Baghdad-INA- Harith Al-Abadi
The Investigative Team to Promote Accountability for Crime Committed by Da’esh (UNITAD), elaborated its mission and tasks in Iraq, while revealing the most prominent results achieved regarding a group of files, including mass graves, the Tikrit Air Academy massacre (Speicher crime), genocide against the Yazidis and other crimes committed by the terrorist gangs against civilians in Iraq.
UNITAD Special Adviser Christian Ritscher said in an interview with the Iraqi News Agency (INA), that “Pursuant to Security Council resolution 2379 (2017), the United Nations Investigative Team to Promote Accountability for Da’esh Crimes has been mandated by the United Nations Security Council to promote accountability for international crimes committed by ISIL in Iraq.
Since 2018, UNITAD’s headquarter was created in Baghdad, followed by the setup of two additional offices located in Dohuk and Erbil. Since the start of its mission, UNITAD has adopted different lines of investigations to collect, preserve and store evidence of acts committed by ISIL that may amount to war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide committed in Iraq.
So far, the Team has achieved landmark progress in four investigative priorities:
1. Crimes committed against the Yazidi community in Sinjar beginning in August 2014;
2. The mass killing of unarmed cadets of the Tikrit Air Academy in June 2014;
3. Crimes committed by ISIL/Da’esh in and around the Badush prison near Mosul in June 2014;
4. Crimes related to the facilitation of ISIL financing; known as Al- Rawi network.
More investigations are going on. UNITAD continues to investigate into those complex international crimes committed by ISIL in Iraq, including acts perpetrated against all affected communities in Iraq; the Christians, Kakai, Shabak, Shia Turkmen and Sunni communities. In this, UNITAD works in close cooperation with Iraqi authorities, in particular the judiciary, as well as several local and international organizations.
The last UNITAD report to the Security Council dated May 2022, gives a thorough description of the latest results achieved and the way forward.
On the process of collecting evidence, UNITAD Special Adviser Christian Ritscher said: UNITAD collects a variety of evidence through different channels and ensures that it is all properly processed, stored and preserved. My investigators regularly interview witnesses, analyse documents and evaluate the electronic devices left behind by Da’esh perpetrators. The testimonial, documentary and digital evidence is gathered thanks to the excellent cooperation between UNITAD and the Iraqi authorities, as well as the collaboration developed with a range of actors, including the affected communities, the civil society, local and international organizations as well as cooperation with many 3rd states. All these actors know how important it is for the Iraqi society to properly investigate these heinous crimes. This collection of evidence helps rebuild the full picture of ISIL crimes in Iraq, in an undeniable way. What we aim to do is make sure that this evidence is collected and preserved according to international standards, and is admissible in relevant courts. The aim of this entire process is to pursue accountability for ISIL international crimes through evidence-based trails that rise to international standards.
Challenges facing UNITAD
Regarding the main challenges facing UNITAD in its day-to-day operations, the team advisor noted that" UNITAD’s mission is complex by nature. Also, we cannot underestimate that ISIL operatives still pose a threat, especially in areas of mass grave excavations. But we adopt very diligent security measures to mitigate risks. This happens through continuous cooperation and coordination with Iraqi authorities, which supports UNITAD’s field operations.
Digitization of paper evidence project
UNITAD Special Adviser also mentioned “Another challenge is posed by the great number of scattered and paper-based evidence that is left by ISIL in the areas which it controlled as well as the complexity of crime scenes and mass graves. To counter these challenges, UNITAD works closely, as I already mentioned, with the Iraqi authorities, mainly the Iraqi judiciary, in collecting and documenting evidence, as well as digitizing paper-based evidence. The digitization project is one of UNITAD’s pillar solutions to collect and preserve evidence according to the highest international standards. Digitization also means that this evidence is searchable, which also facilitates the work of Iraqi investigative judges.
Additionally, UNITAD has pioneered in harnessing advanced technology in investigations. This approach has proved particularly impactful during the height of the COVID19 pandemic which placed restrictions on the Team’s work in the field. In partnership with key private sector actors, UNITAD has successfully adapted and developed new technologies in dealing with huge volumes of complex and challenging data. The Team published earlier last year a manual titled “Harnessing Technology in International Criminal Investigations” which can be found on UNITAD website. This publication presents lessons learned that may serve as a resource for domestic and international entities alike.
