysis, the findings are “monumental” because each data point represents a human life.  Together, this evidence tells the story of the Yazidi people, including herself.  She will never forget the grief in her mother’s eyes when she realized her son had been executed — not knowing that she would face the same fate.  She said she can still feel her niece’s hand being ripped from her own as they were separated and loaded onto buses like cattle, and still calculate what her body was worth to those who bought and sold it.

For nearly seven years, Yazidis have been unable to resume their lives, she said, noting that more than 200,000 are living displaced in camps only hours away from their homeland.  They wait in hope for the restoration of Sinjar’s security, governance and infrastructure.  Thousands of families hold out hope for the day when the remains of their relatives will be exhumed from mass graves.  The true horror exists, however, for the 2,800 women and children who remain in ISIL/Da’esh captivity.  This terrorist group never attempted to hide its intentions:  Mass graves were clearly marked and decrees issued on the immorality of Yazidism.  Manuals were published to codify the slave trade.  The sale of Yazidi women still takes place online.  “Their intent to eradicate our community, religion and culture was declared far and wide,” she said.  It is proud of its genocide.

Despite these horrors, she said Yazidis continue to work together to rebuild their homeland and to advocate for accountability.  They are eager to take part in local governance and security of the greater community.  They know that stabilizing Sinjar is the best hope for preventing further persecution.  “Yet our progress is constrained by politics, competing interests and inaction,” she said. “We try to turn the page only to find there is no pen with which to write our next chapter.”

She said legal authority for ISIL/Da’esh crimes would dramatically impact every aspect of their recovery.  Public trials and recognition of the genocide meanwhile will help avert future violence and facilitate the healing of survivors.  International monitoring is needed to ensure national courts see justice through, while international tribunals can address the universal magnitude of ISIL/Da’esh crimes against humanity.  Five years ago, she called on the Council to refer this genocide to the International Criminal Court or establish a court by treaty.  “We were met with empty promises and competing priorities,” she said.  “Justice was deferred.”

Pointing out that Yazidis have been persecuted for centuries, she said that where impunity is accepted, violence is repeated.  Accountability is essential.  Evidence has been found but Yazidis are still searching for the political will to prosecute, she said, stressing:  “If world leaders have the political will to act on this evidence, then justice surely is within reach.”

In the ensuing discussion, Council members welcomed the achievements made so far by UNITAD but urged continued efforts until justice is served for the victims of atrocity crimes committed by ISIL.

The representative of the United Kingdom welcomed progress on draft legislation to provide the domestic legal basis for the prosecution of ISIL/Da’esh members for international crimes in Iraq.  But given the importance of seeing justice done, she called for continued momentum and collaboration to secure an evidence-sharing mechanism that provides assurances on the use of the death penalty.  Justice also means assisting the victims of Da’esh to rebuild their lives, she said, noting the crucial role played by the Team’s Witness Protection and Support Unit to provide psychosocial support to witnesses, particularly women and child survivors.  Her delegation will co-host an Arria formula meeting on Wednesday to discuss how innovation and technology can help advance investigations, support survivors and deliver accountability.

The representative of Norway said that accountability alongside survivor-centred, gender-appropriate and age-responsive approaches are the cross-cutting priorities that are crucial in UNITAD’s ongoing work.  There can be no justice for victims or survivors, nor reconciliation for the country at large, in the absence of accountability for perpetrators, she emphasized, welcoming ongoing engagement between Iraq and UNITAD to resolve outstanding legal obstacles that will allow the Team to share its collected evidence with national authorities.  Survivors — especially those providing testimony — must have proper access to psychosocial and legal support.  The Team must also maintain a gender- and age-responsive approach across all activities.  Women and girls were particularly and systematically targeted for sexual and gender-based violence.  Norway welcomes the recent adoption of the Yazidi Female Survivors Law in the Iraqi Council of Representatives.

The representative of Ireland commended the Team’s use of artificial intelligence, machine learning and translation to gather and analyze evidence, as well as its cooperation with Iraq’s authorities in the excavation of mass grave sites.  “Accountability is essential to heal the wounds of conflict and build sustainable peace,” she stressed.  The manner in which justice is pursued is equally important.  Noting that the UNITAD Gender Crimes and Children Unit has started an investigation into ISIL/Da’esh crimes against the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer+ (LGBTQ+) community, she also cited interviews with survivors of sexual violence and the appointment of focal points within field investigations units.  She called for moving beyond evidence-gathering to prosecution and conviction of crimes of sexual violence committed by ISIL/Da’esh, stressing that “Ms. Murad and all survivors deserve nothing less.”  She commended UNITAD’s support to Iraq in developing a domestic legislative framework that would enable the domestic prosecution of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide, calling for continued training for the judiciary to assist in the development of case files against ISIL/Da’esh for atrocity crimes.

