Expected Council Action
In June, the Council is scheduled to receive a briefing from Christian Ritscher, the Special Adviser and head of the UN Investigative Team to Promote Accountability for Crimes Committed by Da’esh/ISIL (UNITAD).
UNITAD’s mandate expires on 17 September.
Key Recent Developments
The Council established UNITAD through resolution 2379 of 21 September 2017 for an initial period of two years. It has since renewed the mechanism annually, most recently with resolution 2651 of 15 September 2022. The team is mandated to support Iraqi domestic efforts to hold the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) accountable for crimes it committed in the country “by collecting, preserving, and storing evidence in Iraq of acts that may amount to war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide”. The collected evidence is intended to support investigations carried out by Iraqi authorities or by authorities in third countries at their request.
On 7 September 2021, Secretary-General António Guterres announced the appointment of Christian Ritscher of Germany as the second Special Adviser and head of UNITAD, succeeding Karim Asad Ahmad Khan of the UK, who now serves as ICC Prosecutor. The Special Adviser has previously published nine biannual reports on the team’s activities. Ritscher will present the tenth report, circulated to the Council on 22 May, at the June briefing.
In the report, Ritscher describes progress in several investigative tracks, including the finalisation of preliminary case assessment reports on crimes committed by ISIL against the Sunni population in Al-Anbar; crimes against Iraq’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer community; and on the destruction of cultural heritage. These case assessment reports add to the six assessments finalised during previous reporting periods, namely: crimes committed by ISIL against Christians in Iraq; crimes committed against the Yazidi community in Sinjar from August 2014; the mass killing of military cadets and personnel from Tikrit Air Academy in June 2014; crimes committed by ISIL in and around Badush prison near Mosul in June 2014; the al-Rawi financier network and the facilitation of ISIL financing; and the development and use of chemical and biological weapons by ISIL in Iraq. The latest report also notes that the team expects to finalise its case assessment report on ISIL’s leadership and hierarchical structure in Mosul and Tal Afar in the next reporting period.
At present, the international crimes that UNITAD is mandated to investigate have not been directly incorporated into Iraq’s legal system. As a result, offenders who have engaged in conduct that contravenes international criminal law are usually charged with terrorism offences. Under Iraqi law, the death penalty can be imposed for these offences and, in accordance with UN best practices, this has prevented UNITAD from sharing evidence regarding potential violations of international criminal law with Iraq’s government—the primary intended recipient. In 2021, a draft law that would incorporate international crimes into Iraq’s domestic legal system was proposed in the Iraqi parliament, but the legislation has not advanced since then. In his latest report, Ritscher says UNITAD is “confident in the future adoption of a domestic legal framework” to prosecute ISIL members for international crimes in Iraq and describes support to this process as one of the team’s “key priorities” in the next reporting period. On 6 March, UNITAD and Iraqi authorities announced the establishment of a joint working group to study the issue further.
Meanwhile, UNITAD has pursued several initiatives that are designed to facilitate information-sharing with Iraq in specific areas. For example, the most recent report notes that UNITAD has continued to use “pre-existing arrangements” that allow it to share information concerning the financing of ISIL with Iraqi judges. Additionally, the previous report, published on 8 November 2022, said that UNITAD was negotiating a memorandum of understanding with Iraqi authorities that would “enable UNITAD to share its information to support UN sanctions application packages”. The latest report does not provide an update on this initiative, however.
The previous report said that the team was entering “a new phase of operational work” as it shifts from investigation to case-building, with a view towards promoting “evidence-based trials and large-scale accountability for ISIL”. In keeping with this priority, the latest report says UNITAD has developed case files in relation to 31 persons of interest in its investigation into crimes committed against the Yazidi community and has started to support case-building on individual perpetrators in collaboration with Iraqi authorities. The team has also started to build criminal case files against ISIL perpetrators who escaped from Iraq and are residing in third states.
The June briefing will take place In the context of continued military pressure against ISIL in its core area of Iraq and Syria, which has degraded the group’s capabilities in the region. According to the Secretary-General’s latest report on the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI), dated 11 May, the number of attacks attributed to ISIL in Iraq during the first quarter of 2023 (92 attacks, compared with 188 attacks during the first quarter of 2022) is the lowest quarterly figure since Iraq declared victory over ISIL in December 2017, which highlights an overall decline in attacks attributed to the group in recent years.
On 30 April, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced that ISIL leader Abu al-Husayn al-Qurayshi had been killed in a Turkish military operation in northwestern Syria—the third ISIL leader to be killed in less than 18 months.
Key Issues and Options
UNITAD’s work is an important aspect of international efforts to promote accountability for ISIL’s crimes in Iraq, which in turn contributes to the country’s security and political stability. At the June briefing, Council members are expected to welcome progress in the team’s investigative tracks and commend its continued shift from structural investigations to case-building to support the prosecution of individual perpetrators.
Some members may emphasise the work of the team’s specialised thematic units. According to Ritscher’s latest report, UNITAD has continued to investigate gender-based violence and crimes against children committed by ISIL against a wide range of communities, including Yazidis, Shi’a Turkmen, Christians, Kaka’i, Shabak, and Sunni. Notably, the team has invested additional resources in gathering evidence on individual ISIL perpetrators who are being investigated or prosecuted for the sexual enslavement of Yazidi women and girls and the use of Yazidi boys as child soldiers. Some members may highlight these investigative tracks as priorities and encourage further progress.
UNITAD’s inability to share its collected evidence with Iraqi authorities remains a critical obstacle to mandate implementation. In this regard, Council members may call for swifter progress on the issue and encourage revitalised dialogue between UNITAD and Iraqi authorities following the formation of a new Iraqi government in October 2022, which ended the country’s year-long political gridlock.
Council and Wider Dynamics
Both the Council and the Iraqi government are generally supportive of UNITAD. Since the team’s establishment, its annual mandate renewals have been requested by Iraq and unanimously adopted by Council members.
The issue of evidence-sharing, however, remains contentious. Members who oppose the death penalty are still concerned about the possibility that evidence shared by the team with the Iraqi authorities might be used in criminal proceedings in which the death penalty could be imposed. Other members are of the opinion that the use of the death penalty is Iraq’s sovereign right, a point Iraq has also emphasised. While the Council has typically extended the team’s mandate through straightforward renewals, during negotiations in 2022, the latter group—supported by Iraq—was successful in calling for a new preambular paragraph underscoring “the importance of sharing evidence collected by [UNITAD] with the relevant Iraqi authorities, in a timely manner, for eventual use in fair and independent criminal proceedings”. To placate opposing members, however, the penholder also included language specifying that this must be done “consistent with applicable international law and the Investigative Team’s Terms of Reference”. Council members are likely to reiterate these positions at the June briefing.
The UK is the penholder on UNITAD.
UN DOCUMENTS ON IRAQ
|Security Council Resolutions|
|15 SEPTEMBER 2022S/RES/2651||This resolution extended UNITAD’s mandate for one year.|
|26 MAY 2022S/RES/2631||This resolution extended UNAMI’s mandate until 31 May 2023.|
|11 MAY 2023S/2023/340||This was the Secretary-General’s 120-day report on UNAMI, which covered developments from February to April 2023.|
|Security Council Letters|
|8 NOVEMBER 2022S/2022/836||This was a letter from from the Special Adviser and Head of UNITAD addressed to the President of the Security Council, transmitting the ninth biannual report on UNITAD’s activities.|