Mass graves investigation strategy
Regarding the excavations of the sites of mass graves in Sinjar, he stressed that “UNITAD’s mass graves investigations work is underpinned by its mass graves investigations strategy, endorsed by the Government of Iraq. The strategy supports the joint planning and delivery on mass graves investigations to ensure that the forensic work of search; location; excavation; analysis of human remains and evidence; DNA sample collection from relatives; registration of missing ISIL victims; as well as the DNA identification and return of human remains to the next of kin; are all coordinated, conducted in accordance with international standards, and support UNITADs impartial independent investigations. This is done hand in hand with the concerned Iraqi authorities, in particular the Mass Graves’ Directorate (MGD) and the Medico-Legal Directorate (MLD).
The excavation of mass grave sites in Sinjar are a part of this investigations strategy. The mass graves in Kojo, Sinjar were amongst the first to be opened and excavated in relation to ISIL crimes against the Yazidis.
The File of crimes committed against the Yazidis
On the file of crimes committed against the Yazidis, UNITAD Special Adviser clarified" In partnership with the MGD, the MLD and other relevant local authorities, 32 locations north and south of Sinjar mountain, e.g. Kojo, Hardan, Solagh, Qeni, Sinjar town… have been fully excavated and human remains and evidence recovered from these crime scenes. The investigation of the human remains and evidence recovered is ongoing in some instances; however, these crimes are alleged to relate to the killing of members of the Yezidi community by ISIL in 2014”.
He also affirmed that multiple data collection campaigns have been held in and around Sinjar, and in Internally Displaced Person camps in the Kurdistan Regional Government areas, to enable Yezidi survivors and families of missing persons to come forward to register their missing person(s) and provide DNA reference samples to identify the victims’ remains. The campaigns are led by the Iraqi national authorities (MGD and MLD), the collection of this data is a critical to the investigation to link missing persons and circumstances of disappearance to witness testimony, and to enable the identification process, confirming that “So far, UNITAD has supported the return of identified remains of 145 Yazidi victims from Sinjar, for dignified burial.”
It is worth noting that the process of mass graves’ excavations and identification of victims’ remains is complex and lengthy. But we must continue working. UNITAD is currently working to support an AM data collection campaign to target Yazidi families living in Germany. This campaign will be the first of its kind, and will help more identifications of Yazidi victims for dignified burial.
The magnitude of ISIL crimes in Iraq is huge. And as I mentioned, the process of mass graves’ excavations is complex and lengthy. Additional known execution and mass grave sites relating to ISIL crimes against different communities in Iraq are pending forensic excavation, with sites safeguarded until such time as the excavations can be scheduled in line with a joint strategy endorsed by the Government of Iraq.
The file of Yazidi women survivors of ISIL crimes
Regarding the file of Yazidi women who survived the crimes of ISIS terrorist gangs, he said: I am very happy to point to the fact that Iraq has taken an important step on the path of supporting survivors with the adoption of the Female Yazidi survivors’ law. This law extends not only to Yazidi female survivors, but to survivors from other communities that suffered ISIL crimes in Iraq including the Shabak, Kaka’i, Turkmen communities.
The law is an important recognition of the nature and magnitude of ISIL crimes, and aims in essence to support the needs of the survivors.
As UNITAD had stated before upon the adoption of this law that we consider it a cornerstone in acknowledging the impact of ISIL crimes against the Yazidi as well as other Iraqi communities.
The type of compensation for women survivors of sexual violence? Whether Yazidis or other minorities?
UNITAD Special Adviser said: As indicated previously, the international community is committed to seeking justice for the survivors and victims of ISIL through the continuous unanimous support to UNITAD. When ISIL perpetrators are tried for the international crimes they committed, including genocide, survivors will have their day in court.
The international community, through member states, is supporting UNITAD’s efforts to build the capacities of the Iraqi authorities in investigations, identification of remains, as well as their support to victims and survivors. There is dedicated funding to UNITAD, as we are sure to other organizations in Iraq, with the aim of improving the psychosocial wellbeing of survivors through building the capacities of the national specialists who serve them.
The international community’s support to victims’ right to justice manifests also through the trials that can take place in several countries, like the ones in Germany and Sweden. These trials support victim and survivors’ rights and participation in the accountability process.
The fate of Yazidis who are missing and the hundreds of thousands in IDP camps
Regarding the fate of 2800 Yazidis who are missing and the hundreds of thousands in IDP camps, UNITAD Special Adviser affirmed that UNITAD is aware that the fate of the Yazidis still missing, their relatives and the members of the community living in IDP camps is very precarious. I have recently visited an IDPs camp close to Duhok, and met with some of the Yazidi families whose plight continues and whose future remains uncertain.