The representative of Tunisia said accountability contributes to healing for victims and achieving stability throughout Iraq by ending terrorism.  Underscoring the need for justice and accountability for all perpetrators of atrocity crimes against Iraqis, he expressed support for efforts by Iraq and UNITAD to carry out prosecutions as fast as possible.  He welcomed UNITAD’s ability to innovatively implement its mandate, including by hearing testimonies remotely and leveraging artificial intelligence.  He welcomed the Team’s gender and rights-based approach to survivors and witnesses, notably in providing psychosocial support.  Citing the need to complete initial case briefs on crimes committed by ISIL/Da’esh in Sinjar and Tikrit, he said resolution 2379 (2017) outlines that Iraq’s authorities are the primary intended recipients of evidence collected by UNITAD for use in proceedings conducted by competent national courts.  He looked forward to the full implementation of resolution 2379 (2017) by handing over completed case files to Iraq’s judiciary and the start of proceedings.  He called for unity in the Council to support Iraq in achieving justice and addressing the legacy of terrorism in a manner that respects its decisions.

The representative of Mexico said that atrocities should never go unpunished, describing UNITAD efforts as vital to promote accountability.  Stressing the importance of cooperation with Iraqi authorities, he commended such efforts as information and evidence-sharing, and training provided by UNITAD to the Iraqi authorities.  He also expressed hope that domestic legal gaps will soon be addressed through the enactment of legislation on prosecuting perpetrators of atrocity crimes.  Stressing the importance of the use of technology, including artificial intelligence and digitization of evidence collected, he welcomed efforts to include mental health in the Team’s work for victims.

The representative of Niger welcomed progress UNITAD has made over the past six months despite the COVID-19 pandemic, especially completion of two case briefs on the June 2014 attacks by ISIL on predominantly Shia unarmed air cadets and personnel from Tikrit Air Academy as well as atrocities committed against the Yazidi.  Calling for continued momentum, he expressed hope for an early completion of case briefs on crimes committed against Christian, Kaka’i, Shabak, Shia Turkmen and Sunni communities in Iraq, as well as the massacre of predominantly Shia inmates at Badush prison.  He also commended the digital platform that allows victims to submit evidence remotely.

The representative of the Russian Federation called for the broadest possible coordination in efforts to counter terrorism, stressing that all parties must respect Iraq’s sovereignty and coordinate their actions with Bagdad.  This must be in accordance with the stated goals of fighting terrorism and helping Iraq stabilize the situation.  He welcomed the completion of case briefs on attacks against Yazidis in Sinjar and the massacre of air force cadets in Tikrit.  Noting that the Team has begun an investigation into the development and use of chemical weapons by terrorists, he underscored the importance for all such incidents to be investigated and for all those involved brought to justice, regardless of where these incidents occurred.  In that context, he said that while events are being called “by their proper names” in Iraq, the breaks have put on any investigation of terrorist use of these weapons in Syria.  He denounced the use of double standards, stressing that to build evidence related to ISIL/Da’esh crimes, the goal should be cooperation between the Team and Iraq, and the transmission of materials to Iraq’s authorities.  As for the transfer of evidence for other crimes, this should not depend on legislative reforms, as this was not prescribed by the Council.  He expressed hope that the next report would provide updates on the trials of ISIL/Da’esh members, which he hoped would be under way in Iraq.

The representative of Kenya said terrorist acts must be met with the full force of the law, recalling that monumental crimes committed by ISIL/Da’esh have risen to the level of genocide, including against the Yazidi community.  For countries that pledged to combat genocide, it is critical to hold ISIL/Da’esh accountable.  The same holds for those that determined gender and sexual violence must be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.  Affiliates of ISIL/Da’esh and its parent group, Al-Qaida, are waging war against the innocent in multiple countries across Africa and he strongly urged the Council to “stand tall” against terrorism.  Welcoming collaboration between the Team and Iraq, and progress made on implementing the joint strategy for the excavation of mass grave sites in Kojo village and Badush prison, he said enhancing capacity-building and funding to law enforcement is a critical element for the success of counter-terrorism measures. The responsible use of artificial intelligence, machine learning and translation to obtain data from ISIL/Da’esh collected materials can help build strong case briefs, he added.