But, as I mentioned, this aspect falls outside of the scope of UNITAD’s mandate. The Team is dedicated to conduct criminal investigations into the international crimes committed by ISIL against the Yazidi community in Iraq, and has prioritized the investigations of the murder of the Yazidi men, the abduction of Yazidi women and girls to subject them to sexual slavery and young boys to train them to fight. The Team hopes that through its investigations and engagement, justice and accountability for the crimes committed against the Yazidi community can be promoted and achieved, which hopefully will put them one step closer to the path of healing.
We do hope that the fate of those missing will be revealed sooner rather than later.
He also stressed that UNITAD investigates ISIL crimes against all Iraqi communities and victims including the Yazidi, Sunni, Shia, Christians, Kaka’i, Turkman. This, however, deals only with those affected by ISIL crimes.
Mass graves investigations related to Da’esh atrocities have been conducted at sites other than those in Sinjar.
Extensive mass graves investigations work has been conducted in relation to ISIL killings of Badoush prison inmates, a predominantly Shia group of victims, the complexity and vastness of the sites, with multiple execution and body disposal locations over a large area, meant the forensic work was carried out over several phases of field work with the MGD and the MLD. In addition, multiple data collection campaigns across several provinces have been conducted to reach out to the relatives of the victims and collect DNA samples for identification.
An excavation, and data collection campaign related to ISIL’s targeted killing of Sunnis in Anbar has been conducted in partnership with the Government of Iraq authorities. UNITAD and its work with the national authorities is underpinned by the principal of accountability, with no hierarchy of victim or ethnic group. A recent data collection campaign has been held in Tal Afar, led by the MLD, reaching out to other minorities, Turkmen, Kakai and Shabak, in preparation for the excavation of mass graves where we believe these victims have been buried.
The crime of mass killings that ISIL committed against Tikrit Air Academy personnel
UNITAD Special Adviser Christian Ritscher emphasized that “ Excavations were carried out at different locations in the Presidential Palaces by the Iraqi authorities between 2015 and 2017, before UNITAD’s deployment. Some of the findings have been included and analyzed as part of UNITAD’s investigation into acts perpetrated against the military cadets and personnel from Tikrit Air Academy in June 2014. Key testimonial, digital and forensic evidence allowed the Team to conclude in May 2021, that these acts amount to war crimes of murder, torture, cruel treatment, and outrages upon personal dignity. Crucial digital evidence includes two videos produced and released by ISIL, both containing scenes of criminal acts perpetrated by ISIL at the Presidential Palaces grounds or related to such events. Forensic analysis of the first video carried out by UNITAD has established that parts of the video appear to reliably show scenes of the massacre at the Presidential Palaces grounds in Tikrit. The evidence also shows that ISIL carried out its crimes against the cadets and military personnel from the Tikrit Air Academy, who were predominantly Shia Muslims, based upon discrimination against this religious group.
In that regard, UNITAD found that, in addition to the findings of war crimes, the publication of one of the ISIL propaganda video may amount to direct and public incitement to commit genocide against Shia Muslims. The video – its audio and visual messages – is a crime in and of itself, including its production and public dissemination and contains direct appeals to kill Shia Muslims. The video was publicized and made available via mass communication means, fulfilling the legally necessary public element of this crime. It was released on ISIL’s closed network on Telegram and then uploaded to YouTube. ISIL’s media operatives and pro-ISIL supporters circulated links to the video on Facebook and Twitter. And, finally, to magnify its potential reach, ISIL translated the - initially published in Arabic video - into English and some other languages. This video proves the full dimension of the massacre against the cadets of the Tikrit Air Academy.
These preliminary findings and legal characterizations are based on the evidence collected so far. UNITAD continues to investigate this massacre in the context of the crimes committed in Tikrit and al-Alam as well as all crimes committed against the Shia community in Iraq and to update its findings accordingly.
The file of the international crimes
UNITAD Special Adviser Christian Ritscher said: This is a very important question. There is no statute of limitations for international crimes, which applies to those international crimes committed by ISIL members; war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.
This means that prosecution and trials can take place as long as even one perpetrator remains alive. We have seen this in other parts of the world where international crimes were committed, and perpetrators were held accountable even after tens of years have passed.
What we want to see is for Iraq to prosecute ISIL perpetrators for international crimes, which of course requires adopting the appropriate legal framework to deal with ISIL crimes as international crimes in Iraq. So far, this is lacking in the domestic Iraqi law. Nevertheless, to promote accountability according to the mandate of the UN Security Counsel means to preserve and store the evidence properly in order to be able to hold perpetrators responsible as long as they are alive.
The team’s work in Iraq
Ritscher elaborated: The mandate of UNITAD is limited to crimes committed by ISIL/Da’esh members in Iraq. The excavation of mass graves takes place in Iraq only. UNITAD cooperates with a large number of States where ISIL/Da’esh members are being investigated and prosecuted for alleged crimes committed in Iraq.
The role of the Iraqi government in assisting the investigative team
Regarding the role the Iraqi government in assisting the investigative team, UNITAD Special Adviser Christian Ritscher said: UNITAD was established at the request of the Government of Iraq to the United Nation’s Security Council. With a mandate to support the Iraqi government and the people of Iraq in the pursuit of accountability and justice for ISIL crimes, the Team works closely with the Government of Iraq and its various institutions to fulfill its mandate.
The Government of Iraq and Iraqi authorities including those of the Kurdistan Regional Government, have played a key role in supporting UNITAD in implementing its mandate to hold ISIL members accountable for their international crimes. I can say, it is a very fruitful cooperation.
UNITAD support for the Iraqi judiciary
UNITAD Special Adviser affirmed during the interview that “UNITAD holds regular meetings with the Chief Justice and Head of the Supreme Judicial Council, underlying the close cooperation with the Iraqi judiciary. Meetings also include those with the competent investigative judges, in particular those in Baghdad and in Nineveh.
I already mentioned the EU Digitization Program, a broadly conceived program including a massive transfer of knowledge to our counterparts at the Iraqi judiciary. Through this program UNITAD engages with Iraqi national authorities and judiciary in evidence digitization, in which UNITAD deploys mobile teams of archivists and information management specialists to assist in the physical archiving and digitization of evidence.
“Moreover, the Team works closely with the Iraqi judiciary in building the capacities of Iraqi judges in terms of international law. The Team had organized an in-depth training course on International Humanitarian Law and International Criminal Law to build the capacities of 28 members of the Iraqi judiciary, including women members of the judiciary. The course was conducted in Arabic, and constituted an important milestone in enabling Iraqi Judges to build cases on ISIL international crimes, thus ensuring that members of ISIL/Da’esh are held accountable for those crimes,”
“UNITAD provides also Iraqi judges with technical support in developing case files of international crimes committed by ISIL/Da’esh in Iraq, with the aim of holding ISIL/Da’esh perpetrators accountable for committing war crimes, crimes against humanity, and, in some cases, genocide,”
“Through this work, the Team seeks to significantly enhance the ability of national authorities to draw on existing evidentiary bases and strengthen their capacity to build cases in line with international standards. This also enhances the ability of Iraq to engage with UNITAD in the implementation of its mandate.”
Partnership and daily cooperation between UNITAD and Iraqi authorities
UNITAD Special Adviser emphasized that “Since I assumed my responsibilities last year, I made it a priority to hold regular meetings with senior officials from the Government of Iraq, including the Office of the Prime Minister, the Presidency, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, National Coordination Committee, and the National Security Advisory, to strengthen our partnership with Iraq.
This has enhanced our partnership, and the common understanding of UNITAD’s mission. The support that the Government of Iraq provides is key to the Team’s progress towards delivering on the collective objective of holding ISIL members accountable through international-standard trials reflecting the scale and nature of the crimes committed by ISIL against the people of Iraq. To this end, UNITAD:
• Supports the work of national authorities in excavations of the mass graves of ISIL victims;
• Assists in the recovery and documentation of digital evidence of ISIL crimes retained by the relevant Iraqi authorities;
• Supports building the Iraqi Judiciary’s capacity in areas related to International Criminal Law and International Humanitarian Law.
• Provides Iraqi judges with technical support in developing case files of international crimes committed by ISIL in Iraq, with the aim of holding ISIL preparators accountable for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide.
• Stands ready to extend technical support to Iraqi Parliamentarians in their endeavors to domesticate international criminal law, to deal with ISIL crimes as international crimes.
He also affirmed that “UNITAD on its part has been eager to hear from the wider NGO community in Iraq on their experiences and their views on areas pertaining to the work of the Team. To this end, the UNITAD-NGO Dialogue Forum was launched in December 2020, with the aim of serving as a platform that brings together all relevant international and Iraqi NGOs for regular collaboration, exchange of ideas and best practices, as well as exploring areas for enhancing cooperation.
The observations and recommendations of the thematic and plenary roundtables, which constitute the two types of events held by the Forum, are disseminated to all relevant units within the Investigative Team. UNITAD also seeks to incorporate the outcome of those meetings in my biannual report to the UN Security Council.