The representative of India said the adoption of the Yazidi Female Survivors Law and the completion of initial case briefs by UNITAD in the attacks against the Yazidi community in the Sinjar region and the positive progress in case briefs of other communities are important developments.  Welcoming UNITAD’s investigation into the development and use of chemical and biological weapons by ISIL in Iraq, he noted with concern the Team’s observation that evidence collected and analyzed confirms the repeated use of chemical weapons by ISIL against civilians.  The perpetrators of crimes against humanity committed by ISIL affiliates should be brought to justice by their respective countries of origin.  Sharing of information and evidence collected by UNITAD with other Member States will further strengthen these efforts.  The full realization of UNITAD’s mandate will not be possible until the Team is able to share its large volumes of evidence with the Iraqi authorities.  It is unfortunate that despite a lapse of almost three years, UNITAD has been unable to fully service its primary client.  Expressing hope this would be rectified soon, he said delay in sharing of evidence will further delay justice to those victims and their loved ones.

The representative of Viet Nam commended the finalization of initial case briefs in two of its core investigative priorities and said he looked forward to the completion of additional case briefs by the end of the year.  Viet Nam continues to be encouraged by the Team’s innovative approach and its results.  The application of advanced technologies and digital platforms has proved very efficient in evidence-collecting activities by allowing witnesses and survivors, including women, to submit information remotely.  Welcoming the Team’s plan to launch publications aimed at promoting good practices in this direction, he commended UNITAD for its strengthened cooperation with the Government of Iraq and encouraged the Team to continue its provision of training to relevant authorities to strengthen domestic capacity for the future prosecution of ISIL members for international crimes.

The representative of Estonia said recovery of the 103 Yazidi victims from nine mass graves was a solemn affair.  He commended UNITAD’s efforts in cooperation with Iraq to ensure that the commemoration of victims takes place in line with local traditions and customs.  Estonia looks forward to the outcome of the highly necessary interfaith dialogue with religious communities seeking to engage in accountability processes, he said, commending the collection and digitalization of internal ISIL/Da’esh documentation through cooperation with Iraq’s institutions.  In particular, he welcomed the arrangement between UNITAD and Iraq’s judiciary, allowing for the sharing of information on financial crimes committed in connection with ISIL/Da’esh activities.  He likewise stressed the importance of continued work through UNITAD special units on the issues of sexual and gender-based crimes and crimes against children, with a focus on witness protection and psychological support for witnesses and survivors.

The representative of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines encouraged further collaboration between Iraq and UNITAD, while respecting the country’s sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity, and its jurisdiction over crimes committed within its territory.  UNITAD’s focus on the mental health of victims and survivors is a critical part of any reconciliatory process, she said, calling the Trauma-Informed Investigations Field Guide an invaluable resource.  Another element of the reconciliation and reconstruction process - capacity-building of Iraq’s institutions – is critical to ensure that “all arms of the State” are able to hold guilty individuals and entities accountable.  She welcomed discussions on the draft legislation establishing a legal basis for the prosecution of ISIL/Da’esh members for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide, also pointing to findings that chemical weapons were used by ISIL/Da’esh in Iraq between 2014 and 2016.  Recognizing UNITAD’s support in the return of the remains of Yazidis to their loved ones, she encouraged further efforts in this regard.  “Iraq’s path is not one to be traversed alone,” she stressed.  UNITAD’s support, and efforts by regional stakeholders, are critical.

The representative of the United States acknowledged the list of impressive accomplishments by the Team in the report, which will help pave the path forward. Welcoming the return of the remains of Yazidi men excavated from mass graves to their families, he said it puts Iraq a step closer to national reconciliation.  UNITAD’s work, however, must continue to hold ISIL accountable and investigations must deliver justice to the Iraqi people.  Success depends on partnership with the Government, survivors, religious communities and other stakeholders, as increased cooperation will lead to more prosecutions of ISIL perpetrators.  It is essential for Iraq to establish legislation to allow the prosecution of atrocity crimes committed by ISIL.  He also welcomed legislation under consideration by the Parliament of the Kurdistan Region to establish a court with jurisdiction over international crimes committed by ISIL.