Additionally, there is a lot of work that is done at the operational level through cooperation between relevant NGOs and different investigative and thematic units of UNITAD. For example, several representatives and I myself joint the recent ceremonies in Iraq and abroad on occasion of the 8th anniversary of the attack on the Yazidi population and paid tribute to the great efforts of the Yazidi civil society to heal after the genocide committed by Da‘esh perpetrators.”
Supporting the efforts of the Iraqi authorities specialized in investigations
UNITAD Special Adviser pointed out that “On the path of implementing its mandate, UNITAD continuously supports Iraqi authorities in investigations. An example is our support to the mass grave investigations in which it focuses on building capacity and providing resources and technologies that support the forensic work of the national authorities,”
“UNITAD has been holding technical trainings for national experts and has been providing equipment necessary for excavation and identification operations. An example is that most recently, UNITAD presented the Iraqi Medical Legal Directorate (MLD) with qualitype GmbH’s Laboratory Information Management System (LIMS) including a DNA matching module MatchMaker. The LIMS, is intended to support MLD team in its efforts to establish robust scientific identifications of the remains of victims recovered from ISIL mass graves across Iraq,”
“Additionally, there is an ongoing UNITAD project working with the MLD’s DNA laboratory, to strengthen its laboratory and to accelerate the DNA identification process,”
“Working across all the components that comprise mass grave investigations, in partnership with the Government of Iraq is at the heart of UNITAD’s work on this portfolio. Therefore, the Team’s experts provide hands-on, on-site support to Iraqi specialists from the Mass Graves Directorate (MGD) in the excavation and collection of forensic evidence from mass graves of ISIL victims,”
“Additional areas of support extend to the judiciary as detailed in previous questions, and other relevant branches of the Iraqi government.
The strong collaboration and cooperation between the relevant national authorities and UNITAD is anchored in our joint commitment to achieve justice for the victims, survivors and their families and to assist the national authorities in their efforts to hold those most responsible accountable for their crimes.”
The perpetrators of crimes against Iraqis?
UNITAD Special Adviser said, “UNITAD has been working on putting together information and analysis in order to work towards building case files about the crimes committed against the Yazidis, Tikrit Air Academy personnel, victims of the mass executions at Badush prison, and other ISIL crimes in Iraq. We aim to look into the structure of ISIL as an organization, and identify those who are most responsible for the heinous international crimes that were committed in Iraq.”
The asylum applications of the women fleeing from Iraq to foreign countries
UNITAD Special Adviser affirmed that," This file falls outside the mandate of UNITAD. We may work with refugees and asylum seekers as witnesses. Other UN entities may support them in seeking refuge in other countries.”
“One of the areas of support that UNITAD’s provides to the victims and survivors of ISIL is in the form of adopting a victim-centred approach to investigation where the protection and psychosocial well-being of victims and witnesses is at the core of the Team’s investigations,”
“The Team also continues to engage in dialogue with a number of relevant Iraqi authorities with a view to further strengthening their capacity to provide comprehensive protection and support to witnesses, thereby also enhancing modalities of cooperation with UNITAD in this area. Specific elements that are being addressed include the implementation of existing domestic legislation with respect to witness protection, the development of a national witness protection structure, including a witness protection focal point network, and the establishment of a 24/7 witness hotline and response mechanism.”
The arrest of Taha al-J
UNITAD Special Adviser affirmed that “Taha al-J was tried in Germany, after he was extradited from Greece, and then convicted and sentenced for life for committing genocide against the Yazidis, in relation to the death of Yazidi girl, age 5, bought as a slave. This was a landmark conviction and the first finding before a court of law that the actions by ISIL/Da’esh against the Yazidis amounted to genocide.”
“In the case in Germany, the defense argued that the Yazidi girl was still alive and had not died. UNITAD was able to help the German prosecutors by confirming with witnesses and the hospital that documents presented by the defense to this end were false documents.,”
“The 19 months’ trial was under German jurisdiction, as Germany adopts the legal principle of “universal jurisdiction”, which makes German courts competent to prosecute anyone for international crimes, regardless of where they were committed. This is a principle applied by several countries, not only Germany, which means that ISIL perpetrators can be prosecuted before national courts in a number of countries for the international crimes they committed.”
Iraq reconstruction operation
UNITAD Special Adviser stressed that “Pertaining to UNITAD mandate, the international community has set tremendous resources for the Team’s investigations and in support of the path towards justice and accountability for all those impacted by ISIL atrocities in Iraq. The support of the member states in particular, has been invaluable to the progress of investigations.”
He also added that, "Reconstruction is not part of UNITAD’s mandate. But I can say that the work we do is key to ensuring viable reconciliation. Accountability is key to the healing of communities.”