The representative of France welcomed progress achieved by the Team, including the collection of evidence of the mass killing of unarmed cadets and military personnel at Tikrit Air Academy and the attacks against the Yazidi community in the Sinjar region.  She also welcomed the opening of an investigation into the development and deployment of chemical weapons by ISIL.  Commending the Special Advisor’s efforts to provide psychological support for victims and their families, she also welcomed the use of innovative solutions, including artificial intelligence.  Noting arrangements put in place with the Iraqi judiciary to share evidence collected by the Team concerning financial crimes committed in support of ISIL, she stressed that combating impunity is imperative to reconstructing Iraq.  The Council must prevent the resurgence of ISIL.

The representative of China, Council President for May, spoke in his national capacity, drawing attention to evidence collected by UNITAD which must be transferred to Iraq in order to hold terrorists accountable.  He expressed hope that UNITAD would do so in a timely and complete manner, in line with relevant Council resolutions.  For its part, the international community must continue to support Iraq’s efforts to end terrorism, while also respecting its sovereignty and jurisdiction over crimes committed on its territory.  He welcomed Iraq’s efforts to advance domestic legislation to hold former ISIL/Da’esh members accountable, drawing attention to UNITAD’s ideas around the completion strategy and encouraging the Investigative Unit to fully coordinate with Iraq — and to study the relevant issues in due course.

The representative of Iraq expressed great grief for the crimes perpetrated by ISIL/Da’esh in his country, stressing that “we will not rest” until the terrorists are brought to justice — both for their crimes against the Yazidis and against all Iraqis.  The period following the military defeat of ISIL/Da’esh requires intensified efforts and international cooperation to address the carnage left behind and to hold its members to account, through national and international legal mechanisms.  He called for coordination among States and organizations alike, stressing that terrorism cannot be addressed by States alone or through the singular means of legal proceedings.  Justice can be achieved only with assistance from the international community to develop national capacities in the areas of security, economy and the judiciary, and to ensure respect for human rights, per the Universal Declaration for Human Rights. 

He said Iraq looks forward to developing an international legal regime to monitor implementation of the Council’s counter-terrorism resolutions, reiterating the need for States to comply with these resolutions, per their obligations and in accordance with international humanitarian and human rights law.  Iraq’s position on countering terrorism is based on taking measures to uproot this serious scourge, building its national counter-terrorism capacities and strengthening its judiciary through respect for its international obligations, per the Constitution.  It is carrying out preparations for using the evidence presented by UNITAD in its national courts, upon receipt.  He went on to note that a national council has completed its first reading of legislation to prosecute Da’esh members for genocide and crimes against humanity.  Law No. 8, adopted in 2021, guarantees Yazidi survivors the necessary protection and care. 

After three years of work, close cooperation and progress in unearthing mass graves and revealing the identities of their human remains, he said efforts are under way to expand training for Iraq’s authorities in the collection and analysis of forensic evidence and protecting witnesses.  He said Iraq looks forward to receiving the evidence gathering by UNITAD, per article 39 of the terms and conditions mandating UNITAD to provide legal assistance to the Government.  Recalling that UNITAD’s work must fully respect Iraq’s sovereignty and jurisdiction over crimes committed within its borders and against its people, he called for respecting the mandate and timeframes, as approved by Iraq’s Government.  “The passage of time must not lead to the disappearance of evidence,” he stressed, adding that the achievement of justice will help victims recover and reintegrate into society.

Mr. KHAN, responding to questions raised, said that through the United Nations and in partnership with the Geneva-based International Computer Centre, UNITAD has ensured that the system for transferring evidence is a secure one, equipped with safeguards, firewalls and encryption in line with international standards.  Noting that admissibility will be determined by a domestic court, he said the aim is to use it in an array of national courts.  As ISIL/Da’esh is a global entity straddling Asia, the Middle East, the Sahel, North Africa and Europe, UNITAD must adopt certain procedures.  Using in-house experts, UNITAD has developed a system for receiving evidence — including on phones and tablets.  Upon receipt, forensic experts can ensure the chain of custody and upload onto a broader system.  They can examine metadata of videos and other materials that might contain forensic fingerprints.  UNITAD also has used facial recognition and geolocation technology — notably in geo-locating where a video of mostly Shia cadets was shot, for example — methods which are useful for corroborating witness testimony.

For information media. Not an official record.